Los Olvidados (1950)

Los Olvidados (1950) movie poster

director Luis Buñuel
viewed: 01/15/2018

“The price of beans goes up, so does the price of songs.”

The lives of the street kids in Mexico City circa 1950 is the subject of Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados. They hustle and steal to survive, abandoned to the streets by parents who can’t or don’t want to care for them. The prologue narration makes it clear that this isn’t just a Mexico City reality, but one that can be found in any major city in the world, including New York and Paris.

And though the settings are the present day of the time, Los Olvidados is as relevant today, nearly 70 years later as when Buñuel made the film.

Buñuel strikes a tone that is unsentimental but still empathetic, depicting harsh brutalities and bitter ironies. Alongside some well-intentioned hopes. The ending is as bleak and ironic as any I can imagine, so much so, it’s nearly comic.

Los Olvidados had been on my watchlist for decades. Way too long. It’s a film I’ll be long mulling over.

M (1951)

M (1951) movie poster

director Joseph Losey
viewed: 01/14/2018

A re-make of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) may have been a daunting task, even a misguided one.  Joseph Losey not only makes it work, he makes it worthwhile. In fact, he makes an excellent film noir.

Some serious credit has to go to cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and the amazing locations utilized around Los Angeles, most notably the since demolished Bunker Hill neighborhood and the still standing Bradbury Building. And the amazing cast of character actors jammed into this thing. There are a couple of notable names, but all those faces and personalities that make up the City of Angels’ mobs.

In a sense, it doesn’t seem to deserve to be as good as it is, derivative from one of cinema’s classics. But seen on its own terms, an LA film noir, tight and vivid, it’s a seriously fine film.

Stir of Echoes (1999)

Stir of Echoes (1999) movie poster

director  David Koepp
viewed: 01/14/2018

I didn’t have the fondest recall of 1999’s Stir of Echoes, but having just read the book, I thought it might be worth a re-visit.

Richard Matheson might not have been a great novelist, but he was certainly one of the cool horror-sci-fi idea men of his generation  and lots of great stuff emanated from his work. I became keened in on him through TV’s The Twilight Zone, and I still hold him in esteem.

Unsurprisingly, the book is better than the film. Not that the film is bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. The book develops the main character as having developed all kinds of psychic ability as a result of hypnotism, but writer-director David Koepp, probably to try to hone in, focuses the story on the ghost that starts haunting him. That, and adding the psychic powers of his kid, winds up giving Stir of Echoes a poor man’s The Sixth Sense, though that also came out the same year.

Koepp employs some visual effects that I liked: the Hitchcockian flares of red when Kevin Bacon senses something amiss with the babysitter. But the film suffers a bit from some computer-developed effects, like the ghost movement, an effect that hasn’t aged well.

Gandahar (1988)

Gandahar (1988) movie poster

director  René Laloux
viewed: 01/13/2017

Nowhere as fantastic as Fantastic Planet (1973), René Laloux’s 1988 film Gandahar is still something above and outside the norm of animation, fantasy, or science fiction. The English language version was produced by the Weinsteins and features a rather unusual crew of voice talent including Glenn Close, Jennifer Grey, Penn Jillette, Bridget Fonda, David Johansen,  and Christopher Plummer. Apparently, this version, which was adapted by Isaac Asimov, is not quite up to snuff of the French original.

Laloux adapted the story from Jean-Pierre Andrevon’s novel Les Hommes-machines contre Gandahar, and the style of design was led by French artist Caza. It’s still some pretty far-out stuff.

The animation style, though, is more conventional cel animation, so it’s more through the design aesthetics and muted tone through which the strangeness emanates. Actually, there’s a nice Kraftwerk video set to the imagery that fits groovily together.

The peaceful blue peeps of Gandahar are attacked by robot men. This leads their mostly bare-breasted women leaders to send out Sylvain to find out how to defeat them (all this peace has led them to forget to make weapons anymore). Sylvain discovers the mutated brethren of he Gandaharians and eventually this Metamorphis, giant brain thing also developed by Gandaharian technology that seeks to wipe them all out to achieve immortality.

Oh yeah, and the door of time.

If off-beat, trippy science fiction is a groove you can dig, you’ll enjoy Gandahar. Nowhere as radical or satisfying as Fantastic Planet, but well worth the time.

Criminally Insane (1975)

 

Criminally Insane (1975) movie poster

director Nick Millard
viewed: 01/12/2017

More like “Criminally Hungry”.

Criminally Insane is like Repulsion, but made by some bastard child of H.G. Lewis and John Waters. And instead of trauma by sex, it’s trauma not getting enough to eat.

“My heart’s just fine as long as my stomach’s not empty.”

Plus points for San Francisco location.

Amazing.

10 Rillington Place (1971)

10 Rillington Place (1971) movie poster

director Richard Fleischer
viewed: 01/11/2017

Adapted from Ludovic Kennedy’s True Crime book of the same name, 10 Rillington Place strives for a realism and verisimilitude in re-telling the story of serial killer John Christie. A cold, bleak reality and verity it is.

The dialogue is taken, when possible, from court records and other documentary artifacts. Even further, the film is shot largely on location on the very block (though not No. 10 itself) where these killings took place over 20 years earlier.

Richard Attenborough plays Christie, the craven, opportunistic killer, who beyond murdering 7-8 women and an infant, set up his tenant, Timothy Evans (a tremendous and tremendously young John Hurt) to die for the murder of his wife and child in one of England’s most notorious miscarriages of justice.

Richard Fleischer directs this British film with somber naturalism, and the results are as bleak and realistic a portrayal of unrepentant serial criminals as you’ll find in cinema.

The fact that this row of houses have since been torn down and lost to time is as compelling a factor in the choice of shooting the film in location as I can imagine.

Female Prisoner Scorpion: 701’s Grudge Song (1973)

Female Prisoner Scorpion: 701's Grudge Song (1973) movie poster

director
viewed: 01/10/2018

Yasuharu Hasebe picks up the reins where Shunya Itō left off, directing the fourth and final feature of the Meiko Kaji “Scorpion” films. Female Prisoner Scorpion: 701’s Grudge Song is nowhere as good or satisfying. It’s much more conventional than any of Itō’s films.

Kaji escapes the cops and is found hiding out in a strip club lavatory by Teruo Kudo (Masakazu Tamura), a semi-emasculated former student protester.  Is this the first time Nami (Kaji) has needed anyone’s help?

Nami inspires Kudo to help her, though the cops focus in on him as her accomplice. He takes the beatings with masochistic fatalism, but vows revenge. Unfortunately for Nami, and for us, it’s amateur hour for with Kudo. Despite not giving her up to the cops, he leads them back to her hideout and then plans a failed robbery.

Does Nami really like him? She has sex that isn’t rape for once but also doesn’t seem entirely consensual or pleasurable. At the end, she tells him that it was another person that loved him, not her. An insight that isn’t very satisfying.

The Shunya Itō/Meiko Kaji films are amazing. At first I was thinking “Wow, she’s also Lady Snowblood!, these films must have been influenced by those.” Only if so, it would have been the other way around. I also didn’t realize until viewing these that she was also the star of the Stray Cat Rock series, which I’ll have to delve into more deeply. And then at the very end of the whole thing, I finally realized that it’s also Kaji singing the iconic theme song “Urami Bushi”.

I catch up eventually.

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972)

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) movie poster

director Shunya Itō
viewed: 01/08/2017

Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, the second in the original Scorpion film series, finds Nami bound in a dark cell whittling a metal spoon into a shiv with her teeth. From the opening shots, diving down into the depths at where she lies, Shunya Itō strikes a tone of the horror film, a precursor of what is to come.

Jailhouse 41 breaks into a quickly quashed riot and then Nami and six other prisoners are sent to hard labor outside of the prison.  Itō strikes Nami in a somewhat Christ pose, pinioned to a cross, before being raped for humiliation by the ruthless guards at the warden’s order.

Itō takes the film beyond his Bava-esque lighting and manic camera and into more full-on pulp avant-garde. The women escape to an abandoned village where they encounter a ghost-like witch woman, expound upon their crimes, break into Kabuki-like sequences and some seriously far-out set-pieces, ringing throughout of horror and the supernatural.

The women are constantly pursued but eventually hijack a bus of tourists, running ruthlessly riot through the countryside.

This film series, with Itō running things, is just amazing and fascinating. Nami’s world is only fit for a scorpion. The police are corrupt, the wardens and guards are vile, the prisoners themselves rotten and selfish monsters, and even the average tourists are rapists and brutal ex-war criminals. Kayoko Shiraishi is Oba, the most vicious of the prisoners, who prides herself in having murdered her children, ripping one from her womb.

Jailhouse 41 is certainly most radical of the series, fully surreal, theatrical, non-traditional and wildly fun.

 

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (1972)

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (1972) movie poster

director Shunya Itō
viewed: 01/07/2017

I was so gobsmacked watching Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) that I headed for Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion, the first film of Shunya Itō’s trilogy. Weirdly, I couldn’t get subtitles to go on it, but I went ahead with the movie anyways.

More conventionally a “women in prison” movie than Beast Stable, it’s still a hyper-stylized affair with the wildest tilting cameras, dropping 90 degrees, capturing at full width the full height of the image, just sideways. This effect is used to command the space in weird and new ways, not just a tilt for wonky perspective but a whole different approach to the use of the frame. And Itō does it effectively in spades.

It’s the introduction of Meiko Kaji as Nami Matsushima, a.k.a. Scorpion, the taciturn killer lady with “looks that kill”. It’s interesting how the film is structured, opening with a prison break before delving in flashback exactly how Nami got into prison.

This movie is a riot. A prison riot, if you will.

I fell fast for this series and Meiko Kaji and Shunya Itō. Color me enthralled.

Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973)

Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) movie poster

director Shunya Itō
viewed: 01/07/2017

I started Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable, not really knowing what I was in for. But before it was over, I was regretting not having watched the series in order. Also, I think for the first time in ages, I was in love…with a movie.

It’s not that you have to watch the films in order, but director Shunya Itō’s trilogy, pumped out in quick succession is itself a triptych of pulp mania and psychedelic surrealism, each unique on its own.

Beast Stable opens with the gorgeous Meiko Kaji stalked on a subway, escapes by hacking off an arresting officer’s arm and running for it, arm dangling from her handcuffs. She later uses a tombstone to carve through the chain, spotted by a prostitute turning a trick nearby.

The camerawork and cinematography are lurid, alive and vividly inventive, pulsing with Bava-esque colors. Perversity and revenge are everywhere, fulfilled by Nami Matsushima, the Scorpion. Takashi Miike, eat your heart out. This is sublime pulp Grand Guignol pop art.

The soundtrack is also incredible. I was so enraptured, I had to immediately go to the first film, Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion, to see more of what I’d been missing.