Crash Course: Italian Horror

There are only a few countries with the rich filmic legacy of Italy, the nation that gave us Fellini, De Sica, Rossolini, and Visconti.  But Italian cinema goes deeper than the arthouse titans as they managed to specialize not just in the highbrow but also in the lowbrow.  During the 50s, 60s, and 70s Italy became one of the premier makers of B-movies, most famously Westerns and Sword and Sandals epics but they also became makers of some rather innovative horror movies that pushed the boundaries of onscreen sex and violence and would go on to influence the slasher genre of the 80s as well as other forms of horror cinema.  However, I’ve always been a bit of a neophyte when it comes to Italian horror, in part out of some bad experiences with Argento early on.  The dubbing and sloppiness of Italian exploitation has always been a bit of a barrier for me, something about it just bugged me as a purist but I’ve come to sort of just accept it as what the Italian system did at the time.  As such the time is right to take a crash course in Italian horror by looking at a couple films from Italy’s three acknowledged masters of the genre: Bava, Argento, and Fulci.

Mario Bava

Black Sabbath (1963)

The first filmmaker I’m going to look at is Mario Bava a filmmaker who is of about the same generation as the other two but who was making horror movies about a decade earlier and was at the tail end of his career when the other two came around. His most famous film is probably a film called Black Sunday, which is ironic because that movie was in black and white and Bava is otherwise known for his vivid use of color.  I had seen that movie previously so for the purposes of this project I am going to start with his next major horror movie, the anthology film Black Sabbath (AKA The Three Faces of Fear) which is said to have inspired the name of the rock band.  The film consists of three short horror segments, all directed by Bava, of which the middle segment is both the longest and clearly the best.  Titled “The Wurdalak” this segment appears to be set somewhere in some unspecified Slavic country during the 18th or 19th century and focuses on a bit of folklore about a vampire/ghost-like creature called a wurdalak which comes back to life and tries to suck the blook of everyone in their family.  Here the main wurdalak is played by Boris Karloff, who also serves as a sort of host for the movie and the whole segment works very effectively both as a riff on the vampire and as just a straight-up ghost story.  The segment (and the whole film for that matter) don’t really have the blood and guts that I generally associate with Italian horror and in some ways reminded me more of what Hammer was doing at the time or Roger Corman’s Poe movies than it does the giallos that would come later.

The first and third stories here are a bit weaker, especially the first one, which is set during the present and is a bit of a variation on the old “when a stranger calls” legend.  It’s not a bad segment exactly but the milieu seems to clash with the period horror trappings of the film’s title and framing and feels more like an imitation of Hitchcock (particularly Dial M for Murder) than the kind of gothic chiller the film otherwise trades in and feels like a strange opener given the film’s title.  The third segment fares a bit better.  There isn’t really a whole lot to it and it’s rather short but it does tell a nice little haunted house type story which feels like it’s had some influence on some of the more recent jump-scare movies of the Conjuring variety.  All in all this is a bit uneven and perhaps not overly representative of Bava’s style or of Italian horror movies to come, but it’s a solid example of the kind of horror movies that were being made in the early 60s with some neat atmosphere and some of the right kind of cheese.

***1/2 out of Five

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

If Black Sabbath was perhaps not entirely representative of the violent Italian horror films that were to come his next major film Blood and Black Lace most certainly is.  In fact the film more or less invented the sub-genre that would be most heavily associated with Italian horror: the Giallo.  Now, some people erroneously throw around the word “Giallo” to describe any horror movie to come out of Italy in the 60s, 70s, and 80s but it actually refers to a very specific sub-genre.  Gialli are non-supernatural thrillers, usually about serial killers and based on detective fiction dime novels that were popular at the time, they were essentially proto-slasher movies.  The word itself translates to “yellow,” which refers to the fact that these novels were usually sold with yellow covers.  It’s a bit like how we refer to certain books and movies as “pulp.”  There may or may not be other precursors but many would argue that Blood and Black Lace invented this sub-genre.

The film was made during a time when the European film industry was seeing a wave of movies based on and inspired by a British mystery writer named Edgar Wallace and the producers who backed Blood and Black Lace were reportedly expecting a film along those lines from Bava, but Bava had become increasingly bored by those movies and wanted to shake things up by focusing on the violence of the murder mystery rather than the police procedural. The resulting film focuses on a fashion house in which a number of the models are being mysteriously stalked and murdered by a masked man with a hat and trench coat (he kind of looks like Rorschach from “Watchmen”).  We see some of the police investigation into these crimes, but for the most part it’s told from the perspective of the potential victims and eventually from the perspective of the killer and we spend a lot more time watching the killer commit these murders than we do watching those police piece things together and the mystery itself is not wildly fascinating.

As this was still a movie from the early 60s there are still some limits to just how bloody the film could be but it is rather noticeably brutal in ways that movies generally weren’t during this era.  As the title implies there’s also a rather shamelessly sexual dimension to the movie and its violence.  Again, it’s the early 60s so there’s little in the way of actual sex or nudity but a lot of the murder victims find themselves in lingerie (though not black lace lingerie as the title would imply), and yeah I’m sure that’s all kinds of problematic if you think about it but the point is that this movie was doing stuff like that before there was an entire genre for such things and he did it with more bluntness than something like Psycho or Peeping Tom.  Of course a lot of this appeal comes more from seeing it now and seeing its eventual influence.  A lot of its importance was likely less apparent at the time and indeed the movie probably proved to be a bit ahead of its time.  It wasn’t much of a financial success in Italy and while it did get released by America it wasn’t by the lucrative B-movie studio AIP like Black Sabbath was because it was (rightly) considered to be too intense for the eight-year-olds that would be the audience for horror movies of the Vincent Price variety.  The giallo craze would be delayed for a little while as Bava moved on to make horror flicks of different varieties and baton wouldn’t really be picked up until Dario Argento came along a few years later.

***1/2 out of Five

Dario Argento

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Mario Bava may have more or less invented the giallo film genre but Dario Argento was definitely the one to popularize it and that process started right with his debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.  Like Blood and Black Lace this is ostensibly a mystery rather than a horror film but one that is very interested in filming the scenes where the killer stalks and murders people.  This one does take a bit more interest in the investigative elements of its story than Blood and Black Lace does in part because it’s being told from the perspective of an American tourist who witnesses a woman get stabbed and attempts to find the killer on the loose on his own while he’s stuck in Italy as a material witness.  The tourist is played by an American actor named Tony Musante, one of many American actors who appeared in Italian genre films the era for the same reasons Clint Eastwood appeared in his spaghetti westerns but never went on to stardom like he did.  Musante is actually a big part of why the film works as well as it does, unlike a lot of people who show up in exploitation films like this Musante’s character is genuinely likable and personable; you want to root for him and you feel like he has the right intentions.  The mystery at the film’s center is not exactly rock solid, it’s not the kind of thing you can really solve by looking at the clues and it finally comes together through something of a deus ex machina, but the story moves along in the moments and mostly works for the movies.

The film was almost certainly influenced by Blood and Black Lace but it also clearly comes from a later school of filmmaking that was less bound to soundstages.  The film was actually shot by Vittorio Storaro shortly before he would shoot major movies with the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Ford Coppola.  The cinematography is more down to earth and natural than the highly expressionistic look that Argento would embrace latter in his career in movies like Suspiria but it does look slick in a way that elevates it a bit.  I was also surprised that this movie wasn’t really all that gory.  There are conceptually nasty killings in the film to be sure and some of them do have a little bit of that signature bright red blood but the camera does semi-tastefully cut away from a lot of the nastier bits and the movie isn’t going out of its way to invent gross ways to murder people.  In fact the movie apparently managed to play in the United States with a PG rating with only about 20 seconds of cuts, which even in a pre-PG-13 era seems kind of crazy, the movie is more violent than that would imply.  That lack of brutality likely did contribute to the film’s accessibility and helped it become a big international hit within the B-movie/exploitation world despite having a kind of terrible title.  This would start a giallo wave in Italy which Argento himself would continue through his trilogy of movies with animals in the title before moving on to full on horror movies with more of a supernatural bend.

***1/2 out of Five 

Inferno (1980)

In selecting Dario Argento movies for this project I was careful to pick one of his giallo films and one of his more supernatural projects and for the latter film it seemed the logical choice was his 1980 semi-sequel to Suspiria entitled Inferno.  While I doubt that Argento had overly concrete plans for sequels in mind when he was making Suspiria that film was inspired by an 1845 Thomas de Quincey book which described three personified “sorrows”: a Mother of Sighs, a Mother of Darkness, and a Mother of Tears.  This wasn’t outlined in Suspiria but it’s certainly outlined in Inferno, in fact much of the first half of the movie seems to consist of people reading from various old books about these three so that audiences will fully understand the connection between this Suspiria, and a third film that was presumably on its way.  The witch killed at the end of Suspiria was meant to be the Mother of Sighs (Mater Suspiriorum) and the witch at the center of Inferno is meant to be the Mother of Darkness (Mater Tenebrarum, though given this it’s curious that this wasn’t called “Tenebrae,” which was the title of his next film which was unrelated to all of this).  Argento would eventually finish his trilogy twenty seven years later with the film The Mother of Tears, which is by all accounts terrible.

Scene for scene Suspiria often operated on a pretty strange dream (nightmare?) logic but at its center was a pretty simple story of a girl who arrives at a dance school, observes strange things, then confronts the monster behind it all.  Inferno is not so simple; it swaps protagonists half-way through, it goes on endlessly about the lore of these witches while doing little to actually show how this covenant works, it has a bunch of side characters who only complicate things, and it frankly isn’t entirely clear why the characters are involved with these witches in the first place.  The film employs a lot of the same extreme lighting as Suspiria but it often isn’t as effective in the film’s various New York locations as it was in the previous film’s German dance school and it generally doesn’t flow as well given that the film isn’t largely from the perspective of a single character.  I was also kind of shocked that the film wasn’t in widescreen like Argento’s earlier films and I do think that took something away from the style.  There are a handful of solid horror scenes throughout the film, but it’s a much slower burn in general, which was possibly a response to criticisms that Suspiria peaked in its first fifteen minutes and wasn’t able to top its first couple of kills but it really hurts the film’s momentum.  Argento himself doesn’t care for the movie, in part because he was very sick while making it, and feels like that hurt the film and his memories of it.  That, along with the fact that the film was a failure at the box office, contributed to him cutting off his “Three Mothers” trilogy, and given the results I can’t entirely blame him.

** out of Five

Lucio Fulci

Zombie (1979)

I had kind of expected this look at the Italian horror tradition would be a nonstop orgy of blood and guts but so far things have been a little bit more tasteful than I expected, that is until now when we get to Lucio Fulci, a man who’s entire career has been largely defined by button pushing exploitation violence.  Like a lot of his peers, Fulci started working on films in the 50s and 60s and made films in a variety of genres including musical, comedies, and westerns, but in the wake of Dario Argento’s success with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage he started making gialli like Don’t Torture a Duckling, but he really solidified himself as a director of horror films with his 1979 film Zombie.  Known as Zombi 2 in Italy, this was one of a number of Italian movies from the era which used a loophole in Italian copyright law which allowed anyone to market unofficial sequels to any movie without purchasing the rights so long as the plot and characters were actually original.  In this case they were trying to pass their movie off as a sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was re-edited into a more violent and less socially conscious film in Europe and released under the title “Zombi.”  The connections really do pretty much end at the title, although zombies probably weren’t as common on screen during this period so maybe the connection would have been more plausible at the time.

Zombie is partly an attempt to bring back the original Caribbean take on zombie mythology that was explored way back in movies like White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie and mix that with the zombie rules that Romero introduced like “you have to shoot the zombie in the head to kill them” and “if a zombie bites you you turn into one.”  It’s also noticeably more violent and just generally schlocky than the movies that Bava and Argento were making and he doesn’t seem to have the same pretentions of making stylish and operatic horror works.  This one actually contained the first major instance of nudity out of the six movie I’m watching, and it came in the form of an extended topless scuba diving scene which famously ends with a zombie punching a shark.  The film also has one of the all-time gore moments in a scene where a zombie punches through a door, grabs a woman on the other side of it, and then slowly pulls her forward until her eye is gouged out by one of the pointy wood pieces right on camera in close-up without cutting away.  The zombies themselves are also particularly gnarly, and I distinctly remember seeing the VHS cover with the zombie with the worms coming out of his eyes as a kid and being pretty grossed out by it.  The movie ain’t Shakespeare, and it’s not for everyone, but for gorehounds of a certain era the movie delivered the goods and it’s going to be remembered because of it.

*** out of Five

The Beyond (1981)

The Beyond is probably Lucio Fulci’s most famous film along with Zombie and it’s actually a spiritual sequel to another movie of his called City of the Living Dead and would be succeeded by another film The House by the Cemetery which together make up the “gates of hell” trilogy.  I think this trilogy was meant to be something of a response to what Dario Argento was making with his “three mothers” trilogy: three movies of random horror murders sort of loosely tied together by a very ill-formed horror mythology.  The plot here is in many ways very simple: a couple buys a hotel that was built on top of a gate to hell, and scary/violent shit happens to them because of it.  The movie does very little to develop the various victims that would be killed by the various entities that come out of the gate.  The film kind of operates off of a similar dream logic to Suspiria and Inferno in that it isn’t terribly concerned with establishing consistent logic for the film’s various supernatural goings on.  Unlike Suspiria the film is not terribly interested in high falutin cinematography.  I don’t mean to say that there was no thought put into the film’s look or atmosphere at all, it’s certainly made with (relative) competence and has a look, but it doesn’t operate with the grandiosity to match up to that “dream logic.”

What the film does have a clear interest in is blood and gore.  Zombie was pretty bloody but this thing clearly tops it.  It starts by showing a guy getting wipped to pieces by a chain, nailed to a wall, and then having his face melted off and it kind of just gets more vicious from there.  Gory horror films usually like to focus on intestinal extraction but Fulci clearly has some kind of deep fear of eye torture because he has at least three different eyeball gouging scenes here that are trying to top the eye stabbing from Zombie.  Some of the effects in the movie have not aged perfectly and probably never looked quite right to begin with.  You can clearly tell that a lot of the bodies and faced that are getting their flesh ripped off are animatronic but just the same it’s sometimes the thought that counts in movies like this even if you don’t entirely believe the gore.  Like, take the famous scene where a guy gets bitten to death by flesh eating tarantulas.  They did get real spiders for the scene, but they never crawl on a real face and you can kind of tell that the p.o.v. shots are just being done by having the tarantulas walk on glass and when they start ripping off flesh from the guy’s face it is very plainly latex, but still how many other movies even try to show people people getting eaten alive by spiders?  Or take the dog attack scene.  In Cujo they cut away from all most all the parts where the dog murders anyone but here they go right in and give you a close-up of when the German Shepard rips off the lady’s throat.  Good wholesome fun.  Definitely not the first extreme Italian horror movie that anyone should watch but if you’ve reached a point where you really want to have that extra bit of violence in your life this will not disappoint.

*** out of Five

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Crash Course: Early Bergman

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

In 2007 the illustrious Criterion Collection announced that they’d begin releasing a new line of products called the Eclipse Series.  This was explained at the time as being a series of DVD boxed sets which would consist of movies that Criterion had acquired the rights to but which weren’t famous enough to quite warrant the expense of one of their famous deluxe blu-ray releases.  These would be DVD-only releases rather than blu-rays, they would be cleaned up but not given a full restoration, and they wouldn’t have any extras but at least these movies wouldn’t be left languishing without distribution and would be available to fill holes in the collections of certain enthusiasts.  It was also announced that their first release under this new line would be a set called “Early Bergman” which curated five films that Ingmar Bergman made early in his career before his international breakthroughs like Summer with Monika and Smiles of a Summer Night.  This set has sat on my shelf for a while I’ve been getting by Bergman fixes from some of his later and more famous movies but I decided that with 2018 being the much celebrated centennial of Bergman’s birth the time was right to finally explore this tantalizing boxed set and see how the genius was formed.

Torment (1944)

The first film that Criterion/Eclipse included in their boxed set was actually not a film that Bergman directed.  This was actually directed by a guy named Alf Sjöberg who was a Swedish director of note from the time but Bergman wrote the screenplay and served as an assistant director on it and did consider it to be the start of his film career.  Bergman was 26 when this came out and was likely even younger when the screenplay was written and you can pretty easily tell this is a young man’s film given that it’s about a young man’s time at a private school and it very much takes that teenager’s point of view and mostly validates his angst.  At the film’s center is a conflict between the film’s protagonist and a rather cruel Latin teacher who everyone calls Caligula and it is most definitely not the kind of story where a teacher and student eventually come to respect one another.  The film reportedly drew from Bergman’s own memories of his schooling days and how he found them to be stifling and rather miserable.  After the film was released he even found himself in a public correspondence with his old headmaster, who found the movie to be something of a hit piece.  Bergman responded that he “definitely [had] not wanted to criticize my own school, but all schools” and the two seem to more or less reconciled their differences.  Having said all that, one should not minimize the influence of Alf Sjöberg on the film as the visual style here is different from Bergman’s.  The film’s look and the acting style on display hue a bit closer to what you might expect from a conventional Hollywood movie of the era than the arthouse direction that Bergman would employ once he started getting more control over his films.

*** out of Five

Crisis (1946)

While Torment marked Ingmar Bergman’s debut as a produced screenwriter but it was the film Crisis that was his true directorial debut and by all accounts it was not exactly smooth sailing on set.  Svensk apparently had a lot of faith in Bergman at first but started to get cold feet and called on Victor Sjöström to be brought in and supervise the production.  However I wouldn’t say that this shows too many signs of being a troubled production and I would exactly say that it’s the sloppy work of an amateur but that characteristic Bergman feel has not developed yet and frankly it gave me a slightly renewed appreciation for what Alf Sjöberg was able to do for Bergman’s script on Torment.  The film is essentially a light melodrama which takes as its jumping off point a story of a birth mother coming to reconnect with an eighteen year old daughter that had long been raised by a foster mother.  Though it begins as a story about the conflict between the biological and adoptive mother it’s really more concerned with the eighteen year old and her sexual awakening.  The film has a lot going on in it and at times isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.  At times it feels like it could be mistaken for a standard Hollywood “woman’s picture” but it’s more daring than those movies would be and you can clearly see Bergman’s affinity for stage plays in it as well.  It’s a weird little movie for the most part and not one that I think many would have remembered if Bergman had quit the film industry after making it rather than become one of the great auteurs of cinema.  Worth watching for completists like me, but not an essential movie.

** out of Five

Port of Call (1948)

The next film in the Bergman Eclipse set was made two years after Crisis and Bergman had made three other movies since then.  Clearly Bergman developed pretty dramatically as a filmmaker in those two years as Port of Call feels much more cohesive and daring than his debut feature even if he still hasn’t quite developed his signature style.  This film is actually said to be inspired by the neorealist movement that was in vogue in the late forties and Bergman has suggested as much in interviews, but there are limits to how much this movie could really be said to be part of the movement.  While the characters here are more working class than the rich or at least well educated people who usually populate Bergmans films and while the film does weigh in a bit more overtly on social issues, the film is not populated by non-actors and the film’s ending is a bit more hopeful than what you’d expect to see in a Rossellini or De Sica film.  The film focuses in on a sort of working class romance between a seaman and a young woman who had done a stint at a reform school.  The film doesn’t seem overly concerned with the economic challenges the characters face so much as the social constraints they seem to be fighting against and the movie proves to be incredibly bold in its exploration of the female character’s sexual past.  It its second half the film even looks rather fearlessly at the issue of abortion and comes out with a pretty strong pro-choice message in an era when abortion appears to have still been illegal in Sweden for those who couldn’t afford to bribe public officials.  That’s definitely some stuff you were not getting from American films from the 1940s and it likely would have even been bold by the standards of many other sections of Europe.

**** out of Five

Thirst (1949)

In between making Port of Call and this movie, Thirst, Ingmar Bergman made a film called Prison that was considered something of a failure and this follow-up was considered to be something of a more commercial re-do of that movie.  It follows a married couple as they take a train ride from Italy back up to Sweden after a vacation and goes into flashbacks of some of their previous relationships that inform their current situation.  The couple bicker like crazy, sometimes in that semi-playful way that certain married couples do, but sometimes in ways that show some real issues with the marriage.  Bergman was only 31 when he made this film but was already on his second of five marriages so clearly he knew a thing or two about marital dysfunction already.  The chemistry between Eva Henning and Birger Malmsten was quite good I also liked the first of the flashbacks, but some of the other flashbacks did not work as well and even at only 84 minutes the film feels a little padded.

**1/2 out of five

To Joy (1950)

With 1950’s To Joy Bergman once again looks at the dynamics of a dysfunctional marriage and is even more open about the fact that it’s a loosely veiled autobiographical work.  The film concerns a man who plays violin for a symphony orchestra in Stockholm and falls in love with a woman who also plays for the orchestra.  We know from the very beginning of the movie because of a flashback structure that this is doomed to end in tragedy, that they will marry but that the woman is going to die in an accident, so you’re mainly rooting for them to have some happiness while they can but they frequently don’t because the man is kind of pathetic.  The man is constantly in a funk because of his doubts about his skill as a violin player and worries that he’s a mere mediocrity and this takes a toll on the relationship as well.  It’s not hard to see this guy’s violin pursuit as a stand-in for Bergman’s own struggles as a young director, especially given that he cast his real life mentor Victor Sjöström as his stand-in’s conductor and mentor in the orchestra.  If this is indeed supposed to be a self-portrait of sorts it’s not a very flattering one, in fact it borders on the self-flagellating as it shows this guy not appreciating what he’s got until it’s too late and generally screwing everything up.  In life Bergman would go on to make a lot of the same mistakes all over again and would have five different wives in total as well as some serious relationships with other women, but from what we see in this film he has clearly learned a lot already and I’m sure it took some guts to put everything out in his art like this.

***1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: Ghibli Beyond Miyazaki – Takahata and Kondō

Ever since Turner Classic Movies ran a Hayoa Miyazaki retrospective back in 2006 I’ve been a pretty big fan of his work.  His hand drawn animations for the Ghibli studio have been among the most acclaimed animated films of all time around the world and have brought anime to a level of mainstream recognition and salability that most wouldn’t have anticipated.  I don’t love all of his movies but the movies of his I like I like quite a bit.  However, it has become increasingly clear to me that I’ve been kind of overlooking the work of his other compatriots at Studio Ghibli and in 2018 I’m hoping to rectify that.  As such I’m going to do two little retrospectives, the first looking at the work of Ghibli’s second most famous auteur Isao Takahata (aside from his classic Grave of the Fireflies, which I’ve already seen) and the one film their other early master Yoshifumi Kondō made before his tragic and untimely death.  I would also like to note upfront that these are not going to be the kind of “skeptical” reviews I did for Disney and Pixar and the like as I already have a great deal of respect for what Ghibli did with Miyazaki.

Only Yesterday (1991)

Though Grave of the Fireflies was actually not Isao Takahata’s debut film, it was the first film he made for Studio Ghibli and as such that’s usually where people start when discussing him.  That it was also basically his magnum opus meant that he had to spend the rest of his career trying to top it, which was basically impossible given how much of an emotionally charged story it was.  One can see the trouble this comparison has been in the differing fates of that film and his (sort of) sophomore effort Only Yesterday in the United States.  While Grave of the Fireflies never had a theatrical release in America (Anime was far from mainstream in the American marketplace in the late 80s) it did get a video release in the early 90s and became quite the cult hit as anime became more of a force.  Only Yesterday, by contrast, never even got an official American release until its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2016.  As such it’s sort of been the lost Ghibli film to audiences on the East side of the Pacific despite having been quite popular in Japan.

The film is in its own way a logical follow-up to Grave of the Fireflies as it is also a look at the life of children but children of the next generation growing up in what was a significantly better time to be a kid in Japan.  The film essentially looks at the life of a ten year old girl in 1960s Tokyo which is contextualized by a framing story about her as an adult visiting the countryside.  Like a lot of coming of age films like The 400 Blows or Boyhood the film is largely about finding profundity in remembering the little things in childhood in a sort of wistful fashion.  There’s basically nothing about the film that would, on the surface anyway, seem to require animation.  Today that’s not very unusual and there are entire genres of anime like that but it’s my understanding that even in the more open minded world of anime that was a pretty unusual idea back in 1991.  This is probably a big part of why the film took so long to cross the Pacific as the core anime audience in America, especially in the early days, were dudes looking for science fiction ultra-violence and this thing had a hard time finding a place in that marketplace.  The film certainly feels like it’s a work of deep nostalgia, but the film’s protagonist obviously isn’t a stand-in for Takahata (who obviously isn’t a female and who would have been in his early thirties during the time the film is set).  Ultimately I think what holds the movie back for me is simply that it feels like a bit more like a collection of moments than a coherent whole.  The connections between the scenes in the 60s and the scenes of the protagonist as an adult never seemed to fully connect and the film never really crescendos in a satisfying way.  Still, it’s a beautifully observed movie for the most part.

***1/2 out of five

Pom Poko (1994)

With Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday Isao Takahata had made two straight films that used animation to tell period stories that didn’t necessarily need to be made with animation.  One could have imagined Takahata making that his modus operendai but instead he made a sharp left turn with his next film, Pom Poko, in which a group of talking raccoons band together to fight humans.  Actually it’s a bit inaccurate to call the creatures in this film “raccoons” (even though the English translations go ahead and do that) when they are in-fact Japanese raccoon dogs or “tanuki” as they’re usually called.  Tanuki are in fact real animals, they’re canines that have raccoon-like patterns on the faces and tails but are not actually related to real raccoons (who are indigenous to North America) at all.  These tanuki play a large part in Japanese folklore, where they’re considered to be shapeshifting tricksters, which is in fact the same tradition that Super Mario is tapping into when he grows “raccoon” ears and tails after picking up a leaf.  Pom Poko is an attempt to merge these old tanuki stories with the modern world in the form of an environmentalist fable.

That was a whole lot of background required to simply set this thing up for a western viewer and I haven’t even gotten into the fact that all the male tanuki have visible ball-sacks present on their bodies throughout the film.  The English dub (that Ghibli somehow got Disney to produce) tries to call these appendages pouches but the subtitled version just straight up calls them testicles.  Tanuki nuts apparently are very much a part of the folklore behind these creatures, but to western audiences that seems pretty weird.  Generally speaking most of the complaints I might have about this movie are things like that which are less the movie’s fault and more the result of something getting a bit lost in translation.  If you’re willing to do the research though and go along with some of this stuff this actually is a pretty solid Ghibli movie.  The movie manages to explain the ecological situation facing these tanukis in some fairly interesting ways and also comes to provide some fairly interesting visuals along the way like the “parade” scene midway through the film or some of the sight gags along the way.  The movie could stand to have been cut down a bit for pacing and it’s not a movie for the closed minded, but certainly a worthwhile watch for people with a slightly deeper interest in anime and Japanese culture.

***1/2 out of Five

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

Though this installment is largely looking at the work of Isao Takahata I’m also going to be looking at this movie, which was the first Ghibli film to be directed by someone other than Takahata or Miyazaki.  Instead this was directed by a man named Yoshifumi Kondō, who was a little younger than Takahata and Miyazaki but still basically of the same generation and who had worked as an animator on a number of Ghibli’s other movies.  Miyazaki had intended for Kondō to be a become one of the studio’s top talents and a successor of sorts for its founders, but Kondō wouldn’t live long enough to take that role.  In early 1998 while working behind the scenes on Princess Mononoke Kondō suffered an aneurysm believed to have been caused by overwork and died at the age of 47.  His death by all accounts affected Miyazaki deeply and was a big part of why he has continually been announcing his retirement ever since.  We’ll never know what Kondō would have one day become, but we do have his directorial debut to look back on.

Given that this movie represents the legacy of a filmmaker who died prematurely I’d love to be able to say that this is a hidden gem but as Studio Ghibli movies go I actually think it’s a bit weak.  That’s not to say that it’s a bad movie, it isn’t, but it lacks a certain something.  The film mostly takes the Takahata approach of making a movie that is basically set in the real world and focuses on a kid but the animation is a bit more Miyazaki-like. The weakness here is that the film’s protagonist feels like she would be an adequately developed character in an adventure movie but who seems to be just a little too thin to hold her own in a character drama like this.  The film tries to capture the confusion of youth but doesn’t quite nail it and as a result the protagonist just kind of feels like a bit of a spaz at times.  I’m also not crazy about her boyfriend of sorts Seiji, who kind of seems like a gender flipped manic pixie dream boy.  That’s not so say there isn’t some charming stuff here, it’s just kind of minor as these things go.

*** out of Five

My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)

I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about actual animation style while discussing Takahata but it is clear that a big thing that differentiates him from Miyazaki is that he experimented a lot more with the basic look of his films than his more famous colleague did.  I don’t want to diminish Miyazaki’s artistry in any way but the basic look of his films didn’t really differ much from the traditional anime style outside of the fact that they had a lot more money and they found more creative things to animate.  That was also more or less true about Takahata’s first three movies, which were a bit more grounded and had slightly different color palates than Miyazaki’s, but with his fourth film My Neighbors the Yamadas he really started to go wild and break from what most people would expect a Studio Ghibli films.  The film was not based on a typical manga but on a comic strip of the Sunday paper variety and the film takes on that “cartoon” style in a way that will be readily apparent at the very first glance.  The characters here are drawn in an intentionally sloppy manner, almost like doodles, and the backgrounds in the film are minimal to the point of being plain white at times, but that isn’t to say it’s a super low budget production and it does do larger set pieces at times.

I think this movie expects its audience to have some foreknowledge of the comic strip it was based on because it really throws you right in the middle of this family’s antics without giving you much of an introduction to the characters.  There isn’t a traditional story here so much as a series of light vignettes about family life.  Given the film’s episodic nature it is perhaps a bit curious that they believed a feature film would be the best format for the content.  With its sitcom nature one could imagine it being made into a 30 minute TV show that could almost be like a Japanese version of “The Simpsons” or given its funky animation style one could almost imagine it as a (very high budget) Youtube series if this were being made in a different era.  As it is, the film did not really keep me overly engaged on a narrative or character level and I certainly didn’t find it overly laugh out loud funny, so there really just wasn’t a whole lot for me in this thing.  Granted, cultural differences likely played some role in my disconnection from the film and I was interested in it enough from an animation perspective  in relation to the studio’s other films (it was, oddly enough, Ghibli’s first digitally animated movie) that I was at least interested by it but it is an oddity that is probably best left for completists.

** out of Five

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014)

After My Neighbors the Yamadas Isao Takahata took a long break from directing feature animation.  During the over ten year span between his last two movies he focused his efforts on producing Studio Ghibli’s other films as they achieved greater and greater mainstream success and had a couple of other side projects.  Eventually it was announced that he would direct one final movie for the studio around the same time that his colleague Hayao Miyazaki was also planning to retire after making The Wind Rises.  Takahata’s retirement plans were met with less press than Miyazaki’s, in no small part because of the long break he took, but when his swan song finally came out it was met with a great deal of critical respect and a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars.  That film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was an adaptation of an ancient Japanese folk tale about a bamboo cutter who finds a child in the woods and raises her as his own to eventually learn that she was sent by the moon people and that she would eventually have to return to them.  It’s a story with odd parallels to, of all things, the Superman origin story and has actually been viewed as something of a proto-science fiction story even if it doesn’t really feel like one.

To bring this 10th century folk tale to life Takahata decided to once again eschew the typical anime style and employ a unique form of animation, this one based on more traditional Japanese art.  The film is meant to look like a charcoal drawing brought to life with pastel watercolor added on top to make it look like an old Japanese scroll come to life.  It’s a much more successful aesthetic experiment than My Neighbors the Yamadas and really makes the film look unique and interesting and the film’s status as a Studio Ghibli production gives it more money to work with than an experimental idea like this would normally get.  The story seems to be very true to the original legend but with a bit more of an emphasis on what could be viewed as a sort of proto-feminism at the story’s heart as the titular princess rejects some of the more rigid gender roles required by the royal court and rebels against the life she eventually finds people trying to force her into.  If the movie has a weakness it’s that it is perhaps a bit long for how much of a simple fable the story is meant to be.  Takahata’s films generally tend to be a little bit longer than they need to be and have a touch of bagginess to them, but every time this one feels like it’s getting it bit dull it tends to bounce back with some kind of little twist of visual idea to liven things up a bit.

**** out of Five

And that is where this installment of my exploration into the wider world of Ghibli will have to come to an end.  There are still some Ghibli movies I’d like to check out and at a later date I do hope to do another installment of this where I check out the works of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Gorō Miyazaki, and Hiroyuki Morita, who are basically the second generation of Ghibli talents who made a number of films in the last decade or two while the older masters were going into and out of retirement.  Of course a bit of a shadow hangs over the current retrospective in that, between the time I started it and now Isao Takahata passed away, leaving The Tale of Princess Kaguya definitively his final film.  Having seen all of his films now I can pretty clearly say he leaves behind a pretty strong legacy.  No, I don’t know that any of the movies I looked at here was quite a grand slam but all of them were interesting on some level and there’s a maturity and a fearlessness to his overall filmography that is very much appreciated.  Add to that the fact that Grave of the Fireflies is an undisputed classic and his status as a master of animation is certainly earned.

Crash Course: J-Horror

In 1998 a Japanese filmmaker named Hideo Nakata made a modestly budgeted horror film called Ringu which brought the traditional Japanese ghost story into a modern context through a story of a ghost child who wrecks vengeance upon the rest of the world through a haunted VHS tape that kills people seven days after watching it.  I’m not exactly sure how unprecedented this was in Japanese cinema but it was a wild success there and it clearly sparked something of a movement because a lot of somewhat similar horror movies began to be made in its wake.  This sensation eventually crossed the Pacific in the form of Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake The Ring.  Like most Americans that remake was my introduction to that story and this style of horror and frankly I think it was probably an improvement over the original film.  That sort of kept me from really digging into the rest of what this early 2000s explosion in Japanese horror had to offer and the generally toxic reviews that the various remakes of these J-horror movies ended up getting kept me away from them as well.  Now however I’ve suddenly gotten the urge to go back and take a look at how this little sub-genre came to be and what it had to offer beyond the Ring movies.

Pulse (2001)

 Pulse was one of the last big J-Horror movies to get an American remake but was actually one of the first of these post-Ringu horror films to be released.  While a lot of these J-horror films have kind of disappeared over time, this one has stuck around longer, partly because of the continued fame of its director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (who is of no relation to Akira Kurosawa).  Kurosawa has never really had much of an international breakthrough and Pulse remains his most famous movie but he has a following; his movies regularly play in high profile international film festivals and he certainly sounds thoughtful and interesting in interviews.  On its surface Pulse certainly shares a lot of similarities with Ringu as both involve ghosts using modern technology to reach out to the world and haunt people, with this one using the internet rather than VHS tapes.  The bigger difference is that in Ringu (and even moreso in the remake) the ghost had a fairly rigid set of rules that it followed when it went about haunting people what with phoning people and waiting seven days.  Here the rules are a lot less clear.  Sometimes the ghosts contact people through the internet, sometimes they haunt people in person, and sometimes they drive people to suicide but it’s not exactly clear who or why.

Taken as a literal narrative Pulse does not make a lot of sense.  There’s no real rhyme or reason to the ghost’s (ghosts’?) behavior and its format of having separate simultaneous narratives is a bit confusing.  Treating the film as a puzzle is likely to lead to frustration.  Instead the film is notable for its thematic undertones.  This was made right after the turn of the millennium and the internet was still new-ish.  People were still using dial up, Facebook didn’t exist yet and for that matter neither did MySpace.  People were still optimistic about the “world wide web” would connect the world, but this movie was fairly forward thinking in asserting that it would actually lead to greater isolation and at the same time a greater reduction in peace and privacy.  That theme is actually discussed fairly directly in the film although its connections to all the ghostly goings on are sometimes more tenuous than other times.  As far as how well the movie works just as a straightforward horror movie, well, I don’t know that it has quite the visceral effect that some of the better ghost stories are likely to have but there are certainly some potent moments along the way.

Dark Water (2002)

The director who more or less started the 2000s J-horror boom was of course Hideo Nakata, who directed Ringu and its sequel in 1998 and 1999, his first horror follow up to his Ringu movies was his 2002 film Dark Water, which came out in 2002, the same year that the Hollywood remake The Ring came out and hit it big.  Dark Water certainly shares some things in common with Ringu in that both films are about divorced women with small children contending with the vengeful ghosts of drowned girls, but there are also clear differences.  For one thing, the fact that the woman at the center of Ringu is a divorcee seems to largely be thematically incidental but here it seems to be rather important.  The film is playing on this woman’s anxieties and doubts that she’s truly providing the best life for her child by moving her into this rickety old apartment and away from her seemingly wealthier father.  It just so happens that the problems with this living environment aren’t merely economic but also supernatural.

The film’s ghost also differs from the one in Ringu as it doesn’t operate on a convoluted high concept and instead haunts people in the more traditional ways you might expect from a ghost story.  He leaves objects lying around ominously, she appears suddenly in the distance and then disappears, and if she has a gimmick it’s that she makes the ceiling of this apartment leak occasionally and makes other creepy water related occurrences happen.  I don’t know that it did anything particularly unprecedented but looking at it now it’s hard not to see the roots of some of the modern haunting movies like Insidious and The Conjuring in something like this and in many ways I do think this might have been made with something of an eye on Hollywood.  This is a more streamlined and understandable version of a J-horror movie, but that’s not to say it’s a sell-out or a lesser version of the form.  Instead it’s better viewed as a very well-crafted and confidently made example of what one of these movies can be like.  Dark Water was given a remake in 2005, but it got reviews that were mixed at best and only did alright at the box office.  Unfortunately Nakata’s winning streak did not continue after this.  He was brought in to do the terrible sequel to American version of The Ring and hasn’t made anything that’s made much of a splash since then.

Suicide Club (2002)

Suicide Club (AKA Suicide Circle) is a different kind of movie than the rest of the J-horror movies I’m looking at for this piece in a handful of ways.  For one, it never got an American remake, and it also doesn’t really revolve around a ghost per se even though there is still an unseen force going after people.  What’s more it isn’t even entirely a horror film so much as it’s a sort of violent provocation along the lines of something like Battle Royale or Ichi the Killer.  The film’s opening sequence in particular is incredibly disturbing: it depicts as many as fifty seemingly normal teenage schoolgirls at a subway station suddenly line up and jump onto the tracks as a train is coming, killing them all.  Did I mention that this never got a Hollywood remake?  The focus is ultimately on the way society reacts to this and continues to react as similar incidents seem to pop up occasionally.  There’s a certain resemblance to the premise of M. Night Shyamalan awful 2008 film The Happening but the suicide epidemic here feels more like a mysterious crime wave than an apocalyptic cataclysm.  Much of the film focuses on a group of detectives who are investigating these occurrences and start to put together certain clues that seem to be leading to some sort of force causing these seemingly random mass suicides.

Unlike a lot of the J-horror movies that I’m looking at in this piece, this movie has something of a (very) dark comedic streak.  It’s not going for laughs exactly but the movie plays out its suicide sequences with a certain satirical tone which does seem to be in pretty questionable taste, but it does in some ways make what you’re watching seem even more disturbing and it does have the effect it seems to be going for.  The problem is that this isn’t necessarily the tone the rest of the movie takes.  The scenes with the detectives play out using the rather straightforward language of a mystery/police procedural like Se7en or something.  This investigation side of the movie mostly works pretty well scene to scene but there are loose threads that don’t really come together perfectly, which is partly intentional but partly not.  So what is the point of this all?  I’m not entirely sure but Japan is traditionally known to have a higher suicide rate than a lot of other countries and this is presumably a critique of that.  Perhaps it’s making some sort of point that people are complacent when fifty teenagers kill themselves separately but are suddenly shocked out of that complacency when they suddenly do it all at once and publicly.  The ultimate culprit that the movie suggests is behind all this chaos may also be something of a stand in for a wider culture that seems to in some ways give people permission to take their lives, albeit subliminally.  I don’t think I have the cultural context to connect all those dots though and with the odd shifts in tone I’m not sure the movie works.

Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)

Though there are a variety of J-Horror movies out there, in the popular consciousness the genre is largely defined by two series: the Ringu series and the Ju-On series.  The latter of those series was the source of the 2004 American film The Grudge (a film I’ve never seen), which was largely based on the 2003 Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge.  This was not, however the first movie in the series.  That distinction actually goes to a direct-to-video film Ju-On: The Curse, which was followed by another direct-to-video sequel called Ju-On: The Curse 2 (Ju-On, incidentally, is Japanese for “Curse Grudge”).  These micro-budget films were well received and led to their semi-sequel/semi-reboot Ju-On: The Grudge getting a theatrical release which was a hit and its remake would become the one clear financial success to come out of the gold rush to bring other J-Horror films to American after the success of The Ring.  All of these films including the direct-to-video ones and the American remake and its first sequel were directed by a guy named Takashi Shimizu, who by my count has directed at least six of these things and the franchise has gone on since then and has produced no fewer than twelve different movies across its various iterations including one released just last year which was a crossover between the Ju-On ghost and the Ringu ghost.

The sheer number of these movies suggests that there must be something to them that’s appealing, but I really didn’t care for what I saw in this first and presumably best film in the series.  The film, like a lot of these movies, is about people forced to contend with a vengeful ghost (ghosts?) and this ghost is particularly murderous.  The spirit’s modus operandi is to curse anyone who enters the house it died in and comes into contact with anyone else who already has the curse… and that’s more or less all that happens throughout the course of the movie.  People enter the movie, get cursed, then die something like ten minutes later when the ghost decides the time is right.  Few characters are in the movie long enough for you to really care about them before they’re killed, and just to make matters even less clear the movie is told outside of chronological order to no real effect.  The basic mechanics of how the ghost stalks and kills (appearing and disappearing, that croaking sound) have a certain creepy quality to them, but their effect is quickly diminished with repetition over the course of the film.  There also isn’t really much to this ghost at the end of the day, it’s not trying to tell its story like the ghost from Ringu, it’s not trying to make some elaborate statement about the loneliness of death like the ghosts in Pulse, and it’s not even trying to find a new mother like the ghost in Dark Water, it just wants to kill everyone and that doesn’t make for a terribly compelling film.

Premonition (2004)

Premonition was a movie that came out towards the tail end of the early 2000s J-horror explosion, or at least towards the tail end of Western viewer’s initial interest in that scene.  There was a 2007 American film that was also called Premonition but my understanding is that that is not a remake.  The film was part of a loose series of sorts called “J-Horror Theater,” which was meant to be sort of an omnibus label that various directors would contribute films to, a bit like what Tarantino and Rodriguez were envisioning with their Grindhouse label or maybe what J.J. Abrams was trying to do with Cloverfield.  The film tells the story of a father who picks up a strange newspaper and sees an obituary for his (very much alive) daughter in it and then moments later this child is killed in a car crash.  The film picks up again years later when this evil newspaper comes back into his life and again starts predicting disasters that he’s largely powerless to stop and whenever he does stop them there seem to be dire consequences.  This setup is reminiscent of this TV show from the 90s called “Early Edition,” but here this magical newspaper seems more like a curse than a gift, especially given that attempts to prevent these disasters are usually punished.

In fact, the film’s “don’t mess with fate” theme actually almost harkens back to Final Destination (which does predate this), though obviously without the gory sadism of that rather unsavory franchise.  This one probably more closely resembles Ringu than a lot of the films I’m looking at for this piece, in part because there’s a clear investigative aspect to it and there are also elements Pulse in the way it seems to deal with a supernatural phenomenon that a lot of people are simultaneously trying to figure out.  The scares, however, are not really there and I’m not even sure I’d really call it a horror film so much as a kind of Twilight Zone scenario.  It’s not the most visually adventurous of these movies either and I’d say that it was pretty average for a lot of its runtime but it does pick up a little in its third act as the man tries to break the cycle to varying degrees of success.

Crash Course: Postwar Kurosawa

A while back I picked up my copy of Criterion’s Eclipse boxed set of the First Films of Akira Kurosawa and went through and analyzed each of those four films: Sanshiro Sugata, The Most Beautiful, Sanshiro Sugata Part II, and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.  These movies were… interesting.  None of them were great films by any means, in fact I’d hesitate to call most of them “good,” but considering the circumstances under which they were made it was pretty remarkable that they got made at all.  In addition to Kurosawa’s own inexperience, the films had to contend with a wartime economy, military censorship, and demands for propagandistic content.  Overall, those four movies showed a young filmmaker in his early stages honing his skills and developing into a professional if not an artist.  However, my work was not done.  There’s another Kurosawa boxed set that had been sitting on my shelf unwatched: an earlier Eclipse set called Postwar Kurosawa which included five films made by Kurosawa shortly after the war, including three films made before his international breakthrough with Rashomon.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Kurosawa’s first post-war effort was a topical drama called No Regrets for Our Youth, which was about a group of young people who resisted the patriotic fervor of their surroundings through the war years.  The film focuses on a woman named Yukie (that she’s a woman is noteworthy as this and The Most Beautiful are the only Kurosawa movie with a female protagonist) over the course of a rather tumultuous decade and the fallout she encounters for holding liberal views in the wake of nationalist militarism.  In these early postwar years Kurosawa had to answer to a new censorship regime, that of the Allied Occupation Force, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of guessing to see why this story would appeal to their interests.  I do not, however, get the impression that Kurosawa was ordered to make this as propaganda.  I’m sure that if he had wanted to make an innocuous entertainment he could have, instead he was tackling the politics of the day head on in a way that he mostly wouldn’t later on in his career.  If the censors had any negative effect on the production it was probably to force Kurosawa to sand out a few of the story’s nuances and make him lay his message on a little thick in order to make it abundantly clear whose side he was on.

From a merely technical level this is clearly a step up from what Kurosawa was able to do during the war years.  The movie runs a full 110 minutes long, which is short by the standard of the director’s later films, but which is still a good half hour longer than his previous works.  The sets and costumes are also clearly a little more expensive, but more important is that this is a story with a lot more scope and ambition than anything he had attempted before.  I would like to say that the end of the war was all it took to turn Kurosawa into a master filmmaker and that this marked the beginning of his “classic” period, but that’s just not the case.  Instead what we see here is a pretty standard evolution of what we saw in the last boxed set.  Still, this is a good film set in an interesting time period and its box office success (it apparently sparked something of a catchphrase in postwar Japan where people were saying “no regrets for…” all sorts of things) almost certainly helped his career along as well.

*** out of Four

One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

Kurosawa’s second post-war effort (unless you count a collaborative oddity called Those Who Make Tomorrow, which Kurosawa would later shun) was One Wonderful Sunday, a smaller scale and more intimate work than No Regrets for Our Youth. The film focuses on Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita), a couple of young lovers who want to get married once they have a little more money but can’t at the moment because of the post-war economy. The film follows them over the course of a single day, a not so wonderful Sunday, which is their only day off. From here the film sort of takes on the “two lovers talk for a day while walking through a city” formula that Richard Linklater would use to such great effect in his “Before” trilogy, but there the focus is less on the couple and more on their surroundings. Post-war Tokyo is still bombed out, filled with orphans, and in some ways run by black-market gangsters who make things even more difficult than they have to be. As the couple goes through the movie they discuss their hopes and dreams and you do get the feeling that they can “make it” even as they constantly have the carpet pulled out from under them.

The focus the film has on the struggles of life in a post-war Axis city immediately recalls the neo-realist films that were being made in Italy around the same time as this, and I do think this was intentional. However, there are some clear stylistic differences. The film is not using non-actors for one thing, and its message is less overtly socialistic. What really sets it apart from those films is its finale, which breaks the fourth wall in a way that I don’t believe Kurosawa ever tried to do again. In this scene Kurosawa does something unusual with music and ends with one of the characters making an earnest plea directly to camera, a move that is somewhat reminiscent to a similar moment in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Kurosawa had intended this to be a moment where audiences would sort of interact with the screen, but this didn’t really happen and Kurosawa ultimately viewed the experiment as a failure. The rest of the film isn’t necessarily great, Kurosawa lays the pathos on a bit too thick and doesn’t really let you get to know much about the characters aside from the fact that they’re ordinary and likable, but it is still worth seeing if only for the glimpses of post-war Tokyo and to see Kurosawa’s skills continue to bud.

*** out of Four

Scandal (1950)

In 1950 Akira Kurosawa made two movies: Rashomon and Scandal. One of those movies became an international sensation, solidified Kurosawa as a world-class talent, and is considered an all-time classic today. The other one is Scandal. Scandal certainly isn’t a bad movie but it’s definitely not a film of the caliber one would expect from such an accomplished director. The film is largely about a painter who is falsely reported to be having an affair with a popular singer by a tabloid after he’s photographed visiting her in a hotel room. Angry about the ensuing scandal he decides to sue the tabloid and hires a down on his luck lawyer to represent him. I would say that the idea of an expose of tabloid culture was a fresher idea in 1950 than it is today but it really isn’t. We saw similar subject matter covered in Hollywood movies in the 30s… actually, come to think about it a lot of the beats in this movie are straight out of the Frank Capera playbook in a number of ways. When the down on his luck lawyer shows up the movie really plays into the melodrama in ways that will not be to everyone’s taste. Still, this is interesting as a sort of odd departure within Kurosawa’s filmography. It’s a movie that’s so odd that it has a subdued performance from Toshiro Mifune and a super broad performance from Takashi Shimura.

*** out of Four

The Idiot (1951)

Akira Kurosawa was on top of the world when Rashomon opened and all eyes were on his next project.  I’m not exactly sure when Kurosawa went into production on his follow-up film The Idiot or how much that film’s success in the West influenced Shochiku Studio’s decision to let him make his dream project of adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into a modern Japanese context, but the final film reeks of over-ambitious sophomore slump.  Before I get too deep into calling this movie a failure I should probably note that the movie as it was released and as it exists now is heavily compromised.  Kurosawa initially envisioned the film would be released in two parts with a collective running time of 265 minutes but after this cut was poorly received by a test audience the studio panicked and demanded that the film be cut down to a single 166 minute project.  The missing footage has been lost and there are hints here that if this missing hour and forty minutes could be found it may well be a relevatory discovery on a par with finding the missing footage from The Magnificent Ambersons.  As it stands The Idiot is not without its merits but it is definitely flawed.

In the first fifteen minutes or so I suspected that the way the film was cut down was going to be really choppy because the film was using a surprising number of title cards to forward the story, but they quit doing that after a little while the film does at least look fairly coherent.  I suspect (and this is sheer conjecture, I haven’t done any research on this or anything) that a lot of what’s missing in this cut of the movie are sub-plots which may not have directly influenced the primary story but which may have fleshed out the themes and put the story into a different context.  This seems like a mistake because the love triangle that the film chooses to focus on, when removed from that context, doesn’t really feel like it needs 166 minutes to play out.  By being shorter the film feels longer and the film’s psychology never really feels fully formed.  Visually the film holds up a lot better.  Kurosawa keenly decided to set the film at winter and make snow a major part of its backdrop, which makes sense given the Russian source material and the performances also hold up pretty well too.  I guess this is just one of those scarred projects that you don’t really feel is fair to judge.  I wouldn’t recommend the film to anyone who isn’t a hardcore Kurosawa completest, but it’s worth seeing if you’re a student of his work.

**1/2 out of Four

I Live in Fear (1955)

The last film in this eclipse set was a movie made in a very different period of Kurosawa’s career.  By 1955 Kurosawa’s reputation as a master filmmaker was already pretty firmly in place and he was just coming off making his most famous film Seven Samurai.  It is perhaps fitting that the last movie of the “Post-War Kurosawa” box would be a film that was made towards the end of what would be made about ten years after the end of the war and deal with the most impactful moment of the war on the Japanese mindset: the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.  The film concerns an old man who has become fixated on the threat of nuclear holocaust and is trying to sell off his factory and move his entire family to Brazil because he believes that will be the only safe place on Earth for some reason.  His grown children are not so fond of this idea and are suing to have him declared incompetent to run the family’s money.  The old man is actually played by a nearly unrecognizable Toshiro Mifune under quite a bit of makeup and Kurosawa’s other regular Takashi Shimura is also present as the arbitrator assigned to his case but that sub-plot is probably the weakest element of the film, as it’s a framing story that loses its usefulness as the movie goes on.  This is perhaps a movie that’s more interesting now than it would have been at the time.  What was once perhaps easy to see as a slightly on the nose exploration of a psychological undercurrent now seems like a fascinating insight into a culture’s psyche.  It is, however, certainly second tier Kurosawa and given that it was made later into his career than some of the other movies in the box it’s harder to simply write this off as a mere stepping stone.

***1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

This is indeed a fascinating box set both historically and thematically.  The five films here not only show Kurosawa as he develops into the world-class filmmaker but also focuses in on the way he chose to look at the struggles Japan was going through in the wake of their post-war reconstruction.  Over the course of the set we see Kurosawa go from being a young upstart making his own riffs on Italian Neo-Realism to trying on certain Hollywood styles and finally trying to find ways to address domestic social problems while being a director the whole world was watching.  Granted, there is a reason why these particular movies are relegated to an Eclipse box rather than getting Criterion releases of their own.  Thematically and chronologically Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Ikiru could have easily fit in with these movies, but they are better works and have individual releases for a reason.  Still, they’re definitely must-sees for hard core Kurosawa fans, and all have their interesting moments for the more casual fans as well.

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts(2/10/2017)

2-10-2017OscarShorts2017

The Academy Awards are such the perfect capper to a year of cinema that I’ve long enjoyed following them and the rest of award season even though I know it’s all silly at the end of the day.  Some years I get pretty deep into the horserace of it all and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with predictions and to follow the narratives around each category.  One line I had not crossed up to now was seeking out the short films nominated each year just so I can have a better idea of how to predict those categories, but there’s a first time for everything.  Kidding aside, I didn’t really check these out just to win an Oscar pool.  Really I was just kind of curious what kinds of movies tend to show up in these categories and see if there were any gems in the bunch.  After all, the Best Short film category has at times featured early works by filmmakers who would go on to greater fame.  Previous winners and nominees in this category have included Martin McDonagh, Sean Ellis, Taika Waititi, Andrea Arnold, Peter Capaldi, and Taylor Hackford.

Now I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here because I don’t really watch a lot of short films, at least not a lot of short films from this century.  I’m not really sure how or why short films get made really.  There’s almost no commercial market for them to my knowledge and I don’t really know where they get their budgets from.  This is probably a big part of why every single one of the short films nominated this year are from Europe, where I’m guessing there are grants and public funding for this sort of thing.  In general I tend to view short films as either being a place to test out filmic experiments or to make what are sort of video resumes for young filmmakers trying to show their skill.  Most if not all of the shorts this year fall into the latter category, or at least feel like they do.  Most of them use fairly conventional narrative techniques and basically feel like miniature feature stories. Four of them run about a half hour with one exception which runs about fifteen minutes.  Two of the shorts are fairly serious and deal with topical subject matter, two tell quirky little stories, and one of them serves more as a sort of visual joke.  They’re being released theatrically by a company called ShortsHD, which I believe is also a niche cable network.  They’ve programed them into a no frills package and have ordered them so as to space out the different tones involved.  I’ll be discussing the films in the order presented by this theatrical exhibition.

Also, please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.

 

Mindenki (Sing)

The first film presented is “Sing,” which is a Hungarian short made by a guy named Kristóf Deák, who appears to have been making shorts at least since 2008.  The film follows a elementary aged girl named Zsofi (Dorka Gáspárfalvi) who is the new kid at a school and is interested in joining the school’s award winning choir, but when she gets there she’s told by the dominating choir director Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi) that she didn’t have quite the chops to live up to the choir’s reputation and that she should mime singing instead of actually vocalizing so she doesn’t bring the rest of the choir down with her.  So, basically we have the ambition of a young aspiring musician clashing with a dictatorial instructor who puts being number one above the needs of their students… in other words it’s Whiplash with children and less shouting.  Of the five nominees this is probably the cleanest and most concise.  It’s exactly the kind of story that feels at home in this thirty minute format and it feels neither rushed nor stretched out and while the story feels a little simple there are some layers there.  The dictatorial choir teacher does make a few legit points in defense of what she’s doing and it is interesting seeing her try to manipulate these children into following her lead because they don’t really have the sophistication to debate her.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: I’d say this one is a bit of a dark horse.  It lacks the weight and political heft of a couple of the other nominees and might not stand out as much and it isn’t comedic like two of the other choices, but voters looking for a nice Goldilocks balance might go for it.

 

Silent Nights

The second film presented gets a lot more serious as it, like a number of the films in the various specialized categories this year, focuses on matters of immigration in Europe.  It’s called “Silent Nights” and hails from Denmark and was directed by the (awesomely named) Aske Bang.  The film follows a Ghanaian man named Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) who has been living on the streets of Copenhagen and meets a young and slightly naïve homeless shelter worker named Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen).   Of the five films this one is probably the most densely packed and feels most like a condensed feature film, but not necessarily in a bad way.  Where it falters is that it does not really examine these issues of immigration with a whole lot of subtlety and feels more like the work of someone who’s learned about the struggles facing immigrants from reading the newspaper than from someone who really knows what that life is like.  Every time that Kwame faces racism it comes in the form of either nationalist thugs on the verge of committing full on hate crimes or old people willing to drop full on racial slurs and the film never really examines the less obvious and more institutional forms of prejudice that are likely the more pressing threats that he’s likely to face.  Beyond that there’s kind of just a feeling to it of a young director who’s working a little too hard to try to make certain things feel “gritty.”  On the bright side I found the acting here to be quite good and the relationship between Kwame and Inger felt a lot more natural than it could have.

My Grade: B-

Its Oscar Chances: I’d say it has a legit shot.  Its density could work to its benefit as it plays more like a complete film than some of the other nominees and the fact that it deals with serious issues will help it, especially considering that it does so with more uplift and hope than the other “serious” nominee this year. Also, if you look behind the curtain you learn that the film’s producer/co-nominee Kim Magnusson actually has a pretty long history in this category having been nominated five times in the past and won twice.

 

Timecode

It’s not hard to see why “Timecode” was programed as the middle movie in this block.  It effectively provides a respite between the two “heavy” shorts and it also wouldn’t exactly be the appropriate short to either get the ball rolling on things or send people out of the theater.  At fifteen minutes it’s about half the length of the other four shorts and it’s also the least dialogue driven and most overtly comedic even if it isn’t necessarily going for laughs per se.  Made in Spain by a guy named Juanjo Giménez, the film is about a pair of bored security guards in commercial parking ramp who find a way to pass the time by passing security cam time codes to one another where they’re dancing on camera.  Of the five films here this is the one I had pegged more than the others of being a film by a hotshot out of film school trying to show off his skills behind the camera.  Researching after the fact this proved to not be true.  Juanjo Giménez appears to actually be quite a bit older than his competitors being a man in his fifties who appears to have been working as a producer going back to the 90s. Timecode is very much a light hearted formal exercise that almost could have been made as a silent film if the people involved had been so inclined.  I’m not sure the payoff lands quite as well as the filmmakers thought it would but it it’s a fun little film just the same.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: While a number of these films have won various festival awards Timecode is the only one that can say that it won the Short Film Palme d’Or and much like the films that win the feature Palm d’Or it brags about this in a title card in front of the film.  The film’s other big asset is that it stands out from the other four in its brevity and its entertainment value.  If the people inclined to vote longer and more serious fare split their votes between the other four nominees this one could benefit.

 

Ennemis intérieurs (Enemies Within)

The fourth film here and the second to deal with issues of immigration is “Enemies Within” from the French filmmaker Sélim Azzazi takes the form of a man with Algerian roots doing an interview in order to gain official French citizenship after having lived in France for most of his life.  However, the interview takes a bit of a turn at a certain point and suddenly becomes a lot more hostile than you expect it to.  The whole process does a pretty good job of illustrating how much immigrants are sort of at the mercy of bureaucracies that are not always working in their best interests.  Hassam Ghancy and Najib Oudghiri do a very good job of portraying the interviewee and interviewer respectively and the tension in the scenes between them is quite good.  The positioning of the film as a series of conversations does work well for the short film format and we do come to learn a lot about the guy over the course of the short.  Oddly, the film is actually set in the 90s, possibly to allow for the protagonist to have been born prior to the Algerian revolution, but it certainly looks and feels like a film that’s set today.  I think the movie sort of loses steam a bit as it goes and leads up to an ending that doesn’t have quite the impact it’s supposed to, but it does certainly have a lot going for it just the same.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: This one might be where the smart money is.  It’s got the best odds on Goldderby.com and people looking for weightier and more topical material would probably gravitate towards it, although it along with “Sing” probably have the least showy visual aesthetic and that could hurt it a little.

 

La Femme et le TGV (The Woman and the TGV)

First thing’s first: TGV stands for “Train à Grande Vitesse” which means “High Speed Train” and refers to the bullet trains which go between France and its border countries.  This Swiss short looks in on the life of an eccentric woman who owns a boutique bakery and whose main hobby seems to be timing her day to wave a Swiss flag at TGVs as they pass by her home and depicts what she goes through when she becomes pen pals with the engineer of one of the trains.  It’s apparently based on a real story and they show some documentary footage of the real lady at the end, but it certainly feels pretty fanciful during the film.  The film was directed by a guy named Timo von Gunten, who at twenty seven years old is (I think) the youngest of the directors here but has already been tapped to direct a feature film called “Eifel” about the life of a famous Czech conman named Victor Lustig.  The film also sports the one famous actor of the bunch in the form of Jane Birkin, who plays the titular woman and plays her pretty well.  All that having been said this feels like the lease distinguished of the five films here to me.  Gunten never quite humanizes his protagonist and late in the film where it’s suggested that this experience improves her life it doesn’t quite seem earned.  Beyond that the movie just kind of tries to coast on its own quirkiness but really just kind of collapses under it.

My Grade: C

Its Oscar Chances: This one seems like a bit of a longshot, but maybe that’s my own bias talking.  The presence of Jane Birkin could turn some eybrows and it may also appeal to some of the… young at heart… Academy members that tend to disproportionately vote in these specialty categories.  This isn’t the Documentary Short category and the movies that win are not necessarily the heaviest or the most artistic.  If this gives some voters “feels” that could propel it.

 

Final Thoughts

All in all I found this roster of shorts to be solid but a little underwhelming.  The movies are all pretty solidly in the B- to B+ range and none of them every really jumped out at me as being particularly inspired.  I think my favorite out of the lot might actually be “Sing” simply because it seemed most able to get its story across within the time limitations and with the fewest missteps.  That said, if you’re not obsessing over the Oscars and aren’t that interested in winning an Oscar pool I don’t know that I’d recommend going out of your way to see these really.  Of course the irony to all this is that I’ve kind of come away from this with legitimate arguments for any one of the five winning this thing but as of now (and I reserve the right to change my mind before Oscar night) I’m predicting Silent Nights.

For the record, I’m probably not going to be doing the same for the Animated category.  I’ve already seen two of them and I don’t feel like paying to just see three others, especially given that two of them are only ten minutes each.  As for the documentary short category, if you know where to look four of the five are available for streaming.