Thursday, June 22, 2017

WHITE DOG (Sam Fuller, 1982, USA)



A parable condemning racism’s vicious bite as being much worse (though no less immoral) than its bark. Director Sam Fuller’s mauling narrative begins with a neutral gray screen haunted by simple black and white text. Suddenly off-screen, tires screech on rough blacktop and we hear the painful whimpering of an injured animal.

Kristy McNichol plays Julie, an aspiring actress, whose compassion in rescuing the injured animal soon saves her own life…and eventually takes another’s. As she begins to understand the complexities of this beautiful dog, she seeks the help of a professional animal trainer names Keys, wonderfully portrayed by Paul Winfield. Fuller’s metaphor is as subtle as the Holocaust, showing the killing ovens of the local animal shelter, the possible fate for this German Shepard; a fate that Julie will do anything to avoid, her heart bursting with empathy for this animal whom she believes is victim, trained to be something that is inherently against its nature. Fuller often cuts to extreme close-up of all three characters: Keys, Julie, and the dog, as they share such intelligent and profound deep brown eyes, a two-way mirror to their souls. The violence is brutal and unflinching as the dog’s white fur becomes matted with bright red gore, its menacing snarl exposing the sharp incisors that cut and tear like cruel weapons. When a black man is killed by the dog (in a Church under the watchful avatar of Saint Frances of Assisi, no less!), Keys, Julie, and Carruthers (another dog trainer), become accomplices to this savage death even though their goal is to cure the dog. It’s a moral dilemma that the characters continue to struggle with throughout the film and Fuller doesn’t offer any tepid answer.

Through ferocious trial and error, Keys risks his own life to break the dog of its racist upbringing by showing it love and kindness. And here I believe the film is misunderstood: as the dog is finally freed of its inhumane bondage, it escapes Julie’s heartfelt embrace and attacks Carruthers, bulbously acted by Burl Ives. But Fuller introduces us to the original master of the dog a few minutes earlier: an overweight middle-aged man with two freckled daughters, and he looks very much like Carruthers. Does the dog now attack any white man, its training irrevocably reversed, or was it seeking revenge by mistakenly identifying Carruthers as its original racist mentor? Depending on your interpretation, the whole mood of the film is altered. And herein lays the power of Art, to examine these subterranean deep-rooted issues, as we should seek to come together as the human race and obliterate racism and bigotry.

Final Grade: (A)

Monday, June 19, 2017

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (Sam Fuller, 1953, USA)


The brash and maniacal pickpocket Skip McCoy, who soft hands hit like bricks, knocks out Candy’s sweet tooth. Director Sam Fuller’s communist exposé is as subtle as a punch in the jaw, dirty as one-room flophouse, and laced with profane dialogue that punctures like a Tattoo shop’s bloody needle.

The mundane plot device is a roll of microfilm unknowingly lifted from Candy’s purse; just another mark for three time loser Skip McCoy who gets more than money: his life now becomes a desperate negotiation as flammable as nitrate. Fuller centers his narrative upon the seedy characters that inhabit this dank underworld of society, the predators who live in the rush of the moment with violent death as their obligatory destination. Candy is a prostitute who vainly attempts to separate herself from an abusive boyfriend, her last favor to finalize some shady business deal.

Fuller begins the film with a claustrophobic tenseness aboard a rushing subway, cutting to extreme close-up and crowded medium shot, his visual exposition clearly introducing the setup: two detectives stalking Candy. Then in wanders the wild card, a pickpocket who by happenstance lifts her wallet and gets the big score. Fuller expertly cuts to medium shot and again to close-up of Skip’s hands massaging the purse, wicked eyes searing the screen, as the clacking of steel assaults the soundtrack. As a neat aside, look for the soldier from the Big Red One, Fuller’s regiment during WWII, as an extra aboard the congested train. Skip makes his escape and the police bring in Moe, an elderly woman who sells inexpensive silk ties as a front, like nooses upon those deserving of their fate, but her information doesn’t come cheap. Thelma Ritter as Moe steels the film, imbuing it with a graceful humanity, a woman of character and charm who only wants to be buried in a real cemetery and not a Potter’s Field. Richard Widmark as Skip is a brutal and leering man, full of selfish desires. His nemesis is Captain Tiger of the NYPD who knows another minor conviction will put this scumbag away for life. And poor Candy is a woman who has lost her flavor, but never her morals.

Fuller wants to show that there is indeed honor among thieves, but patriotism to the collective government who punishes them is running on empty. Though criminals, the anti-heroes of the story remain honest to their own testimony, and once Skip understands that Candy sacrificed herself for him, and Moe sadly did the same, he is out for vengeance. Fuller depicts the tough talking police as a streetwise gang, professionals who are becoming the very thing they prosecute. But even these losers look down upon Communists who wish to betray their country, and the hierarchy from police to criminal to Red is fundamental. But more importantly, Skip and Candy get the last word and remain true to themselves…while Moe is buried with respect. 

Final Grade: (B)

Friday, June 16, 2017

ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY (Akira Kurosawa, 1947, Japan)


Two lovers are an unfinished symphony in the ruins of post-war Japan, mired in the emotional fallout of despair and suffering, struggling to see the world not as it is…but as it should be. Director Akira Kurosawa attempts to imbue his film with the robust humanity of Frank Capra, as Yuzo and Masako are nitrate reflections of George and Mary Bailey, but instead of showing us a lifetime Kurosawa shows us a day in the life.

The story is set on a Sunday afternoon, the weekly meeting for this poor couple, where the day begins well but grows gradually darker both in spirit and weather. The opening shot is of Yuzo staring at a discarded cigarette butt, the pain of indignity upon his face, which mirrors the knowledge that he has been reduced to grubbing for trash. But along comes Masako, full of vibrant energy and life-affirming beauty, to temporarily quell his quiet desperation. The camera follows them throughout the day as they struggle with only a few yen: Yuzo feeling less than a man because they have to use her money and Masako wearing the mask of cheerfulness. Together they play husband and wife in a prototype house that they will never afford, visit the zoo where the animals seem more content than they, get ripped off by scalpers at a Schubert concert, and then can’t afford a tiny meal at a local café. Leaving his coat behind, they walk through a dreary night and into the ruins of a courtyard, where they dream of opening their own café, treating customers with respect and dignity.

Kurosawa doesn’t hide the darker elements of their relationship, as Yuzo invites her back to his room and makes a sexual pass: it is obvious that she is still a virgin and their relationship has not yet been consummated. She runs tearfully from the room and Kurosawa holds the camera on Yuzo’s isolation for five minutes, as he listens to the rain drum its nervous rhythm upon the leaking tin roof. But Masako is the stronger of the two and returns…he doesn’t run after her! Wandering in the lower depths of despair, they meet a starving war orphan and Masako’s selfless sacrifice brings a tiny light of kindness to this child’s dirty face.
 
Yuzo is a stark realist, knowing that dreams don’t fill an empty stomach, but Masako is his counterpoint, his hope, and his raison d’être. In the windswept night they find a deserted band shell and she sits attentively while he vainly attempts to imagine an orchestra playing Schubert, but the only sound is the rustle of dead leaves and the soft murmur of cold wind. Here, Kurosawa breaks the narrative’s fourth wall and like Wendy in PETER PAN, Masako speaks directly to the audience. But she doesn’t ask for complicity, she begs and pleads for help, their very lives depending upon the audience clapping so Yuzo can hear the imaginary orchestra. This device contradicts the film’s morality in that strength must be found within and together, not by some outside force: though heartfelt, it falls on a completely flat note. Finally, the string section swells and they are happy once again, ready to face another Sunday together.
 
Final Grade: (C)
 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

RECORD OF A LIVING BEING (Akira Kurosawa, 1955, Japan)

 
Nakajima suffer the fallout from his nuclear family, consumed by fear that eats the soul. Director Akira Kurosawa’s concise character study puts an aging patriarch, Kiichi Nakajima (a volatile performance from legendary Toshiro Mifune, playing a man twice his actual age!), on trial for loving his family so much that it destroys them.

Nakajima is a successful foundry owner whose life was forged by fire and steel, and whose family (both consanguineous and illegitimate) lives comfortably off his fortune. But they move to have him sanctioned when he begins spending his life-savings building bomb shelters and eventually planning to move the entire clan to South America…against their will. Nakajima is consumed by fear of nuclear war, the ultimate disintegration of social mores and family values. His life has come to a spiritual halt, paralyzed and frightened beyond endeavor: Kurosawa begs the question, is Nakajima irrational or hyper rational? He could liquidate few assets and move himself to safety but his desire is in saving his extended family, in selling his factory and starting a new life on a farm in a foreign country, safe (at least, for now) from the H-bomb. In one transcendental scene, after he is declared incompetent, he diminishes his role as patriarch and begs his children to move with him, prostrate on the floor: it is a humiliating display. He fails to pursued them and sets his foundry ablaze, burning down his life in hope of convincing them to join his exile. Finally, Nakajima is institutionalized with a fractured mind and he believes himself safe from harm, but cries for those left on earth who are burning, burning, burning…
 
Kurosawa casts Takashi Shimura as a dentist, a volunteer mediator for the local family court who will have to make a decision on Nakajima’s case. He brings a humble sensibility that contrasts Mifune’s tempest, allowing the issue to be examined objectively. Are his actions unfounded? There are no answers and Kurosawa doesn’t preach or offer any trite resolution: it’s important enough just to present the question. Fumio Hayasaka’s Theremin score induces a disquiet and unsettling dis-ease, upsetting rational expectations. The final shot of a split staircase, the older Shimura descending as the young mistress ascends isn’t an explanation, only a glimmer of hope for the future. Maybe the only thing to fear is fear itself.

Final Grade: (B+)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

SCANDAL (Akira Kurosawa, 1950, Japan)


A morally bankrupt attorney sells himself to the highest bidder and must face the consequences without appeal. Akira Kurosawa condemns the media with this scathing indictment of yellow journalism; a cautionary tale of cancerous reporting that destroys reputations with its malignancy.

Ichiro and Miyako embark upon an innocent rendezvous that is photographed by paparazzi, alleging a fictional tryst. Ichiro is a well-known painter whose rebellious nature is represented by his growling motorcycle, and Miyako is a waifish pop star. The problems with the film are evident in its first reel as Ichiro is surrounded by a group of farmers while painting his masterpiece…atop a desolate mountain. Suddenly Miyako stumbles upon the scene, well off the road, and says she has missed her bus. This questionable setup is absurd: the uncultured farmers have nothing better to do than discuss painting, and a famous singer is wandering an isolated country road looking for a ride? Is there such a thing as a celebrity painter whose life would matter to the tabloids? Kurosawa was a fine artist and it’s obvious that Ichiro echoes the director’s own sentiments concerning the need to reinterpret reality through the human lens of abstract perception. Their careers are irrelevant since it adds nothing to the story: they could be athletes or politicians. Also, the characterizations are trite and obvious: both protagonists are painted with broad brush-strokes, undeniably good and generous and innocent of the alleged moral crime. The journalists are likewise one-dimensional, wickedness and greed their only traits. The characters aren’t complex human beings, they simply are. The film only becomes interesting halfway through when the couple hire Hiruta, a sloppy and desperate lawyer who avers his conspiratorial anger. The film’s structure is bi-polar and the first half seems only a setup to focus upon Hiruta’s ethical dilemma.

Hiruta is the convoluted persona, a man who has sacrificed himself for the almighty dollar, and a wretched lawyer who is not above stealing from his own clients. But his soul is not entirely lost: he has a sick daughter that he loves dearly and it’s revealed that most of his money is spent in caring for her. The daughter is dying of tuberculosis, bedridden for the past five years, and this is the reason that Ichiro finally decides to hire Hiruta: a man who cares for his sick child can’t be all bad. This axiom will be put to the test.

Though the film is generally a failure because of its prosaic judgments, Kurosawa’s visual language is profound. In one sublime scene, Ichiro visits Hiruta’s disheveled office that is crumbling and dirty, the ashtrays full and pictures hanging askew. Without language, Kurosawa equates the sordid environment with the spiritual turmoil that rages within Hiruta: his interior reality has tainted his exterior and Kurosawa tricks the audience into a quick assumption. Ichiro’s expression is one of dissatisfaction until he sees a photograph of the sickly child, and it’s this splinter of decency that empowers him to hire the bumbling attorney. Also, the final courtroom scenes are ambitious and tense, not in revealing the verdict but in witnessing Hiruta’s internal struggle.

Finally, the attorney must lose everything: his family, his money, the last remnants of dignity, and his job…to discover that his child’s faith wasn’t misplaced. In a sweltering courtroom before a higher authority Hiruta finds himself at last.


Final Grade: (B-)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

DRUNKEN ANGEL (Akira Kurosawa, 1948, Japan)


A doctor’s Hippocratic Oath must pass the test of hypocrisy, mired in the bog of feudalistic violence and disease where the body can be healed…while the spirit decays. Director Akira Kurosawa creates his first masterpiece of imperfect humanity, like swallowing medicine tainted by this mosquito-infested quagmire, where the Yakuza feed like carnivores upon the corpus delicti.
A gruff but honest doctor looks into the mirror where the ghost of a turbulent young man becomes his daunting mission: a man he must heal in order to save himself. Dr. Sanada’s conflict with the frightened and pugilistic Matsunaga begins with an obvious lie: the criminal says he injured his hand on a rusty nail while the Dr. removes a bullet without anesthesia, reveling in the physical suffering his patient deserves. But he soon diagnoses Matsunaga with TB, the deadly bacterium an allegory of the crime that strangles and scars the streets.


Kurosawa begins the film with a roiling bog, detritus of a stagnant society, a cancerous wound that dominates the entire narrative: the village is centered around this morass while children play in the sickly waters and Sanada’s home lurks upon its vaporous shores. Kurosawa connects Matsunaga with the viscous malady immediately when he throws a rock into its lower depths; later, the Crime Boss is seen making this same gesture…and Matsunaga almost throws away his last chance of salvation like dead petals upon dark waters.

The flawed doctor is driven to heal and he seems to rebel against his very nature, drowning his anger in pure alcohol laced with tea. Kurosawa contrasts this morality against Matsunaga who is driven to cause harm but also fights a feverish struggle against more than a physical contagion. Yet both are destined to never truly understand one another: they come to an epiphany where change is internal…and eternal.


One masterful shot (of many) shows the fractured psyche of the criminal anti-hero, a man divided against his nature: an image that Kurosawa could have lifted from Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, as Matsunaga is caught in a vanity of mirrors. He decides that dying honorably is more important than living dishonestly, and he fights his Boss to the death. Kurosawa films the duel in close-up and slick medium shots, with tension wound like clock springs, the frisson relying on inaction as each waits on the knife’s edge for the killing blow. Matsunaga falls, covered in white paint and arms spread like an angel, his reasons never revealed and maybe not totally understood to himself. Even Dr. Sanada believes he died just another gangster’s death and curses him, but for the first time feels love beat inside his heart, as he walks a young patient towards her sweet reward.

Final Grade: (A+)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

THE BAD SLEEP WELL (Akira Kurosawa, 1960, Japan)


Nishi is consumed by more than a new identity; the cold breath of revenge fills his lungs and clouds his mind, contaminating his true nature with toxic tragedy. Akira Kurosawa condemns the cankerous contemporary Corporation, a conglomeration of poisonous individuals who subsume public funds to deposit in their own trust. It has become a prescient tale of Wall Street run rampant without regard, where the love of money is the tangled root of human bondage, people willingly enslaved for profit at the expense of others.

Kurosawa begins the film with an elaborate wedding that serves two purposes: first, it introduces the characters and their status in the Corporation; second, it explains a past crime and every major character’s alleged involvement. This is done by a chorus of reporters; in SCANDAL, Kurosawa decried journalism as a corrupt institution but here, the writers are after the truth and newspapers are the ultimate weapon to fight Corporate Greed. The wedding culminates with a huge cake in the shape a building with a black rose like an accusation, inserted in a window on the seventh floor. The businessmen gasp and sweat profusely, as all becomes quiet as the grave because this is a representation of the past crime, a confectionery accusation. 

The story is a bleak parable as Nishi rejects his own nature and becomes a weapon of mass destruction, his fuse ignited by an unquenchable fire. He has married the Vice President’s daughter under an assumed identity just to get inside the organization and murder those responsible for his father’s suicide. He has planned this for five years, willing to sacrifice innocents to see the guilty punished. Nishi is lost in selfishness, convinced that the means justify the ends. He marries the crippled Yoshiko but she and her brother do not share their father’s guilty burden and they become collateral damage. Nishi uses everyone (including his best friend whose identity he traded) for his own purpose: he kidnaps, tortures, steals, and becomes the very thing he despises; the abyss not only peers into him…it devours his soul. 

Kurosawa depicts Nishi’s penultimate failure off-screen in bloodstained twisted steel and this narrative's blunt force trauma hammers the audience with existential dread. Though the VP loses his son and daughter, he gains a promotion as Big Business continues to sleep well with politics. 

Final Grade: (A)

Friday, June 9, 2017

STRAY DOG (Akira Kurosawa, 1949, Japan)


Two disparate fugitives are passengers on a one-way train of thought. Director Akira Kurosawa’s second masterpiece is a story of chance and choice, a tale of violence set amid the squalor of occupied Tokyo: the Western influence taints the narrative with existential doom, illuminating victims of the broken post-war dream. This gritty film noir transcends the genre though its main ingredient is the criminal element, the chiaroscuro cinematography capturing the sweaty inhabitants of the litter-strewn streets, trapped in smoky nightclubs and filthy bars. The environment becomes a character, exhaling its deadly fumes into the story.

Murakami is a rookie detective whose Colt pistol is stolen. He worries that he will be fired but, more importantly, he dreads that his gun will be fired...sold on the black market and used in violent crimes. This moral burden to recover his pistol becomes his obsession. Murakami spends hours perusing mug shots of well-known pickpockets until he luckily stumbles across the conspirator: Kurosawa films this sequence with claustrophobic intensity with Murakami diminished, like his chances, by the monolithic cabinets that store millions of photographs. This scene and his superior’s cold attitude also serves to reflect Japan’s failing, where the criminals are only judged by their actions: after all, they are only trying to survive this awful Depression.

Kurosawa also infuses the film with humor, especially the sequence when Murakami stalks the pickpocket throughout Tokyo until she is just too tired to elude him anymore. She finally offers him a beer (which he doesn’t drink because he’s “on the job”) and together they sit and stare at the stars. It is a wonderful sequence because she feels a connection with the young cop, and together they look skyward and see the heavenly beauty that is always present…if they only raise their eyes. But those lost in the gutter rarely have the power to lift their heads and dream. Like the opening credit sequence where a dog pants in the smothering heat, Kurosawa will match this shot at the film’s climax. This elliptical imagery describes their potent journey, Murakami and the gun-thief, and punctuates their spiritual brotherhood.

Another interesting chapter concerns Murakami’s undercover odyssey in search of a black market dealer. This ten-minute sequence of slow dissolves and fades, with action alternating from right to left, is a vast montage that creates atmosphere…but decelerates the story. Again, by chance, the protagonist finds the one dealer who knows the thief and “rented” him the gun. Kurosawa also only allows insight into Murakami as it relates to the criminal, sharing a past that is similar: they both had all their belongings stolen after returning from the war, and this act was the crossroads for both. The story doesn’t take us into the protagonist’s life; he always remains elusive, known only from his desperate and single-minded quest. To parallel this structure, we are introduced to his partner’s family and experience Shimura not as just a cop but a husband and father. Kurosawa also uses a suspenseful plot device in the form of seven bullets: the number in the Colt’s clip. Unless the criminal purchased more ammunition (the characters never mention this possibility) by the time of final confrontation we expect the clip to hold two more rounds.

Finally, Murakami must face the murderer mano-a-mano and thus fight himself, knowing that he doesn’t hate this man but truly hates what he has become. After all, Murakami realizes that this could have been himself if he had chosen another path. Gunshots interrupt the gentle musings of a Mozart Sonata and the two wrestle in the dirt and slime until they become physically identical, covered in filth. Then lying exhausted, panting in the morning heat they stare into the newborn sky and hear sounds of children, like blossoms in the sun…and a stray dog cries for his lost and tortured soul.


Final Grade: (A)

Thursday, June 8, 2017

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL (Akira Kurosawa, 1944, Japan)


The indomitable spirit of Japanese culture is mirrored in the humble women of an optics factory: where one woman may die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. Akira Kurosawa’s second film is wartime propaganda, a manipulative composition that utilizes cinema as political dramaturgy; it demands the authority of a documentary but subtly conceals a fictional structure, using wonderful actresses and filming in controlled environments where movement and lighting can be completely controlled. Though Kurosawa does not extol the Emperor’s divinity, he imbues the story with the need for physical sacrifice while not surrendering individuality: a theme that would become commonplace in his oeuvre.

The Matriarchal structure of the film empowers this group of women but more importantly, shows that their leader Watanabe is of equal value to the elder men who command the factory: her credo of “keep on trying and do your best” is not a hollow motto…but an intrinsic value that will be tested and overcome at great expense. The opening title cards proclaim death to Japan’s enemies, and he cuts to children standing in line as a godlike voice, full of electric sympathy and remorse, tells them that emergency production must begin immediately: the men must increase their output by 100% and the women by 50%. Watanabe is taken aback by the effrontery and insists that their ration be increased to 75%! The women push themselves to their limits, hiding sickness and injury, even carrying the burden of those who have difficulty making their own ration.

Kurosawa uses Riefenstahl inspired close-ups to show teamwork and camaraderie during the volleyball games, skewed angles and smiling faces, but always focuses his own optics upon the lovely and bold women, portraying them as human beings and not brainwashed subjugates. There is no coincidence in the use of a seemingly minor optics factory as the setting for the story: it both reminds the viewer of the camera’s lens but also as a metaphor for the eyes of Japan; eyes that must be perfectly focused upon the enemy to ensure victory.

In retrospect, the opening scenes become haunting like Resnais’ NIGHT AND FOG, the wooden factory and stark living quarters like an abattoir full of victims, exploited by murderous theocratic dogma. Kurosawa hones the use of transitional swipes and dissolves, to project a specific stopping point or show the passage of time: all elements that would become a hallmark of his technique. THE MOST BEAUTIFUL is Watanabe, who works past the point of human endurance so that her minor error does not jeopardize one soldier’s life: she lives by the very creed she preaches.

FINAL GRADE: (B-)

Monday, December 26, 2016

Korova Award Winners: Best Films of 2015!




1. SON OF SAUL (Laszlo Nemes, Hungary)

2. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi, New Zealand)

3. A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (Roy Andersson, Sweden)

4. DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (Marielle Heller, USA)

5. HARD TO BE A GOD (Aleksei German, Russia)

6. 45 YEARS (Andrew Haigh, UK)

7. SHAUN THE SHEEP (Mark Burton & Richard Starzak, UK)

8. VICTORIA (Sebastian Schipper, Germany)

9. SOUTHBOUND (Various, USA)

10. WILD TALES (Damian Szifron, Argentina)