Friday, December 23, 2016

BEFORE MIDNIGHT - #859

I intend to review the full Before Trilogy when the release comes out this February, but in the meantime, here is my original review of Before Midnight written for DVDTalk.com for the movie's theatrical release in 2013.


It hit me with a heavy thud early on in Before Midnight when Ethan Hawke's Jesse expresses his disbelief that he is now 41 years old: I have been the exact same age as the characters in this series whenever each movie has come out. The initial meeting between Jesse and Celine (Julie Delpy) happened when we were all 22 (Before Sunrise), and then ten years later in Before Sunset, at the onset of our 30s (so far the best decade in terms of growing up and growing old), and now we rejoin the narrative as we are settling into middle age.

I'll be curious to hear what my younger friends take away from Before Midnight. The ongoing relationship and occasional romance that the characters have with one another, and which they also have with us, the audience, is not getting any easier, even as it grows more comfortable. Despite a decade together and all the ups and downs that come with it, the relationship between these two (dare we say?) soulmates is just as deeply furrowed as it's always been. They can joke together and they can appreciate the wonders of the world, but they also disagree and fail to communicate and have to push hard to keep the love standing between them.

[Note: Other reviewers have treated some of the plot details about Before Midnight as spoilers; I don't think much of this hand-wringing is warranted. What I detail below is discovered within the first several minutes of the movie, but should you be concerned, don't read between the next two photographs. Then again, if you're that invested, why are you reading this instead of getting in line for a ticket?]


This third go-around, directed in the same au-naturale style by Richard Linklater, who has also shared co-writing credit with his stars since 2004's original sequel, finds Celine and Jesse in Europe at the tail-end of a vacation. Jesse has just put his son back on a plane to Chicago to be with his mother, and the farewell was tough. The boy is about to start high school, and Jesse realizes he has lived away from the child most of the kid's life. He and Celine have their own children, whom they live with in Paris, and Celine has a fulfilling job, all of which makes even the thought of moving the family to America problematic.

That's the essential situation that gets Before Midnight underway, providing the complications that will cause the extended conversation that forms the bulk of the film. There is one pitstop before the ball really gets rolling. Jesse and Celine are staying at the Greek villa of an older man who admires Jesse's writing. With them are two other couples: a funny, loving duo who are a generation ahead of Jesse and Celine, and a newer pair of lovers that are the same age that Jesse and Celine were in Before Sunrise. In a spirited dinner table conversation, Linklater and crew give us a full representation of the stages of life as they exist now, and how age and origin informs each romance. Alongside the older host (veteran cinematographer Walter Lassally) is a widow (Xenia Kalogeropoulou), who gives the film's most emotional monologue when remembering her late husband. It's this moment that sets up one of the film's main themes: the preciousness of time and how our memorializing of the same distorts it. It's a beautiful segment, and the first of many times I teared up during Before Midnight.


It's after this meal that Jesse and Celine depart on their own, heading down from the villa to spend a night alone in a hotel. Unfortunately, without saying much more about specifics, the tension that has been brewing between them reaches full steam, and the romantic night turns into a difficult argument. Both participants are equal part aggressor and victim. They are alternately cruel, unfair, and selfish. They are also vulnerable and protective of what they have, both as individuals and together. You will find your sympathies shifting back and forth. Jesse can't calm the situation without saying something stupid, whereas every time Celine gives an inch, she takes it back with sharp-tongued fury. Exposition is smartly folded into the back-and-forth, catching us up on what got them from Before Sunset to here, and the more we learn, the more we realize that they don't always know each other--or even themselves.

Which is the real heavy-duty truth that Before Midnight reveals about not just long-term relationships, but also what it's like to be in middle age. From what I am discovering, one's 40s are a period of self-assessment and self-doubt. Both Jesse and Celine are asking where the time has gone, reevaluating their decisions, and wondering how much time they have left to get it right. Listen to what they say, all of those things are in there. Likewise, they are questioning why their bodies are changing, why they are often not in control of their own impulses, and why despite four decades of wisdom, they can't change their worst traits (if they even need to). Being in your 40s feels like being a teenager again, you're suddenly not in control of your physical form or your mental and emotional state. For the past twelve months, I've personally been living in the I Heart Huckabees "How am I not myself?" rubber ball scene on perpetual loop, and so it struck me deeply to hear both Jesse and Celine ask the same basic question of each other: "How am I not the person you fell in love with?"


That Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy manage to balance so many things, to make their characters three-dimensional and flawed while also keeping them likable, and make Before Midnight as uplifting and cathartic as it is emotionally distressing, is really the secret to why this series has managed to sustain its quality and appeal. The level of talent on display here, the depth and nuance of the performances and of the writing, is incredible. I'd also posit that it's a chemistry that is impossible to replicate. Delpy has starred in and directed two very similar movies, 2 Days in Paris [review] and 2 Days in New York [review], both of which fail to conjure the same magic. She can't do it without Linklater or Hawke any more than they could do it without her and each other. It's like the Beatles as a unit vs. the Beatles apart. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

And so we are left again at an impasse, a momentary truce that may hold. Like the devastating ebbs and flows of the union in Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, we will never be sure from one entry to the next where our subjects will land. Somewhere on the internet, I am sure a Before... franchise fan has already started a doomsday clock counting down the next ten years, marking the time until we all meet again. The point, though, is not to count the minutes or the years, but to live them. Only then will the next reunion's lessons make sense, or even this one's be justified.



Sunday, December 18, 2016

BLU-REDO: THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL - #459


A few years on since Criterion’s 2012 release of The Exterminating Angel (and my lengthy review), this new Blu-ray upgrade of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 social satire couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. As political climates change and divides deepen across the world, this surreal masterpiece turns the tables on the social classes. Though wealth and standing were not part of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s infamous horror movie rules in Scream, a deeper examination of the genre, particularly the sort of isolating event they were sending up in their movie, I am sure would reveal that most often, things go bad for the poor, not the rich. Or, when they do, someone from the underclass is there to save the day. The outsider that tagged along with her moneyed classmates for the weekend being the only one to emerge from a slasher plot alive.

Not that The Exterminating Angel is at all like a slasher film, but it is very much a horror film. Dark forces are in the air right from the get-go, when the servants of a Mexican dignitary start exiting his home just before a big dinner party. There is a suggestion that they are not colluding, that they are not aware of what compels them to go. Did they enact a curse on their snobby boss and his guests, or are they simply falling under the same spell? While this strange happening forces them to leave, it requires the others to stay.


What exactly happened is never explained, nor does it need to be. The closest we get to maybe being able to surmise the motivation of whatever force is holding sway is The Exterminating Angel’s closing scenes. We’ve switched from the wealthy to the pious. Buñuel is targeting social institutions and ideologies, isolating them so as to expose and ridicule. His main scenario, borrowing a little from Sartre’s No Exit, is that following their meal, the partygoers discover they cannot leave. There is no visible obstacle keeping them in the room, yet they can’t find the ability to simply walk out. Food disappears, as do other pleasures; the group splinters, factions form. Stripped of the trappings of status, these people are left to be themselves--and who they are is not necessarily very likable.


In a society where the gap between the rich and the poor, as well as many moral and political divides, is becoming more pronounced than ever, there is much we can glean from The Exterminating Angel. The film makes the division real, blocking the rich from the rest of the world, but in doing so, takes everything away, turning them into the people they might otherwise judge, forcing them to go without. In added prescience, Buñuel’s turning the whole thing into a media spectacle is not unlike reality television being a platform for celebrity, wealth, and now leadership. Though, the gawkers outside the mansion seem positively quaint in the age of 24-7 surveillance, paparazzi, and, of course, oversharing.

The critique is sharp, but Buñuel’s approach is often playful. He watches his characters with the mirth of a prankster. Which, of course, he is. It’s the director who locked these people in this mansion, and only he can let them out once he’s seen all he wants to see. They can be craven and petty, but their desperation is also horribly human. As with the best horror, the awful things that happen prove to remind us we are alive, and that we are all in this together. The rich are no better than anyone else, no more capable--but when they finally do get out, it’s because they push together.


The high-definition transfer on this disc is very nice, bringing The Exterminating Angel into its Blu period. I don’t believe this is any different than the transfer used for the previous DVD edition, but the image is crisp and the uncompressed soundtrack sounds fantastic. All the extras from the original disc, including a 2008 documentary tribute to Luis Buñuel, are carried over to this re-release.


The images used in this review are from the standard-definition DVD and not the Blu-ray under examination. 

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

HEART OF A DOG - #846


Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is an unconventional documentary. Known primarily for her performance art and avant-garde music (Criterion fans might know the score she wrote with John Cale for Something Wild [review]), Anderson’s feature-length directorial effort translates much of what she has been about into a fresh venue. Aesthetically satisfying while also thought provoking, Heart of a Dog is more than a meditation on the passing of the artist’s beloved pet, a rat terrier named Lolabelle, but a general exploration of how we deal with death and also the way a terrible event like September 11th changes us.


These might seem like quite disparate narrative pursuits, but Anderson weaves them together with little effort, and is arguably more successful at doing so by avoiding creating any clear connectors. Sure, Lolabelle’s examination of the sky on an outing might remind Anderson how her fellow New Yorkers also now look to the heavens for potential danger, but it’s more free association than causal metaphor. Heart of a Dog examines how our views of the afterlife might also affect our sense of security in the world (our paths, as tracked by CCTV and surveillance devices, create a kind of ghost image of who we are). Likewise, language determines how we communicate with one another, how we establish connections. When you consider these things together, a dog does seem to be the perfect vehicle for such concerns. We look to our canine friends for both security and companionship, and perhaps this simple relationship could serve as the seed to how we engage with the world at large.


In terms of style, Anderson composes Heart of a Dog with a variety of tools, ranging from animation to re-enactment, home videos to random security footage. This allows her to shift as necessary, to keep the essay flowing. Anderson narrates the whole thing with a calm tone, matched by the ambient score she also composed (some of which was performed with the Kronos Quartet; interestingly, you can also watch the film with the music turned off). There is a feeling with this movie, particularly in terms of this release, that Heart of a Dog is more than a film, but also a packaged experience, an object, with the extra booklet included in the Blu-ray creating a mini paper version of the movie’s look and feel. Once you remove the plastic wrap from the case, there is no element here that was not strongly considered to contribute to the whole.


Amidst all this heady construction, however, the most effective moments, at least for me, come when Anderson pauses to share an anecdote about Lolabelle, or even to show us a small piece of video starring the dog. Lolabelle was not just integral to Laurie Anderson’s creative process, joining her for long days in the studio, but also, adorably, a collaborator, learning to play music herself. As someone who lost his own pet earlier this year, a cat whom I had lived with for seventeen years, including a full decade of working at home every day, this has a particular emotional resonance with me. Such pets become essential to our day-to-day routine, a confidante, a constant presence. In making Heart of a Dog, Anderson is able to apply Buddhist philosophy to her grief: the Tibetan Book of the Dead instructs those left behind not to cry, as tears will only confuse the departing spirit. Thus, what the filmmaker shares are not mawkish remembrances, but joyous ones.

It’s hard not to wonder how much of the feeling here, though, is not just for Lolabelle, but for Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson’s long-term partner and husband, who passed away in 2013. Reed appears briefly in the background, and one of his songs graces the closing credits. Heart of a Dog is also dedicated to him. It seems impossible that much of what Lolabelle inspires in tribute here wouldn’t also be connected to the other loss. If so, then once again, this furry creature provides a smaller outlet to look toward something bigger.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

Originally posted because of the film's availability via the Criterion Channel on Filmstruck, you can now read about the April 2017 Criterion Blu-ray here. The review below was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2010.


Buena Vista Social Club was quite the phenomenon back in the late 1990s. It started as a Grammy Award-winning album put together by Ry Cooder, and then it was followed by an Oscar-nominated documentary by German director Wim Wenders. The endeavor began with Cooder traveling to Cuba in search of the origins of some music he had heard on a tape some time prior. In trying to bring together different people, he discovered a large group of nearly forgotten musicians and singers, all of them well into old age, who represented the country's lost musical past. The film was made to spotlight the personalities behind the music, as well as to document a gathering of the participating musicians for a concert at Carnegie Hall. The resulting public embracing of this particular type of music is something I think only comparable to the similar celebration of T-Bone Burnett's archival soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?.


Wenders, shooting on video, put together Buena Vista Social Club using interlocking footage from a variety of parallel tracks. He followed Cooder around Cuba, peeking into the recording studio and breaking off to interview some of the musicians. He tours their neighborhoods, capturing on-the-street glimpses of modern Cuban life, laying the artists' stories on top of the images. Each of the interviewees talks about how they got into music, establishing a common history: just about every one of them picked up an instrument as youngsters, usually as part of some family tradition. This led them to embrace well-known songs, as well as collaborative efforts to create new ones. Wenders cuts together impromptu performances and a cappella versions with bits from the studio and full-band efforts on stage. Most of the performers also talk about their instruments and how some of them are specific to Cuba.


For me, hearing the old stories is more fascinating than the music itself. I liked the songs, but actually wish they had either been put more front and center or they were more constant. Songs softly mixed in with the interviews would have created a real rhythm for the entire movie. That's a small complaint, though. There are some great tales about the fighting techniques of blind piano players, busking on the street, or the men bragging about their virility and the number of children they have (at 90, Compay Segundo has five kids and claims to be working on his sixth). One of my favorite sequences was seeing Rubén González play piano for a bunch of young ballerinas. The joy of music really came clear watching the little girls break form and just move according to how the sounds made them feel. It's also neat seeing these old guys go to New York for the first time. They have a sense of wonder that is rare these days.

Sadly, many of the musicians in this film have died in the decade-plus since Buena Vista Social Club was released. Segundo, González, Pio Leyva, Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, Anga Diaz, Orlando "Cachaito" López, and Ibrahim Ferrer have all passed on. Buena Vista Social Club was the right document at the right time, a chance for these talented individuals to take one more shot at sharing their gift with others. The movie could take on a melancholy air as a result of this. There is even one shot where González is looking for the Statue of Liberty, and he nonchalantly points past the World Trade Center. So much has changed since that night at Carnegie Hall, it would be easy to get wistful. Yet, the fire of the music remains, and as Ibrahim's final song in the movie suggests, it can't be extinguished.




Tuesday, November 29, 2016

ONE-EYED JACKS - #844


In the lore of One-Eyed Jacks, it’s said that Marlon Brando’s character Rio was supposed to be Billy the Kid, and was even identified as such up through a draft of the screenplay by the great Sam Peckinpah. The only problem was that, in historical contexts, Billy the Kid was inarguably a bad guy, and Marlon Brando never plays the bad guy. And so it was that the character’s name was changed, paving the gray way on a gray road where the bank robbing, lying Rio could be the hero of his own story.

A pretty good story it is, though a cynical one. Even in western terms, it takes a healthy dose of existential awareness to draft Rio as a hero. An anti-hero, maybe, despite the fact that he seems to stand for less than even Brando’s Johnny in the The Wild One [review], who you may recall was ready to rebel against anything you’ve got. But One-Eyed Jacks was Marlon’s show, and he fired not only Peckinpah but also Stanley Kubrick, who was set to direct the picture, and stepped behind the camera himself, enlisting Paths of Glory-screenwriter [review] and RamblingRose-author Calder Willingham to give him the morally ambiguous western he sought. An extended production followed, and a delayed release, and an eventual studio re-edit to get this thing out in 1961, allegedly excising some three hours of equivocation and nuance. Brando disowned it; your mileage may vary.


One-Eyed Jacks is a solid western, and a dark precursor to the revisionist history to come for the genre as the studio system crumbled and cinema evolved. Set in Mexico and California, One-Eyed Jacks has a decidedly Latino presence, and a pronounced racism to match (and that’s without considering whether or not Brando is intended to be a Mexican). The whites in the movie mingle with the people of color, but they don’t view them as equals. Not even Dad Longworth (regular Brando sideman Karl Malden), who married a Mexican woman (Katy Jurado, Under the Volcano [review]) and plays step-dad to her daughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer), is all that convincing as a progressive dude. Not with the way he orders his wife around. Not with how he reacts to Louisa’s dalliance with Rio, the man he betrayed once upon a time. It’s tough to tell if the character is named “Dad” ironically or appropriately. As Rio’s father figure of record, Dad has a lot to answer for.


It’s the older man’s betrayal that sets the plot of One-Eyed Jacks into motion. After the pair rob a bank in Mexico, only to be chased down by federales, Dad takes advantage of Rio’s sense of honor and hangs him out to dry. Five years later, Rio escapes from prison and goes looking for the man who betrayed him. The search leads him to Bob (Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show [review]), who is planning to rob the bank in the California hamlet where Dad has taken up residency and assumed the role of sheriff. If Rio helps Bob, he can also take his revenge. As it turns out, though, the job is not a simple smash and grab. The gang first settles in town, mingling with the locals while Rio makes a fake peace with his enemy--and woos the man’s stepdaughter. Then things go wrong, and everyone turns on each other.


Comparisons have been drawn between One-Eyed Jacks and film noir, and there are certainly thematic similarities. Plot-wise, one could compare this to Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross, with Brando taking Burt Lancaster’s role of the gangster who took the metaphorical bullet for the team and Dad playing the classic noir fall guy who looks to leave his past behind and set up a new, straight life away from his previous misdeeds. As any student of noir knows, however, the past never stays buried. The only problem is, Rio is not a clean crook whom you can root for the way Lancaster is in Criss Cross or Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past. Brando plays the outlaw with a quiet menace, his smirk ready to turn to a sneer at a moment’s notice, and real nasty mean streak simmering behind those piercing eyes. He appears to always be thinking more than he’s saying, and yet his expression is inscrutable. Is he pondering philosophy or simply dreaming of tearing the wings off of flies? Ironically, Rio is the worst to women, whom he outright lies to in order to get what he wants, but yet who also serve as his Achilles heel. He can’t stand to see them abused, and so he stands up for any female he sees getting pushed around, including an intense brawl with the eternally creepy Timothy Carey (The Killing). The anger blinds Rio to consequences. It brings to mind a rival to Brando’s The Wild One character in terms of teenage angst; Rio’s pathological need to act out has a similar cartoonish quality to James Dean going gonzo over being called “chicken” in Rebel Without a Cause.


Of course, we also can’t dismiss the other men in the movie in any easy fashion, which at least gives Rio some moral ground. Everyone here has troublesome motivations. Some are cut and dried, like Bob, who is just racist and cruel, or Slim Pickens’ Deputy Lou, the comical “good guy” who is really a sexual predator obsessed with his namesake, Louisa. (The humiliation he suffers at the hands of Rio is borderline grotesque, and yet all too fitting.) Dad ends up being the most complicated. On one hand, he is a father looking to care for his family and a lawman with an eye on his community; on the other, he’s a petty cheat suffering a terrible case of imposter’s syndrome. Malden’s clear eyes show conflict...and fury. His showdown with Rio will have to be primal. Biblical.


These characterizations are the notable standout in terms of One-Eyed Jacks being a “different” kind of western. Unlike the more convention-busting cowboy pictures that were soon to come, One-Eyed Jacks largely looks and feels like a traditional western. As an actor, Brando may be an entirely unique presence, but as a director, he is beholden to the trappings of the genre. In both look and plot, this is no different than a big-budget Hollywood western of previous decades. It’s more Vera Cruz [review] than The Hired Hand or McCabe and Mrs. Miller [review]. Which isn’t a knock. I really loved One-Eyed Jacks, and can only appreciate how even though Brando put on a familiar cloak, he used it to smuggle in a subversive message. The languid pace of some of the more typically California scenes, and the wounding and redemptive healing process Rio suffers through, predict some of the aesthetics and tropes of spaghetti westerns, the next big thing in horse operas.

Which is probably why the movie garnered such champions as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who contributed to the restoration of One-Eyed Jacks that made this splendid re-release possible. As Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort, it perfectly encapsulates his position as a movie star, one foot in the old studio system, one foot in the new cinema school, but his head entirely in the clouds, above it all, pursuing his own dream.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

AKIRA KUROSAWA'S DREAMS - #842


Akira Kurosawa is a filmmaker I discovered in high school, in the 1980s when VCRs and video stores made all kinds of movies newly accessible to budding cinephiles. Most likely fueled by Siskel and Ebert, whom I recall covering Ran [review] on their program, I was able to get a hold of that movie, The Seven Samurai [review], and others. It wasn’t until the 1990 release of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, though, that I first got to see one of his movies in the theater, and one of only two occasions where I could have seen the movie in first run.

It’s easy to remember the occasion. I was starting my first semester in college, and had been so eager to do so, I arrived at my dorm the first day they’d give me keys, a full weekend before classes started. Any illusions of being some part of an instant community didn’t materialize that weekend--nor, ever, if I’m honest--and I needed to find something else to do. So it was that I ended up at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, watching Dreams in a shoebox theater with a handful of other people, taking in one of the Japanese director’s more unique works. It was good timing for me, I was fascinated by the concept of dreaming, so much so that I used to keep a diary of my own dreams, a habit I maintained for many years. As someone who has always been disappointed by the use of dream sequences in entertainment--they are usually cheap gags with an exaggerated level of nonsense and far too self-aware--I was curious how the master filmmaker would undertake such a personal subject.


Interestingly enough, Kurosawa’s approach to re-creating his own nocturnal visions has far less of the contrivances that we have come to expect from most film directors, and more to do with tradition and spectacle. From the opening segment of this anthology, Kurosawa establishes his aesthetic--a portrayal of a world that is so familiar and real, we have little cause to question the more fantastic aspects of the stories. And even as things do get fantastic, the use of practical effects and, in the case of the childhood visions like the fox’s wedding and the living tableau of dolls, costumes and masks reminiscent of kabuki theatre ground us. The mysticism and magic is transformed into recognizable pageantry. Kurosawa doesn’t surrender entirely to the dream logic--there are no sudden shifts in circumstance and place, and little that goes unexplained--but rather weaves that logic into the everyday.



Dreams is essentially eight vignettes, each detailing a dream Kurosawa actually had, sometimes combining them with classic Japanese folklore. The selection is seemingly random, but as you watch them all back to back, a structure and narrative pattern emerges. Not only do the chosen dreams arrive in chronological order, from childhood to adulthood and even potential images of the future, but in each, we are presented with a subtle moral complication. Choices that either Kurosawa makes, or that mankind decides on collectively, are leading us toward destruction. In the childhood dreams, a young Kurosawa (Toshihiko Akano and Mitsunori Isaki) either goes against tradition or is witness to its abandonment. The destruction of the peach orchard in the second dream is echoed years later, in the post-apocalyptic visions of a nuclear Japan in the penultimate vignette, “The Weeping Demon.” The titular devil (Chosuke Ikariya) notes that the charred wasteland they are meeting on was once a beautiful field destroyed by toxic waste. In one of Kurosawa’s most powerful images, they sit amongst the only plants that now grow: towering dandelions, more than twice the size of the human and mutant observers. Nature will come back with a vengeance if we fail to understand our folly.


This message fits a certain post-War philosophy also seen in the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Mankind is on the wrong path, more concerned with convenience and power than it is with recognizing and preserving what it has. Though Kurosawa teeters on the brink of being preachy, his simplest message is expertly embedded in what is probably the most famous portion of Dreams. Positioned at the center of the film, it features Kurosawa as a young man (Akira Terao, also in Ran and the director’s final film, Madadayo) entering the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. In a landscape decorated to look like some of Van Gogh’s paintings (and then actually turning into those paintings), Kurosawa finds the artist himself, appropriately played by Martin Scorsese. The American director brings his fast-talking, manic energy to the part, and it’s perfectly suited to the message Van Gogh is supposed to deliver: life moves too fast not to take in the scenery and transform your appreciation of the same into something more.



Which is really what Kurosawa is trying to tell us in Dreams, and is pretty explicitly stated in the final parable. We have all we need and our drive to conquer the elements and combat one another for dominance is only pulling us away from appreciating that. Look how quickly, for instance, the vivid colors of Van Gogh’s art transform into the deadly rainbow of the nuclear fallout in the dream that immediately follows. Rather than avoid death, we turn it into something aesthetically pleasing.

What keeps Kurosawa’s message from becoming overbearing or even maudlin is the wisdom the storyteller has gathered over his years, and his own ability to recognize the significance of his subconscious visions. This should be every artist’s mission, to communicate what he or she knows deep down in a way that both informs and compels the audience to further improve. Dreams isn’t an indulgent exercise in how weird Akira Kurosawa can get, rather it’s a marshaling of unavoidable emotions. Kurosawa had these eight dreams, and they stuck with him long enough for him to puzzle out their hidden meanings and then reconstruct them into a puzzle all his own.


Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams hasn’t been the easiest film to see in recent years. Since the 2003 DVD went out of print, it’s only been available through the manufacture-on-demand Warner Archive, working with the same outdated transfer. Criterion’s newly restored 4K print is exceptional, capturing all the painstaking details Kurosawa put into the film. (Sometimes too well. The animated crows in the Van Gogh segment now look a little obvious in high-def. Luckily, such unnatural effects work just fine in this kind of situation; dreams aren’t always perfect.) Accompanying the new transfer are multiple extras, including a long 1990 making-of documentary and a more recent 2011 appreciation of Kurosawa and the film, featuring Scorsese, Miyazaki, Bernardo Bertolucci, and more.



This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. The images above are taken from a previously released DVD version and not the Blu-ray being discussed.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

LONE WOLF & CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE/BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX - #841


There were 28 volumes of the Lone Wolf and Cub comic book series published over the first half of the 1970s. Each totaled a couple hundred pages and were all created by the same two men: Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. If you know anything about making comic books, that’s an insane accomplishment. In western comics, for one series, we might produce the equivalent of one of their volumes in a single year. They produced more than four times that, and on top of it all, the duo managed to maintain a highly addictive read. Pick up any of the Dark Horse-published English languageeditions, jumping in wherever, and see if you can put it down.

The Lone Wolf and Cub manga originally debuted in Japan in late 1970; the first movie version, scripted by Koike and directed by Zatoichi-veteran Kenji Misumi, was released a mere two years later. Six films were made in all, also released at rapid-fire pace, 1972 to 1974. The movies match the tone of the comics--fast-paced, violent, episodic, and with exposition dialed down to a minimum. The narrative follows Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), a one-time executioner turned ronin, who chose the path of Hell after his wife was killed and he was framed as a traitor to the shogun. Hitting the road with his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), Ogami hires himself out to those who can afford a minor fee. He will kill as many as you need for the same price, but he will ask you the why of your assignment.


And so it is that this father-son pair travels Japan, Ogami pushing a tricked-out baby carriage filled with hidden weapons, dispensing his own weird version of justice while the child watches. He is an honorable man who took a dishonorable profession when the system failed him, drawing from classic samurai stories in the same way Hollywood westerns created their own cowboy myths, and also prefiguring the vigilante figures that were just around the corner in movies like Death Wish. The difference between Itto Ogami and good ol’ Chuck Bronson, though, is that he remains a heroic figure by taking no clear moral stance. His code is known only to him, and only he can be the judge of his actions. In one particularly effective scene in the initial Lone Wolf and Cub movie (subtitled Sword of Vengeance), when some cowering men dare criticize Ogami for sleeping with a prostitute on order of the thieves who have taken them hostage, the woman defends him, noting that he sacrificed his pride to save her life. Her evidence? If he was scared as they think he is, as they themselves are, how did he manage to maintain an erection?

As a writer, Koike had a knack for such scenes. There is a whiff of exploitation in all of his work (he also created Lady Snowblood), but there is also a matter-of-factness to it that suggests, whatever other prurient impulses might be indulged, this is the way a tough life is lived. Indeed, Ogami and Daigoro don’t really meet nice people on the road. The random strangers and not-so-random enemies they encounter are all too concerned about survival to succumb to social mores. Only the killer really maintains any sense of balance. So much so, he lets his son choose whether or not he wants to travel the journey of death with him. He places a ball and a sword in front of Daigoro, and only after the boy crawls to the sword is his role as sidekick assured. Had the infant chosen the ball, his father would have killed him so that Daigoro could join his mother in the afterlife, rather than be abandoned.


Yeah, I know, it’s totally nuts. But that’s part of what makes the Lone Wolf and Cub movies work. For as down and dirty as Koike’s writing can be, there is also a heightened sense of non-reality here. The over-the-top violence--severed limbs, bouncing-ball decapitations, fountains of blood--is both thrilling and ridiculous--though, the latter is partially due to the passage of time; the stunt work and practical effects seem so clumsy now, they are more pop-art than grisly. It’s a style that matches the expressionistic flourishes that Kenji Misumi adds throughout the film, be it in the garish opening credits or the arty sex scene. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is a serious-minded B-movie, with a stoic star who is physically unlikely (a little chubby, not very agile or fast) but somehow totally perfect. Tomisaburo Wakayama completely inhabits Itto Ogami. There is no stray thought, no extraneous movement. He is the quiet death dealer who barely conceals his well-developed conscience.

With the backstory established, Misumi could really lean into Koike’s bonkers plotting for the second entry in the series, subtitled Baby Cart at the River Styx. In the film, Ogami faces two different threats: one he is pursuing, and one pursuing him. While a small village that fears encroaching forces taking over their cash crop hires Ogami to stop the three deadly enforcers who are escorting their would-be master, the Yagyu Clan, whom Ogami defied in the first film when he became a ronin, charge a group of female assassins to take out the interloper.


The action in this second Lone Wolf and Cub is more delirious. Blood spurts and sprays, it turns to mist or pools in bright red puddles. Koike gets more inventive with the disguises and techniques Ogami’s enemies employ, and in response, he also gives the baby cart even deadlier devices. To match this, Misumi gets more experimental, framing some of the gore in extreme close-up, burying other instances in surreal effects. This includes a dizzying use of double exposure to create an illusion of speed and numbers when Ogami takes on a ninja squad all by himself.

Characterization in Baby Cart at the River Styx doesn’t necessarily go deeper, but it is more assured. Wakayama merges more and more with the role, portraying Ogami almost as if he were in a trance or sleepwalking: heavy eyes, blank face, no excess emotion. There is a bit of the Man with No Name to the performance, but even far more redacted, far less reliant on tics, a la Clint Eastwood’s sneer and scowl. We also start to see the assassin as heartbreaker. He denied the prostitute that would have traveled with him in Sword of Vengeance, and likewise here he rejects the head of the women warriors, Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo, Gate of Flesh), whom he has left with nothing but her sword, which itself has been proven ineffectual, since it never stopped Itto Ogami.


The Criterion Lone Wolf and Cub box contains all six movies (which I will likely review over time). There are also documentaries and interviews, including a new interview with Kazuo Koike. Comics fans will also appreciate the new package art by modern legend Paul Pope, the creator of Heavy Liquid and The One Trick Rip-Off (full disclosure, I was assistant editor on the latter and have worked with Paul many times since). The restorations on the discs are also quite nice, presenting a clear and vivid picture, with the lurid color schemes rendered to full effect.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

SHORT CUTS - #265

Doreen: “Our whole lives could have changed.”
Earl: “I wish something would come and change our lives.”


I spent most of my youth in and around Los Angeles, far enough from where the cool things were happening to understand for real what a sprawling, expansive city it is. Indeed, Los Angeles is even more than the city proper, it sucks in most of the other smaller townships around it. I got to know it a little better once I learned to drive, and am rediscovering much of it now that I’ve returned here after 20 years in exile in the Pacific Northwest. What I always tell people from out of town who can’t quite crack the nature of Los Angeles is you have to find your pockets. One spot may have nothing to offer you, but drive half a mile in any direction, and you might find a place to call your own. Or that you at least want to visit regularly. Los Angeles is incongruous and divisive, but it’s also undeniably alive.


It’s pockets that Robert Altman focuses on in his 1993 Raymond Carver tableau Short Cuts. Pockets of Los Angelenos, spanning class and profession, that bump up against each other, cross over, and then keep going, sometimes not even realizing a connection was made. Short Cuts both in the literary nature of the stories told, and in some ways, how these characters all chase after their goals. Sometimes quick actions lead to terrible consequences.

Ambition and desire tie the different groups together. And survival. The first two are necessary in Los Angeles if you want the third, but they can also screw up whatever game plan you think you have. So it is that Chris Penn’s pool cleaner Jerry resents his wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for being a phone sex operator to make ends meet, jealous of the sexual attention she gives to other men, and turning his pent-up needs into rage. Or how Tim Robbins--playing a quintessential Los Angeles figure, the jerk cop--let’s his power trips lead him to make bad decisions. Note how when the shit really goes down, he ignores his family’s peril to make sure the neighborhood acknowledges his authority. His impotence is hilarious, striking a statuesque figure and shouting into the sky.


Penn and Robbins aren’t the only male characters to be driven by their libido, nor is Penn the only one who resents his wife for bringing in the dough. In the relationship between the two alcoholic enablers, Lily Tomlin’s waitress Doreen is the reliable breadwinner, whereas Tom Waits’ Earl is hotheaded and impulsive, going off the handle when the diner customers pay her too much attention. And man’s man Stuart (Fred Ward) is reminded more than once that he is unemployed. That it’s by his wife, Claire (Anne Archer), who dresses up as a literal clown to bring in the coin, probably stings a little. Or maybe not. It seems like Stuart enjoys working on his car and going on fishing trips with his buddies (Buck Henry and Huey Lewis and also Huey Lewis’ penis) and probably would equally resent having to punch a clock.


When the men do work, it adds to their sense of entitlement as husbands. Matthew Modine plays a doctor, Ralph, who is dismissive of his wife’s painting and has also held a petty resentment for years--the revelation of which gave Julianne Moore her star-making performance, infamous for the state of undress in which she finds herself during it. It’s less about openness in that moment than rage. It’s a roced exposure, not a vulnerable outpouring. Cross-reference this with how Tim Robbins and Peter Gallagher both interrogate the woman between them (Frances McDormand), and there’s a pattern here: men who don’t know how much they really don’t want to know. It’s no wonder that most of the wives can’t help but laugh at the antics of their spouse.


Gallagher and Robbins never meet--though they are both terrible fathers and ridiculous images of masculinity; Gallagher plays a pilot named Stormy Weathers who combs his hair like Elvis--but they have Frances McDormand between them. She is Gallagher’s (soon to be?) ex-wife and Robbins’ mistress. Robbins also pulls over Anne Archer in her clown car to flirt with her, and his wife (Madeleine Stowe) models for Julianne Moore. At one point, Archer, Gallagher, and Andie MacDowell--playing the mother of a child hit by Lily Tomlin in her car--all end up in the same bakery, engaging in no more than a polite hello. While plenty of the groups cross-pollinate and have more meaningful interactions, this is the true nature of connection in Short Cuts: the coincidence of locale. Because though Los Angeles is very big, its main internal contradiction is that it’s also very small. That fellow behind you in line at the coffee shop? Don’t be surprised if you see him again somewhere else. Maybe even on your TV!


Altman’s ensemble dramas would inspire many other filmmakers, but none of them would have the facility for juggling their many stories that he had. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is practically worked together from an outline of Short Cuts, but I’d contend stumbles under its own weight. Anderson labors each story, where Altman sees the jazz in his construction, favoring brief edits (a.k.a. short cuts) that keep the players working in tandem, only occasionally breaking the rhythm for solos when it counts. Some moves are so fast, you could even miss them, yet the great storyteller never loses his audience. I think the only ones who ever really got close to matching his speed are the Wachowskis in Cloud Atlas, but even there, it comes off as more of a device, despite how ingrained the idea is within the narrative itself.


Perhaps the difference is how Altman holds it all together by framing Short Cuts with two very similar situations. At the start of the film, we meet our casts as they rush indoors to avoid the pesticide being sprayed from helicopters--the official bird of Los Angeles--to kill the medflies. We could likely consider it an act of hubris, that man thinks it can stop the flow of nature, and does so even at the risk of poisoning himself. (And hey, where hubris is involved, send your cockiest individual; Stormy is one of the spraying pilots.) Nature gets its own back in the end, as an earthquake rocks each and every character at exactly the same time, uniting them in a potential natural disaster--not altogether different than the rain of frogs at the end of Magnolia or the tornado in Altman’s own Dr. T and the Women [review] but arguably more successful for its reality.


In the allegorical sense, that earthquake is brought on by the terrible and selfish actions of the characters in the film, most notably one eruption of primal violence  that seemingly triggers it. It’s as if the planet wants to shake us off for being annoying pests. When the shaking is done, however, each individual has revealed him or herself. The feuding couples who stayed up all night partying keep the party going, forgetting their troubles, and Doreen and Earl see that no matter how rocky things get, they are meant for one another. The most human of moments comes just before, however, and is more poignant for having happened spontaneously. The angry baker (Lyle Lovett) sees the error of his ways and makes up with Andie MacDowell, finding empathy and acknowledging how he’s wronged her. It makes the most sense then, that when the quake does hit, they help each other get to cover.

I suppose that’s Altman’s real message to Los Angeles. Short Cuts tells us that even if we live in one of the most vital and vibrant cities in the world, we still need each other to get along, and how we do that defines who we are as individuals and as a citizenry. It’ll break you otherwise. Or the blind eye you turn may break someone else.


The screengrabs in this review are from the standard definition release and not the Blu-ray.

This is my second review of Short Cuts; you can find the first here.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.