Archive for September, 2010

 Copyright © 2010 by James Clark

      There is a moment, in the middle of Blow-Up (1966), which seems the right starting point for us. A busy young commercial photographer and Londoner-about-town, “Thomas,” pores over reams of negatives covering an impromptu shoot in a park. That bit of seizing the moment had begun to take on a life of its own, insofar as what had been seized was (soon-to-be-apparently) an act of murder. Thomas had been impressed by a woman’s serpentine determination to recover those vignettes, some of the frames of which featured her and what appeared to be a lover. Now rid of her, he quickly moves toward discovery of what great importance he has engaged. And, to assist his enlarging the special revelations, he comes up with a magnifying glass of major proportions. As he works with it, his face frozen in anticipation, we have to think of Sherlock Holmes. We almost reprove ourselves for such an incongruity, Thomas (in spite of his Victorian name) being the epicenter itself of modernity. (To take one instance, his studio/home base is the envy of all those who would be cool, an industrial behemoth on a grotty street, flashing its not-for-the-faint-of-heart grungy, coal era struts, but sprouting an apotheosis of just-in, top-of-the-line commercial and residential appointments—spare, metallic and glassy—punching out features like sliding doors in candy colors.) (more…)


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by Joel

#87 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade.

The movie opens with black dogs, growling, yelping, barking as they race down a busy city street – hounds from hell whose presence puts the lie to the calm bustle around them. They arrive at a certain apartment building, yelping loudly – and the man in the apartment knows they’re yelping for him. Then he wakes up. This sequence was a dream, one inspired by his recollections of shooting dogs during an Israeli commando raid back in Lebanon of the early 80s. Now those dogs haunt his dreams, and in a sense the dreams are more real than the memories.

There have been many films about memory, and plenty of films about war, but Waltz with Bashir takes a unique approach to both. Firstly, there’s the fact that it’s animated – not exactly rotoscoped apparently, but drawn in accordance with taped interviews (fantasies, dreams, and flashbacks are, of course, simply animated). Secondly, while the movie is a documentary, it often plays like fiction, partly because of the animation (which allows past sequences to play less like History Channel “recreations” and more like narrative sequences) and partly because of the tightly unwinding dramatic structure. Finally, there’s the conjunction of the two subjects – war and memory. The memory in question is individual, but it’s also collective, and it’s not just a matter of remembering the past but experiencing the present. When Ari Folman, the director and main character, returns to Israel on leave from the Lebanon War of the early 80s, he’s shocked to find his peers dancing away in discos and ignoring the fact that a brutal war is unfolding just next door – and that men like him, their neighbors, friends, and relatives are fighting it. This doesn’t have much application to Israel today, where the homefront has become the war zone, but it certainly applies elsewhere.


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(Mark Robson, 1943)

(essay by Troy)

I run to death and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday

Bookended with that verse by John Donne, the rushing urgency of impending death is firmly in place over the scant 71 minutes of Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson acquits himself fine as the director, but the true auteur here is Lewton).  Proposed as Lewton’s shot at an A-picture, his insistence on keeping Robson on as director relegated it back to the ranks of B-movie and with that status came the shortened duration.  Perhaps that’s for the best, as the terse nature of what follows creates a palpable sensation that our time in life is short, each second bringing us one step closer to death.

The plot itself isn’t served terribly well by the short runtime, with subplots and character interactions that seem to start and resolve without warning.  The crux of the story concerns Mary, fresh out of boarding school, who is searching for her missing sister, Jacqueline.  In the process she meets up with three men who each hold a piece to the puzzle.  We find out that Jacqueline was part of a cult of high-society devil worshippers called The Palladists.  She has chosen to leave them and, as a result, they deem she must die.  In an odd twist, however, this happens to be a pacifist group of Satanists and thus, they can inflict no harm on Jacqueline and must instead attempt to coerce her into committing suicide.


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by Allan Fish

(Japan 1968 117m) DVD2 (Japan only, no Eng subs)

Aka. Koshikei

For all the Rs out there…

p  Masayuki Nakajima, Takuji Yamaguchi, Nagisa Oshima  d  Nagisa Oshima  w  Tsutomo Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki, Michinori Faukao, Nagisa Oshima  ph  Yasuhiro Yoshioka  ed  Sueko Shiraishi  m  Hikaru Hiyashi  art  Jusho Toda

Yun-Do Yun (R), Kei Sato (prison warden), Fumio Watanabe (education officer), Toshiro Ishido (chaplain), Masao Adachi (chief of guards), Akiko Koyama (Korean woman), Rokko Toura (doctor), Hosei Komatsu (District Attorney), Masao Matsuda (secretary), Nagisa Oshima (narrator),

A pivotal film in the Japanese new wave and in the career of Nagisa Oshima, Death by Hanging is also, quite possibly, his most political film.  Oshima was never one to shy from controversy, whether in his own films of the early sixties, Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial and Night and Fog in Japan or in his support for censored filmmakers, such as the trouble Tetsuji Takechi suffered upon completing Black Snow.  He continued a trend towards the shocking in The Pleasures of the Flesh and Violence at High Noon, but his was a shocking meant to rouse Japanese audiences out of their complacency.  There are indeed comparisons to be made to Violence at High Noon in the fact that both centre around a murderer.  The earlier film detailed the actual rapes and killings of the so-called Phantom Killer, told from the point of view of the killer, his wife and his potential victims.  Death by Hanging rather tells the story of the consequences of the murders. (more…)

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Inner-city student in documentary "Waiting For Superman"

by Sam Juliano

     The Wonders in the Dark horror poll has yielded some all-time classics, and this past week has featured some of the best reviews of the countdown.   Allan’s run of Japanese cinema has been eye-opening, and Joel’s latest review (on the Dardennes’ The Son) in his ‘Best of the 21st Century’ series has matched his best work.

     Meanwhile, Marilyn Ferdinand and Tony Dayoub have reported at their sites from the Chicago and New York Film Festivals respectively with some fascinating appraisals.  Ed Howard is back in action at Only the Cinema, and Troy Olson has archived his outstanding work for the horror poll at his Elusive as Robert Denby: The Life and Times of Troy blogsite.

     After a quiet week, I rallied for a very busy weekend in the movie theatres, after spending some time at home with my classic television sets of One Step Beyond and Thriller.   I resisted the temptation to see Gaspar Noe’s controversial Enter the Void at the IFC Film Center with a special appearance by the nihilist director and the lead star, in favor of a double feature of Buried and Woody Allen’s latest.  I wasn’t in a mood to be depressed.

I saw:

Waiting For Superman  ****  (Saturday night)  Landmark Cinemas

Buried   ****     (Sunday night)  Angelika Film Center

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger   *** 1/2     (Sunday night)  Angelika

Tokyo Twilight   *****    (Sunday morning)  IFC Film Center

The documentary WAITING FOR SUPERMAN’s main focus was on ineffectual teachers and the “antiquated” system that awards incompetants for years of service, and neglects those educators with special gifts.  Dazzling animated sequences and some telling interviews with district superintendents makes for a riveting work, but little attention is paid to sub-standard salaries and the startling neglect of some parents in inner-city districts, who often are to blame for low test scores, and the lagging behind of America’s scholastic infra-structure in global ratings.

BURIED is an oppressively claustrophobic film shot entirely in a “coffin” that holds an American prisoner in Iraq, who is armed only with a cell phone and a lighter.  The tense interchanges with officials, and the terrifying imprisonment makes for a breathless and riveting watch, even with the bungled conclusion.  The lead star, Ryan Reynolds is mesmerizing in this low-budget Spanish-Australian inde, that provides an interesting deviation on the horrifying The Vanishing from years back.

There’s nothing terribly new in Woody Allen’s YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, but it’s a reasonably engaging and plesantly set drama about marital meltdowns with a high octane cast.  And it makes good use of “When You Wish Upon A Star” and features an affecting seance sequence.

TOKYO TWILIGHT of course is an Ozu masterpiece and one of his darkest films.  I’ll have a full report of it in my massive round-up post in November.

There are great things going on in the blogosphere:

Ace horror scribe Troy Olson has been penning one fantastic review after another for the Wonders in the Dark polling, and the lot is archived at his own site, Elusive as Robert Denby: The Life and Times of Troy, with the terrifying British entry The Descent sitting on top: http://troyolson.blogspot.com/2010/09/descent.html

Checking back from the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), Marilyn Ferdinand has authored an impassioned piece on the Hungarian film The Last Report on Anna at Ferdy-on-Films:                http://www.ferdyonfilms.com/?p=6258


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(Robert Wise, 1963)

(essay by Troy)

Expectations can effect your view of a horror film as much as anything.  My first foray into The Haunting I wasn’t expecting much more than an intelligent, well-regarded ghost story, because how scary can a G-rated black and white film from 1963 truly be?  Yet this is one of those horror films that if you watch it with the lights down and the sound turned it manages to creep all around you, causing an overwhelming feeling of dread to rise up.  There’s a feeling of someone or something unseen, eyes peering down on you, yet you can’t look back.  Or of your hand hanging by your side and having it suddenly grabbed by an unknown force.  It’s our innate fear of the uncanny that The Haunting exposes so well.


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(Michael Powell, 1960)

(essay by Robert)
What an absolutely perfect horror film. Peeping Tom, which was written by the  polymath Leo Marks and directed by Hitchcock disciple Michael Powell, challenges the horror audience to see ourselves for what we really are. We are immediately involved with the film as Powell delivers a sincere thoughtful masterpiece while leaving us scratching our heads about ourselves.

Appropriately Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is an aspiring film director earning his way by photographing low budget smut images. He also acts as the landlord of the large family estate willed to him by his father. Lewis is a recluse- a bizarre outsider completely uncomfortable with basic human interactions.  We will quickly learn that it was his father that left him with a deep bizarre obsession.  Boehm is incredible as the dark and emotional killer.  He draws us in to the point we can’t help pitying him feeling his anguish.

The father was a biologist focused on capturing the sensory reaction to dramatic experiences.  He was also obsessed with curing scoptophilia (voyeurism). His main test subject naturally became his developing young son.  Powell shows us grainy and odd home movies of Mark’s childhood: a startling wake-up scene with a lizard, mourning his mother’s death, and the natural peeping tendencies of the young boy.  The bizarre tactics of father Lewis are revealed in the adult son’s illness.  They also put the audience in the uncomfortable position of having to think back to our own defining moments.

Another intriguing element of the film is the fact that Lewis seems to be on the brink of success but can’t get past his weakness.  This is proverbial for us as we watch and think about our own shortcomings and fears. Despite the spine-chilling presence, people like Mark.  They are in taken by his calm handsomeness and shy demeanor.  As a photographer, he creates a calming atmosphere and as the quite landlord, he is interesting to the young and naïve Helen.  His obsession keeps him cornered however keeps him cornered and trapped. As close as it seems, his escape is out of reach.  This is felt in the film’s most important scene when Mark has his run in with Helen’s mother (played wonderfully by Maxine Audley). “Instinct is a wonderful thing- a pity it can’t be photographed” she compassionately warns.  As a blind woman, she is the only one who can see Mark’s danger.

The concept and overall delivery are so engaging it is easy to forget some of the specific elements that Powell uses so successfully.  Not the least of these are the kill sequences in which we see the victim through Mark’s camera’s POV.  The cross in the camera’s lens is like a target zoning in on each fatality’s final moments.  This creates a fantastic personal effect as we zoom and almost touch the kill.  Powell masterfully hides from us even the slightest gore and blood but instead taunts us by revealing his murderer and method almost immediately.  He is obviously less concerned with the “who, what, where and when”.  The real question he asks us is “why”?

It is also interesting to see the often referred to similarities between Powell’s piece and those of Hitchcock.  Of course it was the elder Hitchcock who became the “Master of Suspense”.  Powell’s film on the other hand, seemed to hit so close that it literally derailed his decorated career.  This is such a shame, as it was the mild (almost non-existent) violence and the sexuality (tame by any standard today) that seemed to cast the dark shadow on the film at the time and black-balled an exceptional creative and articulate artist.

Top Horror Moments:
The voyeur and the blind woman

-Helen sees Mark’s obsession for herself and Mark carry’s out the ultimate peep

(this film appeared on Robert’s list at #53, Jamie’s at #75, Troy’s at #44, and Kevin’s at #33)

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by Allan Fish

(Japan 1968 90m) not on DVD

Aka. Minagoroshi no reika

The cycle of divine punishment

d  Tai Kato  w  Tai Kato, Haruhiko Mimura, Yoji Yamada  story  Tadashi Horomi  ph  Kenji Maruyama  ed  Shizu Osawa  m  Hajime Kaburagi

Makoto Sato (Isao Kawashima), Chieko Baisho (Haruko), Yuki Kawamura, Junko Toda, Sanae Nakahara, Ran Fan O, Kin Sugai,

Think of serial killers in Japanese films and what do you think of?  Oshima’s Violence at High Noon perhaps, or Imamura’s comeback to fiction from documentary, Vengeance is Mine.  Both are good films, the Oshima one of his better mid sixties outings and the Imamura probably his best film of the seventies and rivalling The Insect Woman as his best period.  I, the Executioner is surely its director’s most famous and probably best film.  So how can no-one see it?  Look online and you’ll do well to find a single review, even your humble author was unable to match up most of the cast to characters because there is no listing anywhere.  The only reference I found to Kato’s opus was Tony Rayns’ typically effusive entry in the Time Out Guide.  Reasons?  Kato’s not being known outside of Japan may have something to do with it, while Oshima and Imamura are respected, and accepted, masters.  And then there’s the approach to the notion of a serial killer.  Both Imamura and Oshima analysed the serial killer’s psychosis through his crimes, but Kato’s film is a bit different… (more…)

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(Neil Marshall, 2005)

(essay by Troy)

The story in Neil Marshall’s film begins with Sarah, who loses her husband and daughter in a car accident.  We pick up one-year later as Alpha-female Juno (who was having an affair with Sarah’s husband) has gathered Sarah and four other women to go on a spelunking excursion in the Appalachians.  The only problem is Juno has taken them to an unmapped cave with the hope that they can gloriously discover the cave themselves in an attempt to fix past wounds (and obviously, her guilt at sleeping with her friend’s husband has something to do with this feeling of setting things back the way they were).  The six women enter the cave and first have to deal with interpersonal squabbles and the natural trials of cave diving before finding that there may be something much more unsettling lurking deep within.

The structure of the film is of interest here, as it attempts to provide the best of both worlds.  The first 50 minutes are spent building dread, tension, and atmosphere, adding in the psychological horror that stems from losing a loved one (think Don’t Look Now), while the last 45 minutes are unabashed adrenaline soaked survival horror, with all hell breaking loose just as soon as the women think things have gotten as bad as they possibly can.

The cave functions as a fantastic setting to get the ultimate tension and horror out of the circumstances.  Marshall uses the ambient light sources the women use to illuminate the darkness, playing with our viewpoint of what we can see if we just squint hard enough.  He also chooses to employ a 2.35:1 scope, yet manages to keep the moments in the cave tight and extremely claustrophobic, most notably when Sarah gets stuck in an extremely narrow opening, causing panic for both her and the viewer.  In many ways, these early tension points with the women getting stuck, suffering a cave-in, and having to cross a giant chasm evoke fear without any need of monsters and are more fraught with fear than the horrific events that follow. (more…)

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