Friday, July 04, 2008

Week of June 16th:

Gate of Flesh (1964): Garish post-WWII madness from crazed auteur Seijun Suzuki. The reigning idea is that of the society of whores standing in for late-'40s Japan as an ugly expression of the free market, with everything and everyone for sale; yet, however predatory, it still functions as a society with carefully coded rules until true anarchic lawlessness shows up in the form of Jo Shishido. Film gets the full force of Suzuki's visual imagination, yet unlike a lot of the '60s-era color films I've seen of his, it never loses sight of the story. The sweaty ambiance and seedy fluorescence on display here hearken forward to the golden age of Japanese artsploitation -- films like Sex and Fury and Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 clearly owe Suzuki a debt of gratitude. Pair with The Marriage of Maria Braun for a joyfully decadent evening. Grade: B+

The Machine Girl (2008): Manufactured by the Asian-extreme fanboy crowd for the Asian-extreme fanboy crowd, which isn't as surefire an idea as you might think. I would have thought that a film with geysers of blood, ninjas, chainsaws, a killer brassiere and a psychotic Japanese schoolgirl with a Gatling gun for an arm as its heroine could at the very least exude a sense of fun. Instead, this would-be cult readymade exhibits all the wit and charm of a steel-gray Toledo office building. I envision the filmmakers as grim-faced types, ruefully checking off items on a list entitled "Things That Tokyo Shock DVD Buyers Seem to Like" as they stand ankle-deep in rubber limbs and crimson Karo syrup. Takashi Miike or the much-maligned Lloyd Kaufman might have made something of this, since they tend to work in thematic resonance and emotion with their cult-approved frameworks; the people responsible for this, on the other hand, don't appear to have any artistic purpose beyond filling a mythical audience niche that even they don't believe in. Grade: C-

Mamma Roma (1962): Heavy metaphor abound in this early feature from Pier Paolo Pasolini, which finds him splitting the difference between the neorealism that got him noticed and the allegorical narratives that he would explore further to great effect later in his career. Anna Magnani IS Mother Rome, both as a character and as a stand-in for the city, trying desperately to care for her offspring and adapt to a mercantile society after years and years of getting fucked (by johns, by Fascists, it's all the same). Unfortunately, while Anna's volcanic performance is a striking asset, Pasolini isn't so lucky with the younger members of his cast, most of whom slouch and mumble to little use. Furthermore, the craft of the film itself is ragged; while such looseness feels appropriate for, say, The Canterbury Tales, here it just feels sloppy. Uneven, full of great moments (Magnani and son quasi-incestuously dancing to a jazz record; Magnani and son ripping around on a motorcycle) without ever really cohering, yet possessed with enough vitality and thought to mark it as a promising move from a man who would later make better films than this. Also: Christ symbolism! Grade: B-

The Orphanage (2007): Lovely, lyrical opening shot, which promises something along the lines of Lucille Hadzihalilovic's gorgeous poison pellet Innocence. Shame about the rest of the film then. J.A. Bayona is a talented man with a solid visual sense and a way with mood. But if there's a point to this film beyond his need to show everyone just how much J-horror he's been watching lately, I must have missed it. Guess being a friend of Guillermo Del Toro helps get your half-assed horror project some respect from people who wouldn't give Infection or A Tale of Two Sisters the time of day. Grade: C

Regular Lovers (2007): Clearly a response film to The Dreamers, not only in the dig at that film's director but in intent. The Bertolucci film is a film about idealism, and if Michael Pitt eventually departs from Eva Green and Louis Garrel at film's end, it still ends on a tide of revolutionary fervor. Phillipe Garrel's film reads more like idealism curdled; it starts with the '68 riots and follows past that to a sense of aimlessness, the confusion that comes once you've revolted. When you've positioned yourself in opposition, where do you go from there? In particular, Garrel the director (as opposed to Louis, Phillipe's son, who stars here as the flipside to his character in The Dreamers) draws a clear contrast between the one or two genuine revolutionaries in the loose artistic collective that provides the film's central focus and the pretenders who bitch, smoke hash and generally use the revolt as a pretext to do nothing. When one disillusioned fellow splits, he leaves a note calling out the others on their inability to affect change; "They're losing the revolution indoors" is the key line in this note, and it catches the spirit of the film quite well. Rich black-and-white cinematography, convincing performances, stellar sense of time and atmosphere; a long sit but worth the numb cheeks. Grade: B


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