Branded to Kill

Branded to Kill (1967) movie poster

(1967) dir. Seijun Suzuki
viewed: 10/29/07

Here’s a film that I’ve been meaning to see for 13 years.  Nothing like finally getting around to it.

I first stumbled on Seijun Suzuki when I was living in England in 1995.  I’d gotten deeply into Hong Kong cinema in the previous years and had fairly ample access to those films in San Francisco, but in Sheffield, England of the time, they were none too prevalent.  One comic book shop that was in the city centre had both Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill available for purchase as well as Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990),  and Sonatine (1993).  Neither director had I encountered, but was titilated by other Asian gangster films and was lucky enough to find a couple of Kitano Takeshi’s films at a local video shop.  Suzuki ended up having to wait.

In film school back in San Francisco, a professor of mine, highly knowledgeable in Japanese film, laughed a lot about Suzuki’s films and showed some clips of them, so I started to get a sense of what he was all about.  I think at some point I finally rented Tokyo Drifter, but for some reason it hadn’t made the expected impression.  Yeah, I know, it’s all about me so far, right?  Well, it is a “film diary”, not a pure review-oriented site nor anything purely academic (not that I would be accused of the latter).

Branded to Kill is considered to be Suzuki’s masterpiece, his most interesting and bizarre film.  Suzuki worked for a film studio Nikkatsu, churning out what were intended to be B-movie yakuza films, handed down scripts, and simply made to bang out in formulaic style.  Now, as I have mentioned, I haven’t seen the scope of all of Suzuki’s film, but Branded to Kill is about as far from formulaic as one could imagine.  It’s referred to as “avant-garde”, “surreal”, “new wave” and all of those adjectives came to mind throughout the film.  It’s intensely nutty.

With a narrative about a top hit man who, after a botched hit, becomes the target of the #1 hit man in Japan, one might imagine a pretty straight-forward potboiler.  But the film is all over the place, with some more blatant Freudian weirdness with star Joe Shisido lusting for the smell of freshly boiled rice, a femme fatale who opens a conversation with a death wish and turns out to be obsessed with dead birds and butterflies, to a silhuoetted killing in which gun as phallus hits the female right about in that part of her body.

But beyond all that, the film cuts from thing to thing, throwing in bizarro shots and compositions, breaking off narrative in directions that don’t make a lot of sense, toying left and right with anything and everything imaginable.  It’s little wonder that the studio fired him after this film.  It’s even more amazing that they released it as it is.  I was reminded of the way that writer Jim Thompson worked for pulp fiction publishers yet took his style to Modernist heights within the genre.  This is way more out there in some ways, but in others, maybe that is not so inapt a comment.

Tons has been written about Branded to Kill and I don’t know how much more I can offer after my vieweing, but it is a totally amazing film that harkens all kinds of strange things like David Lynch and Jean-Luc Godard and was clearly as avant-garde as anything that would have come out of any studio system at the time.  The film doesn’t merely subvert genre, it does about anything and everything it can with cinema.  It’s a greatly bizarre and challenging film while being totally funny and entertaining, too.  It certainly deserves its noted reputation.

Black Sheep

Black Sheep (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Jonathan King
viewed: 10/26/07

Kudos to Jonathan King and every human being in New Zealand for finally bringing us a horror movie about sheep.  I’ve found livestock frightening many times myself (especially cows), but now here we have it, a movie about blood-thisty mutant sheep running around the beautiful hills of New Zealand’s farmland.  And a were-sheep.  Who knew?  Who knew that we all needed a were-sheep to complete our lives?  Really?  Who?

So almost all that you knew in the trailer: brilliant comic horror concept, but what is the film really going to be like?  Well, nearing the witching eve of Halloween, it was time to pop a movie like this in the DVD player and find out.

Frankly, beyond the concept and the fairly gruesome gore, the film has a multitude of weaknesses.  The characters are all stock, so stock in the case of the tree-hugging anti-vivisectionist hippies, it’s so lame…and the actress is terrible too.  In fact, it’s a moderately high budget affair, perhaps, too slick in places for its own good, that the whole narrative and climax and everything just moves one to outright boredom.  It’s cruelly unimaginitive beyond its original concept.

That said, there is still something to be said about were-sheep.  I don’t know what there is to say, but I feel it is there.   I mean, I feel it.  I just can’t articulate it.  Were-sheep.  We are now a complete culture.

Chopper

Chopper (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Andrew Dominik
viewed: 10/26/07

I’d seen this film on video shelves for several years, but didn’t know much about it from when it came out for some reason.  But, I have been anticipating going to see writer/director Andrew Dominik’s much condemned new film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and on a whim I queued this one up to get a sense of the director.

Chopper is interesting material, all new to me.  Chopper is based semi-roughly on a notorious former criminal, Australia’s Mark Brandon Read, whose notoriety is quite fascinating.  The film depicts his story with large doses based on the real story of his life, based on a series of books that he started writing in the 1990’s as he became a popular cultural figure, not just in Australia but the world.

Chopper himself is played with great spark by Eric Bana, who I’d been wondering for some time why he was pulled in for movies.  Now it’s clear.  He’s tremendously good as the ruthless yet oddly if not psychotically inconsistently idealistic killer, torturer, all around criminal.  He’s a wit, but loopy and dangerous to the max.  He’s true to his comrades, even to some crazy extents.

One of the best scenes in the movie is where his best friends in prison turn on him to try to get in on a contract that has been taken out on him.  They suddenly shank him, which he takes as if they were merely thumping his nose or something, trying to talk out the issues rationally and with no judgment whatsoever.  He is stabbed repeatedly throughout the scene but only shows signs of succumbing at the very end.  It’s played with this turgid black humor that exemplifies the nature of Read’s character.  He’s brighter than most but impossible to gauge.

The film itself is pretty good.  The color tinting done throughout seemed a little overdone, with some rooms all green, many all blue, some yellow or red.  I didn’t try to analyze the scheme.  It just seemed a little more than necessary, and occasionally drew me out of the film.

The violence has some of that post-modern irony that Pulp Fiction (1994), flippant and shocking in the way its played out.  But for the truth and fiction of the real Mark “Chopper” Brandon Read, this is much the point as anything.  A fascination with a ruthlessness that is also tall tale as much as it is meant to display the “reality” of the criminal world.  There is something interesting there, this sense of criminal celebrity, myth and self-mythologizing.  It would tie into his new film in that sense, and so I am still looking forward to seeing it despite its poor reviews.

¡Que Viva Mexico!

¡Que viva México! (1979) movie poster

(1979) dir. Sergei M. Eisenstein, Grigori Aleksandrov
viewed: 10/26/07

This film is an interesting artifact, a partial documentary that wraps itself around a reconstructed, never completed film by Sergei Eisenstein, one of cinema’s earliest masters and theorists.  Even more unusual is that this film was shot in Mexico in 1930-1931 with a convoluted story around its funding, its concept, and the reason that Eisenstein never got to finish the film.  Associated with the writer Upton Sinclair, Charlie Chaplin, Diego Rivera and others, the story of the filmmaking itself would probably make a good movie.  And close companion and co-director, Grigori Aleksandrov,  reconstructed the film from shooting scripts and designs that Eisenstein left behind.  The footage was not returned to the USSR until the late 1970’s.

The movie is a mishmash, segmented into six parts, all disparate, ranging from the many characteristics of Mexico that awed Eisenstein.  One can almost imagine his rapture and the starkness of the landscape and culture to a native Russian in those times.  He drinks up the pyramids and the sculptured faces of Mayan and Aztec gods, compares them to the faces of the native peoples.  He is utterly in love with the “Maguey” cactus and its harvesting for the making of liquor.  The cactuses are as prominent a feature in the film as anything.

Though he delves briefly into colonial trappings like bullfights and the more European upper class boat rides and styles, he aligns himself with the common man in his portraiture and interest.  One segment of the film has the rich land owners in a fight with the poorer folks in something that is almost like a true Western, gun fights and action, oh my!

There are flashes of his classical Formalist compositions, aligning images within the frame in aesthetically pleasing but completely unnatural ways, while much of the time, he drinks the landscape and people’s faces as they are.  But some of those moments, such as in a scene of dancing, when two couples part the screen in separate directions to reveal a small lamb, some of those things are amazing.

But it is the little bits and pieces, not the whole, I would say.  There are many and this film could be interesting to know more about.  Eisenstein himself would be good to know more about.

Ace in the Hole

 

Ace in the Hole (1951) movie poster

(1951) dir. Billy Wilder
viewed: 10/22/07

Ace in the Hole is a film that I’d been interested in seeing for some years.  Recommended by a friend when talking about writer/director Billy Wilder’s best films, I had searched in the days of VHS for naught, and now this film has recently been given the Criterion Collection treatment, and finally, I got a chance to see it.

Wilder was an excellent director but also an excellent writer.  The patter and the dialogue snap and crack and wisecrack with a sharpness that epitomized the time, but are rich and funny.  Kirk Douglas is excellent as the down on his luck smartass big city reporter who gets stuck in Abluqueque, New Mexico at a small town newspaper, waiting to find the story that will make him big again and able to return to the big leagues.  The story that he stumbles on is a man trapped in a cavern in the side of a hill, and he capitalizes on it for his own glory.  He quite literally turns the situation into a circus, not just a media circus, but with ferris wheels and fun rides.

The film’s depiction of the small town in the Southwest of the period is interesting.  It’s rustic down to an almost classic cowboy world, though populated and operated by automobile.  Douglas’s character pulls everyone into his scheme, either directly or indirectly.  And when he hits his moral crisis toward the end of the film, he takes it out on all of them, too.

Ace in the Hole could certainly be analyzed from a number of perspectives, though the main one would be its analysis and criticism of media and media culture.  Comparing the staid and somber character of the Albuquerque newspaper publisher, who’s cross-stitched motto “Tell the Truth” is placed all around their office to the hungry wolves out the exploit and recast “news” to entice the readers or listeners, the film depicts a contrast in integrity, though oddly enough the media monster and radio announcer cast longer shadows than the small town newspaper.  Though Douglas’s character comes to a realization of his crimes, no one is really left to learn from them, the big city newspaper hangs up on him.

It does echo interestingly through the media today, though it has its own quaintness of the 1950’s.  Media and what people are interested in, how they buy into the drama, become voyuers, feed back into the machine of the process without really having true interest in the “real” story, all could be re-made today.  Of course, when the miners were trapped in Wyoming not so long ago, I don’t know that they set up a side show for onlookers, but certainly, the international media turned an everseeing eye onto that tragedy with a non-stop level of coverage.

Wilder is indeed one of the best of Hollywood’s autuers.  I have to remind myself to see more of his films that I haven’t gotten around to yet.

Next

Next (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Lee Tamahori
viewed: 10/20/07

I used to live across the street from Golden Gate Park for a few years, across from the San Francisco County Fair Building, where seemingly at least once a month there would be posting for a “psychic fair”.  And, according to my incredible sense of wit, I would always, always say to whomever I was with: “I knew there was a psychic fair today!”

So, that pretty much sums up my sense of humor.

The few people who know my film diary enough (or simply me talking about the movies I see) know that I was a Nicolas Cage fan from his days in Valley Girl (1983), Birdy (1984), Racing with the Moon (1984), and on into his amazing performance in Raising Arizona (1987).  He was unironically my favorite actor.  But times have changed.  He now makes a lot of films like The Wicker Man (2006) and Ghost Rider (2007), and now, Next, which just looked real silly.

Adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story, as is wont to happen to Dick these days, writer Gary Goldman, among others, takes who knows what and turns it into a sci-fi action film.  In this case, Nicolas Cage plays a guy who can see two minutes into the future, enough to jack the casinos in Vegas and to dodge bullets like Neo in The Matrix (1999), not to mention falling logs and flipping cars, ad nauseum.  And a stolen nuclear device has both the terrorists and the government after him to either help stop a major explosion or to help stop him from stopping a major explosion.  There are plot holes large enough to not need to see two minutes into the future to know that you could drive a Mack truck right through them without hitting anybody.

Interestingly, Cage is still kind of the best thing in the movie.  He adds lots of little characteristics to the character and narrative, as he is well-known for doing, and while some of them are becoming typical, some other elements become the best parts of the film, such as the more comic elements of the movie.

I don’t really care if Nicolas Cage ever makes a great movie or not again.  He makes a lot that I won’t go see, such as World Trade Center (2006) and National Treasure (2004)…(okay, maybe I would see National Treasure even though it looks like an incredibly poor man’s mix of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Da Vinci Code (2006).)  I kinda like his bad movies.

It’s funny.  I’ve gotten on these kicks before, mostly with actresses: Drew Barrymore (back in the 1990’s when she was starting her comeback in movies like Poison Ivy (1992) and Doppelganger (1993) and particularly my personal favorite who I’d still see anything she was in: Natasha Gregson Wagner.  Drew now makes bigger movies, not the camp crap that I enjoyed.  Natasha seems to have dropped out of film to an extent.  So now I’ve got Nicolas Cage making relatively big budget hokum action films with brows significantly lowered to less than half-mast.

We all have our little things, I am sure.

Creep

Creep (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Christopher Smith
viewed: 10/15/07

Not that Severance (2006) was so excellent or anything, but I decided to go ahead and dig up writer/director Christopher Smith’s earlier film, Creep, starring Franka Potente nonetheless.

It’s a horror film set in the London Underground.  Potente plays a girl who is going out to try and shag George Clooney, but ends up locked in a tube station (Charing Cross Rd.) and at the mercy of a mutant serial killer who could easily have found a home in The Descent (2005).  He’s suggested to have been from some childcare facility or testing area down in the catacombs of the London Underground.  It actually reminded me of this film that I watched on the BBC many years ago that was about this enormous underground facility in London that was developed for hiding during either WWII or the Cold War that was never really used.  I have done some research and have not been able to come up with the movie’s title, so my apologies.

Subway stations, particularly abandoned or lost ones, or even just the underground spaces are a subgenre in a sense, a subgenre of setting, if that is enough for a genre.  A hidden world, just beneath our feet.  The metaphors are probably fairly easy to glean so I don’t know that I need to go into them.  I have to say, though, that I am not too afraid of being chopped to bits by an albino, mutant scavenger when I descend into Muni.  My fears are actually more that I’ve missed the last train and been stranded downtown, needing to catch a $20+ cab ride to get home.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. Jun Fukuda
viewed: 10/12/07

Part two of our Godzilla double feature, I selected this film as an alternate because of its popularity among Godzilla buffs.  I was originally introduced to the film via its re-release as Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster, which shows my age, I suppose.  My first Godzilla film in the theater was Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) so I dunno, I thought this one looked pretty good.

It’s the preferable film to the earlier feature of the night, Son of Godzilla (1967).  There’s a lot more weirdness going on, what with the “space men” who turn into gorillas when injured or killed (with a mildly entertaining effect of transition, though a weird and impossible to explain end result in a cheap gorilla mask).  Mechagodzilla is brought by the “space men” but is also the presaged destiny of Okinawan myth, which includes defeat at the hands of Godzilla, who gets pumped up by lightning after an initial defeat, and King Shisa, the dog-lion image of Okinawa.

The Okinawa aspect of the film is interesting.  Perhaps it was a hope for marketing a new monster hero to Okinawa or something or maybe there is something more about Japan and its relationship with Okinawa in general.  But you’ve really got me with the “space men” and their gorilla hands and faces.  Subtext for these films only goes so far.

Mechagodzilla is pretty cool.  He shoots things out of every feature of his anatomy (okay, this is a kids film): fingers, mouth, stomache, eyes…and his head spins around like a giant mechanized Linda Blair, creating a force field.  Godzilla, of course, does get him in the end.  But as far as these films go, this was actually a pretty bloody affair.  Godzilla bleeds a lot and the “space men” bleed black blood quite profusely themselves.

Actually, the funniest statement of the night came from my son after watching the first one, which he didn’t know how he felt about.  He told me toward the end of the first film that he thought that he would enjoy the 2nd one better because, “This one is more violent.”  Little did he know.  Of course, maybe he meant “scary”.  I don’t think he really understands what “violence” means, per se.

That said, my initial inspiration for showing him these films was because he keeps talking about Power Rangers, which I refuse to show him, and somehow I wound up on the topic of how derivative they are…(yeah, I know he doesn’t know what I mean)…anyways…we went to the originals of Japonese guys in rubber suits duking it out in the name of…well,…in the name of Godzilla.

They’ve been talking about it all day, so it’s made a bit of an impact.

Son of Godzilla

Son of Godzilla (1967) movie poster

(1967) dir. Jun Fukuda
viewed: 10/12/07

As another installment of my exposing my kids to the world of cinema (outside of the latest animated fare to hit the big screens) was my first dip into the world of Godzilla, a childhood favorite of mine, but something of moderate obscurity to today’s youth.  My children will be indeed rounded, though how well-rounded, time will only tell.

I’d actually selected this off of Netflix thinking it was actually another film, the one better known as Godzilla’s Revenge (1969), apparently, though it was also aired in the U.S. at times as Minya: The Son of Godzilla, which should explain my confusion with this.  Not that I thought this was particularly the best of the Godzilla films, but with it’s “baby Godzilla” thing, it seemed like a good starting point, especially since the kids don’t follow the regular actors’ part of the narrative all that well anyways.  Despite the fact that this was not exactly the best of Godzilla flicks, it worked pretty well.  And it had this whole nice father-son thing to it too, so it worked on the parenting/bonding front as well.  I hope you know I mean that with some tongue in cheek.

I still appreciate Godzilla.  I do.  But it was quite a shock as a teen to return to the films that I had loved so much as a kid to realize how boring and hokey they were.  Nowadays, I can appreciate the campy hokey-ness of the science fiction, perhaps even appreciate it more in some ways for it, but I have to say that I am no dyed-in-the-wool types of fans who just eat this stuff up.

In this case, we have no major foe, only a giant spider and some giant praying mantises to fight with, and in this one, which I don’t know if I’d seen before, the “son of godzilla” himself doesn’t speak, which is probably a good thing.  My kids were a bit worried about the spider vs. the Godzillas, though I think I knew that things would work out in the end.

The kids were pretty into it, though.  Enough so, that we watched the second part of our Godzilla double feature, which was pretty doggone cool from my perspective.  Next up: Ray Harryhausen!

Bug

Bug (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. William Friedkin
viewed: 10/11/07

I’m not exactly why a film about drugged-out, hyper-paranoid people who think that their bodies are crawling with bugs sounded like something that I would want to queue up exactly.  Maybe it’s all part of the make-up of my character, but the latest film from director William Friedkin (The French Connection (1971) & The Exorcist (1973)) did appeal to me, enough that I had considered seeing it in the theaters and enough that I had it highly queued up.  Starring Ashley Judd, one of the Hollywood actresses that I find intensely attractive physically though I don’t go out of my way to see her films, and having gotten decent reviews, the only thing that really turned me off at all was that this was based on a play and adapted for the screen by the playwright Tracy Letts.

This has nothing to do with Letts.  I have never been a fan of theater really, and I actually have not liked films that have been overly theatrical.  They feel confined and artificial to me, not cinematic.  And it tends to be a problem for me.  It is so here, too.

Actually, I think I could attribute most of my problem with this film to that very thing.  Staged almost entirely in a hotel room, the home to the highly drugged Judd, the shots of the interior feel entirely that of a set, even when we are given the exteriors of the hotel, placed in the middle of a desert off of a lonely road.  Theater is limited by sets, single points of location.  And it limits this film, too, in its ability to deliver reality.

Reality is a big aspect of this film because it is about the unreality of the paranoid schizophrenic and drug addict, who move from cautious oddness and quirks to full-blown psychosis in the span of an hour and forty minutes.  The film reaches crescendo too quickly for my liking, too.  Why Judd would suddenly take on the shared psychosis in this short period of time unless she showed some of it more early on is also difficult to take.  And the drama, the climax, also in a sense has a predictability to it too.

Strangely, this criticism arises in me more, the more I think about it.  Part of the film pulled me in initially, the paranoias and tics, the worrisome tensions built on unreliable characters.  The difference in this is that the audience is wondering (only to an extent) if these people are crazy, whereas these things sometimes work better when you aren’t sure if they are or they aren’t.  The only part of the film that plays into that is the visit of the crack-smoking psychiatrist towards the end.  He’s almost like something out of the X-Files.

I don’t know.  It did make me feel a bit itchy.  And there were aspects of potential, where you weren’t sure where things were going to go.  But in the end it’s pretty frickin’ silly.