Saturday, May 28, 2011

May Quick Picks and Pans

Tokyo Godfathers (2003) Director/co-writer Satoshi Kon spins a tale about an unlikely trio of homeless people who discover an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve.  The dramatis personae are: Gin, a middle-aged man who subsequently lost his wife, his daughter, and his job; Hana, a drag queen who just wants to belong somewhere; and Miyuki, a jaded 16-year-old runaway girl who’s haunted by an incident in her recent past.  Their only link to the baby’s origins is a public locker key, leading them to a few scant clues.  They name the baby Kiyoko (meaning “pure child“), and set off to find out who her mother is, and why she was abandoned.   Each of the three primary characters has a gaping hole in his or her life, and the baby somehow fills that void.  Either wittingly or unwittingly, they acquire a sense of purpose because of their quixotic adventures with the infant, winding their way through the streets of Tokyo, looking for clues that will lead them back to the parents. 

There are a series of serendipitous events in Tokyo Godfathers that will seem life affirming or frustratingly contrived, depending on your point of view.  Are these events major coincidences or minor miracles?  You’ll have to decide.  What Tokyo Godfathers does best is capture the gritty realism of life on the streets of Tokyo, with memorable and quirky characters.  The lively animation and detailed cityscapes paint a picture of a modern Tokyo, warts and all.  A photorealistic Tokyo Tower looms prominently in the background, lording over the city’s drama like a silent Greek chorus.  Satoshi Kon hits all the right notes with the overall tone, displaying a deftness of balancing comedy with drama that distinguishes the best anime from its heavy-handed American counterparts.  It’s hilarious at times, while other times touching, but never to the point of feeling saccharine. Highly recommended.
Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

Plague of the Zombies (1966) Some have cited Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies as a key influence on Night of the Living Dead, which arrived on the scene two years later.  Personally, I don’t see the connection.  There are significant differences between the depictions of zombies in both films.  Night of the Living Dead represented a milestone in the zombie genre, reflecting more modern sensibilities and a pseudo-scientific cause for the outbreak.   Plague of the Zombies is grounded in more traditional representations, as depicted in such films as White Zombie or I Walked with a Zombie, where voodoo rituals are the catalyst.  Another primary distinction is that the Zombies in Plague of the Zombies are under human control, while the George Romero zombies are relatively autonomous.

Dr. James Forbes visits his protégé, Peter Tompson, in a small village dominated by ignorance and suspicion of outsiders.  Twelve villagers have died, in as many months, of an unknown illness.  Forbes and Thompson are unable to investigate further because autopsies are prohibited by the scheming local magistrate, played by John Carson.  Vexed by the lack of progress, the doctors decide to take matters into their own hands.  Plague of the Zombies starts off with a bang, but sags in the middle, and suffers from a somewhat lugubrious pace.  Like many Hammer productions, however, it saves most of the action for the final scenes.  The sporadic zombie mayhem is more atmospheric than scary.  Although it’s not quite the trailblazing flick it’s been hyped to be, it’s still a worthy entry in the overall genre, and deserves a look.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD.

The Legend of 1900 (1999) Tim Roth stars in this flawed but fascinating film, about a man who lives his entire life on an ocean liner, never once setting foot on land.  Taken at face value, it’s more than a little unbelievable, but it has a way of getting under your skin.  The Legend of 1900 is galvanized by Roth’s enigmatic performance as 1900 (Yes, that’s the character’s name.), who was born and subsequently abandoned on the ship Virginian and raised by a coal stoker.  1900 is immensely talented as a jazz pianist, but unwilling to go beyond the confines of the ship.  There’s something admirable and pathetic about 1900, with his uncompromising ideals and impenetrable shell.  He enjoys the peripatetic lifestyle of living on a ship, passively watching things from port to port, but never actively participating in what goes on from the land.  Writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore sets a tone that shifts from dramatic to whimsical, often in the same scene.  The Legend of 1900 is inconsistent and frustrating at times, full of many unanswered questions.  The film does not bother to answer how 1900 managed to stay on the ship all of these years, but Tornatore is interested in the broad strokes, not the details.  He endows the film with an almost dreamlike quality, which carries over to 1900’s view of the world.  Tornatore appears to be winking at you the whole time, with a film that’s silly at times, sporadically amusing, but never pretentious.  If you can manage to turn off your cynicism for a couple of hours, you might just fall under its spell, and sympathize with 1900’s perspective.  After all, stepping off the ship would be analogous to stepping out of a dream, and who really wants a good dream to end?

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD. 

Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg) (1962)  This little known Hammer film was released in the States under the unfortunate title of Night Creatures, instead of the better Captain Clegg, as it’s known elsewhere.  American distributors probably wanted to capitalize on Hammer’s reputation for horror films, but it’s something else entirely.  Part pirate tale, part intrigue, Night Creatures features Peter Cushing, in one of his best performances, as the mysterious Dr. Blyss, who works with local bootleggers to outsmart the British Royal Navy in a game of cat and mouse.  Cushing apparently relished his role as Blyss, and it shows.  He infuses his character with a lot of wry wit and humor, which you don’t normally associate with Cushing.  According to the Marcus Hearn’s informative book, The Hammer Story, Cushing himself wrote the screenplays for two sequels, which sadly were never produced.  It’s too bad that the world will never know where Cushing would have taken his character in later chapters, but at least we have this film, capturing him in his prime.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

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