Category Archives: crime

Outrage (2010)

Director: Takeshi Kitano

After a number of years away from the yakuza film, Kitano finally went back to it with this somewhat curious exercise in avowed “popular entertainment” as opposed to the more obtuse arthouse business of his last few films. And yet Outrage is still pretty obtuse stuff itself, in its own way, more so even than some of his earlier work… The story is simple enough, basically you have a yakuza clan “sworn father”, Sekiuchi, who dislikes how one of his underlings, Ikemoto, has become chummy with another mob who aren’t part of the family, and he orders this other syndicate be dealt with. In turn, Ikemoto passes on the dirty work to his own underling Otomo (Kitano himself) and his gang. Whereupon business between them and the Murase gang gradually escalates, until the problem turns into internal issues within Ikemoto’s syndicate.

All of which sounds possibly more exciting than it actually is; Kitano’s actual storytelling method is to chop all this up into a lot of very short scenes (lots of varying aggressions back and forth between the various parties), which makes the viewing experience kind of jarring, and, at least for me, not terribly easy to follow at times, trying to work out who’s doing what to whom and why. At least I’m not the only one, though, and maybe another viewing will make it seem straighter. But I can see it being difficult to summon up the will for that second viewing, though; while the film’s somewhat remote tone does make the scenes of violence harder-hitting (don’t think I’ll forget that dentist scene in a hurry), it also makes the film in general kind of hard to engage with, with little sense of where if anywhere it’s going, and the characters don’t really help; only the fact that Kitano himself plays Otomo marks him out as the film’s major figure. I’ll hunt out the sequel, which looks like it might offer some actual payoff for this film’s set-up, but I can’t say I particularly like Outrage by itself.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Well, here’s a change of pace, courtesy of SBS (whose October horror films have spilled over into a season of vampire films this month)… given they showed the TV series recently, I suppose it makes sense for them to go back to the source. This really is a particular kind of “none more mid-90s” film, isn’t it? Robert Rodriguez directing, Quentin Tarantino writing, George Clooney starring (ooooh he was young then), plus Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis in supporting roles and a shitload of violence and movie references… and, well, Tarantino trying to act. He’s probably not actually that bad—the character of Richie doesn’t exactly call for subtlety or nuance—but the people at the Razzies and the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards begged to differ, both nominating him for worst supporting actor that year. But he is, obviously, outshone by Clooney (whose magnetism is much more immediately striking) and Keitel (who’s really good as the preacher who’s lost his faith), not to mention Tom Savini’s jaw-dropping crotch piece. I’m presuming this was one of the first films of this kind to be kind of reliant on CGI for certain things, and to be honest I was a bit surprised by the amount of it (I keep forgetting CGI had already been around for quite a while since then; ILM had been doing it since the 80s), though I’m guessing there was still a fair bit of traditional animatronics and so forth… One thing is hard to deny, though: FDTD is a massive cheesefest of a particularly unabashed kind. Shit exploding, vampires on fire, miscellaneous severed body parts, all round carnage, no finer feelings or higher thoughts or greater ambition to be anything other than what it is in evidence, it’s kind of what I was hoping for. If it does anything wrong, it’s probably that it lets the setup—i.e.  the Gecko brothers’ adventures before arriving at the Titty Twister—go on for too long before its gloriously abrupt transition from a hostage thriller into balls-out vampire action, and could’ve done with being trimmed accordingly. On the whole, though, it basically delivers on its ludicrous B-grade promise; no high art, but that’s not always a bad thing…

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Director: Tod Browning

The imposition of the Production Code in 1934 meant difficult times ahead for the horror genre, and this film kind of unhappily exemplifies that in various ways… this is Browning’s own remake of his 1927 London After Midnight, relocated to eastern Europe (it was originally called Vampires of Prague, apparently) but still revolving around the same story: man is murdered, a preposterous scheme involving fake vampires to catch the killer is put into action (though apparently there was originally a twist in which they were found to be real after all). And while LAM was a sizeable box office hit in its day and is still one of the most sought-after lost silent films, the remake has never fared nearly so well. Indeed, MGM themselves probably had no real faith in the thing either, horror not really being Louis B.’s favourite genre; apparently it had anywhere up to 20 minutes cut from it (including comedy relief and the back story of the “vampires”) before release. Still, as Wm. Everson observes, even something they probably viewed as a piece of worthless shit had to be given the MGM treatment, and if Mark of the Vampire is basically nonsense it’s nicely produced nonsense (the first shot of the “vampires” in the castle is actually kind of amazing). And, as the DVD commentary observes (also David J Skal in The Monster Show), the film also seems to cop more than a few moves from Dracula, which was, of course, directed (putatively) by Browning as well: Bela Lugosi, useless male lead, no music score, dodgy rubber spider, same innkeeper, etc. As for the whole “it’s a trick” aspect to the plot, this is still a point of contention; the whole “explained supernatural” goes all the way back to Ann Radcliffe, of course, but it still feels like a cheat… there is the theory, advanced by Messrs Newman & Jones on the commentary, that the film is at least partly parodic in nature (counting the slightly overdone acting as actually part of the story), but I’m not overly convinced. Just too many things that don’t make a damn bit of sense. I’ll give this more credit than I probably did when I first saw it many years ago—at least the production values and visuals are far better than I recall and should be credited accordingly—but I still find it enormously unsatisfying and hard to really like; the sixty-minute run time is, perhaps, a blessing…

Sin City (2005)

Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller & Quentin Tarantino

With the impending local release of the much-delayed Sin City follow-up, SBS decided to do tonight what commercial TV usually does and show the original to tie in with the new film. Personally I have no interest in the sequel (the ads make it look like just more of the very same except in 3D) and never had any great desire to see the first film a second time after my first viewing of it, but I thought eh, may as well take the opportunity to see if I still hate it as much as I did then. And yeah, I did, pretty much. In its favour, of course, is its overall aesthetic, that astounding look taken pretty much directly from Frank Miller’s graphic novels; Sin City was one of the first films to be shot primarily on a digital backlot and I suppose it made full use of that technology’s potential for grand artifice. Pretty much everything is stylised, the overall look (that glorious high-contrast black and white with patches of colour), the action, even the narrative and certain of the characters (whoever did the casting did a terrific job of getting people who looked just right for their roles, particularly Mickey Rourke and Benicio del Toro). It’s beautiful to look at, and pretty repugnant to actually watch. I’d almost forgotten just how extreme Frank Miller’s apparent fetish for dismemberment is here, particularly beheading and chopping off hands; this is particularly interesting given some of his pronouncements about Islam, of which he is not a fan, and given that certain Islamic countries still do both of those things as punishment for crimes. I didn’t know much about Miller at that time apart from The Dark Knight Returns, which I’d read when I was 14 and had little real understanding of things political, so never really appreciated at the time just how right-wing it was; by 2005 I could tell there was something fundamentally unpleasant about Frank Miller and his work (which has arguably only been amplified over the years), and it was right there at the grotty heart of Sin City, going beyond just hard-boiled neo-noir to something kind of pointlessly unpleasant. Somehow the cartoonish style is unable to overcome that nastiness, and since the film otherwise has nothing much to offer beyond style, I found it tonight, much as I did back in 2005 or ’06 (whenever it was I saw it on DVD), pretty hard to stomach. I do still think Tarantino’s “guest appearance” is one of the good things about the film (terrific black humour in that scene), and I do partly regret not seeing it at a cinema (I can only imagine how handsome it’d look on the big screen), but yeah, still an ugly bit of work I’ve no real use for.

Dragnet Girl (1933)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

The spot-the-Hollywood-film-poster game is particularly amusing in this film: less overt than in these other early Ozus, but also particularly ironic because in this case it’s the French poster for All Quiet on the Western Front… ironic because, as the booklet essay observes, this Japanese film is otherwise full of English signage. Indeed, that’s been perhaps the most striking aspect of Ozu’s “gangster” films for me, this preponderance of English words in signs, graffiti, etc (hell, even one of the intertitles here actually uses the letters “OK”), and it’s made me wonder just how common this actually was in actual 1930s Japan… Cos the other point the booklet essay makes is that Ozu’s Yokohama in this film is, as they say, “a little unreal”; it looks “realistic” but there’s something kind of stylised about it. There’s a scene where the secondary love interest of the film’s gangster boss Joji says something about him putting on an act, and it’s a key moment, cos the film itself is kind of putting on an act… even more than the last two films, Dragnet Girl “plays” at being “American”, but—more impressively—goes further by arguably playing at being noir, which even the Americans hadn’t invented in 1933 (on top of that, is it also one of the first instances of the “one last job before going straight” trope?). Joji is a former boxer turned small-time hoodlum without any real evident passion for being one, while his girl Tokiko maintains a veneer of decency with a respectable office job during the day, but when Joji falls for the aforementioned other love interest, she realises she’d rather be the “good girl” instead of just playing one. Curious film; it feels somewhat disjointed, not fully hanging together, and narrative plausibility isn’t exactly rock solid. And while it’s pretty strong as an example of how refined silent film style was, it’s also so heavy on dialogue titles it’s one of a very small number of silent films that give me the impression they would’ve liked to be a talkie. Visually, though, an amazing achievement; genuinely amazing to see some of these things in an Ozu film. I’m not sure his own heart was fully in the crime genre, but it would’ve been interesting to see him essay it again later in life…

Walk Cheerfully (1930)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Did a gangster film ever have a less “gangster” title? Actually, although Walk Cheerfully finds the most “Japanese” of filmmakers at his most “Western” (so says Tony Rayns in his DVD piece), technically it actually predates the real rise of the gangster trend in the US; he might’ve been working in a popular genre, but it technically wasn’t popular just yet. That said, while Ozu may have been anticipating things a little, he still had some models to draw on, particularly Mr Sternberg’s Underworld (Rayns speculates that he might’ve also seen Docks of New York and Thunderbolt by the latter, though I’m kind of doubtful of the latter at least). But Ozu’s narrative concerns are markedly different; there’s the romantic triangle aspect, but here it’s two girls fighting over the one man rather than the other way round (and the relationship between the fairly small-time crook Kenji and his underling Senko adds a markedly bromantic edge I don’t recall from Sternberg). And the ending is markedly happier; Kenji winds up leaving the life of crime thanks to the love of a good woman, gets out of jail alive and gets the girl too (even if the DVD booklet essay thinks it’s a more uneasy ending than it appears on the surface). From the historical vantage point, of course, probably the film’s main attraction now is its sheer difference from his later films; Rayns cites the hilarious case of the person who loved Ozu because his films never resorted to violence, noting they’d clearly never seen this one at least. If the student films took their influence from American films, Walk Cheerfully wears that influence on its sleeve with even greater obviousness; indeed, it’s such a slick bit of work that if it weren’t for the fact that entire cast is quite frankly Japanese you could almost mistake it for an American production from the late silent era (which was, of course, all but over in the US itself when this came out in March 1930). What really got me, though, that Hiroshi Shimizu was the original intended director, and as limited as my acquaintance with him is, it feels even less like something Shimizu might’ve made than Ozu, even though Shimizu also actually came up with the damn thing…

Broadway (1929)

Director: Paul Fejos

Finally Fejos actually set out to make a sound film, though one also released silent; this wound up being handy, cos the extant sound version is missing the last reel, and the only recently unearthed silent print (all of Fejos’ extant American films, interestingly, have been recovered from Europe; Lonesome came from France and this one apparently from Hungary) was matched to the existing soundtrack to complete this reconstruction. Anyway, Broadway announces itself as a “Universal Super-Production”, one of Uncle Carl’s attempts at Big Filmmaking; the film was apparently Universal’s most expensive to date, advertised at $1m, with about a quarter of that going just on the rights to the play on which it was based. Another substantial chunk went into the enormous camera crane specially designed for the production, and into the unfeasibly large nightclub set that had to be built to accommodate it cos none of the existing stages were big enough. Certainly you can’t accuse Broadway of looking cheap; the set is so gigantic and so filled with people you just know some stupid amount of money was spent on it. And yet the story is kind of small despite that; it involves Glenn Tryon (who at least improved a bit as a talkie actor from Lonesome) as the club’s hoofer, a rather small-time boy losing the girl he performs with (and loves) to the gangster in charge of the place, who’s in the middle of a turf war he initiated. On the whole it’s actually one of the better 1929 talkies I’ve seen, though not as liberated from the technological restraints of the period as Applause was, but the nightclub scenes involving the crane (which were shot silent) provide more than fair interest. Unfortunately the film apparently never did the business it should’ve done, and the eventual failure of The Last Performance (still shelved when this came out) only added to his growing list of problems: they wouldn’t let him do All Quiet on the Western Front, took him off King of Jazz, and finally he walked out in the middle of another film. After a very quick stay at MGM it was back to Europe and eventually out of filmmaking entirely. On the evidence of this DVD set, that’s rather sad.

Breathless (1960)

I’ve developed a theory of sorts about JLG, which may or may not be right, but it goes something like this. Basically, Godard didn’t set out to be a serious artist. He was, obviously, doing things like the jump cuts, shooting all hand-held, breaking fourth wall, all of that obvious technique, but (at least early on) he was more interested in having fun with the form of cinema. But then other people started taking Godard seriously, and then he started doing the same. By now my general antipathy towards Godard should be well-enough known, and it began 21 years ago with this film, Godard’s first feature, and my own first Godard; SBS showed it one Saturday night, I watched it (having read about it in my film history books), and, yeah, it’s been mostly downhill ever since… But SBS were showing it again tonight, and so I decided I should check it out again. I did so, obviously, with a far greater knowledge of Godard’s career after this. And I think the rewatch actually kind of strengthened my opinion expressed above… he hadn’t become “Godard” yet, this isn’t him making grand statements, this is a young man who’s been a film critic and seen a lot of American films noir and decided to have a crack at making his own, infusing it with a particular flavour of late-50s Euro-cool. It still struck me as not terribly substantial, but if so it’s in a different way to something like Histoire(s) du cinéma; looking at Breathless again, I didn’t get the feeling from it that so much of Godard’s other films give me of basically being a vacuous load of empty wank posing as a serious statement. I was actually kind of happy to see this again, there was a markedly greater air of freshness to it than some of his later work that I’ve seen…

Hell’s Angels ’69 (1969)

I’ve never been able to escape the idea that, basically, bikies are just a bunch of arseholes on wheels of little particular interest, and so I’ve never really been able to get interested in the outlaw biker film. This… well, this hasn’t really convinced me. Star Tom Stern couldn’t convince anyone back in the day, either, that his idea for a film was worth pursuing, and so he apparently had to pay for it himself (American International picked up the end result for distribution); director was one Lee Madden, whose first film it was, and oh doesn’t it look like it too… Story’s about two well-off brothers who hit on the idea of robbing Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas for the hell of it, so they start slumming it with a biker gang who they intend to use as a distraction while they’re doing the robbery. The kick is that the gang is none other than the Hell’s Angels, and—in the film’s only bit of real distinction—the latter are played by the real Hell’s Angels, Sonny Barger and his mob from Oakland. So you can probably tell things will go badly once they find they’ve been used. It’s an interesting if not hugely credible premise—what, we’re supposed to believe the Hell’s Angels would actually do what they do in the film?—somewhat undone in the execution by the fact that, well, the Angels can’t really act, though no one in the film is really helped by the fact that film sounds like it’s been completely (and quite miserably) post-synchronised. Much more problematic, though, is the poor pacing; at just 96 minutes it’s still probably 15 minutes too long, diffusing its fairly limited thrills, and a dispute between the two brothers is introduced too late in the game for it to have much point. Maybe you have to actually be into biker movies, unlike me, to get much from this. I don’t know.

Judex (1963)

As with pretty much everything I’ve watched so far (and will be watching for the rest of January), I haven’t seen this in many years. From memory I think I saw it in early 1992 and probably haven’t seen it since then (thinking on it, it’s probably remarkable how many of the films in my old tape library never got watched more than once; I’d record it off TV and keep it for future reference that usually wound up not being needed). I recall kind of liking it at the time, hence why I was a bit surprised to find myself less enthused by it this time around. Obviously a reworking (and obviously a highly compressed one) of Feuillade’s 1916 serial, in conjunction with Feuillade’s grandson Jacques Champreux; the latter says in the interview featurette that, though the stuff depicted in the film is literally incredible, they got some good actors on board, and it must be said the actors do much to sell the film. Though it was a self-conscious exercise in retro, Franju evidently wanted to avoid mere camp; the nearest he gets here to real knowing irony is a scene where the detective Cocantin reads a Fantomas novel. But, when you know the backstory of the production, that novel also serves as Franju’s announcement that he would’ve much preferred to remake Fantomas than Judex, and perhaps his comparative lack of enthusiasm for this story made it into the film; it teeters on that fine line between being enigmatic (the somewhat reserved, almost magical character of Judex in this version) and just looking enigmatic because you can’t be bothered being clear (the lack of motivation for what Judex actually does, said motivation being a key part of the 1916 film but absent from this one). Nice, but I wanted to like it more than I suspect I really did.

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