Monday, 29 March 2010

A Single Image #1

Peeping Tom (1960 - Michael Powell)

Directory of World Cinema: American Independent - Free download!

The lovely folks at intellect have made available online their latest and soon to be published tome. The Directory of World Cinema: American Independent comes hot on the heels of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan which will be available shortly in physical form. Since I was fortunate enough to have contributed several reviews to the latter of those two books, I'm very happy to see the former one now available too. Jeremy from Moon In The Gutter is one of the contributors this time around and even wrote one of the introductory segments. Most excellent.

It's a satisfying grab bag of different styles under the banner of "independent" and gives a solid overview of a number of films and directors that were equally as influential over the last several decades as any Hollywood name you could mention. Looks like it's well worth pre-ordering a hardcopy version too - I've had my advance copy of the Japan book for awhile and it's a fine package.

The web site has a direct download link to the pdf file of the book.

Sequences Of A Titular Nature #4

Planet 51 (2009 - Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad, Marcos Martínez) - I didn't hold out too many hopes that this animated film would be much more than a reasonably fun popcorn family film, but I got even less than that. It's not downright terrible, but it's really poorly thought out. Characters randomly do things just to further complicate matters and make for more difficult situations while never really doing anything else of interest. There's one or two funny moments and it was enough to keep my 9 year-old somewhat interested, but I expect more from my kids movies - he liked it, but I could tell he didn't love it like "Ponyo", any random Pixar film or even "Gremlins" which he saw recently. However, I really dug these end titles that brought to mind the old 50s/60s sci-fi movie posters. If the film had been able to work more of those elements in while building interesting characters...Well, that would've taken additional effort I suppose.

Kagero-za (1981 - Seijun Suzuki) - I've already written about this confusing, dream-like and, at times, beautiful film by Seijun Suzuki. These are the closing credits.

Peeping Tom (1960 - Michael Powell) - The black and white film clip that runs during the titles is actually the footage of the scene we've just seen pre-titles and in full colour. Our serial-killer/cameraman has just killed his victim (while filming it) and is reviewing his handiwork in his apartment dark room. The almost glowing blue of the titles is overlayed on top of the soundless film (though we are provided a tense driving piano score) while the images flip between being full screen and projected on a smaller screen. The penultimate image in the few captures below is the "climax" of the killing as the cameraman lifts himself out of his chair into her scream. And then Powell follows that up with his own credit over the projector...It's a great, disturbing, creepy and unnerving film that essentially destroyed Powell's career in Britain (it was savaged by critics). Released around the same time as Hitchcock's "Psycho", "Peeping Tom" seemed to be less fantastical and therefore even more troubling for many.

Mo' Better Blues (1990 - Spike Lee) - There's a great deal to like about Spike Lee's two decades old look at a modern day jazz player: the interaction between the members of Bleek's quintet, the matching of the music and stage playing of the actors, the incorporation of Coltrane's music, numerous interesting uses of the camera that evoke character mood and the lovely colour saturated titles below. Unfortunately, there's also a lot that doesn't work so well either: the terrible casting of the two female leads, their actual characters, several almost laughably bad songs (I haven't yet decided if the showcase song near the end for Clarke's vocals is purposely cheesy to highlight Shadow Henderson selling out or if it is unintentionally awful) and an ending that seems to indicate that only fathers can find proper balances for their kids (too broad a statement I know, but I couldn't help getting the impression that the modern day mother needed to be tempered by the father).

Friday, 26 March 2010


"Your lips look delicious. I like festivals. Fireworks excite me."

I love films that play in the surreal - that dream-like space that disorients the viewer and leaves them a bit confused as to what they've just seen. Used effectively, it can evoke mood and subtly impart information by taking advantage of the visual medium in many creative ways. So I looked forward to "Kagero-za", Seijun Suzuki's 1981 middle film of his Taishi Trilogy, since it had been described as quite surreal. That doesn't cover the half of it - it's a downright fever dream.

I make the distinction because the film is more than just dreamlike or slightly disconnected from reality. "Kagero-za" is full-on delusional, doesn't process or provide information in a normal fashion and shouldn't be trusted with sharp objects. Since this isn't a narrative film, those aren't necessarily objections or criticisms. There is actually an underlying story and concept being put across (based on a short story by Kyoka Izumi), but you can't process it linearly. Instead, as with many Suzuki films but even more pronounced here, you let it drift over you, react to images and moments and then attempt to reassemble things later. Is that the same woman from an earlier scene? Is this a flashback or the next day? Who's that guy? What the hell does that mean (e.g. the quote that leads off this review)? These are all questions that jumped out at me while watching the strange and beautiful images pile up on top of each other. Even if most of them didn't get answered immediately, I found myself fascinated by the journey of the central character and caught up in what sometimes felt like random images and shot choices. But the mood of that journey - the increasingly disturbing, slightly creepy and always unsure feelings - is realized in splendid fashion.

That mood and tone is set early on...While trying to find a letter he has dropped, the playwright Matsuzaki meets a woman who asks him to accompany her to the hospital. She wants to visit a friend, but had run across a vendor selling bladder cherries (the fruit of the Chinese Lantern plant) which are purported to be women's souls. The scene suddenly cuts from outside to inside a building (if it's the hospital, it's a pretty empty and quiet one) where Matsuzaki assures her he hasn't seen any vendors and that she may continue by herself. Instead she decides not to visit her friend and begins to throw several of her flowers to the floor. Another sharp cut back to an outside staircase where petals seem to be spilling from her arms. Matsuzaki tells her that he feels that someone evil has picked up his lost letter. Cut to her basket with a letter hanging out. Cut to a two-shot of them where she tells him that he is a sinful man since it is a love letter from a married woman. She hands him a cherry from her mouth and he asks if he should consider it her soul. In a single shot, we see her leave around a corner and the camera pulls back to Matsuzaki as he tells his rich patron Tamawaki that this all happened three months ago. Things only get stranger as we see his other encounters with the woman, his growing obsessions with her, how Tamawaki fits into all this and his eventual trek to meet her in the countryside.

The characters he comes across may be real, imagined or possibly even ghostly in nature, but we're never quite sure. Suzuki uses many lighting tricks, camera angles and editing techniques to give you the perspective of Matsuzaki and keep you just as in limbo as he is. "Kagero-za" had twice the budget of its precursor "Zigeunerweisen" (due to that previous film being a commercial success as well as winner of four Japanese Academy Awards) and it shows in the care taken with the visuals and the feeling of 1926 Tokyo brought to the screen (the Taisho period the trilogy is named for coincided with the beginning of an increase in liberal, democratic and Western ideas entering the culture). More than once my eyes widened and my jaw dropped at compositions, scenes and images and I admit that this was my favourite thing about the film - its moments that at first didn't seem to make sense either in context or even as standalone. Especially as the film moves towards its conclusion (and Matsuzaki's fate) with scenes using dolls, a children's kabuki theatre and stunning wall paintings. It's roughly translated titled of "Heat-Haze Theatre" feels incredibly accurate.

Also posted on Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow.