Category Archives: drama

Woman of Tokyo (1933)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Wherein we can see Ozu starting to become “Ozu”, if you know what I mean, playing with the sharp scene changes his later films would be full of, and doing so in a particularly startling way at one point when, without warning, the credits for the 1932 American film If I Had a Million abruptly appear on screen. For one horrible moment I thought there was something terribly wrong with my copy of the film, but no, we soon see the characters are actually watching the film at a cinema and Ozu just decided to be cheeky and cut bits of the American film directly into his own (in a manner I rather doubt Paramount would’ve actually given him permission to do) rather than show people looking at it on a screen. I’ve been amused before by the way Ozu inserted film posters and the like into his early films, but this was clearly taking that to the next level…

Otherwise, the story seems more like Mizoguchi than Ozu, revolving around a brother and sister, Ryoichi and Chikako who co-habit in a small flat; he’s a student and she’s pretty much the wage-earner, working in an office by day and, well, doing something else by night. Something else that’s attracted police attention for some reason that the film is oddly vague about (it hints at prostitution while also hinting at something apparently worse, but what?); Ryo’s girlfriend’s brother happens to be the officer investigating her, and when said girlfriend goes to warn Chikako, complications ensue. Ozu seems not particularly involved in all of this, and perhaps the film’s origin indicates why; for whatever reason the studio needed a film from him very quickly and he certainly delivered, tossing this off in just eight days and starting shooting before the script was even finished, so that doesn’t really bespeak a strong connection between him and his material. The ultimate bleakness of the thing just seems a bit pointless too, and the brevity of it (not even 50 minutes long) doesn’t give much opportunity to get close to the characters. OK, but not one of Ozu’s strongest works.

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The Mysterious X (1914)

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Is there any truth to the old claim that, in the very early days of cinema, close-ups were frowned upon because audiences were supposedly paying to see the performers’ whole bodies rather than just parts of them? If so, I presume the person who first said that would’ve had conniptions at this film, in which the audience would’ve been paying to see performers they couldn’t actually see… Benjamin Christensen is best known now, no doubt, for Haxan, but this, his debut, also offers points of interest. It has to be said the plot is not exactly one of those… basically, war breaks out and our main character (Christensen himself), a naval lieutenant, gets sent off to fight; meanwhile, Mrs Lieutenant has become the object of infatuation for a certain Count Spinelli, who takes an opportunity to break into the lieutenant’s sealed orders (Sealed Orders being the other, more immediately understandable English title for the film) and steal the info therein, which eventually results in the lieutenant himself being arrested for spreading said info to the enemy (whoever they are; the film is oddly reticent about who the other side is supposed to be. How ironic, too, that a film released just a few months before the actual outbreak of actual war should’ve been made in a country that would then stay neutral during that war…)

So this is all so much melodrama, and JESUS FUCK how excessive does it get at times, too… and just how does Spinelli manage to survive so long trapped in the old mill without food or water given that the film seems to take place over quite a number of days? Anyway, the narrative and the handling of same aren’t really the point, it’s Christensen’s visual presentation of his material that is. The staging is largely in fairly standard early cinema tableau form, very minimal cutting, but there are some nice moments of camera movement (the house interior set is revealed to be surprisingly large) leading to some borderline abstract compositions at times, and then there’s Christensen’s use of darkness as much as light. In 1914, I imagine this would’ve been particularly striking, and some of the silhouette business still is. It’s a better film to look at than it is a story to follow, but it’s not bad all up and the whole thing culminates in a last-minute rescue that Griffith might’ve liked.

Revenge (1989)

Director: Ermek Shinarbaev

Well, wasn’t THAT awesomely difficult to love. When you boil Revenge (also known as The Red Flute for no reason that I can discern, since I don’t recall any such object even appearing in the film, let alone being relevant to the story) down to its basic plot—a rural teacher kills one of his students in a rage, the child’s father gives birth to another son so that he can take revenge for him—you do it a genuine and amazing injustice. I mean, yeah, that is what happens, and yet there’s more to it… Revenge occupies an odd place both as a story and a production, appearing near the end of the Soviet Union when perestroika was inspiring a new wave of sorts in Kazakhstan, set mostly in Korea and starring Kazakh actors speaking Russian. Which I suppose is not really different from, say, Hollywood films set in foreign lands where everyone speaks English, but it was weirdly disconcerting here… plus, although the film is actually concretely set between 1915 and the mid/late 1940s, there’s a strange abstractness to the film’s apparent temporal setting; indeed, almost the only thing I can remember that really grounds it in the 20th century is a scene near the end with a truck. Otherwise I can’t recall any mention of either war that took place in that timeframe; you’d almost swear it was meant to be some piece of timeless folklore or something. Revenge is far from immediately ingratiating, being more inclined to a sort of poetic indirectness—had the director not specifically stated the film is at least in part about the forced repatriation of the Korean population of Sakhalin after WW2 I’m not sure I would’ve guessed that fact—and a few moments of animal cruelty are wince-inducing. It is, however, frequently stunning to actually look at—it has one of the most astounding crane shots I’ve seen, and really beautiful use of natural light. I liked the film more than otherwise, I think, but I’m going to need at least one more viewing to get more from it, cos I’m sure there’s more to get.

Dry Summer (1963)

Director: Metin Erksan

Dry film, too. This film is known for having been an international success (Berlin Film Festival winner, actual US release—overseen by none other than David Durston, of all people—and Oscar nominee), and for having been buried at home almost immediately for the best part of half a century, on the grounds that, well, it was kind of sexy (there’s one scene of our villain perving on the female lead which is kind of eye-popping) and maybe a bit politically progressive (although the Masters of Cinema booklet essay by Phil Coldiron frets about it not being Marxist enough). What we have, basically, is a western of sorts set in what I presume was contemporary Turkey; the previously mentioned villain is the landowner, Osman, whose property contains a spring that irrigates his land and that of the surrounding village. When a particularly hot summer sets in and water is at a premium, he decides to dam up the spring so it only services him and not the neighbours. Needless to say, this goes badly with the latter, and things end in Osman shooting one of them, convincing his younger brother to be the fall guy for him while he stays free to tend the property… and the brother’s wife. This is all quite tedious, rendered with some admittedly striking visuals plus some irritatingly choppy story-telling and some really bad technical issues (bad dubbing and what looks like some very ill-advised sped-up motion at some points), plus some pointless animal cruelty, but the dullness of the characters is what sank it for me. The wife is quite nice, but the villagers are fucking hopeless, Osman is just a dreadful person without any evident charisma to make his sheer awfulness watchable, and the brother, Hasan, is not much better; he disagrees with Osman’s scheme but doesn’t really do much to oppose him cos he’s, frankly, kind of spineless. And that’s kind of the point, cos the end of the film is about him finally discovering that backbone, but it’s a bit late by then. Not feeling the love for this one at all.

Gate of Hell (1953)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa

At a time when Japanese cinema was just starting to gain worldwide renown, Kinugasa had a veritable international hit on his hands—award winner at Cannes and the Oscars among others—albeit one whose success apparently perplexed him; he was dissatisfied by the film owing to studio interference and what he thought was a weak script. But! Gate of Hell has one inarguable factor on its side, and that’s colour. Early 50s Eastmancolor, and oh my. If Eastman could never entirely compete with Technicolor (apart from convenience), it could certainly put up a worthy fight in the right hands.

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Gate of Hell is set against a historical uprising, the Heiji rebellion of 1160 in which the dominant Taira clan were attacked by the Minamoto clan while the former’s leader was on a pilgrimage. In the course of this, our rather dubious “hero”, the provincial warrior Morito, emerges; he’s rather a rough diamond, and even his good deeds during the uprising are shadowed by association with his brother, who joined the other side. It’s his obsession with Lady Kesa, however, a lady-in-waiting who he rescues from the chaos at Kyoto, that really draws attention; not just for the idea of a rustic chap like him wanting to marry nobility like her, but also because, well, she’s already got a husband. Like that’s enough to stop him, of course…

All of this is played quite nicely (particularly by Kazuo Hasegawa as the initially heroic-seeming but really kind of creepy and unpleasant Morito), but I can kind of understand Kinugasa’s reservations about the script; it makes for nice semi-film noir business in a historical setting but there’s also not really enough of it to fill 90 minutes. Still, you can make an argument that the film is as much about its use of colour and design as it is the story (that Oscar it won for costuming was well-deserved), and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I do tend to give a pass to films that are visually interesting if the story is a bit lacking. Gate of Hell is pretty much the sort of thing I mean by that.

The Warped Ones (1960)

Director: Kureyoshi Kurahara

Not much to say about this other than that I really disliked it. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw a film with such frankly shitty characters (and I don’t relish meeting them again in another film in this Kurahara box set from Eclipse). Kurahara films proceedings with undeniable vigour, and the comparisons with the energy of the burgeoning Nouvelle Vague (and Nuberu Bagu for that matter) are apt, but god/dess these people are such scum that I don’t give a shit. The pointless viciousness is kind of impressive considering the period, but, yeah, I don’t care.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard

I’m filing this under both documentary and drama because I’m not really sure how else to do so. “Dramatised documentary” is probably the best description for it, but that opens up a range of questions that the film invites us to ask pretty much from the get go. Primarily, and most obviously, how much of the film actually IS “documentary”? To what extent is it actually a drama posing as documentary? How far is a documentary still a “documentary” if parts of it at least are staged in some way (and can documentary even avoid at least some degree of contrivance)? That’s a question Werner Herzog’s documentary career has kind of been built on, and we’ve been asking it at least since Nanook of the North, and it hangs over this film… Anyway, our subject is one Nicholas Edward Cave, you may know those bands he’s fronted over the last four decades; I’m admittedly not a mega-fan of Nick—I know, I’m a bad goth—and I wasn’t particularly enamoured of Push the Sky Away, the album he and the Bad Seeds are working on in the course of this film (though the songs sound better in the film somehow than I remember them doing on record). That said, Forsyth and Pollard’s handling of their subject is interesting whatever you make of Nick himself; much of the film is in the form of conversations between him and various people—a psychotherapist, actor Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue, former Seed Blixa Bargeld (who’s… filled out a bit since he was in the band), current Seed Warren Ellis, and a group of archivists—which sounds like death but our directors manage to make it anything but, and of course that whole issue of “real vs staged” helps maintain interest (e.g. there’s photographic evidence of Tracy Pew beating up some German guy pissing on him on-stage, but what about the equally marvellous story of Nick’s teenage transvestism? Did that really happen?). Cave says a couple of things about living for performance and the desire to transform himself into something he wasn’t, and those two statements kind of underpin the whole film and leave us to question the “Nick Cave” we see throughout it; if there’s no definite answer by the end, the journey is still a fun one. Plus Warren Ellis plays a Microkorg at several points, and that always wins me over to an artist…

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director: D.W. Griffith

Yeah. THAT film. Today marks the centenary of its public debut. The Birth is film history’s version of the elephant in the room in many ways. If you consider yourself a serious film student, you have to watch it at some point, it is unavoidable whether you like it or not, but no one would blame you for being reluctant to do so (and not just because of the considerable time investment). It still raises a stink whenever someone tries to show it, and no wonder. Even Roger Ebert hesitated over it when it came to naming it one of his “great films”, so far lesser lights like myself can probably be excused for doing the same thing.

But it is a film that needs to be recognised for its position within American cinema history, even if you feel like you need to apologise for doing so; it was an attempt to commemorate the Civil War—which had ended not quite 50 years earlier when the film was released and so was a thing still reasonably within living memory, at least for older people at the time of the film—and to rather consciously elevate the feature film to some new level of artistic prestige. It would be unfair to deny that Griffith did a more than fair job of that.

Of course, it’s not always easy to appreciate the Birth for its historical importance; it’s one of those films where you need to have some context. And that was pretty much what I got when I last saw it back in 1999, as part of David Stratton’s Continuing Education course in film history… in that class we spent the first four classes looking at the earliest films, one-reelers and even shorter films up to 1914 (if I recall rightly, the third class was given over to a selection of Griffith’s Biograph shorts), and then the fifth one was devoted entirely to the Birth. It was staggering. For probably the first time—and I had seen it a few times before that—I kind of understood what an impact it must’ve had in 1915; imagine being an American filmgoer at that time, used mainly to the shorter films and early features of the period up to 1915, then WHAM here comes three hours of war epic and paranoid racist fantasy. Must’ve felt like a bomb going off in the industry especially.

Of course, that paranoid racist fantasy is the other stumbling block to appreciating the Birth these days. Even more so, I dare say, than the context issue. And even at the time it appalled people—not just the NAACP, too—for being a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, a long-since dead in the water mob when the film came out but whose fortunes were revived by the Birth. Griffith did himself no favours, either, by not really getting why people were upset by it, and the filmed preview he shot for a 1930 reissue in which he claimed the Klan had been a necessary force post-war didn’t help either. Even Thomas Dixon, the racist moonbat whose novel The Clansman and the play derived therefrom were turned into the film’s second half, had enough sense to repudiate the revived Klan in the 1920s when Griffith was delighted to exhibit the thing in Klan-heavy territories.

The Birth is a big film; apart from its three-hour running time, it’s just so determined to be the ultimate example of the sort of thing it is. Griffith had ambitions for this film and made no bones about them, those ambitions are all there on the screen. Indeed, rewatching it tonight and actually looking at the depth of some of the images, the actual amount of space the battle scenes contain within the frame, made me realise just how much is going on in the film at those times (when you can see it through the often unfortunately strong red tint applied to the Kino DVD print in these scenes); Griffith covers a lot of ground quite literally. The whole film is a grand gesture and monument. I think it’s fair to consider it a great film, and certainly the first half of the film—i.e. the character establishing and the actual Civil War action—offers few issues other than a few outbursts of Griffithian sentiment (“the opal gates of death”, anyone?). It’s so nicely played, and Griffith’s performers are eminently charming, and however heavy-handed some of the emotion is, some of it (like Henry B. Walthall’s homecoming after the war) is really quite powerful.

It’s just… the second half.

Being a southerner himself, and therefore from the losing side in the war, Griffith’s sympathies were obviously going to lie that way, and the film’s heroic presentation of the Klan can obviously be seen as a kind of revenge fantasy (“think y’all Yankees can take our niggers away from us? We’ll show YOU! Git off ma lawn now, I got a cross to burn there…”); the fact that most of the black characters in the film are actually whites in blackface of a kind that occasionally makes Al Jolson look understated is just icing on the cake (topped only by the scene near the end where a couple of blacks actually turn out to be whites in black “disguise”). But even in my much less racially sensitive youth when I first saw the film, I still knew there was something weird and nasty going on there. Given how much of part one is based on the detailed historical research—right down to Joe Henabery recreating the rather particular way Lincoln sat in a chair—that the intertitles sometimes cite outright, this bizarre fantasia of the darkies getting out of hand and forcing the eminently superior white man to put on a hood and robe to bring them back into line is just… I don’t know. It’s like the negrophobe Andrew Johnson wasn’t actually the president or something. And part two is as well made as part one—the climactic Klan ride to the rescue is kind of awe-inspiring—it’s a perfectly good piece of filmmaking… if only the content didn’t overshadow whatever other merits it has. And if only it didn’t overshadow the whole first half of the film.

Ultimately that’s the film’s dilemma. Ever since 1915, it’s been the second half of the film that’s really caused the stink. It makes me wonder, had the film never included the Clansman material, had it just been the war drama of the first part, how would it have been received then? How would we receive it now? I mean, there’s dubious bits in the first part, but nothing like the second half. Would the film have got people so worked up back then without the “KKK ra ra ra” stuff? Would we care about it now? Would the film even exist now? Plenty of big hits of that period have fallen by the nitrate wayside over the decades… The converse question, of course: would we care about the racism were the film not as well made as it is? If it were, say, on the order of a bad anti-communist propaganda film a la Ron Ormond, we could probably just dismiss it as an unpleasant curiosity at best, too shoddy to actually get worked up about.

The fact that we still do suggests something about the film we may not like to admit, i.e. that it actually must be a great film if its perniciousness still rouses fervour in us, and that we can’t just dismiss it as easily as we might like. To quote Ebert, “it is a great film that argues for evil”, which is an awfully hard thing to swallow; on rewatching tonight, I feel about as far away from resolving that contradiction as ever. Still, I’m sure it’ll outlast me, and though people may get worked up about things like American Sniper (which seems to be the stink du jour) now, I doubt anyone will really care about that in a hundred years time in the way people still care a hundred years after the Birth‘s first release. Or the way I suspect they will still care about it in 2115…

The End of the World (1916)

Director: August Blom

This month, the challenge theme at the ICheckMovies forum is silent cinema, so obviously there’s going to be a batch of that featured here in February (can’t pass it up). However, I’m not entirely finished with the SF/fantasy theme yet, as will be evident from the next few reviews… We start with something of a bang, accordingly. As far as I can tell, this is probably the earliest apocalyptic SF film, revolving around a comet poised to strike the Earth, and though Denmark gave us Lars von Troll’s Melancholia a few years ago, I wonder how many people know it also gave us this thing nearly a century earlier… long before the US could offer the efforts of Bruce Willis to stop the catastrophe, which means yeah, the big glowing space thing does in fact hit. Actually, the film is mostly a bit of a romantic melodrama involving a venal capitalist who owns a mining town, steals the girlfriend of one of the miners to be his wife, and, when news comes of this comet thing, plans to come out on top of things after its arrival. Curious film in some ways, even in 1916 it must’ve seemed a bit… old in its cinematic technique (stiff tableau staging and all that); but the subject matter (which seems to have been inspired by the then-recent fuss over Halley’s Comet in 1910) must’ve been something new at the time (not to mention singularly cheerless, given the conflict still raging in Europe at the time; I know Denmark was neutral in WW1 but even so). And, when the comet does start to hit, it does so with surprising force given the limitations of budget and technology 100 years ago; and though Blom does give us an approximately happy ending (the film’s other nice romantic couple survive, though there’s still strangely little sense that things will be OK somehow), I will admit to being a bit taken aback by his commitment to the carnage. It’s probably a flawed film in various ways from a modern perspective, but let’s give it the honour of its historical position, and thank it for being half the length of Melancholia

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Yeah, I kind of get what Ebert meant when he described this as an “anti-romance”. Red is about as heavy-handed as Blue and White, possibly even more so when it comes to the colour work; each film is full of things that are the colour in each title—blue pool lighting, big fields of snow, etc—and Red seems to be even more overtly full of “red business” than the other two films are of their respective colours. That said, I also felt Red possesses a degree of emotional warmth and resonance neither of the other two films particularly radiated, so that, whatever its issues, this is the one film in the trilogy I actually probably could watch again one day without undue distress. If Blue was about a woman on her own and White about a man on his own, both forcibly separated from their other halves, Red is about a man and a woman on their own but coming together. She’s a student and model who discovers him after she accidentally runs down his runaway dog; he’s a retired judge who spends his time spying on the telephone calls of the people who live near him (including hers). Not the most promising ground from which to grow a friendship, but that’s what happens, sure enough, as the two of them come to more of an understanding about each other; she brings him out of his shell of loneliness and bitterness and gradually comes to learn why he retreated into it in the first place. All played in lovely fashion by Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant. I wish the other two films could’ve been more like this. The storm ending is a bit more melodramatic than anything in the trilogy and kind of out of place, and Red still suffers the problem the other two films do of having stories that could each have been told in about an hour without losing much, but I still got more from this than I did either of the other two films, and given my experiences of those I frankly wasn’t expecting that.