December 13, 2011

nickel ride

It’s that festive time of year again, when family ties are maintained through the ritualized exchange of fabrics, wrought plastics and optical discs. This joyous occasion ensures that husband and wife, or parent and child, can contentedly ignore each other until the next wallet-busting holiday. I am here to ensure the smooth operation of this essential human activity, providing an idiosyncratic list of new DVDs and Blu-Rays that, if wrapped in glossy paper, will blind your favored loved one to your significant shortcomings. To prove my goodwill, my wife and fellow writer Andrea Janes will close out the list with her thoughts on a movie I asked her to watch, as a distraction from my lax grooming habits. Seasons Greetings!

The Nickel Ride (1975, DVD)

Released today on DVD from the canny studio library raiders at Shout! Factory (in a set with John Frankenheimer’s dire 99 and 44/100% Dead), this gorgeously elegiac gangster film should be exhibit #1 when making an over-enthusiastic case for the work of director Robert Mulligan. Remembered mainly for his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), he was an elegant craftsman who could completely inhabit a character’s point-of-view. In Mockingbird and The Man in the Moon (1991) he restricts it to children through low-angles and gliding, youthfully quick tracking shots. In Nickel Ride Mulligan depicts the decaying mental state of an aging paranoiac through cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s palette of rotting browns, and lead actor Jason Miller’s remarkable ability to deflate himself into the posture of a crumpled paper bag. Miller plays Coop, a low-level fixer for the Los Angeles mob who is getting pushed out of his position by a young, sweetly psychotic Southerner (Bo Hopkins, channeling Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy). One of Eric Roth’s (Forrest Gump) earliest scripts, it is also his most effective, a film about the cruelty of time’s passing and the crueler tricks of an addled mind.


Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

For the 70th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombings, 20th Century Fox released a handsome Blu-Ray edition of this sober, ambitious docu-drama of Dec. 7th, 1941. Darryl Zanuck was eager to recreate the box-office bonanza of The Longest Day (1962), and takes that film’s gimmick of telling the historical event from different points of view, and with entirely different crews, an idea which Clint Eastwood adopted for his WWII diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. In this case, Richard Fleischer was tasked to direct the American side, and Akira Kurosawa the Japanese (Joseph McBride notes that John Ford was eager to take on the project, but was never considered for it). Kurosawa dropped out early in the production, after endless disputes with American production supervisors. Fleischer, in his autobiography, writes that Kurosawa, “felt this was a gross intrusion and an insult to national honor.” He was used to total artistic freedom, and that wasn’t the Hollywood way. Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) took over. Fleischer claims the only scene in the film shot by Kurosawa was one of the American ambassador in the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, and “it is the worst scene in the picture.” The film was hugely expensive to make, and was a massive failure at the box office. Part of the problem was that The Longest Day dramatized a victory, and Tora! Tora! Tora! an ignominious defeat, hardly an audience grabber. As a film, it is fascinatingly dry, a top-down version of history, in which gray-suited men sit in mahogany chairs and make history. Massive amounts of research went into the film, with Dr. Gordon Prang, appointed by General Douglas MacArthur as the official historian of the Pacific War, hoarding material at the University of Maryland. Fleischer, Masuda and Fukasaku create some pleasing diagonals out of the lines of secretaries, functionaries and soldiers, but for the most part the film plays as a luxuriously illustrated lecture.


Rapture (1965)

John Guillermin is not a director whose work I had sought out, although The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960) lingers in the memory as a bracingly cold-hearted and fleet-of-foot heist film. (In)famous for the cheap thrills of The Towering Inferno (1974) and the King Kong remake (1976), I was totally unprepared for the psychosexual  intensity of Rapture, which Twilight Time has just released in an excellent Blu-Ray, available through Screen Archive. Shot in silvery B&W CinemaScope on location off the coast of Brittany, it’s an easy movie to get lost in. The novel Rapture in my Rags was initially adapted by frequent Fellini collaborator Ennio Flaiano (8 ½), although the final script credit goes to Stanley Mann (Conan the Destroyer). It follows the blighted life of Agnes (Patrica Gozzi), a young girl who lives in a crumbling mansion with her eccentric, haunted father Frederick (Melvyn Douglas) and blowsy blonde maid Karen (frequent Bergman actress Gunnel Lindblom). Frederick is an ex-judge who writes crackpot newsletters in his study, while Agnes’s only wish is to build a scarecrow so she can have a friend to call her own. Agnes’ married sister recommends she be confined to an insane asylum. But after she builds her scarecrow, a soulful escaped prisoner (Dean Stockwell) appears wearing its clothes, and it looks to Agnes like her sexual desires have blossomed violently to life. While it has its narrative lulls and repetitions, this is the rare coming-of-age film that captures the inchoate madness of adolescent lust.


Fright Night (1985)

Recently re-made with Colin Farrell, the original is an amiable bit of Hammer horror nostalgia graced with a delightfully mischievous Roddy McDowall performance. Another lovely Blu-Ray from Twilight Time, it shows high-schooler Charley (William Ragsdale) discovering a vampire-next-door, played with evident self-regard by Chris Sarandon. Ragsdale and his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse from Married, With Children) seek out Peter Vincent (McDowall) for help, an ex-star of Hammer-style gothic vampire flicks who now hosts a late-night horror movie show. Recently fired and facing eviction, Vincent readily accepts Amy’s cash to flush out the would-be demon, which he assumes is Charley’s childish fantasy. When Chris Saradon’s flowing locks and insatiable thirst for blood prove to be all-too-real, the trio has to fight for their lives. The imaginative creature design from the team under visual supervisor Richard Edlund (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters) is refreshingly physical, and an appropriate homage to the menacing effects of the Hammer titles writer/director Tom Holland (Child’s Play) is clearly so enamored with (Christopher Lee is even glimpsed on TV). McDowall is the main reason to see the film though, adding unexpected layers of pathos to this beaten down ham.


Special Capsule review by Andrea Janes:  Night Watch (1973, Warner Archive)

At first Night Watch evokes such circa-70s portmanteau films as Tales from the Crypt, with its Gothic tale of a rich neurotic housewife obsessed with the decaying house behind hers (which she views from a Rear Window-esque vantage point through the back garden). Then the 1973 thriller — stuffed with creepy neighbors, incredulous policemen, remote husbands, and resentful housekeepers — froths into a soapy, pulpy revenge drama. Ellen Wheeler (Elizabeth Taylor) navigates this labyrinth of menace in a haze of cigarette smoke, her trembling hands restlessly rearranging the pieces of the enormous jigsaw puzzle perennially strewn across her parlour table, while the haunting memory of her dead former husband keeps her nerves unstrung and her beautiful cameo face blanched with worry. At long last, though, the smoke clears and, as Ellen says of her jigsaw puzzle, “It’s easy to figure out once you see where all the pieces should be.” A third-act reversal is none the less enjoyable for being somewhat expected, and Taylor hammers it home with good old fashioned bloody delight.


January 19, 2010

stray dog
Akira Kurosawa is a director I’ve long taken for granted. I’ve never bothered to look much farther beyond the recognized classics: Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, Ran. The latter two floored me with their blood-red blood in my image-besotted youth, but I repressed that enthusiasm to make the usual auteurist arguments – belittling Kurosawa in order to praise Ozu, as if it were a zero-sum game. It’s absurd of course, and because of it I’ve missed out on the minor contours of Kurosawa’s career, the mini-masterpieces, curiosities and salvageable disasters that make auteur criticism worthwhile in the first place. His 100th birthday (on March 23rd) has spurred a series of retrospectives and releases that have finally shamed me into exploring more of his career. Film Forum in NYC is holding a massive retro, and Criterion released a 25-disc box-set, AK 100. I have no more excuses, so I sat down for Stray Dog and The Idiot.

Stray Dog, from 1949, is hot. It’s a meltingly humid summer in Tokyo, and everyone is sweating through their clothes and guarding their electric fans with rabid ferocity. The heat is making people quick-tempered, and then Detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has his gun stolen, a Colt. The rookie cop is desperate to recover it before he’s fired. It’s a perfect set-up to explore the various underbellies of Tokyo as handkerchiefs are applied to perspiring foreheads. The film has been compared to Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in its raw depiction of urban life, but Kurosawa’s technique is far more experimental than Dassin’s social-realist gangster film. In the first ten minutes, Kurosawa uses a quick flashback, whip pans, a voice-over about the godforsaken heat, and a close-up montage of legs getting onto a bus. This low-angle shot of Murakami’s lower half will rhyme with the muddy shoes of a murderer, one of the many linkages Kurosawa provides between the two.

As Murakami lurks through the docks, a seedy nightclub, a ballpark, and a gloomy hotel, he discovers that the perp  has been cutting through civilians with his Colt. And also that both men were robbed of their belongings when they returned home from WWII. They are, essentially, the same person, connected through gun and history. Kurosawa is relentless in pairing the two, embroidering patterns around them until they’re inseparable on-screen. Their final battle is staged in a series of symmetrical framings, with the two collapsing to the ground in unison (see top image). It’s the most successful example of this well-worn trope that I can remember (although Eastwood does a decent job of it in Tightrope).

Paired with the oppressive, impeccably art-desgined atmosphere of pore-choked Tokyo, it’s a remarkable film, frank in its eroticism and its violence. The only influence Kurosawa cops to is Georges Simenon, who he modeled the script after, but the scene on the docks and the nightclub struck me as spaces straight out of a Josef Von Sternberg movie, clogged with smoke, pancaked makeup and decorative netting. These are impassable spaces that one can get lost in. Peek at the shot of the nightclub dancers collapsed in the upstairs room, where legs, arms, and heads no longer connect in an abstracted zone of pure eroticism. This shot could be inserted into The Shanghai Gesture and no one would blink.

Amid all of this, Kurosawa maintains his marvelous sense of pacing and tension, cross-cutting between Murakami’s interrogation of the killer’s girl with his boss’ run-in with the thug himself, connecting the two spaces with an incessant pouring rain and a faint radio melody playing over the phone when the deed occurs. Kurosawa then links this musical piece to the final chase, when the music of a lady practicing her piano pipes in over the frenzied showdown, a sound initially coming from nowhere that calls back to the previous scene – adding an uncanny sense of doom to their tussle. The film is loaded with these kinds of linkages, just charting the uses of flowers, guns, and shoes in the film could fill up a master’s thesis.

After Kurosawa broke people’s minds with the complex flashback structure of Rashomon (1950), he undertook what might be his greatest economic and critical failure, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Having read this recently, I was amazed at how closely he hewed to the book, aside from setting the film in contemporary Hokkaido. His Prince Myshkin is named Komeda, played with slow-footed grace by Masayuki Mori, whose experience in the war has left him an “idiot”, unable to tell a lie and as sensitive as a child. He is taken with a photo of Taeku Nasu (a smoldering Setsuko Hara), a kept woman about to be sold off for marriage. Komeda loves her out of pity, while Akama (the great Toshiro Mifune) lusts after her with a white-hot rage. This is the central triangle that radiates out to affect the major families of Hokkaido, all entranced by Komeda’s inhuman ability to empathize with everyone, that is, his kindness.

The respect Kurosawa has for the material is almost stifling, but the depth of feeling is palpable. He has his actors speak in a slow, halting style, wringing every subtlety out of the phrases, while utilizing symmetrical framings, deep focus, and frequent close-ups to register every minute change in their battles for power. The film has a ritualistic feel, akin to the work of Dreyer – he’s aiming for a religious intensity that can come off as stilted, but for me was riveting. But I should note that close-ups of Setsuko Hara have the same effect on me, regardless of the film. But it’s the most intense film I’ve seen from Kurosawa, the most emotionally committed and his only film that attempts to reach the sublime (that I’ve seen). For that alone, it’s a must see, even if you deem it ridiculous.