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.

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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.

Crash Course: Misguided Horror Sequels

For Halloween I decided I wanted to do a special horror movie crash course, but rather than seek out movies that are like, good, this seemed like a decent opportunity to indulge in some crap that I’m perversely curious about.  Even more than most genres horror movies seem to be astonishingly sequel prone.  Hell, outside of the occasional Stephen King adaptation I can hardly think of a moderately successful horror movie in the last forty or fifty years that hasn’t been wrung dry by multiple sequels and/or remakes.  Even horror movies that didn’t seem to do that great in the first place somehow end up with numerous direct to video sequels.  What I intend to look at here are the sequels that seem particularly egregious either because they were sequels to movies that seem like should be above such treatment or they seem like movies that really left very little room for the story to continue.

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

MHSExorcistIIIf ever there was a horror movie that probably never should have been revisited it was probably The Exorcist both because it was an Oscar nominated classic and also because its ending was very specifically supposed to have this aura of ambiguity.  However, the fact remains that the movie was a huge box office hit and the franchise was a potential source of revenue that was not going to go untapped even if William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty wanted nothing to do with it.  To their credit, they didn’t just rush out a cheap sequel; they brought in John Boorman, a director who was pretty close to being on William Friedkin’s level and also managed to hire Richard Burton to star and Ennio Morricone to compose the score and also brought back Linda Blair and Max Von Sydow to reprise their roles (the later in a couple of flashbacks).  Someone really wanted this to be a worthy follow-up, unfortunately they really had no idea where to steer the story and the resulting movie is both kind of insane and also rather boring.

The movie starts off somewhat promisingly with a moderately interesting scene where Burton uses a hypnosis device to get into Regan’s head and watch a sort of flashback to the first movie that’s shot in an interesting way.  From there though the whole thing just gets really weird and the rules of demonic possession get increasingly confused.  The mere fact that the demon Pazuzu (whose name is said out loud a lot in the movie) is still buried somewhere deep down in Regan kind of contradicts the ending of the original movie and seems to suggest that Father Karras’ death was in vain.  Then there’s the finale which involves doppelgangers coming out of nowhere, magical car accidents, and a whole lot of locusts for some reason.  I guess the movie’s biggest sin though is that it seems bizarrely unconcerned with being scary at all and spends more time trying to tell Father Merrin’s backstory than build actual suspense.  I’ve heard that The Exorcist 3, which was made by William Peter Blatty and ignores this movie, is actually pretty decent so maybe the very concept of making a sequel to The Exorcist wasn’t completely DOA from the get go, but this movie certainly does it wrong.

Psycho II (1983)

MHSPsychoIIPsycho II is a little different from the other misguided horror sequels I’m looking at this month, in part because it didn’t come out hot on the heels of the success of its predecessor and in part because the movie it was following up was already seen as stone cold classic by a titan of filmmaking when someone dared to continue the story of Norman Bates.  Made about 23 years after the Hitchcock classic and directed by a guy named Richard Franklin (who had earlier directed the Quentin Tarantino approved Ozploitation film Patrick) and seemed to be an attempt to use the newly popular language of the slasher horror film to revisit the film that some would say helped to invent that genre.  This version was of course in color and had more graphic violence and nudity, but the film did maintain some ties to the original, namely that it was shot on some of the same sets (the Bates house apparently still sits on the Universal lot to this day) and most importantly the producers were able to get Anthony Perkins to reprise his most iconic role.

From the outside everything about this project seemed to be a rather ridiculous cash grab, but I will say the actual movie does feel a little more respectful than I expected.  The recreated sets are cool to see and the actual murder scenes are fairly inventive at times and do maintain a sort of Hitchcockian ingenuity at times.  However, where the original film is in many ways timeless the sequel feels very much like a product of its time, especially when it comes to most of the supporting performances.  The bigger problem though is the script.  The story here is that Bates has been released from the psychiatric institution after twenty years and has returned to his original home/motel (which is kind of ridiculous given that this home would be all kinds of triggering) only to see people suddenly getting murdered and the movie plays with the question of whether Bates has returned to his murderous ways or if he’s being gaslighted by someone else.  I’ll give the filmmakers credit for actually coming up with a new story rather than simply doing a retread of the first film, but what they’ve given us is rather convoluted and messy.  Still, I must say, if you’re going to make a sequel to Psycho you can probably do a whole lot worse than this.  Maybe it’s ridiculously low expectations at work but the mere fact that this is a fairly watchable movie that more or less works seems like quite the achievement given everything working against it.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

MHSPoltergeistIIThe original Poltergeist is one of those movies that was a pretty big hit from the get-go but which has only become bigger and bigger in the years since, especially now that it is clearly one of the top five movies that influenced Super 8 and “Stranger Things.”  Its sequels on the other hand… are movies that a sizable number of the original film’s fans might not even know exist.  Poltergeist II actually made decent money when it came out, or at least it made back double its budget and was considered successful enough to warrant a second sequel but I feel like very few people remember or care about this movie.  While the movie has close to double the budget of its predecessor it definitely has the feel of a cash in.  Most of the cast has returned with the obvious exception of Dominique Dunne (who had already become the first victim of the supposed “Poltergeist Curse”) but the talent behind the camera was much different.  The original Poltergeist was very much the product of the collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper (despite the many efforts to deemphasize the contributions of the latter) and it’s that tension between family movie uplift and hardcore horror that made it so special.

For the sequel neither Spielberg not Hooper have credits either as directors or as producers.  In their place is some guy named Brian Gibson.  If you’ve never heard of that guy it’s because you have little reason to.  He directed What’s Love Got to Do With It and about a half dozen other movies that no one cares about and as far as I can tell none of them are horror movies and none of them have very high production values.  You can tell the drop in talent because this sequel clearly seems to know the elements that people liked in the original but has none of the skill and rhythm necessary to make those elements work.  The family has managed to become a whole lot less interesting this time around, in part because their character arcs were all resolved in the last movie and they had nowhere to go.  There are two new characters (played by people who would be victims two and three of the supposed Poltergeist curse) who at least seem promising at first but are both kind of wasted as the film goes on.  One is a creepy reverend guy who sort disappears half way through and the other is a Native American shaman and the depiction of him is… I’m not going to use the “R” word and I’m not even going to drop “problematic” because I do think everyone involved had good intentions but there’s definitely some “noble savage” stuff going on and the whole thing just seems inaccurate and weird.  Then of course there’s the finale which consists of some very bad green screen effects and really an abundance of bad visual effects combined with no grasp of tone or atmosphere can be blamed for a lot of what makes the whole movie decidedly not scary.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

MHSTExasChainsaw2Out of all the movies I’m looking at for this series The Texas Chainsaw Massacre probably makes the most sense as a film to make a sequel of given that it was essentially a slasher film (the horror sub-genre most prone to sequels) and also because the original film ended with its iconic killer alive and well and ready to cause more chaos.  What’s more this is the one sequel I’m looking at which has the privilege of having been made by the original film’s director: Tobe Hooper.  And yet, this still seems like a rather crazy film to be making a good decade after the fact, in part because that original film seemed to almost be a happy accident born of a production so cheap that it almost had to have a certain gonzo realism to it.  It’s the kind of thing you just can’t recreate.  Tobe Hooper seemed to understand this as well, so in many ways he actually didn’t try to make another film like the original and instead went in something of a different direction.  Where the original film was grim the sequel is darkly comedic, where the original was made on a shoestring the sequel is actually a decent sized production (as these things go), and where the original film wasn’t nearly as gory as its title would imply, this sequel is a total gorefest that needed to be released unrated when it came out in 1986.

The film picks up some time after the ending of the original movie with the cannibalistic family from the first movie having escaped police investigation and having relocated elsewhere.  The heroine of the first movie is nowhere to be seen and in her place we follow a radio DJ who has gotten involved in one of their murders and become a target of their wrath.  One of the major ways in which this sequel differ from the original is that it has a movie star in it in the form of one Dennis Hopper as a former Texas Ranger hunting down the cannibals and he seems even more unhinged than usual.  1986 was a big year for Hopper, it saw him earn an Oscar nomination for Hoosiers and earn a lot of cinematic street cred for his prominent appearance in Blue Velvet, and this performance is somehow even bigger and crazier than his work in that movie.  The film also features Bill Mosley playing a character not unlike the hitchhiker from the first movie via a performance that almost certainly inspired the general tone and attitude of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, in fact this movie may well have had more of an influence on Zombie than the original.  Whether or not you consider this movie to be “good” will probably depend in what you’re looking for in it.  If you want a credible horror film likely to actually scare anyone, maybe stick with the original, the sequel by contrast is meant to be this insane romp filled with ridiculous images and ideas and for what it is it’s actually pretty well made.  Put it this is a movie that has Dennis Hopper pulling out a chainsaw and using it to fight Leatherface as if the two are swordfighting with chainsaws, then lodges said chainsaw in Leatherface’s stomach and pulls out two smaller chainsaws which he proceeds to dual wield… if that sentence sounds appealing to you give this movie a watch… possibly while a little drunk.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

MHSBlairWitch2This deservedly ignored and forgotten sequel to The Blair Witch Project was made over a decade after all the other “misguided horror sequels” I’m looking at for this series, which probably reflects how devoid the 90s were of horror movies that were special enough to seem like they shouldn’t be crassly exploited.  It is of course a uniquely insane movie for someone to try to make a sequel to given how minimalist and unique the first film was: to try to make something bigger and better would go against everything that made the first film work.  Original directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were reluctant to rush out a sequel, so Artisan Entertainment instead hired Joe Berlinger a documentarian best known at the time for the “Paradise Lost” films, which is an interesting choice except that this sequel completely eschews the mockumentary style of the original film.  Instead the filmmakers here have decided to take a rather meta approach.   In the reality of the events of the original film did not happen and The Blair Witch Project exists as the fictional movie that it was and the film deals with a group of fans of the film who travel out to the woods where it was filmed when weird stuff starts happening to them.

I had held out some hope that this sequel would have been some sort of misunderstood gem that was unfairly criticized for trying to do something different… but no, this really is a debacle.  If I squint hard enough I can maybe envision a scenario in which the basic premise of this movie could work, but it’s clear that in the studio’s rush to get the movie out before the buzz around the original wore off they did not give it anywhere near enough time to cook and we’re left with a rather muddled movie.  Beyond that, this is just poorly made in all the usual ways that half-assed horror movies are bad.  The movie has approximately 250 times the budget of the original movie and yet still looks incredibly cheap and unlike the first movie it doesn’t have a good reason to look cheap.  It’s also got an incredibly unlikable cast of stock horror victims played by a bunch of nobodies who give generally terrible performances.  Honestly I’m shocked that this thing even got a theatrical release.  Everything about it screams “direct-to-video” and the whole thing suggests that Artisan Entertainment (who reportedly took the film away from Berlinger and made it worse than it probably would have been) had no idea what made the original thing such a special phenomenon.

0.5

Crash Course: A Ken Loach Survey

KLCover

One of the most prolific and long lasting forces in British cinema has been Ken Loach and yet there’s something about his work that seems oddly… avoidable.  The dude manages to show up at the Cannes Film Festival with every single one of his films and manages to get reviews that are respectful yet also kind of board, as if he’s been coasting largely on reputation for a while, but it doesn’t really seem like a case of diminishing returns either because his older films also kind of seem to blend together in the popular consciousness.  If I were to compare his reputation to a musician it would probably be to someone like Nick Cave or Spoon who consistently put out strong work and have their fans while never really having that classic album or hit single that stands out and makes people gravitate towards it.  Personally, the only Ken Loach films I’d seen were 1970’s Kes, which is probably his one film that stands out as his most famous, and 2007’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley for which he won his first Palme d’Or.  The former movie didn’t really live up to its reputation for me, but I quite liked The Wind That Shakes the Barley.  Given that Loach has just won his second Palme for the upcoming I, Daniel Blake and that there’s a new documentary about his work coming out I think the time is right to finally brush up on the guy’s work.  It should be noted that because his movies tent to not really come in peaks and valleys it’s kind of hard to pick out which of his films are the most essential viewing and I’m also kind of hampered by the selection of films that’s available through Netflix and similar sources but I’ve tried to come up with films that are representative of various eras in his career.

Cathy Come Home (1966)

KLCathyComeHomeKen Loach began his career in television where he worked on a celebrated TV series in the 60s called “The Wednesday Play,” which was a sort of anthology series of self-contained teleplays which usually focused on various social issues.  His true breakthrough was with an episode of the series, essentially a short TV-movie, called Cathy Come Home which was a huge phenomenon when it broadcast in 1966.  This broadcast was so widely seen that it was estimated that a quarter of the UK population watched it and it would eventually led to debate on the floor of Parliament.  Now normally in these kinds of articles and writings I disqualify TV-films on principal but this one seems to really be punching above its weight class.  The film is about 75 minutes long, which is on the lower end of what could be called a feature film and is a lot more ambitious and better produced than “60s English teleplay” would leave you to believe.  Ignore the “Wednesday Play” moniker of the series because this is clearly shot on location and doesn’t feel stagey at all and even uses some fairly innovative documentary style handheld photography and gritty 16mm photography.  The topic of the film was homelessness, but not really the kind of homelessness you usually think of.  No one in this movie is living under a bridge or anything like that and there’s no drug addiction or mental illness involved.  Rather this is about how a middle class family find themselves in a bad financial situation after the man of the house is injured in a work accident and they fall behind on the rent and end up evicted.  From there the family, specifically the mother Cathy, finds themselves drifting from one temporary housing situation to the next.  This was all exasperated by a general housing crisis that was occurring at the time in Britain and the film focused in on the variety of ways that the system and the public failed this couple.

Ken Loach was of course a committed socialist who mostly made social realist movies with openly activist intentions.  With this one he is very clearly trying to both point out flaws in the system while also creating characters that the average audience member can both relate to and sympathize with.  On both of these fronts the film is definitely a success.  It’s style is also really above and beyond what you’d expect given the film’s origins.  Clearly this has its origins in the British “Kitchen Sink/Angry Young Men” movement but the addition of the handheld semi-documentary style made it distinct from something like Look Back in Anger or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  The one place where the film’s TV origins probably did hurt it was in the limited running time.  In many ways the film feels a bit rushed with the characters making pretty big life adjustments over the course of some rather short scenes.  At times the film goes so far as to add voiceover to the scene transitions just to save that extra little bit of time.  An extra half hour of film time really would have given the movie time to breath but there probably are advantages to its brevity and fast pace as well.  The only other thing I might object to, and I’ve heard this can generally be a problem with Loach’s cinema, is that he kind of makes certain bureaucrats into the face of everything wrong with the system as if they’re the ones making the rules and underfunding these programs.  Granted this is probably true to how his characters are seeing things but if you’re going to shoot, aim for the politicians in charge not the middle management people just trying to do their job.  Aside from that though this is a pretty big win and I can totally see why this would have felt downright revolutionary if it were broadcast on television in the 60s.

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Looks and Smiles (1981)

KLLooksandSmilesGiven his age and his prolific output I always assumed that Ken Loach would have put out a ton of movies during the 70s and 80s, especially given the economic troubles for the UK during the former decade and the Thatcherism that was taking over in the later decade, but that isn’t the case at all.   I don’t know all the details but apparently he had a lot of trouble getting funding during this era in spite of the success of Kes and ended up focusing a lot of his attention to TV documentaries.  As such the guy was only able to make four feature length scripted movies between 1970 and 1989 and few of them are seen as among his best.  Looks and Smiles is one of those movies and had it not been one of the only options from this era that was available I probably wouldn’t have picked it for this retrospective but them’s the breaks.  This a small film that was shot in black and white, probably for financial rather than artistic reasons, and basically just follows a young man from a working class family as he deals with trying to find a job in a bad economy while also dealing with the usual problems that 20-somethings have to deal with.  The film isn’t trying to trace out the roots of all this guy’s problems the way that Cathy Come Home did and it isn’t pleading for change in the same way either.  This is trying for a bit of a softer sell.  It wants to simply give the “posh” audience more of an idea what the working class lives like and create a little bit of empathy along the way.  There’s a reason why this movie isn’t particularly remembered today or widely cited within Loach’s career, there’s nothing wildly wrong about it but nothing about it that really stands out and makes it memorable.

Hidden Agenda (1990)

KLHiddenAgendaHidden Agenda was essentially Ken Loach’s comeback film and while it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster it did seem to successfully relaunch his career and start him on the track of making a new film seemingly every other year at least.  Interestingly this is not necessarily a particularly representative example of Loach’s filmmaking as it is in some ways the closest that he’s ever gotten to selling out.  Obviously Loach was never going to sacrifice his principals and this movie is indeed just as fearlessly political as anything else he’s done but in some ways this was Loach’s one attempt (that I know of) to make his work a bit more appealing to Hollywood.  Whereas many Loach films either feature non-actors or extremely obscure ones, this one is populated by known names like Brian Cox, Frances McDormand, and Brad Dourif.  More notable however is that the film incorporates thriller elements into its narrative.  Now to be clear, it isn’t like this is a movie with car chases or explosions and largely consists of conversations, but compared to the working class slice of life narratives we’re used to seeing from him it practically feels like a Bourne movie.

The film follows a British investigator who has been tasked with investigating the murder of an American human rights lawyer who was murdered while investigating human rights violations by British officials during “the troubles.”  The investigator soon determines that both were killed by British cops but must also uncover how far up the ladder this goes and what the conspiracy entails.  With The Wind That Shakes the Barley Ken Loach would eventually examine the historical roots of the IRA and did it by focusing on the people it affected.  I suspect that’s the way he would have preferred to examine the struggle here but instead he takes more of a top down approach by making a sort of thriller about outsiders investigating the conflict.  As a movie that does that, this is pretty good just the same.  The movie seems to be modeled after other “righteously searching for the truth” movies like Z and Missing and Brian Cox is certainly effective as a determined investigator and some of the scenes where he’s arguing with people involved with the conspiracy.  However, the case at the film’s center is not wildy interesting and the conspiracy it uncovers seems to level some oddly specific accusations at the Thatcher government for a film that doesn’t claim to be “based on a true story.”  Also the ending is awkwardly abrupt.  Loach is clearly out of his comfort zone here but he does a pretty admirable job of delivering a decent move all the same and if this is what he had to do to get back in the good graces of the financers there are certainly less dignified ways he could have done it.

Raining Stones (1993)

KLRainingStonesKen Loach’s follow-up to Hidden Agenda is a very well regarded 1991 film called Riff Raff (not available through Netflix) and his next film was this lower key work called Raining Stones which I wanted to see in order to get a more representative example of his work in the 90s.  Like Looks and Smiles this is more of a slice of life “soft sell” that’s trying to create empathy for the working class rather than throw bombs at the causes of oppression but there’s more of a story arc this time around.  This one is about a catholic man who feels a great deal of pressure to buy an expensive First Communion dress for his daughter.  Unable to find the funds through conventional means he makes a series of unfortunate decisions which end up with him in debt to a brutal loan shark who ends up being a much bigger strain on the family than their initial predicament.  A bit like Cathy Come Home this is a movie about how quickly things can go wrong for families that aren’t terribly well off and how much of a burden a single “splurge” can be for them.  It took a while for me to warm up to this one in part because the characters don’t immediately strike fascination and also the productions values have clearly gone down a bit (which is exasperated by a rather poor DVD presentation) but once the loan shark enters into the picture and the stakes become more tangible the movie does begin to pick up.  It’s not exactly a standalone classic but it does seem to be a logical entry into Loach’s larger body of work.

Sweet Sixteen (2002)

KLSweetSixteenOne thing I’ve noticed while looking at this sample of Ken Loach’s filmography is that he doesn’t confine himself to any one section of the British Isles.  Just in this one sample we’ve seen London, Sheffield, North Ireland, Greater Manchester, and this film brings us to Scotland.  Our subject is a troubled 15 year old boy who, were he living in the United States, would likely be labeled as “white trash.”  His mother is in jail, her boyfriend appears to be a petty criminal, he doesn’t seem to be in school, and he and his friends have taken to selling untaxed cigarettes in order to make money.  The film depicts this young man going deeper into crime as he attempts to save up money to buy a home the he and his mother can move into when she’s released from prison.  It probably doesn’t take a lot of close analysis to realize that Ken Loach and Brian De Palma are not very similar in style and sensibility but comparing the rise of this kid with the rise of Scarface would still be amusing.  Any romance one could potentially see in using crime as a means of rising above one’s means is gone here in place of a more realistic and kind of pathetic portrait of what it’s like to be forced into crime.  Loach’s style is once again minimalistic and it’s interesting how little his visual eye seems to change over the years.  This was made almost a decade after Raining Stone and yet you wouldn’t really know that if not for a few soundtrack choices, which (taken with the rest of Loach’s filmography) maybe says something about how slowly things change.

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Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

Jimmy's Hall_OnesheetFINAL4915.inddKen Loach’s 2014 effort Jimmy’s Hall was rumored to be his final film when it came out (a rumor that proved to be rather false) and given that it was often interpreted to be the work of someone who wanted to go out on a slightly more optimistic note than what we frequently see from him.  The film is set in Ireland in 1932 and could be seen a s spiritual sequel of sorts to his Palme d’Or winning 2007 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley in that it deals with the aftermath of the civil war that was seen in that previous film.  The film focuses in on this small Irish town where a local hero of sorts named Jimmy Gralton has returned after spending some time in New York and is welcomed back by much of the community.  Soon he begins erecting a building that becomes a dancehall and gathering place for the locals, much to the disgust of the local priest who views Gralton as a socialist and a troublemaker and sees this dancehall as a threat to his authority.  As this is a period piece you’ll notice a clear improvement in production values over some of the other Ken Loach movies and this also has less of a “slice of life” feel.  The story is largely about just how hard it is for leftist speakers to even get the slightest foothold and how hard it is to go up against the powers that be even when you’re not even trying to threaten them.  The film is based on a true story and doesn’t necessarily look at its central figure with a whole lot of nuance.  Throughout the film Jimmy is seen as a total mensch and his dancehall as a grandly beneficial project for the people of this town and the priest is a total uptight asshole (very different from the priest in Raining Stone) and that simplicity does kind of keep the movie from greatness, but there is a definite charm to the proceedings just the same.  If this had indeed been Loach’s final movie it wouldn’t have necessarily been an unworthy one, but it also certainly wouldn’t have been his best.

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So, I’ve now seen 400% more Ken Loach movies than I had when I started this little project and yet I still don’t feel like I’ve gone all that deep into the guy’s body of work; this one truly felt like an introductory survey.  Still, I think I do have a slightly better grasp of his career trajectory and his usual style.  It is weird that the best of the movies I watched here is probably the TV film that first made him famous and it is notable that, while I gave none of the movies failing grades, none of them really excelled either.  But the actual grades might be a bit misleading.  As I suspected when I first went into this, Ken Loach is indeed someone who is perhaps more notable as a filmmaker when you look at the complete body of work than he necessarily is when looking at individual films.  This isn’t ideal but it isn’t a deal breaker either.   I definitely look forward to seeing I, Daniel Blake, which sounds like it might be one of his best yet if the Cannes awards are any indication and I might just do a second crash course in his work someday, especially if some of his other notable films become more readily available.