Tuesday, November 29, 2016


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 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


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


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.