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Shura (1971) aka Demons

Toshio Matsumoto’s second feature, Demons, begins like a rather typical historical drama. A destitute samurai living under the pseudonym Gengo is trying to raise the money necessary to join a gang of samurai planning to avenge their slain lord. (The avengers are actually the famed forty-seven ronin of Japanese folklore.) However, he is also madly in love with the geisha Koman, and against his servant’s wishes, uses the 100 ryo raised for him by his family to join the avengers to pay off Koman’s debts. It turns out, though, that Koman is already married, and she and her husband plotted an elaborate scheme to swindle Gengo out of his money. Furious, Gengo vows revenge, and soon all are plunged into an eternal hellish night from which none of them can hope, or expect to wake. Matsumoto’s film is an all-out full-frontal assault on traditional Japanese values, and the code of the samurai. He goes further in his condemnation of the Japanese psyche than even Kobayashi dared in Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion. Fans of Japanese cinema will also notice that Demons shares some similar qualities with Yotsuya Kaidan (the subject of several film adaptations, the most famous by Kinoshita in 1949, and by Nakagawa in 1959), and this is not coincidental, Demons is an adaptation of Tsuruya Nanboku and Shuji Ishizawa’s kabuki play of the same name, and Nanboku also wrote Yotsuya Kaidan. While the horror in Demons is one of a purely human nature, the same suffocating sense of terror and despair is on display here, and it is only heightened by Matsumoto’s direction, which is nothing short of perfection. His use of claustrophobic cinematic spaces, lucid chiaroscuro photography, repetition of events as seen by different points-of-view places Demons firmly in the realm of the cinematic, and avoids the mortal sin of just being a filmed play. Like many of the great nuberu bagu directors, Matsumoto lived through the horrors of Japanese fascism and militarism, and it is easy to read Demons as an attack on the ultra-nationalism that still plagues Japanese society. This is easily one of the bleakest and most uncompromising films I have seen recently, but it is a necessary film, and it makes for searing drama. There is no escape.

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E.T.A. Hoffman’s Der Sandmann (1993) aka The Sandman

Billed as a horror movie, Eckharrt Schmidt’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman is rather a romantic drama crossed with speculative science fiction. Daniel brings his girlfriend Clara to his birthplace in Italy for what is ostensibly a vacation, but in reality is an investigation into the friend of his late father, one Coppola, otherwise known as “The Sandman”. It is not long before Daniel finds himself drawn into an affair with Coppola’s beautiful daughter Olympia, and caught up in some bizarre conspiracy involving a traumatic childhood memory. One reviewer noted that The Sandman very much resembles the cyclical and repetitious nature of Last Year at Marienbad, but it has more in common with Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Immortal One, especially in its depiction of a protagonist haunted by a mysterious woman and a complex conspiracy just barely hidden under the surface. While Schmidt’s film is certainly less avant-garde than Robbe-Grillet’s, it is certainly enigmatic in its own unique way. The Sandman also boasts an attractive cast worthy of ARG, with the brooding Daniel sandwiched between two sexy redheads. What separates The Sandman from similar films, however, are the emotional undercurrents; there is real melancholy here, this is ultimately a film that places its heart above its head. We are asked what it means to be human, but this question is answered only at the tragic and devastating conclusion. But this is also a film of hope, it looks deep into the human soul and mirrors back to us the beautiful things found there. We are capable of hatred and destruction, but also of love, compassion, and forgiveness. Schmidt makes perfect use of the remote Mediterranean locale to accentuate the emotional stakes, and his soft-focus, almost classical images have the kind of quality of a mental labyrinth. The Sandman is one of those films that is less concerned with external action and more concerned with the internal action of the mind and heart. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker this could have been an unintentionally funny film, but Schmidt handles the material with grace and sophistication. Essential viewing for those who enjoy this type of speculative fiction.

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Airplane! (1980)

Airplane! is one of those movies beloved by people who came of age when it was released, and for some reason remains a staple of popular culture despite being utterly mediocre. Perhaps what is most significant about this movie is that it is the original parody movie. Without Airplane! we would not have such titles as Scary Movie or Vampires Suck. This one film alone is responsible for almost three decades worth of increasingly pungent garbage. All of the tropes found throughout this subgenre can be found here; off-color race-related humor, big breasts, and that one guy that just says random crap. There is just something very off-putting and plain unfunny about this movie. While it does not reach the levels of sheer stupidity achieved by its spiritual successors, I did feel somewhat insulted by this movie. Are we really expected to find humor in these ludicrous scenarios?  I think what I hate most about this movie is not so much the movie itself, but rather just how loved it is by people. There are plenty of movies I love out of sheer nostalgia, such as the Super Mario Bros. movie, but I will never pretend that they are good movies, or even important ones, yet fans of Airplane! (and this category can be expanded to fans of Animal House and other such films I have yet to punish myself by watching) will contend that this is a great movie, an important classic that everyone should see. This is not even a bad movie, it is just mediocre, mediocre in a way that has you saying to yourself after the credits roll, “Well, that was pretty dull”. I have a friend who loved to make his own parody movies in high school, zero budget kind of stuff, and even those are more entertaining and less mediocre than Airplane! All I ask is that the public allow this to fade into obscurity like it deserves to.

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Gendai yakuza: hito-kiri yota (1972) aka Street Mobster

My first encounter with Fukasaki was a rather tense one. The film was Battles Without Honor or Humanity, and all of my attempts to keep up with the plot and characters were more or less futile. At one point during the movie I decided “screw it”, and tried to watch five minutes of a less confusing film before being sucked back in to his world of gangland murders, super close-ups, and missing fingers. Street Mobster would probably have been a better introduction to the work of this most singular of filmmakers. With a more streamlined narrative, and less of a focus on yakuza politics, Fukasaki delivers pure balls-to-the-wall bombastic action. Isamu Okita, played by Fukasaki regular Bunta Sugawara, is a small-time loose-cannon punk whose antics land him in hot water with Japan’s largest crime syndicates. What elevates Street Mobster from simple genre flick to pop art is the sheer energy with which it unfolds. The handheld camera never stops moving, limbs and body parts are splayed across the screen, the fights are below the belt, and it is through and through loud, rude, crude, and offensive. In terms of sheer absurdity and lunacy, only Suzuki matches up, though Fukasaki’s style is less surreal and more down ‘n’ dirty with slapdash melodrama, kind of like backyard wrestling. But there is also heart and soul on display here, and a very genuine emotional impact. This is ultimately about a man struggling to fit in with a world that has drastically changed, a man who does not know how to quit, a man whose full-throttle passion kills him in the end. And there are the side characters he encounters along the way, who drift in and out of the narrative like floatsam, lending the film a rather true-to-life quality. Remove the crime elements, and we are left with the eternal human struggle.

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greenshirt1023 said: How many wahabbifags does it take to plug in a lightbulb?

A: None, because wahabbifags live in the dark ages.

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Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

Produced by William Randolph Hearst of Citizen Kane fame, and starring Walter Huston, Gabriel Over the White House is universally considered to be the first pro-fascist American film. Though Hearst was a lifelong Democrat and supporter of Roosevelt, he could barely suppress his love for Il Duce and the Furher. Basically Gabriel Over the White House is about corrupt politician Judd Hammond who gets elected on a wave of false promises during the depression, but after surviving a near-fatal car accident, he vows to reform his ways and becomes a messiah-like figure, suspends congress, and grants himself absolute power. The film was supposedly made to “prepare” the American people for dictatorship should Roosevelt need to seize full executive powers to end the depression. Roosevelt was also on-hand to read the script and even suggested changes of his own that were incorporated into the final product. However, despite Hammond championing the working class, this is far from a left-wing or pro-socialist film. Hammond’s economic policies, or at least the glimpse we are given of them fall more in line with the corporatist economies implemented by the European fascist states. He places the workers into a kind of strict civilian army, and never abolishes private industry. Hammond also creates his own kind of personal army to fight bootleggers, and in one scene, has gangsters executed by firing squad after a show trial while the Statue of Liberty looks on in the background. Though some may be quick to point out Hammond’s resemblances to Stalin, one must also remember that Stalinism really has little to do with actual Marxism or socialism, and is more authoritarianism cloaked in socialist rhetoric (Stalin eventually embraced the nationalism the Bolsheviks had swept away during the war years). Gregory LaCava’s direction is certainly striking and stylistic, and some of the set pieces here are particularly stunning for their baroque expressionism. Without the artistry, however, this film would be more of a historical curio than anything else. And the fascism on display here is not as shocking as some commentators have made it out to be. In 1933 fascism had not yet fully coalesced into what we think of it today. Mussolini had ruled with an ostensibly democratic facade until 1929, and Hitler had only just taken power. If President Hammond seems tame, he would not have for the time. And the string of strongman presidents that followed the end of the war have perhaps desensitized most Americans to the prospects of fascist rule. Still, Gabriel Over the White House is an important film as much as it is an intriguing one, and surely one of the most bizarre products created in Hollywood.

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Drowning Mona (2000)

Every Friday night since I was little, I stay over my grandmother’s. Usually, we watch Dateline NBC’s true crime documentaries, replete with endless tales of tragedy in white suburbia. However, the past week, Dateline was not on for some strange reason, so we instead watched this little diddy, courtesy of Comcast’s free OnDemand movies. Drowning Mona is a bad movie. Really bad. It recklessly and shamelessly flaunts good taste and good cinema with wanton impunity. Yet, despite this, there is something very endearing about this movie. It kind of plays out like something by Todd Solondz minus the sexual deviancy, acidic satire, and oppressive nihilism. At the very least, this is a colorful comedy that bucks what one expects from Hollywood, and it features great performances by its cast, especially Danny DeVitto as the town sheriff. Compared to the usual garbage featured OnDemand, Drowning Mona is something of a step up.

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Tsuma wa kokuhaku suru (1961) aka A Wife Confesses

My second foray into the world of Yasuzo Masumura, after being disappointed by Afraid to Die, was everything I had hoped my first encounter would have been. Along with Kurosawa’s High and Low, and Uchida’s A Fugitive from the Past, A Wife Confesses is one of the classics from the golden age of Japanese crime cinema. Ayako Takigawa is a beautiful widow on trial for killing her husband in a mountain climbing accident. She maintains that if she had not cut his rope, she would have died, but the prosecution says she deliberately killed him to be free of his tyrannical rule, and get with the handsome Osamu Kôda. Masumura is a master of sequencing. The entire film fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, with no shot out of place, and every cut timed perfectly. There is something about watching a film this well constructed that has the quality of fine poetry. His widescreen black and white images are crisp and lucid, and Riichirô Manabe’s esoteric soundtrack recalls the work of the great Toru Takemitsu in its sparse, avant-garde composition. Masumura maintains a curious detachment from the melodrama on display here, and the audience is relegated to the role of something like a scientist observing alien specimen. The near-complete breakdown in logic during the climax is easier to swallow because of Masumura’s detachment. However, it looks like he gets even crazier and more out of control in his later films, and I am quite looking forward to exploring those in the near future.

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Kiga kaikyo (1965) aka A Fugitive from the Past

William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That maxim succinctly sums up Tomu Uchida’s sprawling, decade-spanning detective story about the hunt for a man who murdered a family, stole their money, burned down a town, and killed his accomplices. Shot in a flat, grainy, widescreen black and white, Uchida’s direction is about as grim as it gets. There is something very affecting about his conjuring of these specific times and places. I would not exactly call this film realist, because it has certain metaphysical overtones, but it manages to really plant the viewer into its very detailed world. Uchida takes his time telling the story, never rushing things along. The entire last third of the film, when Rentaro Mikuni takes center stage in what is certainly one of the great performances of the cinema, is masterful filmmaking. There is also a very careful attention to detail and narrative symmetry here. In the first half of the film we meet the family of the detective trying to catch the killer, and ten years later we meet the family again, and see how much, and how little has changed. Though these sequences only make up a small fraction of the overall running time, they are prime examples of how Uchida does everything in his power to make us really feel a part of these people’s lives. He is not a director who wears his emotions on his sleeve, and instead prefers to allow the emotional content to slowly grow out of the quiet moments. However, this does not mean Uchida is not afraid to go baroque, and his use of expressionist shadows, thunderstorms, and negative exposures lend A Fugitive from the Past a mythical and epic quality. This is surely one of the most perfect detective stories ever filmed.


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Kalevet (2010) aka Rabies

Billed as Israel’s first horror movie, Rabies, directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado is a refreshing take on the slasher film with some rather unique twists. A brother and sister, who are possibly in an incestuous relationship, run away from home and flee to the forest. The sister gets caught in a trap set by a serial killer, and the brother runs for help, bumping into a group of lost tennis players; two teenage guys and their “lady friends”, one of whom has homosexual inclinations. Meanwhile the forest ranger and his fiancee have been told to look out for the missing siblings, so the ranger goes on the hunt to bring them home. Soon all of these characters paths will cross in increasing displays of operatic violence. The title is obvious, Rabies is a disease that turns people mad, deadly, violent. In the film, jealousy, hate, lust, and violence are like a disease unto themselves, once caught, it is only a matter of time. But what is unique about Rabies is how the horror is handled. The killer that the audience expects to be the villain never winds up killing anyone, and disappears for most of the movie. Rather, the deaths are tragic accidents, ones that could have been avoided, but accidents nonetheless. With films from this region, one always has to wonder if there is a deeper political message buried here. The killer calls Israel a “country full of shits” at the end, and the directors’ portrait of their fellow Israelis is not a flattering one by any means, their Israel is a country full of greedy, selfish, corrupt, paranoid, and violent individuals who bring violence upon themselves through their exploitation of others. If this is intended to be a political message, Keshales and Papushado do not beat you over the head with it. The themes here are ultimately universal ones, and can be applied to any society, anywhere in the world. However, Rabies is not a totally successful film. More often than not it dips into cliche, and the ending is rather frustrating. Keshales and Papushado definitely have talent, and I am looking forward to seeing their new film, Big Bad Wolves, to see how they have matured as filmmakers since Rabies. Definitely voices to watch out for.

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1408 (2007)

Full disclosure here: I am a big fan of Stephen King. In the eighth grade I read at least half to three-quarters of his bibliography. He is by no means a great writer, but he is certainly an entertaining storyteller with a big imagination. Sadly, many of the films adapted from his works leave a great deal to be desired, so I approached 1408 with some trepidation. However, 1408 manages to do the King justice, mostly thanks to director Mikael Håfström’s colorful and energetic direction. Håfström manages to capture the pulpy and almost comic book like feel of King’s stories, and by indulging in bombastic tendencies, he manages to create a suspenseful and entertaining flick. However, when he begins to take the material too seriously, for example, when the sub-plot about the protagonist’s dead daughter comes to the foreground, the film loses its sense of fun, and becomes maudlin and overly sentimental. King’s original story is a bit more cynical, and the main character’s family is not even mentioned. Of course pathos are always important, especially in horror cinema, where they can heighten the emotional stakes and tension, but here it feels forced and unnecessary. This is not a story that really needed to be all that serious, and would have worked a lot better as a straightforward popcorn flick. For a better film that tackles similar motifs, check out Coppola’s Twixt. Otherwise, save this one for a night of mindless entertainment.

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Anonymous said: I can't stop listening to Karma Chameleon Should I call a doctor

Just keep on groovin’!

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greenshirt1023 said: In your opinion, what is the most autistic film ever made?

Anything by Todd Solondz.

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Kyôfu kikei ningen: Edogawa Rampo zenshû (1969) aka Horrors of Malformed Men

Edogawa Rampo’s fiction has been a source of fascination for me over the past few months. Because so few of his works have been translated into English, my exposure to his stories has been exclusively through the cinema. Widely regarded as one of the best adaptations of Rampo, Horrors of Malformed Men is a delirious, psychotronic, and horrifying tale of insanity and depravation. The main character is a medical student stuck in a mental hospital and suffering from amnesia. When he escapes, he is framed for the murder of a beautiful circus performer and takes the identity of a dead man who looks just like him. Turns out this man’s wealthy father has been building a secret island habitat for the deformed, most of whom are kidnapped young women that have been surgically experimented upon. Shot in ‘Scope and Technicolor, cult director Teruo Iishi paints with broad stylistic strokes, and even incorporates avant-garde dance and a bizarre, eerie soundtrack. Full of suspense and melodrama, Horrors of Malformed Men is ultimately an achimg and poignant drama whose emtoions are very much within the realm of giallo romanticism. Though it does not shy away from transgressive horror, there is a real human soul to this film, and it is the tragic love stories that ultimately leave the strongest impression.



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Cold in July (2014)

At its best, Cold in July recalls the neo-noirs of the great John Dahl, especially his delirious Red Rock West starring Nic Cage and the Hoppmeister. Sadly, however, this is a rather amateur effort, and while an entertaining flick, really does not live up to its potential. Richard Dane is an ordinary small town businessman living in East Texas at the end of the 1980s, but his idyllic life is shattered when one night he kills a home intruder who turns out to have been unarmed. Disturbed by his taking of another life, Dane retreats into himself, but the man’s father wants revenge, and soon Dane is caught up in a web of bizarre plot twists and nightmarish terror. But the elements here just never add up, and the plot twists often wind up creating plot holes that are never filled in. The central mystery that plunges Dane into the unknown is never solved, or even mentioned again after the halfway mark, and the twists seem to exist more for shock value than anything else (snuff films have become a particularly popular motif in contemporary cinema, but Thesis is the only film that gets it right). There is also a curious lack of suspense here, almost as if the plot developments are forced as opposed to progressing naturally. It really kind of limps. The cast members, however, all give great performances, especially Sam Shephard as the brooding, nothing-to-lose Ben. But good performances are not enough to save what is a mess of a film. I do not doubt that director Jim Mickle has talent, but he needs to step up his game.

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