Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Beauty and the Beast (aka: La Belle et la Bête)

 

Beauty and the Beast Poster

(1946) Written and directed by Jean Cocteau; Based on the story by Madame Leprince de Beaumont; Starring: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair and Marcel André

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“To find trees where there are none, or something where it shouldn’t be, such as a hat off a head in one shot but on again in the next, are, as it were, cracks in the wall through which poetry can penetrate. Those who notice such spelling mistakes are the real illiterates and cannot be moved by fantasy anyhow. Such details have no importance.” – Jean Cocteau (from Diary of a Film, by Jean Cocteau)

Belle and the Beast

Fairy tales stand apart from more conventional stories because of their timeless quality, passed down from generation to generation. They reside on their own plane, a kind of universal language that’s understood and enjoyed by young and old. When or where they take place isn’t relevant, compared to the lessons they teach us about human nature. Beauty and the Beast (aka: La Belle et la Bête) begins, fittingly enough, with “Once upon a time…” In his introduction, writer/director Jean Cocteau invites us to enjoy his film with the innocence and wonderment of a child. Beauty and the Beast, which Cocteau described as “a fairy tale without fairies,” was years in the planning, and filmed from late 1945 through the first half of 1946. He utilized real-life locations for the exteriors (which gave the film a more expansive feel), while the interiors were filmed in sound stages around Paris. An 18th century manor house in Rochecorbon* served as the home for Belle and her family, and the exterior of a sprawling estate in Raray became the Beast’s castle. The production suffered numerous setbacks, including the illnesses of Jean Cocteau** and cast members Jean Marais and Mila Parély, multiple power outages, and budgetary constraints that necessitated the use of several different film stocks. It’s a testament to Cocteau’s vision, chronicled extensively in his Diary of a Film, that he never lost his way.    

* Fun Fact #1: For his location shoot in Rochecorbon, Cocteau was plagued with constant flyovers from a local military airfield – the anachronistic drone of the aircraft (and their presence in the sky) would have undoubtedly taken viewers out of the fairy tale world.

** Not-So-Fun-Fact: Cocteau suffered from numerous ailments throughout the course of filming, including facial rashes, boils, a tooth abscess, and painful sensitivity to the studio lighting. At one point, some of his symptoms became so severe that he was hospitalized for a few days, followed by several days of recovery, bringing production to a temporary halt.

Belle and Family

Belle (Josette Day)* spends her days caring for her merchant father (Marcel André), and being subservient to her two cruel, narcissistic sisters Félicie and Adélaïde (played by Mila Parély and Nane Germon, respectively). While she toils away with the housework, they dress in the finest clothing, acting like royalty, even though the family fortune has been squandered. Her brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) mocks her sisters for their haughty ways, while he wastes his hours with his friend (and Belle’s potential suitor) Avenant (Jean Marais).** One fateful evening, Belle’s father, too destitute to pay for a room at an inn, is forced to ride through the forest alone at night. He encounters an enchanted castle, where he spends the evening. During a walk in the garden, he picks a single rose for Belle, which incites the sole denizen of the estate, a fearsome Beast. The enraged creature spares his life, in exchange for one of his daughters. Despite her father’s protests, Belle selflessly volunteers to go in his place. Anyone familiar with Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s enduring story, or its many incarnations and permutations, will know the rest.

* Fun Fact #2: According to film historian Arthur Knight, Josette Day was so frightened of the Beast’s horse “Magnificent,” featured prominently in the film, that Cocteau used a double for her riding scenes.

** Fun Fact #3: In de Beaumont’s original story, Belle had three brothers, which was changed simply to Ludovic for the movie. Avenant served as Belle’s sole suitor, in place of multiple (unsuccessful) suitors in the story.

The Beast

Cocteau found a fitting Beast/Avenant/Prince in his lover/muse of several years, Jean Marais. The triple role was especially demanding as the Beast, which required enduring the extensive makeup by Hagop Arakelian.* Despite the limitations imposed by the makeup (which restricted what he could eat, and often placed him into a foul temper), Marais’ passionate performance shines through. With his face obscured, he conveys pathos with his eyes and emotes through body movement. 

* Fun Fact #4: Marais’ Beast makeup required five hours to apply, and his scenes sometimes demanded that he stay in makeup for up to 15 hours at a stretch (a feat that would likely have tested anyone’s patience).

Belle in the Castle

The film’s design required ingenuity from Cocteau’s dedicated team of craftspeople, accomplishing so much with so little. In his film diary, Cocteau lamented that there wasn’t a budget to shoot the film in color. Black and white, however has its own magic. Per his instructions, the castle interiors were based on the works of French illustrator Gustave Doré. The imagery, particularly in the Beast’s castle, resembles pencil sketches or charcoal drawings, effectively mimicking what you’d expect to find in an old storybook. The monochromatic images contribute to the ethereal nature of the subject matter, with the results resembling a waking dream. In one scene, Belle traverses one hallway in slow motion, as if in a somnambulistic trance. In another part of the castle, she glides through a corridor as though she were floating on air. The sets incorporate surreal touches, including candelabras held up by disembodied arms jutting from the walls, food and drink that serves itself, and ghostly caryatids, whose eyes follow Belle’s every movement. Cocteau also employed old-fashioned trick photography (dating back to the films of Georges Méliès) to depict the impossible, as when Belle’s tears become diamonds. With its emphasis on visuals and pantomime, Beauty and the Beast could just as well be a silent film. In many cases, the dialogue (which Cocteau confided was something he didn’t enjoy writing) is almost incidental.  

Beast and Belle

Contrary to what we’re led to believe, it’s not the beast who’s ugly. Rather, it’s others’ distorted perceptions of him, fueled by avarice, envy and ignorance. It takes Belle’s patience and compassion to see the beauty inside (although truth be told, I never thought he looked ugly in the first place. His supposedly dreadful appearance is something we have to accept on faith alone). Similar to the roses the Beast cherishes, the film is a respite from the awful realities of the world. It’s an exquisite work, told with finesse, humor, and above all, the heart of a child. Cocteau understands the conceits of the fairy tale, working within its confines, which requires the complicity of the audience. The more one tries to peek behind the curtains to explain away the machinations of the film or reveal the magic, the further they stray from the mark. Beauty and the Beast is a simple story, wonderfully told, by a master at the top of his craft. It’s a fitting film, if ever there was, to combat the cynicism of an adult in these complex times. 

Sources for this article: Diary of a Film by Jean Cocteau; Criterion DVD commentary by Arthur Knight

Thursday, February 25, 2021

French February Quick Picks and Pans

 

Port of Shadows Poster

Port of Shadows (1938) Jean (Jean Gabin), an AWOL soldier, hitches a ride to the port town of Le Havre, with the intention of assuming a new identity and hopping on a cargo ship bound for Venezuela. In a short span of time, he meets new friends (including a dog who stays glued to his side) and a few enemies. Things become complicated when he encounters Nelly (Michèle Morgan), a young woman with a checkered past, and it’s love at first sight. Marcel Carné’s sublimely bittersweet film (based on a novel by Pierre Dumarchais) explores the ephemeral nature of joy, contrasted with the crushing pitfalls of life. Jean Gabin is superb in his compassionate portrayal of a tough guy with a soft spot for the downtrodden. Port of Shadows is an unforgettable film that’s alternately heartbreaking and life-affirming. 

Rating: ****½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Kanopy

Orpheus Poster

Orpheus (aka: Orphée) (1950) Jean Cocteau’s modern interpretation of the Greek Orpheus myth stars Jean Marais as the title character, a beloved local celebrity (In this version, he’s a poet instead of a musician). He becomes so engrossed in his work that he scarcely notices his pregnant wife Eurydice (Marie Déa). When she suddenly dies, the remorseful protagonist must bargain with Death (María Casares, in a winning performance) and the underworld, to bring her back to the realm of the living. Unfortunately for Orpheus, the trade-off is that he can never look upon her face again. Cocteau’s film is endlessly innovative, working with what must have been a miniscule budget. It’s a novel spin on a classic tale, told with humor and aplomb.   

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

Playtime Poster
Playtime (1967) Writer/director/star Jacques Tati takes audiences on another outing for his venerable, perpetually baffled character, Monsieur Hulot. It’s hard not to admire this wildly ambitious film (one of the most expensive French productions at the time), boasting elaborate sets and complex choreography of its many players. The film, set in contemporary Paris, features an ultra-modern office building that seemed to be designed with humans as an afterthought, a trade show full of useless inventions, and a new restaurant that’s falling apart at the seams. Tati’s intricate orchestration of the many characters, sight gags (which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Keaton or Chaplin film) and detailed set pieces is truly a sight to behold. Tati’s film left me awestruck by the accomplishment, but for all its cleverness, I felt distanced (which might have been the point) by the plotless story (taking place over the course of a day) and drawn-out scenes, bordering on tedium. Ultimately, I admired Playtime more than I enjoyed it. It’s a bold attempt in filmmaking, which deserves to be seen at least once, although loving it might be a stretch.

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

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec Poster

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) Writer/director Luc Besson’s fanciful fantasy/adventure film, set in 1911 and based on a series of comics by Jacques Tardi, is a briskly paced romp. Louise Bourgoin stars as the free-spirited title character, a novelist/adventurer-extraordinaire, seeking a cure for her twin sister’s ailment (also played by Bourgoin). Her perilous quest takes her from the pyramids of Cairo to the streets of Paris, dodging all manner of cutthroats and authorities along the way. Besson, who described Blanc-Sec as “basically the grandmother of Indiana Jones,” follows in the footsteps of Spielberg’s films, with a movie that’s assuredly light on substance, but loads of fun (Who doesn’t want to see mummies walking around Paris or a pterodactyl soaring over the city?). It’s too bad that (as of today), there’s no sequel planned, since it would have been the basis for a good series.  

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi

The Swindle Poster

The Swindle (aka: Rien Ne Va Plus) (1997) Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault star as Betty and Victor, a pair of small-time grifters. They make a living preying on unsuspecting rubes, moving from town to town in a motorhome and shifting identities. They find themselves over their heads when they acquire a briefcase with 5 million Swiss francs (roughly $5.6 million USD) from a naïve businessman (François Cluzet). Huppert and Serrault have good chemistry together, but considering the subject matter, writer/director Claude Chabrol’s film seems insubstantial. Except for one particularly nasty scene, The Swindle lacks bite, and the plot doesn’t have nearly enough twists and turns. Also, considering the events that precede it, the ending is a bit forced. It’s diverting enough, but it could have been so much better. 

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Kanopy

The Shiver of the Vampires

The Shiver of the Vampires (aka: Le Frisson Des Vampires) (1971) Okay, I would probably be the first person to admit that I don’t “get” the appeal of Jean Rollin’s films, outside of the fact that he knows how to present appealing visuals. Newlywed couple Isa and Antoine (Sandra Julien and Jean-Marie Durand) plan to honeymoon at a castle owned by Isa’s cousins. Their enthusiasm is dampened, however, when villagers inform Isa that her cousins recently died. As we soon discover, they’re not quite as dead as we were led to believe. Jean Rollin’s moody, erotic vampire film is well shot, with a flair for artsy angles and a nice use of color. As a horror film, it lacks any moments of dread or suspense, the story meanders, and the characters are generally unlikeable (the cousins are obnoxious twits). On the other hand, if all you care about is watching pretty women alternating between diaphanous, pastel-colored nightgowns and varying stages of undress, then be my guest.

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

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Gandahar (aka: Light Years)

 

Gandahar Poster

(1987) Directed by René Laloux; Written by René Laloux and Roland Topor; Based on the novel Les Hommes Machine Contre Gandhar, by Jean-Pierre Andrevon; Starring: Pierre-Marie Escourrou, Catherine Chevallier, Georges Wilson and Anny Duperey; Available on DVD (Region 2)

Rating: ****

“What do you know of time, of its continuity, its traps, its false perspectives, its apparent paradoxes, its relation to space?” – Métamorphe (Georges Wilson)

Ambisextra - Gandahar Leader

When animator René Laloux burst onto the scene with his pioneering animated science fiction film Fantastic Planet (aka: La Planète Sauvage), it should have been his ticket to creating more stunning works. Instead, his career could best be described as fits and starts, as he created only two other full-length movies, Les Maîtres du Temps (aka: Time Masters), and today’s film. Gandahar (the American version, Light Years, featured a screenplay by Isaac Asimov)* may not be a direct sequel to Fantastic Planet, but could easily reside in the same universe. Much like his earlier film, Laloux has populated his alien world with a diverse array of unusual creatures and odd landscapes, accompanied by a fittingly mind-bending story.

* Fun Fact: For Gandahar’s animation, Laloux utilized S.E.K. (Scientific Educational Korea) studios, located in Pyongyang, North Korea. Over the years, S.E.K. has been involved with numerous international productions, including several high-profile American animated TV shows and films.

Sylvain and Airelle

The film is set on the utopian world of Gandahar, where the residents live a peaceful existence, free of war or other ills of society. Civilization falls into disarray after the residents of Gandahar suffer an attack from an unknown source. Sylvain, an inexperienced young soldier, is sent to investigate the disturbance, and in the course of his journey, encounters a formidable robot army. Although he becomes a prisoner of the robots, he manages to escape with a fellow Gandaharian, Airelle. They fall in love, but duty calls, as Sylvain learns his true destiny – in order to save the present, he must travel 1,000 years into the future.

The Deformed

In Sylvain’s travels, he encounters a race of outcasts known as the Deformed. According to their unique perception of time, woven into their language (instead of saying something “is,” it’s “was will be”), they discuss events in the past and future, rather than the present. When Sylvain asks their leader for clarification (“Past in future, and future in past?”), he replies, “We don’t understand it any better than you, but it has become our nature, and the past-future has become our way of speaking and believing.” While their concept of time may seem superficially alien, it’s relevant to many of us who fear living in the present. We often lament what has passed and spend an inordinate amount of thought, anticipating what may be. The Deformed, Sylvain’s presumed enemies, become his ally in the fight against the robot invaders.

Robot Army

It’s not too much of a stretch to speculate that Laloux, who grew up during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, would likely incorporate anti-fascist themes into his work. The totalitarian robot regime, with its mindless battalions, pledge their unquestioning fealty to their leader, the giant brain/demigod Métamorphe (“The Great Procreator”). They wage war against the easy-going residents of Gandahar and their individuality, in favor of a society based on subservience. In the future Gandahar, humans are harnessed for their power and discarded into a heap after they’ve outlived their usefulness – a sobering parallel to the real-life horrors of the concentration camps.

Underground Lair of The Deformed

Gandahar doesn’t fall into the trap of some science fiction films, with lengthy passages of expository dialogue that stall the plot. Instead, Laloux counts on the viewer to take in the sights and connect the dots. The human residents of Gandahar once originated from Earth, and countless ages later, still remember the stories and poems from that distant planet. They established a better life, but there’s a trade-off for their idyllic society. The Deformed were, in their words, “the victims of your research in the field of genetics.” Similar to Frankenstein’s creation, they were shunned by their creators and forced into exile. The film embraces the Frankenstein metaphor a step further with Gandahar’s enemy Métamorphe, an artificial consciousness that originated as a science experiment.

Gandahar Residents

Compared to the more experimental look of Fantastic Planet (incorporating a distinctive cross-hatch art style, and employing a hybrid of cell animation with paper cutouts), Gandhar falls back on more conventional animation methods. There’s also some obvious cost cutting measures, with duplicated shots (depicting the robots marching). While Gandahar doesn’t break new ground, artistically, it more than compensates with its fanciful, immersive depictions of an alien world, and pastel-colored palette. Along with its eye-pleasing visuals, it presents a thought-provoking story that challenges viewers to reach their own conclusions. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly easy to come by the DVD of the French version (an excellent copy was released by Eureka in 2007), but it’s well worth seeking out. 

Source for this article:  René Laloux, The Man Who Made 'La Planète Sauvage' ('The Fantastic Planet'), by Philippe Moins, Animation World Network.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Delicatessen

Delicatessen Poster

(1991) Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro; Starring: Marie-Laure Dougnac, Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Karin Viard, Ticky Holgado, Silvie Laguna and Rufus; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

 “The story came about, as I said many times back then, because I did once live above a pork butcher’s and was awoken every day at 7:00 by the butcher’s cleaver. My fiancée, who wanted to move, would say, ‘He must be cutting up the seventh-floor tenants. Next week it’ll be the sixth. He’ll work his way down and we should move before it’s our turn.’ I thought that would be a good idea for a film in a confined space, as our stories were too expensive to produce…” – Jean-Pierre Jeunet (from DVD commentary)

Delicatessen Exterior

What would the world be like after a cataclysmic event? Would governments and infrastructure crumble, with people lapsing into anarchy, or would we somehow shamble on, as if nothing ever changed? Delicatessen, the auspicious feature film debut of writing/directing duo Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, leans toward the latter. The filmmakers arrived with a bang, establishing their signature combination of colorful characters, swooping visuals and whimsical situations, amidst a post-apocalyptic milieu.   

Delicatessen Counter

Delicatessen doesn’t waste time establishing how the world got into this sorry state. Judging from the murky, ochre-colored air and scarcity of food, it’s a safe bet that it was a perfect storm of environmental/economic events that brought humanity to the brink. Money, as well as food,* is scarce, leading to a reprisal of the barter system. When we’re introduced to Louison (Dominique Pinon), he’s forced to pay his taxi fare with his shoes.  Answering a want ad for a handyman (to replace the previous one, who vanished under mysterious circumstances), he arrives at a tenement house. He meets Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), king of his private fiefdom as butcher/landlord, determining who stays and who ends up on tomorrow’s dinner table. It’s only a matter of time before Louison befalls the same fate as his predecessor, but he finds a new ally from an unlikely place. Meanwhile, an underground (literally) resistance is brewing in the labyrinthine sewers beneath the city.

* Fun Fact #1: In his DVD commentary, Jeunet pointed out that most of the images that appear on the tenants’ TVs are food, something that would be in short supply.

Frog and Snail Room

The tenants consist of an odd, colorful assortment of individuals. Louison, an ex-circus performer, continues to practice his tricks. In a small workshop, two men manufacture little mooing and bleating cans that mimic farm animals (it’s never established whom these are intended for). Potin (Howard Vernon), an elderly man, lives in a damp, swamp-like room, filled to the brim with frogs and snails. Aurore Interligator (Silvie Laguna), hears voices that provoke her into increasingly elaborate suicide attempts. Underneath the streets, the Troglodists (including co-director Caro)* emerge at night to raid food and supplies.

* Fun Fact #2: The Troglodists’ underground lair was filmed, in part, in the (closed to the public) Saint-Fargeau reservoir in Paris, a vast underground waterway built in the 19th century.

Musical Duet

Clapet’s nearsighted daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), falls for the new lodger, although we discover (through a heated exchange with her father), it’s not the first time she’s been enamored of the handymen. This time is different, however, as she’s determined not to allow Louison to wind up as meat in her father’s shop. They simply click together, as illustrated in one charming scene, where Julie and Louison perform a duet on the cello and musical saw, respectively. Pinon’s (a favorite of Jeunet and Caro) distinctive facial features complement Dougnac’s expressive eyes, a fittingly eccentric pair in a strange world.

Louison and Chimp

Jeunet and Caro’s stock in trade are the numerous sight gags, big and small which distinguish their movies from other filmmakers. Among their depictions of Rube Goldberg-style chain of events, there’s one to top them all (often emulated, but never improved upon). Arguably Delicatessen’s most memorable scene consisting of a series of meticulously edited sequences, depicts shots of the denizens engaged in various activities (painting, beating a rug, a cello playing, and a metronome ticking) in rhythm to the sounds of squeaky mattress springs. In another scene (which Caro emulated from a Laurel and Hardy film), a bathroom fills up with water from floor to ceiling (I suspect the sequence will also look familiar to those acquainted to a similar scene in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water).

Clapet with Cleaver

 The film owes its unique look, thanks in no small part to cinematographer Darius Khondji (who also collaborated with Jeunet and Caro on The City of Lost Children). With his fly-on-the-wall perspectives, we are an active participant in the world of Delicatessen. We’re invited to take in the little details peppered throughout, especially in the opening credits sequence. The overall appearance is enhanced through a film process called ENR, which, according to Jeunet, “highlights contrasts and desaturates colors.” The end result is an emphasis on red and green, bathed in gold.

* Fun Fact #3: ENR stands for “Ernesto Novelli Rimo,” named after the color technician who developed the process for filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci.

 

Troglodists

Delicatessen is a post-apocalyptic tale like no other, asking us not to bother speculating too much about the logic of the world that Jeunet and Caro built, but to accept the reality of the moment. It’s not about elaborate plots or exhausting action sequences. Instead, it’s a study of quirky individuals, stretched to the breaking point (and when the going gets tough, the tough get silly). Above all, Delicatessen reminds us that love endures, even amidst the bleakest of circumstances, and there’s always time for laughter and enjoyment. Even at its darkest, life is worth it for those fleeting moments of joy. If you’re looking for obsidian-dark humor with a whimsical touch, Delicatessen will most assuredly scratch that itch.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Japan-uary X Quick Picks and Pans

 

Ugetsu Poster

Ugetsu (aka: Ugetsu monogatari) (1953) Director Kenji Mizoguchi’s Feudal-era yurei (ghost) story resonates with the viewer long after it’s over. Genjurô (Masayuki Mori), a poor pottery maker dreams of making a fortune selling his wares in the big city. After evading roving samurai and thieves, he leaves his wife and young son behind, with his business partner in tow. Genjurô’s pottery catches the eye of a widowed noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô), and becomes smitten by her formidable charms. He soon finds a taste for his newly gained prosperity, but (as these stories often go) he learns that she may not be all she seems. Mizoguchi relies on the strength of its performances in place of special effects to convey this sad tale of greed, loyalty and loss.

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

Tokyo Drifter Poster

 
Tokyo Drifter (1966) Seijun Suzuki’s ultra-stylish crime drama is a bold exercise in transforming a familiar story into something brand new. “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo (Tetsuya Watari) is a former Yakuza enforcer working for his old boss’ company. He gets in hot water when he foils the plans of rival boss Otsuka (Eimei Esumi) to sabotage his employer. Deciding enough’s enough, he sets out on his own, and now both sides want him dead. Hondo discovers an unlikely friend in former rival, Tatsuzo, The Viper (Tamio Kawaji). Tokyo Drifter continually surprises with its unconventional main character (How many times have you heard a protagonist sing his own theme song?), expressionistic flourishes, and eye for stunning visuals. And thanks to Criterion’s recent transfer, the colors simply pop.

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

Departures Poster

Departures (2008) Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a professional cellist, finds himself unemployed after his orchestra goes broke, and is forced to move home and find a new occupation. He answers an ad for a job opening, unaware that “departures” refers to preparing the dead for burial, rather than a travel agency. Kobayashi reluctantly accepts the position, at the urging of his new boss Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), but struggles with self-doubt, public scorn and his wife Mika’s (Ryôko Hirosue) disapproval. Eventually, however, he begins to appreciate the work on its own terms, treating the deceased and their families with dignity. Yôjirô Takita’s thoughtful film (enhanced by Joe Hisaishi’s affecting music score) takes its time introducing us to an elaborate funeral ritual that seems to be largely unknown in Western culture. It’s not only a poignant commentary about how society keeps death at arm’s length, but also finding yourself and your calling.  

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Tubi 

Black Test Car Poster

Black Test Car (1962) Yasuzô Masumura’s neo-noir plunges us into the high-risk world of industrial espionage between two competing car firms, Tiger Motors and Yamoto. Jirô Tamiya stars as up-and-coming executive Yutaka Asahina, who’s been tasked by his employer (Tiger) to spy on their competitor. Asahina and his team using any means necessary (including intimidation, blackmail, and sexual favors) to extract information about Yamoto’s new sports car design. In the process, he learns the true cost of climbing the corporate ladder. Black Test Car provides a scathing, deeply cynical glimpse into human nature, viewing business competition as a Darwinian struggle.  

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

 

Vital Poster

Vital (2004) Writer/director Shin'ya Tsukamoto’s (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) meditative film about the fickle properties of memory and mourning will likely haunt you for days. A young man awakens from a coma after suffering a fatal car crash that claimed the life of his girlfriend. Along with his recovery comes the renewed desire to attend medical school. In a cruel (or fortuitous, depending on your point of view) twist of fate, the cadaver on his dissecting table is his former girlfriend Ryôko (Nami Tsukamoto). What would have been the twist ending from a less skilled filmmaker becomes merely a beginning for Hiroshi’s self-discovery, as his memories gradually return. The unrelentingly morbid themes and convincing (but never exploitive) makeup effects make this a difficult but engrossing watch.

Rating: ***½. Available on Kanopy

The Vampire Doll Poster

The Vampire Doll (1970) A man (Atsuo Nakamura) returns from business abroad to discover that his girlfriend Yûko (Yukiko Kobayashi) has died. He soon discovers, however, that she might not be quite as dead as he’s been led to believe. After he goes missing, his sister Keiko and her boyfriend Hiroshi (Kayo Matsuo and Akira Nakao, respectively) investigate the strange goings on at Yûko’s secluded ancestral home. The first in a trilogy of vampire films from director Michio Yamamoto (followed by Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula), moves at a leisurely pace, but makes up for any deficits with a macabre, brooding tone and set designs that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hammer production.* While it may be the weakest of the trilogy, it’s well worth seeing for oodles of gothic atmosphere and some genuinely creepy moments.

* Fun Fact: A Toho/Hammer co-production, Nessie (about the elusive cryptid), was planned in the mid-70s, but sadly never reached fruition.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime 

Junkers Come Here Poster

Junkers Come Here (1995) This pleasant albeit slight anime film chronicles the adventures of 11-year-old Hiromi and her talking schnauzer Junkers. The film contains some charming scenes between the girl and her dog, while juggling some serious themes about absentee parents and divorce. The film never quite strikes the right balance between the more fantastical elements (Junkers grants Hiromi three wishes), and the reality of Hiromi’s life. Ultimately, Junkers Come Here glosses over the more unsavory aspects of Hiromi being stuck in a tug-of-war between her emotionally neglectful parents, leading to a (Spoiler Alert!) climactic sort-of reconciliation between the parents that rings hollow. It’s not quite at the level of Studio Ghibli story-wise or artistically, but it’s a pleasant enough film (if you don’t think too long about the implications of the trite ending) for most of its running time, and should at least spark some discussion from families that may watch this together.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Tubi

Kidan - Piece of Darkness Poster

Kidan: Piece of Darkness (2016) Most anthology horror movies are a mixed bag, and this one is no exception. But even if not all 10 stories (confined to a brisk running time of 100 minutes) are winners, you don’t have to wait very long for the next segment to come along. Some favorite stories include: a shadowy visitor that terrifies a middle-aged woman; a schoolteacher who’s tormented by his former lover; and a young woman who inadvertently finds a novel way of getting rid of excess baggage. Although Kidan relies on some tired tropes (Creepy long-haired woman? Check.), there’s enough to recommend this for a few well-placed thrills.

Rating: ***. Available on Amazon Prime

Terra Formars Poster

Terra Formars (2016) Takashi Miike’s live-action adaptation of the popular manga/anime show is entertaining in spots, but mostly exhausting. In the year 2499, Mars has been terraformed, but the cockroaches that were brought from Earth have mutated and evolved into powerful (and deadly) humanoid creatures. A group of convicted criminals are sent to the red planet to rid the landscape of the creatures, opening the door for human colonization. The non-stop pace doesn’t leave time for strong characterizations or a lot of dialogue beyond the expository variety. While there are few surprises, one fun conceit is that each of the human crew has been modified with insect DNA (yep, one has inherited the properties of the Japanese Giant “Murder” hornet) to combat the bipedal bugs. There’s some good effects work, but the action is far too repetitive, and the film’s gaping plot holes are never addressed (i.e., If they were supposed to be expendable, why were they given the means to return to Earth?). It may be worth a look, if you’re in an undemanding mood.   

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi

Nezulla the Rat Monster Poster

Nezulla: The Rat Monster (2002) In their efforts to create soldiers resistant to biochemical warfare, U.S. Army scientists accidentally unleash a hideous rat creature, along with a deadly virus. A crack team of “American” soldiers and one Japanese officer are sent in to destroy the monster and obtain a sample to create an antivirus. There’s a fine line between low budget and cheap, which this movie crosses. Most of the action is confined to an abandoned industrial building, and the barely mobile titular creature fails to evoke anything beyond sympathy for the poor schmoe who had to wear the costume. Skip it.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Summer Days with Coo (aka: Kappa no Kû to Natsuyasumi)

 

Summer Days with Coo Poster

(2007) Written and directed by Keiichi Hara; Story by Yuichi Watanabe and Masao Kogure; Based on the stories "Kappa Daisawagi" and "Kappa’s Surprise Journey," by Masao Kogure; Starring: Kazato Tomizawa, Takahiro Yokokawa, Naoki Tanaka, Naomi Nishida, Tamaki Matsumoto and Natsuki Uematsu

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“For anime, the topic of family… That topic is not very appropriate for anime, that’s what many people think. But I’m more interested in that than in fantasy or science fiction. I want to depict the family, human beings, human drama (ningen drama).”

– Keiichi Hara (from 2011 interview with Nippon Connection TV)

Many thanks to Gill of Realweegiemidget Reviews and Rebecca of Taking Up Room for hosting the Home Sweet Home Blogathon, focusing on all things related to home and family. Be sure to check out all the excellent contributions. Today’s selection focuses on a rather unique addition to one family…

Kôichi and Coo

Anyone who follows this blog probably already knows about my fondness for everything yokai (mythical creatures that reside throughout Japan). There have been many depictions of yokai in Japanese popular culture over the centuries, but perhaps none have appeared as extensively as the elusive water sprite known as kappa.*/** Descriptions vary somewhat, but some constant features include a bipedal, vaguely human shape, with a beaklike mouth, a dish on top of their head (which must continually remain wet for the creature to keep its strength up), and a turtle shell on their back. Some notable depictions in film include 1968’s Big Monster War (aka: Yôkai Daisensô) and its 2005 remake, The Great Yokai War (aka: Yôkai Daisensô), along with the more adult-oriented, Underwater Love (2011). Writer/director Keiichi Hara’s fantasy family drama Summer Days with Coo, was based on two stories by children’s author Masao Kogure.

 * Fun Fact: The town of Tono, located in Iwate Prefecture, is generally regarded as the capital for Japan’s famous water sprite, with statues and tourist attractions dedicated to kappa.

 ** Another Fun Fact: For more about kappa and their numerous yokai brethren, I highly recommend the book Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt.

 

Kôichi and stone

Kôichi Uehara is an ordinary grade-school boy whose life take an extraordinary turn when he finds an unusual stone by a river that runs through his neighborhood. Trapped inside the large rock is a shriveled, almost reptilian creature. After taking his prize home, he runs the stone underwater to clean it off, inadvertently reviving the creature. Kôichi names him “Coo,” after the first sound he makes. Kôichi’s parents soon conclude that the creature is a young kappa,* and the family members conspire to keep the kappa secret from the outside world. But a secret this big can only be kept so long. Much to their dismay, Coo becomes a reluctant star, creating a media circus around the Uehara household.

Fun Fact #3: Summer Days with Coo is like a class in Kappa 101, delving into many aspects of these fascinating yokai, including a fondness for sumo-style wrestling, eating cucumbers, and their flatulent nature (yes, it’s a kappa thing).

Coo Wrestling

At its core, the film illustrates how everyone fits into the family unit, no matter how disparate the separate elements might seem. One of the more surprising things (at least for anyone accustomed to more formulaic fare) is how readily the parents accept the surprise addition. In most lesser stories there would be contrived friction between the family members, but they are truly a team when they meet adversity. Among the most believable aspect is the initial resistance from Kôichi’s little sister Hitomi. Unlike the rest of her family, she takes an instant dislike to Coo, viewing him as an interloper who’s only there to steal her thunder. Her animosity comes to a head when Coo is given her old baby chair to sit at the dinner table, which looks an awful lot (at least to a preschooler) like replacement. When Coo finally does win her over, it’s a hard-fought battle, with a small but meaningful gesture of kindness. The family dog Ossan (meaning “Old Man”),* completes the family, fitting into the greater scheme of things, guiding Coo with wisdom from his world-weary canine perspective.

* One caveat: The brief flashback scene concerning Ossan’s former abusive owner was difficult for me to watch, and I suspect many may find this disturbing. Although the scene provides context for Ossan’s worldview, it seems to downplay the behavior of the abuser, which might warrant further discussion if watching with more impressionable family members.

Kôichi and Sayoko

 Our emotions are earned rather than manipulated, because we gradually get to know the characters on their own terms. As he’s introduced to us, Kôichi isn’t especially likable, but as we spend more time with him, we get to understand his perspective, and come to like him as his character experiences growth. For more than half the film’s duration, Kôichi is aloof with fellow classmate Sayoko, keeping her at arm’s length, but they have more in common than he initially realizes. Both are loners, introspective and sensitive. Sayoko seems to understand Coo more than he does. It takes him a while to catch on that they’re two of a kind, and that Coo, himself, is a loner. His fellow kappa have vanished, and he’s lost in a world where his kind are regarded as myth.

Coo and Father's Arm

Summer Days with Coo is all about contrasts, including cruelty versus kindness, life versus death, and selfishness versus selflessness. The kindness of Kôichi’s parents is contrasted with the cruelty of the boys that mercilessly taunt Kôichi and Sayoko. Eventually, Kôichi finds a way to confront the bullies’ ringleader, recalling Coo’s admonition (during one of their wrestling matches) that “Strength alone isn’t good.” The film proves repeatedly how Coo’s inherent distrust in humanity instilled by his father is well-founded. In the opening scene, set hundreds of years ago in the Edo period, he witnesses his father’s murder at the hands of a paranoid samurai. When he appears on a television program, an historian (a direct descendent of the samurai) displays his father’s severed arm as a treasured heirloom, which only serves to reinforce Coo’s trauma of witnessing his father’s unwarranted death. The historian’s denial that the arm has any connection with Coo’s past is a grim reminder that history is told by the victors, rather than the vanquished. Another recurring theme is life out of balance. Recalling words his father once told him, Coo observes how humans have taken the natural world from the kappa, “…But in return they lose their souls.” Coo fears losing his way in the world and his identity.


Coo and Uehara Family

Director Keiichi Hara has created something truly special with Summer Days with Coo, tugging at our heartstrings without resorting to saccharine levels of sentimentality. His film reminds us the world may be cruel at times, but there are wondrous things as well. Unlike some popular (particularly American) animated films aimed at families, it doesn’t sugarcoat the more unsavory aspects of life, presenting serious topics in a frank manner. At a length of 138 minutes, it takes its time allowing us to know the characters, but doesn’t waste a moment. It’s time well spent, as we become invested in the Uehara family and Coo. Summer Days with Coo stresses the importance of unconditional love, preserving our traditions, and gratitude to those who have shown us kindness, but above all, being true to yourself.

 

Sources for this article: Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt; 2011 Keiichi Hara interview with Nippon Connection TV; “On the Hunt for Tono's Mythical Water Trolls,” by Louise George Kittaka, The Japan Times, July 26, 2014 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Fish Story

 

Fish Story Poster

(2009) Directed by: Yoshihiro Nakamura; Written by Tamio Hayashi; Based on the novel by Kôtarô Isaka; Starring: Atsushi Itô, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Noriko Eguchi, Hidekazu Mashima, Gaku Hamada, Mikako Tabe, Mirai Moriyama, and Kengo Kôra; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD.

Rating: ****½ 

“We thought of getting all the songs to be performed by someone else, but after two months, the band grew together and became very close; something you can’t recreate. They go drinking together like normal friends in a band, and that’s a really good thing.” – Yoshihiro Nakamura (on the film’s fictional band, Gekirin)

 “We failed to reach people of this generation. But our song goes beyond time. Something like that could happen. Isn’t it the way the world turns? ‘Fish Story’ will one day save the world.” – Okazaki (Nao Ômori)

Fish Story Album

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review from 2012.  Also note: I’ve upped my original rating by ½ star (Did I mention that I hate rating movies?).

Can an obscure punk rock song save the world? Yoshihiro Nakamura’s endlessly inventive film Fish Story (based on a novel by Kôtarô Isaka) has the answer. The aptly named movie title carries a double meaning, referring to a tall tale (which this certainly is), as well as a fictional book, which becomes the basis for a song. In tune with its unique subject matter, Fish Story shuns a conventional narrative, in favor of a more unorthodox path. Thus, begins a chain of events spanning 37 years (and then some), assembling a puzzle that can’t be fully deciphered until all the pieces have fallen into place. Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, the audience members become unstuck in time, as we jump from one year to another.

Comet

The opening segment, set in a record store in 2012, mere hours before a comet is slated to strike the Earth, sets the tone for the rest of the film. In the impending wake of the collision, the population of Japan is about to be wiped out by a 100-meter tidal wave, and the streets are deserted as citizens flee for higher ground. It’s business as usual inside the record shop, as the unflappable store owner (Omori Nao) introduces his lone customer to a rare record from a band that never made it big. There’s something about this album, however, that provides a shred of hope. Even though things look woefully bleak, he believes “Champions of Justice will save humanity.”

1982 Sequence

The story abruptly shifts to 1982, focusing on nerdy Masashi (Gaku Hamada), who’s little more than a punching bag for his obnoxious friends. He’s about to have a date with destiny when he meets Haruko (Seiko Iwaido), a young woman in a restaurant with a strange prophecy. Their chance encounter leads to a fateful night on a lonely stretch of road. In a theme that repeats throughout the film, Masashi is forced to stand up for himself and rise up against adversity. Hamada creates one of the film’s standout performances (in a movie full of exceptional performances), by credibly conveying someone with a mixture of self-loathing and low self-esteem. His transformation from zero to hero is satisfying, while never seeming contrived or perfunctory.  

Gekirin

Panasonic’s slogan, “Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time,” could easily apply to the punk band Gekirin (roughly translated as “Wrath”). We find them playing in a cocktail lounge in 1973, to a reception ranging from apathetic to belligerent. But one person in the crowd, Okazaki (Nao Ômori), hears their potential, offering to be their manager. He recognizes their music as more than just sound and fury; it’s an ethos – a backlash to mass-marketed, polished sound, coupled with a DIY aesthetic. Skip forward a couple of years, when things are finally looking up for the band, until the record company gets cold feet, pulling the plug on their contract. Subsequently, their first album is destined to become their only album. In desperation, leader Shigeki (Atsushi Itô) chooses a poorly translated book for the basis of the album’s title track., “Fish Story.” Despite their best efforts, Gekirin remains unappreciated in their time, relegated to the dust bin of history – or so we thought. Like the music it represents, “Fish Story” is more than a song. It’s the thread that weaves throughout the film, with its potent combination of high-energy riffs and ambiguous lyrics. The minute-long silent passage in the middle of the song only adds to the fun, prompting speculation by music fans about its significance. 

* Fun Fact: According to the “Making of” featurette, only half of the members had prior musical experience: Kiyohiko Shibukawa, who plays the band’s drummer, and Toshimitsu Okawauchi (member of the band “Drive Far”), who plays guitarist Ryoji.

2009 Sequence

Another pivotal moment takes place in 2009, onboard a ferry bound for Hokkaido. Asami (Mikako Tabe), an astute but absent-minded high school science major, misses her stop after she falls asleep. The despondent young student meets a mild-mannered ferry snack bar employee (Mirai Moriyama) with a bold claim. She humors him, with his story about training all his life to become a “Champion of Justice” (“It’s a vague ambition when you think about it. It’s not like wanting to be a lawyer or a soccer player.”), but it’s hard not to feel captivated by the tale. He soon gets his moment of truth when armed religious zealots hijack the ship, and he takes it upon himself to stop them. Will he succeed? I wouldn’t dare spoil it.

Champion of Justice

One of the many charms of Fish Story is that you never quite know what to expect from one moment to the next (watch for some fun little nods to Armageddon and The Karate Kid). The infectious title song is another highlight – it’s easy to believe it holds some greater meaning for the characters. Watching the seemingly haphazard string of coincidences add up is a thing of beauty. Only when the events are told in a non-linear fashion can the big picture be fully appreciated. After all, it’s not about whether or not the world is saved, it’s about the journey. One viewing isn’t enough to appreciate the plot’s ingenuously intricate construction. Fish Story was released with little fanfare in the States, and seems to have vanished into obscurity, not unlike Gekirin’s album. It’s long overdue for re-discovery by a new generation of film fans.