Tuesday, March 28, 2017

DVR Diary: A STORY FROM CHIKAMATSU (aka The Crucified Lovers, 1954)

I get the impression that Kenji Mizoguchi's adaptation of a classic 18th century puppet play is not considered one of his home-run pictures like its contemporaries Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. It doesn't merit its own Criterion Collection DVD release, for instance, and its appearance on TCM last weekend was my first chance to see it. Perhaps the subject matter is too much like a 19th century European novel -- or something by Theodore Dreiser, if your tastes run American -- its actual pedigree notwithstanding, for world cinema fans seeking something more echt Japanese. Yet it's exactly that quality, its clash of intense romanticism, bourgeois repression and brutal traditional values, that impressed me the most. Of course, I can't say whether Mizoguchi and his screenwriters added those layers to Chikamatsu Monzaemon's original, but given Chikamatsu's reputation as Japan's greatest dramatist I suspect all that stuff was there all along. Basically everything revolves around a successful entrepreneur, Ishun (Eitaro Shindo) who as the official Scroll Master has an exclusive franchise to publish calendars. He's so wealthy that the nobility borrow money from him, and despite their manners they clearly resent their dependence on this arriviste. The opportunity to destroy him comes when his neglected wife Osan (Kyoko Kagawa) falls in love with one of his top salesmen, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa). Initially, embezzlement brings them together, as Mohei dabbles in forgery to help Osan's brother pay off a loan. This first transgression escalates into adultery after some farcical contrivances, but the affair is no laughing matter, since the Tokugawa Shogunate punishes adultery with death. It's also potentially a huge embarrassment for Ishun. It could even ruin his career if the authorities determine that he knew of his wife's infidelity without reporting it. Come to think of it, the fact that I found Ishun's predicament more fascinating than the lovers' romance may expose a problem with a film presumably sold (especially under the more exploitative English language title) as a tale of blazing passion. The romantic leads are fine, but passionate doomed lovers are almost a dime a dozen in cinema. What intrigued me to the end was they way everything shaped up against poor selfish, mean-spirited Ishun. At first he thinks he'll avoid embarrassment or ruin by cancelling some nobles' debts in return for their covering up the scandal. That plan falls apart when Mohei and Osun turn themselves in to the authorities, preferring death by crucifixion to life on the run or under Ishun's thumb. Once they've done that, the nobles pounce on Ishun, terminating his franchise, confiscating his wealth and exiling him. On one hand you can say the bum had it coming, but at the same time this is clearly an unfair, unjust system at work for the exclusive benefit of the upper class, and that makes Ishun's comeuppance nothing to celebrate. By comparison, and unlike a condemned couple we see paraded through the streets earlier in the picture, Mohei and Osun seem almost beatific at the end, their parade to the crosses almost like a triumph. Mizoguchi, I think, is canny and objective enough to let us question that even as bystanders comment on the lovers' apparent bliss. It may not have the spectacular camerawork or spooky grandeur of Mizoguchi's more canonical movies, but I found plenty to chew on in Chikamatsu Monogatari, and I'd recommend it to those with similar cinematic tastes.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

DVR Diary: GUN FEVER (1958)

Many actors want to direct, and a fair number get the chance. Not all can be a Charlie Chaplin or Cornel Wilde or Clint Eastwood; most probably worked so infrequently or unimpressively ever to be considered as an auteur. Consider Mark Stevens, who established himself as a performer in the 1940s and learned the trade behind the camera as a director of many episodes of Big Town, a series he starred in in the mid-1950s, and the 1954 noir Cry Vengeance.  For his third feature film, Stevens became a triple threat, co-writing Gun Fever as well as directing and starring as the vengeful hero. This B western reveals a grim, grimy sensibility somewhere between its "adult western" contemporaries and, at least on a visual level, the debunking revisionist westerns of a generation later. Gun Fever itself isn't revisionist; it's actually a little embarrassing in its treatment of Indians and Mexicans. But its low budget black-and-white imagery prove a virtue, and its most memorable scene probably is the long bar fight between co-hero Simon Waller (John Lupton) and Amigo, a Mexican bandit, across a realistically filthy floor. The fact that Amigo is played by Larry Storch of F-Troop fame is one of the embarrassing aspects of the picture. Storch plays the ruthless role as straight as he can but can't help sounding clownish with his none too convincing accent -- but at least he's out of the picture early. Amigo is an expendable minion of a monster of a villain, known only as Trench (former pro wrestler Aaron Saxon). Perpetually sweaty and dirty and often drunk, Trench unites Simon and co-hero Luke Ram (Stevens) in hatred. He killed Luke's father (and mother) and he is Simon's father, who had forced him into his gang until Simon finally gathered up the courage, after the latest massacre, to refuse the loot and quit. Both younger men want to kill this beast -- Saxon's nothing special as an actor but as a repulsive physical presence he suits this film perfectly -- and they're joined on the vengeance trail by a Christian Indian maid, the newly widowed Tanana (Jana Davi), married to another of Trench's former partners until Amigo kills the guy. On top of that, Trench stomps into her home, demands a meal, and pours coffee straight from the pot onto her forearm when she doesn't comply. In stoic tribal style she doesn't cry out but she's bound to carry a grudge. She's well spoken and mission educated but the rest of the film's Indians (led by Iron Eyes Cody) are a dismal lot, led on by Trench. The villain's leadership style is well summarized by the way he talks very slowly, with hand gestures that clearly mean nothing, to convey his instructions to Iron Eyes and his band. The momentarily skeptical Cody actually asks, "How do we know you don't speak with forked tongue." I hope that wasn't one of Mark Stevens' contributions to the script. As a director he doesn't contribute much visually that can't be credited instead to the film's grungy art direction, but he deserves some credit for putting together one of the more thuggish westerns of the genre's golden era.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

THE TREACHEROUS (2015)

The way this film tells it, King Yeonsan of Joseon was the Korean Caligula. That doesn't mean that Min Kyu-dong's history play is Korea's Caligula, though the mad king himself (Kim Kang-woo) is a kind of amateur pornographer, compelling his concubines to assume Sapphic positions so he can paint the scenes. Whatever his politics were, if this film teaches you anything it's that Yeonsan was sex mad. Another favorite artistic subject is the mating of horses. Also, he has an infantile fixation on a favorite concubine who has become a power in the palace, finding comfort by suckling on her breast. The poor king has mommy issues, it seems, because his own mother was murdered in a past palace intrigue.


By the time of our story all his hard-working concubines -- it's challenging to hold those porno poses for long -- aren't enough for Yeonsan anymore. He demands a roundup of promising females from across the land, hundreds of whom will serve as his "comforters." That's got to be a sensitive subject for a Korean movie, given how the Koreans continue to hector the Japanese for recruiting Koreans as "comfort women" during World War II. Of course, any film featuring an insane absolute ruler will have special significance for South Korean audiences, given what they have to deal with north of the border. I'm surprised the Kim dynasty didn't treat Treacherous, a film portraying a conspiracy to kill an absolute monarch, as yet another provocation justifying missile launches. But for all we know, they did.


Anyway, Yeonsan entrusts the comforter search to his two top henchman, the father-son Im team. Most of our attention goes to the son, Im Sung-jae (Ju Ji-hoon), the king's boyhood playmate who still goes in for the occasional round of sparring. Feeling guilty about enabling a monster like Yeonsan, Sung-jae discovers a diamond in the rough in Dan-hee, a pretty butcher (Lim Ji-yeon) who makes an entertainment out of animal slaughter. Secretly the daughter of an official killed on the king's order, this woman of many skills could make the perfect assassin. But first she has to rise through the ranks, meeting the strict standards set for the king's new number-one bedmate. To get her big chance, she has to win a sex fight with her main rival as the king orchestrates probably the most demoralizing lesbian sex scene since Requiem For a Dream. Min Kyu-dong lavishes a lot of attention on the training process for the comforters, which ranges from sword dancing (Dan-hee's lead role in one performance gives her an early opportunity to kill the king that goes to waste) to dildo testing. Again, none of this rises (or sinks) to Caligula-level explicitness, at least in what Netflix is streaming, but while that might make it more erotic for some viewers it might also make viewers complicit for any arousal they feel as Yeonsan puts his comforters through their paces.


Finally, Dan-hee gets the break she's been waiting for, but if you'd begun to suspect that Treacherous was going to be a tragedy your suspicions would soon be confirmed. While her mission fails, however, this isn't a nihilistic "resistance is futile" tragedy like, say, Curse of the Golden Flower, but something more Senecan or Shakespearean in its ultimate grotesquery, as Yeonsan, after getting the Carrie prom night treatment from Im Sung-jae, ends up in a disquietingly vague scrum with a room full of pigs. And then you get an epilogue that wraps up the running quasi-operatic narration in a manner that suggests that things didn't turn out entirely as you'd just seen.


The best word to describe The Treacherous is ravishing. It describes the king's antics as well as the gorgeous art direction and Park Hong-ryeol's cinematography, not to mention all the beautiful women and their often-opulent costumes. It's almost Italian in its combination of luscious craftsmanship and almost unflinching brutality. I don't know how it works as history, but as a wild work or cinema I recommend it highly.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Too Much TV: LARAMIE (1959-63)

When I was a kid the westerns you saw most in reruns were Bonanza and The Big Valley. Those, at least, are the ones I remember most vividly, if that's the right word for my memories of Bonanza. I never saw Laramie, which ran the same number of seasons as Big Valley, until it appeared on the Grit channel, and then on Encore Westerns, in 2015. Encore -- or Starz Encore Westerns as they call it now -- is the ideal place to view the show since the economy premium channel runs episodes uncut and without commercials. Created by John Champion, Laramie relates the adventures of rancher Slim Sherman (the perversely pseudonamed John Smith) and drifter-turned-ranch hand Jess Harper (Robert Fuller), who operate a stagecoach station on Sherman's ranch in Wyoming. In the first season they share their little home with Slim's younger brother Andy (Robert Crawford Jr.) and comedy-relief handyman Jonesy (Hoagy Carmichael). Jonesy was dumped after that season, while Andy made occasional appearances on holidays from boarding school. For the most part the Sherman Ranch was a bachelor pad that year, but even in the innocent days of 1961 there must have been some anxiety over the possibilities for two young men living together, for in the third season Slim and Jess are saddled not only with a new, adopted orphan kid (Dennis Holmes), but with lovable old lady Daisy Cooper (Spring Byington), who acts as housekeeper and "aunt" figure for the boy. I suspect that Daisy is the model for the Aunt Harriet character on the Batman show, who may have been introduced for similar reasons, down to being known as "Mrs. Cooper." A persistent presence in later years who never quite graduated to regular starring status was Sheriff Mort Corey (Stuart Randall), who often had cause to deputize Slim and/or Jess for various missions, when they weren't getting into trouble on their own.

Laramie was a black-and-white show (except for its pilot) for its first two seasons, and ran in color for the last two. Unlike many shows that made the conversion during the Sixties, Laramie was hardly diminished visually in color. Credit for that goes to two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Ray Rennahan, who shot the majority of episodes and strove not to make them look cheaply overlit, even when occasionally forced to shoot on obvious soundstages. The black-and-white episodes are probably superior visually, but the color Laramies look quite nice, especially when they're shot on location, however unconvincing Bronson Canyon may be as a Wyoming location.

While the show is about Slim Sherman and Jess Harper, it is not, despite whatever fears led to the third-season changes, about the relationship between Slim and Jess. TV producers had responded to the challenge of filming a season of hourlong episodes by giving shows multiple heroes -- see Bart Maverick joining brother Bret, or Ben Cartwright and his three grown sons -- each of whom could be given a quota of missions per season. Presumably Smith and Fuller would be filming Slim-centric and Jess-centric episodes with separate units simultaneously to complete the show's schedule of approximately 31 episodes per season. If Slim was the main character, Jess might appear in bookend scenes to see him off and welcome him back. In a minority of episodes the two stars would share the spotlight equally. In later seasons the old lady and the boy would mostly be relegated to bookend scenes, carrying few episodes themselves. Sheriff Corey may actually have had more screen time in the final season than either of the two supplementary regulars. Apart from the sheriff's constant presence, Laramie has little to no continuity as we understand it today. Episodes are always complete unto themselves, and the implicit reset button meant that there were never "game changing" episodes with permanent consequences for the main characters. By the standard of our time that made every episode "filler," but in effect that meant that no episode was filler. Because no episode was going to change the main characters significantly, the focus often was on the guest stars during this golden age of character acting. Certain actors could appear multiple times (e.g. Lloyd Nolan, Rod Cameron, L. Q. Jones, Lee Van Cleef) without viewers questioning why they looked exactly like characters they'd seen before. While any given episode might not seem significant in terms of its impact on the main characters, they at least provided the satisfaction of a thoroughly plotted story with a beginning, middle and end that's often missing from the random series episode today. Of course, expectations are different now and the long-form series with tight continuity between episodes has many virtues, but I still enjoy being able to see a truly complete story in approximately 50 minutes.

Laramie is admirably short on comedy episodes, more rough than rollicking. Even in the first season, Jonesy was acceptable as a comic-relief character because he was convincingly competent at his job. In later years efforts at comedy didn't go far beyond Daisy's attempts to make Slim and Jess do the more mundane ranch chores like painting the barn roof. While not the darkest or most hard-boiled western, Laramie will appeal to those who like their westerns straight, tough and violent. While John Smith was top-billed, the show really proved a showcase for Robert Fuller, whose work here was a revelation to me. I knew Fuller almost exclusively from Emergency, a 1970s Jack Webb series in which Fuller played an ER doctor with Webb's characteristically stolid realism. My few views of Fuller on Wagon Train, which he joined after Laramie closed down, didn't dissuade me from thinking of him as a block of wood. On Laramie, however, the 26 year old Fuller got to be the hothead to Smith's calmer, or more slow-burning Slim, and his emotional and physical intensity -- he did nearly all of his own stunts, as far as I can tell -- surprised me. As the outsider, Jess drives more episodes because he's more likely to know the guest character passing through. There are four basic situations for the outsider character: Jess can trust a stranger based on experience, and either be vindicated or disillusioned, or he can distrust the stranger because of a past offense, and either be vindicated or proven wrong. Fuller handles all possible situations like a champ, and while Smith initially seems like a big stiff in comparison, over time you realize that still waters run deep with him, making it more meaningful when circumstances force Slim to cross lines of propriety or legality, if not ethics. Their contrasting but complementary personalities, supplemented by Stuart Randall's stalwart sheriff, provide a stable frame on which the show's writers and its stable of veteran directors (especially Joe Kane and Lesley Selander) can hang any number of variations on basic western themes. A meat-and-potatoes western prepared with high craftsmanship, Laramie might be the best western series that people haven't really heard of.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

THE KEEPING ROOM (2014)

Daniel Barber's Civil War picture is a misanthropic piece of work in the most literal sense. Julia Hart's screenplay effectively declares war on men, uniting mistress and slave at the tail end of the war in resistance to rape and pillage by Union soldiers. Sisters Augusta (Britt Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and a sole slave, Mad (Muna Otaru) are all that's left on the family farm as the Confederacy faces its reckoning. Like Scarlett O'Hara and her sisters, Augusta and Louise have to work in the fields alongside Mad in order to survive on humble crops. Louise is still spoiled enough to protest, asking why "the nigger" can't be left to do all the work. As Augusta explains, "It's like I said, we're all niggers now." You get the sense that she doesn't just mean herself and her sister, but says this in the spirit of the John Lennon/Yoko Ono song, "Woman is the Nigger of the World."


We're well past the legend of Sherman's March as a bloodless ravaging by this point in history. In its place, Keeping Room shows free-ranging Union foragers (led by Sam Worthington) committing random atrocities as they close in on our heroines' farm. Once they arrive, the film becomes something like a feminist version of Straw Dogs as the women fight off the blue bellies, though not before Louise, barely recovered from a raccoon bite, is raped. Add to this terror images like horses hauling a burning coach and its dead driver, or Augusta's discovery of a friend's pasty corpse, and Keeping Room seems to be a horror movie first and foremost.


The screenplay may insist too much that gender trumps race. It seems too good, if that's really the word, to be true that Mad forgives Augusta for shooting her returned lover in the back, mistaking him for another intruder. It's true enough that Mad was ready to shoot the same man in the back until he turned to reveal himself to her, but by this point in the film, long after Augusta and Mad had exchanged angry slaps, writer and director apparently have decided that race is no longer an issue. Instead, they have Mad recall the repeated rapes she suffered while still a girl in a mysterious plantation shed. On top of that, they have Augusta execute a wounded forager who had effectively surrendered, as if she was obliged to show him no mercy after killing the other man. In a grim parody of the end of Glory the dead forager and the dead freedman are dumped into a common grave, though Mad offers a dubious Augusta a spiritual assurance that the more innocent of the two is not really in the same place as the other.


In a final irony, as the main army advances on the farm, the only way the women can escape from the house of war is to become men by stripping the uniforms from the soldiers they've killed. You could argue that they've already surrendered much of their femininity, by the standards of their own time, by becoming killers, but the real message of this coda is more likely that there's no place for women in a world of men at war, so women must transform in one way or other in order to survive. It should be a happy ending since it looks like their plan will work, as long as they remain those few steps ahead of the soldiers swarming over the farm in the final shot, but at the same time it's an act of surrender -- just not the fall of the slave-plantation world we'd expect to celebrate. The Confederacy is dead, but injustice persists -- and the Confederacy's conquerors are perpetrating it. The Keeping Room may overstate its main point at times, but it's still an honestly unsettling movie about two civil wars: the one we see ending, and one that many say goes on today.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH (1916)

I don't know enough early films to say whether The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is the first American drug comedy film, so let's make a more modest claim: John Emerson's two-reeler, conceived by that beloved humorist of the cinema, Tod Browning, is the Birth of a Nation of drug comedies. I suppose we could be more modest still and call it the Inherent Vice of 100 years ago. It's almost certainly the weirdest performance ever given by Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who plays the "scientific detective" Coke Ennyday. While the name is a loose play on Arthur B. Reeve's then-popular scientific detective Craig Kennedy, the character's awesome drug habit is taken from Sherlock Holmes, and expanded upon immensely. The great detective sits at his desk, injecting himself with something every couple of minutes to restore his spirits -- he chuckles after each injection -- while a huge jar labeled COCAINE is within easy reach. A closet holds the detective's many disguises, clearly labeled as such, while a clock divides Ennyday's routine into four phases: drinks, eats, sleep and dope. This film was made two years after the federal government first cracked down on the distribution of cocaine and other narcotics, so Leaping Fish flies in the face of a national anti-drug hysteria in the admirably irreverent fashion of that era's films. A police chief, I.M. Keen, rings Ennyday's doorbell, and the slightly paranoid scientific detective pulls out his "scientific periscope," a proto-TV apparatus to verify the man's identity. After his servant, dressed like a giant bellboy, opens three layers of doors, Ennyday hears the lawman's appeal. There's a man in Short Beach rolling in wealth despite lacking apparent means of support. Certainly something requires investigation there!

In Short Beach we are introduced to the mysterious leaping fish, which are inflatable floating devices for coastal frolicking. We are also introduced to the film's heroine, Inane the Fish Blower (Bessie Love). That's what they call the girl who inflates the inflatables with an air pump. The lurking Coke Ennyday discovers her in distress, having fallen off a pier into shallow water. Skipping into action with the celerity of a Keystone Kop, Coke flings himself off the pier and plants himself head-first in the mud. Inane has to rescue him from this predicament, but he'll return the favor later. The man Ennyday was assigned to trail, earlier shown literally rolling in money in his bed, is, in fact, a drug smuggler; he sends two Japanese minions out to sea with Leaping Fish, and they return with contraband. Poor Inane knows nothing about this, but is threatened just the same by the amorous attentions of Fishy Joe. Another member of the criminal ring is the Chinese launderer Sum Hop. For you youngsters, that was more drug humor. Despite his perpetual daze some instinct drives Coke Ennyday to discover a cache of opium, which he commences to eat like cake batter out of the bowl. In the double climax Coke must battle the yellow perils and their white master, while Inane must defend her virtue against Fishy Joe. She defends it with all the vim and violence you'd expect of Douglas Fairbanks himself, wiping the floor with Joe, while Ennyday, quivering as if he'd OD'd on Acme Earthquake Pills, uses his trusty hypodermics to inject his foes into various states of stupefaction. One virtually floats through the ceiling, while another throws himself out a window. Finally comes the showdown with the mastermind, which conveniently goes down in darkness, with Coke conveniently victorious when the lights go on again. Once more Coke Ennyday has conquered crime, and this time he gets the girl, too -- only that's not the end of the story. Before we really got started with the story we were shown a quick shot of Fairbanks out of makeup, laughing at something he'd just read. The film closes with the real Fairbanks trying to sell the very story we've just seen to the scenario department at the Triangle Studio. The department head tells him to stick to acting, and Fairbanks exits with a pout. He actually did a lot of his own writing under the Elton Thomas pseudonym, but here he gives one of the great good-sport performances ever in what some have seen as a send up of his own already-formed frantic screen persona. It's an all-out fearless physical performance that shows the young star unafraid to look like a complete idiot, flaunting the fakeness of Ennyday's moustache, rocking his ridiculous outfits, and pretty much pogo-ing through most of the story as if he, the actor, really were on something. He helps mightily to make The Mystery of the Leaping Fish one of the damnedest things you'll ever seen. And you can see it right here, as uploaded to YouTube by one Ivan Smirnov. Check it out, man...

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

THE TIMBER (2015)

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about the visual appeal of violence in the snow? Anthony O'Brien's western -- a northwestern really, set in the Klondike but filmed in Romania -- is another vivid example of the juxtaposition of "darkness" in a pristine natural setting.


The terrific cinematography is by Phil Parmet, and it's the best thing about The Timber. Unfortunately, it's practically the only good thing about the picture. O'Brien's story, co-written with Steve Allrich and Colin Ossiander, is a vacuous compendium of "dark" western cliches hung on the flimsy frame of a minimal story. Two brothers are hired -- ordered, virtually, -- to hunt down their murderous father for a bounty that will save brother Samuel's (Josh Peck) land from a predatory lender. Impatient to take possession, the banker and his minions threaten Samuel's pregnant wife, who has to withstand their siege virtually alone until a friendly sheriff rides to the rescue.


The brothers' quest is part Apocalypse Now, part Blood Meridian as they encounter a human menagerie of degenerate grotesques on the way to their father, who proves a big pretentious emptiness at the heart of this would-be darkness. Including a cannibal in the mix will only remind western fans with strong stomachs of how much better the same year's Bone Tomahawk was. To be fair, The Timber doesn't aim to be a horror western, but rather, I guess, an existential meditation on the darkness that supposedly links the old man and his other son, Wyatt (James Ransome), if not the entire gold-greedy human landscape. The actors try to articulate this through dialogue that either aspires to the retro-formality of westerns in the True Grit mode or echoes the surliness that's seeped into the genre since the 1980s. They're clearly not up to the task, but neither were the writers, really. And since the action really isn't that great -- though for all I know, the film's confused melees may be shot and cut that way on purpose -- you're left with some knockout visuals that just might justify 80 minutes of a western fan's time. Brevity is one of the few things the The Timber gets right.