Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Company of Wolves

(1984) Directed by Neil Jordan; Written by Angela Carter and Neil Jordan; Based on a story by Angela Carter; Starring: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Stephen Rea and Micha Bergese; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Rating: ***½

“The one thing we did not want…for it to be logical in a linear way, which might have caused problems for some people, but I wanted some surreal elements that kind of come from nowhere, because the story is structured around a young girl’s dream, and I wanted elements that were as unexpected as things that happen in a dream; this strange reality that didn’t actually have to be symbolic of anything…” – Neil Jordan (from DVD commentary)

I’m honored to contribute to the Adoring Angela LansburyBlogathon, celebrating the marvelously enduring actress and her many contributions to cinema, stage and TV. Thanks to host Gill Jacob from RealWeegieMidget Reviews for the invite, and for hosting another exceptional blogathon. The guest of honor, Ms. Lansbury, reminds us it’s not the screen time that counts, but what you do with it. Her relatively sparse appearance in The Company of Wolves belies the impact her character has in the film.  

In a thematic shift from his first film, director/co-writer Neil Jordan’s second directorial effort (working from a story by Angela Carter, who also co-wrote the screenplay) delves into the realm of fairy tales and fantasy, steeped in psychosexual imagery. Jordan cited several key influences for the film, including Grimm’s fairy tales, the artwork of French illustrator Gustave Doré, German expressionism, and Corman’s “Poe Cycle” of films. Anton Furst’s (Full Metal Jacket, Batman) lush art design and animatronic effects by Christopher Tucker (The Elephant Man) enhances this modestly budgeted film.

Jordan described The Company of Wolves’ story structure as a “Chinese box,” comprised of stories within stories. Most of the film is set in 18th century rural England, bracketed by a framing story set in the 20th century. As we enter the alternate dreamlike fairytale world, a porcelain Granny doll and stuffed animals spring to life. Our modern-day upper-middle-class protagonist, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) endures rites of passage, and learns about the true nature of men, as relayed by Granny, now flesh and blood (Angela Lansbury).  

We’re introduced to various aspects of fairytale lore, such as never trusting a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle. Granny admonishes Rosaleen not to stray from the path, lest she succumb to some unspecified calamity. For her, the path is the straight and narrow, a virtuous road that’s only becomes corrupted by wolves and her indiscretion. Shots of frogs throughout the film appear to signify harbingers of some fantastical transgression. In one scene, Rosaleen climbs a tree and encounters a nest. Inside the nest she finds bright red lipstick (evocative of blood and lust) and eggs that hatch to reveal baby dolls (fertility). The wolves* (a combination of real wolves, dogs and animatronics) featured throughout the film linger in the shadowy woods, a constant reminder of the dangers that await her if she dares to venture away from the acceptable route. Eventually, curiosity prevails over Rosaleen’s fear of her budding sexuality. The film suggests it’s the natural order of things for adolescents to discover their sexuality. Part of their rite of passage is to embrace or deny that inherent aspect of growing up. Despite all admonitions and cautions, it’s a natural, inevitable process, and a personal journey.

* Not-So-Fun Fact: According to Jordan’s DVD commentary, the filmmakers originally secured four wolves for the project, but only ended up with two for the shoot. In one instance, one wolf ate the other.

Angela Lansbury, Jordan explained, brought a duality to the role of Granny, displaying nurturing and motherly aspects, but also presenting a darker side. She warns Rosaleen about the hidden dangers of men (“The worst kind of wolves are hairy on the inside, and when they bite you, they drag you with them to hell.”). Only Lansbury could make requesting a kiss on the cheek seem simultaneously innocent and sinister as she spins her cautionary tales. The stories build to a climactic retelling of the classic Little Red Riding Hood fable. It should be no surprise concerning Granny’s eventual fate, but it’s handled in a way that reminds us everything’s in a dream world with its own set of rules and logic.

Jordan hired a combination of veteran actors and novices for some key roles. First-timer Sarah Patterson stars as Rosaleen and dancer Micha Bergese as the Huntsman (a wolf in man’s clothing), was chosen for the physicality he could bring to the role. The film featured seasoned actors as well, including David Warner * as Rosaleen’s father, and a fun little cameo by Terence Stamp as The Devil,** who appears (in an anachronistic, 20th century turn) in a white Rolls Royce.

* Interesting (but not particularly fun) Fact: David Warner suffered an accident in which both legs were broken, making it difficult to walk and stand for long periods of time. As a result, Jordan incorporated many opportunities for the actor to sit or lean on the set pieces, such as chairs, tables and a bed.

** Fun Fact: The filmmakers originally wanted Andy Warhol for the satanic role. Although Warhol was reportedly interested in performing it, a recent assassination attempt left him afraid of travel, and he insisted on shooting his part in New York City.

The Company of Wolves was marketed in the U.S. by Cannon films as a horror movie, rather than the dark, surrealistic fantasy that it was. Baffled American audiences probably didn’t know what hit them when they watched it during its theatrical run. The perceived bait and switch seems to persist to this day, but if you think more Labyrinth and less The Howling, you’ll do fine. Its trancelike properties, purposeful ambiguity and leisurely pace might put some folks off, but it promises to reward and challenge on multiple viewings.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Japan-uary VIII Quick Picks and Pans

The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979) Director/co-writer Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s thought-provoking film is the darkest of comedies, told from the perspective of a country that has lived under the nuclear shadow. Makoto Kido (Kenji Sawada) is an eccentric high school science teacher who decides to create the ultimate experiment, an atomic bomb. He breaks into a nuclear power plant to steal radioactive materials, and proceeds to construct the deadly device. He stays one step ahead of the authorities, goading a hard-edged police inspector (Bunta Sugawara), and catching the imagination of Zero (Kimiko Ikegami), a local TV host. As government officials race against time to locate the bomb, they acquiesce to his increasingly fanciful demands (including hosting The Rolling Stones in Tokyo).

The Man Who Stole the Sun works as an allegory for the Pandora’s Box we have opened and can never close – the constant threat of nuclear annihilation (Kido calls himself “Nine,” as the ninth nation to have a nuclear arsenal). As Kido slowly succumbs to the effects of radiation poisoning, he has less to lose, and his behavior becomes more erratic. His motives are never made clear – does he act out of disdain for authority, boredom, or something else? The ambiguity surrounding the character works for him, as we’re left to speculate. When we hear the ticking bomb in the climax, we can only imagine it ticking for all of us. One thing is likely – you’ll be thinking about the film for days.

Note: It’s perplexing that this film is only available as a Japanese import DVD (The film has an English subtitle option, but alas, the extras do not). If there were ever an ideal candidate for Criterion or Arrow, this would be it.   

Rating: ****. Available on DVD (Region 2)         

Branded to Kill (1967) Seijun Suzuki’s neo-noir crime thriller is fast, sexy, and flaunts enough style for a dozen other movies. Jô Shishido stars as Gorô Hanada, one of the underworld’s top hitmen. He’s sought after for his prodigious skill with a gun, but the hunter becomes the hunted when he botches an assassination attempt. Now he’s at the top of the hitlist, pursued by a fabled killer known only as “Number 1.” To complicate things, he’s become entangled with the beautiful, mysterious Misako (Annu Mari), who enjoys pinning butterflies and birds. Branded to Kill distinguishes itself from other films in the genre, thanks to a relentless pace, inventive camera angles, and an idiosyncratic main character (who has a bizarre rice fixation). It’s required viewing for anyone with a taste for action movies that exceed the norm and keep on going.  

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Evil of Dracula (1974) The final film in Michio Yamamoto’s vampire trilogy doesn’t have Dracula in it, but the lead villain would have made the eponymous count proud. The title alludes to a western visitor (Roger Green), who visited Japan 200 years ago, rejected Christianity and became a demon that thirsted for human blood. Toshio Kurosawa plays professor Shiraki, who’s invited to a remote, all-female college. The principal (Shin Kishida), mourning the loss of his wife, grooms Shiraki as his successor. The new professor soon discovers that all is not well with the school, as he learns about the history of missing students, with signs pointing to the principal as the culprit. Evil of Dracula recalls Hammer’s vampire films from that era, with a dark, foreboding mansion, and lusty, nubile minions slinking around in diaphanous gowns. The film succeeds, due to improved pacing, compared to its predecessor Lake of Dracula, and an amusing performance by Kunie Tanaka as Dr. Shimomura, who espouses his formidable knowledge about local vampire lore. Great fun.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (in boxed set, The Bloodthirsty Trilogy)

The H-Man (1958) Ishirô Honda’s overlooked sci-fi film is a spiritual precursor of sorts to Matango, dealing with body transformation themes. Hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific affects the crew of a merchant vessel, turning them into puddles of glowing green slime. Back on the mainland, police are on the lookout for a notorious member of a drug smuggling ring. One of their key members has been exposed to the same radiation, and become a shadowy figure, who disappears into the night. His girlfriend Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa), a nightclub singer, might be the key. She’s joined by young researcher, Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara), who attempts to uncover the secret of the disappearing man. Chikako and Masada face an uphill struggle to convince a skeptical police inspector (Akihiko Hirata) to listen to them. A noir-ish vibe and creepy low-key effects combine to make this something special.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Cold Fish (2010) Director/co-writer Shion Sono’s (with Yoshiki Takahashi) thriller, allegedly based on a true story, paints a bloody portrait of a dysfunctional family triad who become enmeshed in the whims of a sociopath. Nobuyuki Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) runs a small tropical fish shop with his distant wife Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka) and troubled daughter Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara). When his daughter is caught shoplifting at a supermarket, Syamoto has a chance encounter with Yukio Murata (Denden), the wealthy, charismatic owner of a rival aquarium store. We quickly discover Murata’s warm demeanor and generous nature is only a façade for his bullying, violent tendencies, as he uses Syamoto’s family as pawns. Syamoto soon becomes his unwitting “apprentice,” as an accomplice to his shady business dealings and murder (or as Murata calls it, making people “invisible”). Sono doesn’t shy away from Murata’s gory deeds, but if you have a strong stomach, it’s a compelling portrait of deceit and psychological manipulation.   

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD

Wolf Guy (1975) Sonny Chiba stars as Akira Inugami, the last of his kind – he’s not exactly a wolfman – he doesn’t transform into another form, but possesses the attributes of a wolf, with heightened senses and quick reflexes. Inugami helps a tiger-woman/junkie fight yakuza thugs and shady government agents who want to harness her energy for their own nefarious ends. Based on the manga Urufu Gai by Kazumasa Hirai and directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, it’s a nutty blend of action and horror, and a hell of a ride. Just watch it. You’ll be glad you did. And don’t forget to fasten your seatbelts.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, Shudder, Kanopy

Lake of Dracula (1971) This is the second title of Yamamoto’s loose trilogy, bookended by The Vampire Doll (1970) and Evil of Dracula (1974). Shin Kishida stars in the title role, with a performance that’s closer to Lee than Lugosi, imposing and animalistic.  Akiko (Midori Fujita) re-experiences a traumatic event from her past, and begins to notice people in her town are falling under the spell of a mysterious figure. Unfortunately, her younger sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi) and fiancée Dr. Takashi Saeki (Chôei Takahashi) refuse to believe her. The first two-thirds drag (most of the action is reserved for the final act), but it’s heavy on atmosphere.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (in boxed set, The Bloodthirsty Trilogy)

Tomie (1998) Director Ataru Oikawa and writer Ataru Oikawa’s tepid adaptation of the Junji Ito manga is slow going, but it has its moments. Miho Kanno plays Tomie Kawakami, a girl with a mesmerizing effect on all who cross her path. Death and misfortune follow. The film could have benefitted from more of Ito’s signature style and general weirdness. Instead, we’re subjected to a collection of generic J-horror tropes with a singular story (instead of the episodic narrative from the manga). The most damning aspect, however, is Kanno’s bland performance, failing to capture the alluring quality of the titular character. Skip the film and read the manga instead.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

NOTE: This is my 100th edition of Quick Picks and Pans (I’ve really done that many?). Thanks to all my readers, old and new!