Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review of A Taxing Woman

[Image: “Cute. He has freckles too!”]

It takes a special type of talent to turn a tax auditing bureaucrat into a charismatic supercop lead, but trust director Juzo Itami to pull it off. “A Taxing Woman” (1987) was his third film and is instantly recognizable to fans of the director: it wears a charming grin, stars his wife Nobuko Miyamoto and skips along with understated cleverness and comedic ease. The result feels much like a hybrid of “Out of Sight” (1998) and “Ikiru” (1952), gently tuned by Itami’s particular camerawork and staging.

“A Taxing Woman” begins with an extended opening montage in which Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki) exploits every trick he can think of to evade taxes, from tucking away profits in a secret vault to paying off nurses to seduce patients into signing off on dummy corporations that can be used for laundering his money. Gondo is a sly and slippery businessman who runs love hotels, cooperates with the criminal underworld, sleeps with a bevy of mistresses and enjoys threading tax loopholes just for art’s sake. For all that, he’s a strangely compelling figure, a concerned father and a man driven more by gamesmanship than malice or even greed.

Cue the title screen. Enter Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto). We see her sitting at a café table watching transactions at the cash register, counting digits on receipts and observing the part time help. In her mind she reconstructs their entire business and sees through their every yen-pinching scam. They’re not even worthy opponents for Ryoko, who’s long been distinguished as a peerless tax agent on the fast track for a promotion to inspector. Her freckled face, persistent cowlick and unglamorous attire belie her intelligence, acumen and diligence. She may be the best mid-level government bureaucrat the screen has ever seen.

In truth, her adherence to the strict letter of the law may go a little too far, as in her unsympathetic demand that a small family-run restaurant pay taxes on the food they eat themselves. After all, she points out, since the store is recently incorporated, their free meals might as well be stealing. Though she’s usually immune to the puling, pleading and bribing of her quarries, their bitter accusation that the government fails to go after “the real criminals” hits home. After passing by a ritzy love hotel and the luxury cars parked in its garage, she sets her sights on the manager: Hideki Gondo.

Ryoko and Mr. Gondo’s showdown makes for a modern classic of rivalry romance, with the two quite opposite personalities developing a level of mutual respect for each other than threatens to become an emotional attachment. Even as the gloves come off, with Ryoko digging through Gondo’s trash in the rain and Gondo’s goons rousing public enmity towards taxation, there’s still a sense that they’re not just trying to win; they’re trying to impress each other. But Itami never takes the romance too far, allowing his characters to maintain their distinctive dignity while delivering a satisfying and even touching conclusion.

The secret of Itami’s success may be that he’s found a way to make a cop/crook thriller that masks a screwball comedy that masks a dark satire. The film feels like it’s heavily plot driven, and we’re given scene after scene of well-constructed thrusts of parries to reinforce this notion, but beneath the intricate financial technicalities and incomprehensible tax codes, it’s really our unexpectedly magnetic leads that make us care.

Like most Itami characters, Gondo is a villain we have trouble truly hating. The film seems torn between trying to show how corrupt he is and then talking us out of condemning him, a split-personality tone that actually describes him quite nicely. At one point Ryoko astutely points out that he’s really a dreamer (as evidenced by his delirious themed hotel rooms) and several slips expose his as a bit of a misguided romantic.

Ryoko, for her part, may demonstrate a methodical tenacity that is borderline excessive and exhausting just to watch (consider the title as pun), but reveals a maternal compassion that gives us a glimpse of a personal life almost rarely mentioned and, perhaps, only rarely lived. Yet her uncomplicated motivation in carrying out law and justice in her own sometimes small way is refreshingly free from Freudian baggage, not to mention avenging-my-dead-partner/friend/family backstories and pro-government propaganda.

“A Taxing Woman” couches a social message that warns us of plummeting integrity and widespread greed, but Itami knows that he’s making a comedy and not a polemic. In keeping with this, his camerawork focuses on the minutia of interpersonal tension – sometimes just the nonverbal play of casual gestures, expressive looks and slightly silly gaits – more so than action, violence or seedy atmosphere.

[Image: Nobuko Miyamoto making an arguably too-funny face. Her occasionally explosive expressions somehow never undermine the character.]

Itami’s sense of humor isn’t exactly subtle, but it also isn’t loud in the sense of discrete setups and pithy lines. He has a knack for simply depicting things in a way that brings out their amusing side, often times through Tati-esque choreography.

[Images: Ryoko and her boss puzzle over a difficult problem.]

I don’t think “A Taxing Woman” is quite as funny or original as Itami’s better-known “Tampopo” (1985), but the director makes better use of Tokyo, diving in and out of a buzzing metropolis defined more by its crowds than its architecture. It’s a city Itami depicts as burdened by too many minor corruptions for every crook to be collared, but not plagued by the type of big ticket crimes that would compromise his underlying optimism.

Always a fan of packing the frame and staging in depth, Itami makes good use of the real estate in his tight TV aspect ratio. It leads him into busy compositions, but “A Taxing Woman’s” Tokyo is a pathologically busy place, where efficiency is highly valued by both sides. The director’s thick, much-layered conjunctions of staging, composition and performances (Ryoko always hovering, Gondo always leaning forward from his limp), gives a tangible expression to Ryoko’s relentless closing in and Gondo’s bucking to riposte.

[Images: A variety of Juzo Itami’s deep staging shots. They’re too eclectic to fit into an overarching explanation, but amongst his many inventive uses are examples that lend extra weight to the background and environment, find humor and beauty in unusual framings, create a power hierarchy between the characters (that usually shifts) and simply squeeze more information into shots.]

Katie and I disagreed about the upbeat rubbery jazz theme, which she seemed to consider garish 80’s trash. I rather liked it, though I’m not sure what defense I can offer. It’s repeated too often and doesn’t spin off far enough to get interesting, but somehow it captures the spirit of both Gondo’s cheek and Ryoko’s pluck.

Juzo Itami is pretty much a style and movement unto himself, a light-hearted, more compassionate voice than is found in most Japanese films from the last decade and a half. You owe it to yourself to see at least “Tampopo” or “A Taxing Woman,” if you haven’t already. I’ve found myself surprised that Itami’s entire filmography is not more readily available, but I’ve reaffirmed my interest in tracking down more of his work even if Netflix can’t help me. Many consider his only sequel, “A Taxing Woman Returns” (1988), at least as good as the original, and that might be the direction I head next.

Walrus Rating: 8

Friday, June 26, 2009

Bootlegs, Ethics and Navigating the Grey Zone

Today I’d like to talk a little about a subject that can make a lot of cinephiles, film bloggers and internet users in general a little squeamish, if not outright defensive: copyright issues. I’m going to write about it at length, because I think it’s important and that there are a lot of misconceptions and misjudgments out there.

I’m going to try and make a distinction about what’s legal and what’s ethical based on my own knowledge and experience acquiring non-mainstream films and writing about them. I’ll finish by discussing some of the iffy “grey zone” questions I've had to ask myself.

What pop-culture has to say

First of all, let’s talk about the most common case, which is downloading a movie from the internet. Let’s assume this is a relatively recent (last 30 years) movie made in America by someone or some company that has not divested its copyright prerogatives and that it is widely available from a distributer on a modern format like DVD. The way I understand it, this describes most movies that are pirated. There is no question, none whatsoever, that downloading such a film is illegal and unethical.

I don’t think most people pirating movies have any doubts that what they’re doing is illegal, but they still manage to rationalize it. Downloading media has become so widespread that there is an “it’s OK because everybody’s doing it” atmosphere. It’s like drinking during prohibition, right? As I was attending college various techniques like direct connect and torrents became ubiquitous and many, many students I knew, otherwise ethical in other areas of their lives, had no qualms with amassing huge collections of illegal works. Most of my cinephile friends have downloaded a film at least once.

But doing something that is wrong just because lots of people are doing is about the worst logic I can think of and shows a weakness of character and general cynicism that it pretty contemptible. That’s why almost anyone who regularly violates copyright usually convinces themselves that what they are doing is not actually wrong. Perhaps illegal, but not particularly unethical. “Nobody gets hurt except maybe some corporate fat-cats.” Some of the rationalizations I hear people spout make me madder than if they’d just admitted they didn’t want to fork over their money.

A Chinese coworker of mine once explains how I should actually be on his side (pro-piracy), because bootlegging only hurts the big studios (who I’m always pillorying) and helps the common man see more movies (which I’m often advocating). In this popular self-serving fantasy, video pirates are technological freedom fighters committing heroic revolutionary acts. “Down with oppressive capitalism! Up with communal sharing of artistic works!”

Right. I’m sure self-interest never even enters into it. Much as I mistrust the rich and powerful, I don’t have much love for self-proclaimed Robin Hoods who steal from anyone who has what they want and give to themselves. If anyone, it’s the uploaders and free download sites who could claim to have society’s greater good at heart (though their substantial banner ads and popups make me think otherwise), but let’s at least not pretend downloading is about anything other than wanting to see a free movie.

What the law has to say

Any work, as soon as it is recorded in a fixed form is immediately protected by copyright. Films made for studios are considered “works for hire” and the rights belong to the producer and/or studio, not the director or screenwriter. No registration necessary. No copyright logo (©) necessary. No FBI warning necessary. These three things are included by major studios and distributers solely because they provide additional leverage when suing violators.

The copyright is held for 70 years after the author’s death (if made independently), 95 years from first date of publishing or 120 years from creation (whichever comes first).

In essence, you can not copy, distribute or display a film without permission if the rights are still in effect, subject to fair use. Fair use is a nebulous concept that takes into consideration the purpose, portion and influence on profit that a reproduction incurs. For instance, the screenshots that I take for use on this blog are explicitly protected because they are used for the purpose of a review, are not exploited for my money and represent a tiny fraction of the film in question.

But don’t get the idea that copyright is a simple matter. It is the realm of lawyers and complicated exceptions and elaborate flowcharts. (Though who doesn’t love a law that distinguishes separate treatments for parody and satire?) It can take a great deal of research to discover if a film’s copyrights have lapsed, putting it in public domain. I recently bought a 12-movie collection of silent “public domain” Hitchcock films from Best Buy. I’ve since discovered that most of them actually do have rights retained on them, but if the distributer, Best Buy and a reasonably sharp film blogger like myself didn’t know, can Joe Consumer be expected to do the research?

Well, copyright law does make provisions for people who commit what is called “innocent infringement” if the person was not aware and had no reason to believe that the work was still under copyright. You’d only be liable for about $200 per work. Willful infringement (most of what goes on online) is another matter, and if the work is registered, could result in as much as $150,000 per work. The law is much harsher on those who make a bootleg than it is with people who knowingly buy a bootleg. Downloading a film, by the way, counts as making an illegal copy. “Time-shifting,” recording a film off of TV to watch later, is covered by fair use.

There is no active agency that enforces copyright, which is one reason why most people get away with it. A complaint has to be issued from the authentic rights holder who must send a cease and desist letter and press suit themselves. If the work in question is not registered, they can only hope to recover the loss of profit they suffered, which often makes the effort worthless. If the work was registered, they can hit you for the numbers mentioned above.

Now here is something I want all the free film revolutionaries to pay close attention to: because the big studios register all their works, monitor a lot of internet sites and possess an army of lawyers with decades of experience, they are the ones mostly likely and most able to enforce their copyrights. They go through a lot of trouble to ensure that they do not lose profits because of piracy. They hire lobbyists to secure laws in their favor. They hire lawyers to sue companies and individuals. They raise the prices on DVDs to help recoup their losses.

They might still do these things to some extent even if piracy was not such a problem, but the more piracy goes on, the more they will react with aggressive business strategies. The bottom line is that when you score a point against a big studio by downloading one of their films, they will just take it out on people, often times the ones who are paying legally. It is the little companies and independent filmmakers, who are less able to defend themselves, that actually get hurt. Even if these victims are interested in fighting to enforce their copyrights, they have to pay court fees and waste time that could have gone to their continued creative output.

What ethics has to say

So if you actually care about making artistic works available to a wider audience then there are productive and ethical ways of championing that cause that are more credible than self-interest motivated piracy:
1) Support movements to change copyright law.
2) Help research and publicize lists of films that have not been renewed and are in the public domain.
3) Research films that are not available and not in public domain and organize campaigns to request those movies be released. When a large enough fan base makes itself known, there’s a much greater financial impetus to distribute unavailable films.
4) Support studios, distributors and filmmakers who make quality films available at reasonable prices.
5) Politely contact rights holders for permission or carefully utilize fair use provisions to present films in a non-profit, educational environment.
6) Make your own creative works and get them out to the public.

Complicated as copyright law is, the ethical questions surrounding the issue are even more slippery. At least in today’s culture I suspect that people are much more likely to obey their own judgment than the law, so talking about the ethical standpoint might be more convincing. If someone says they don’t believe in copyrights, they aren’t likely to hold back just because a rarely-enforced law says so.

So let’s look at some fundamental premises that copyright law takes for granted:
1) An artist’s work belongs to the artist or whoever commissioned the work and took the financial risk for it.
2) Artistic works such as film have value.
3) The person(s) in (1) has the sole right to modify, sell, exchange or license the work and to otherwise obtain the financial value they believe it to be worth.

I know a lot of people who claim to disagree with one or more of these ideas. For example, you might say that a responsible government has a duty to provide free access for its citizens to at least some of their culture’s creative heritage much the same way as it should ensure universal education and medical care for the poor. You might argue that fixing a price for a work of art is subjective, or disagree over why producers/studios have exclusive rights while the crew has none or quibble about the exact extent of the artist’s moral rights to their work (an area where the US trails a bit behind Europe).

I understand these and similar disagreements, but if you just plain don’t accept any of the basic premises above, you probably can’t be convinced of the need for copyrights. But if you’ve at least thought about the issues and developed and a worldview that isn’t merely self-serving, than at least you’re not obliviously taking bootlegs for granted.

Believe it or not, copyright law did originally have the public good in mind. It’s a balancing act: on one hand, you want to protect an artist’s copyright so that it is profitable and sustainable to create artistic works and on the other hand you want as many people as possible to have access to these works.

The original copyright act of 1709 issued rights for 14 years with a one-time optional renewal for 14 more years. This has since been extended to a rather ridiculous 95 years since its first publication (in our case, screening) which accounts for pretty much the entire history of cinema. I doubt if most people could even name a feature film from before 1914. Clearly the law has come to favor the rights holders over the public. Not coincidentally, those rights holders are largely giant media corporations with Washington influence. Indeed, supported by special interests groups like Disney, a succession of laws derisively called the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” has continued to push back the expiration date indefinitely.

At least with film, where a huge proportion of the profits are made within the first weekend of the release and most of the money even from rentals happens within a couple of years, I consider the lifetime of copyrights to be irrationally out of control. But if a studio or distributer continues to make their films widely available for reasonable prices and on modern formats, I still think it’s tough to violate copyrights and still allege the moral high ground. Especially these days with library’s stocked with classic films that are freely available to the public.

To me, the ethical question of rather it is OK to violate copyrights only really gets interesting when you look at films that are not widely or reasonably available or which aren’t available at all.

What I have to say

This is where I come in and start talking about my opinion on the ethics of unauthorized film distribution. It suffers from my own rationalizations and compromises, but I try to be honest about it and to hold myself to high standards, common sense and best intentions. I do think pretty much every film should be available to the world at a reasonable price (say, ~$50 or less), and in that sense I am guilty of my generation’s renowned sense of entitlement, but I’m not asking filmmakers or distributors to give something for nothing.

Solipsistic as it may sound, I’m going to conduct a Q&A with myself. That way, if anyone else wants to, they can copy just the list of questions and answer them based on their own convictions or present them to others as discussion points. Both might make for good exercises.

Q: How do you feel about borrowing movies between friends?
A: If money doesn’t exchange hands, I’m all for it. In fact, it’s one of my favorite ways of shaping cinephile converts.
The strict wording on some FBI warnings I’ve seen implies that you can’t even watch the film with your extended family. I think that’s just ridiculous.

Q: How do you feel about showing films to clubs or other organizations?
A: I think screenings of legal copies in small, non-profit clubs and educational organizations is fair use and utterly grand (obviously, considering my film club history). My college gets permission to show DVDs and 35mm prints to the community for free in exchange for not advertising the screenings, while my brother’s college runs licensed, low-cost screenings that have permission to advertise. I think that with anything smaller than those venues, especially if you’re showing something that most of the audience wouldn’t have even known about otherwise, you’re not cutting into anyone’s profit.

Q: Should you avoid bootlegs (from here on to include downloads and any other unauthorized acquisition of a film) even if there is no other option?
There’s a lot of circumstances I try to take into account. The simplest case, where a film is not available in any home format and is not shown on TV in your country, is one where I easily approve of bootlegs (presumably sourced from tapes of foreign TV airings). You are still responsible for confirming that the movie is not available.

Q: What if a film sometimes plays on TV, but isn’t otherwise available?
A: Wait for it to play on TV and watch or record it. If it requires cable/satellite that you wouldn’t otherwise buy, having a friend record it has never seemed a cardinal sin to me.
However, if a station owns the rights for a film and never (or almost never) plays it, do what you want and make your own peace. Previously I would give TCM (who owns an enormous amount of the unreleased films out there) about 6 months to a year to play a film before I sought other means, but if TCM follows through with their plan to make their entire library available on DVD by request, then I no longer need to make furtive back-alley deals.

Q: What if a film is available only on an old format like laserdisc?
A: Personally, I keep a VHS player around so that I can still watch the huge number of films that are available on tape but not disc. For films only previously marketed on obsolete formats like laserdisc, check whether the distributer is still around and considering a rerelease. Failing that, I generally seek out bootlegs sourced from the obsolete format.

Q: What if a movie is only available from another country, in PAL format and/or with incompatible region codes?
A: I found that a great investment is a region-free, any-standard DVD player (which are perfectly legal) that can play movies from anywhere in the world. Since region encoding is not backed by law – it is purely a way to increase profits by giving higher prices to wealthier regions – I never feel bad buying the film and stripping the silly limitations off with computer software (the distributor still got their money).
That said, I think that this is a case where the rights owner stupidly limited their own profits by not giving you a fully authorized option to pursue, and so I understand if people feel that getting a bootleg isn’t harming the company more than they harmed themselves.

Q: What if a movie is only available in another language?
You can often times find free subtitle files, which are legal to create and distribute. Minimal tech savvy is required to apply subtitle files to movies viewed on your computer.
Fansubbed bootlegs are illegal, but I still consider them a reasonable option if the current rights owner has no plans to provide a version in your language. I consider people who provide high quality fansubs to be doing a service to the cinema community.

Q: What if a film is only available for an exorbitantly high price, like a 35mm rental fee of or a festival/promotional/educational purposes price?
A: I’ve seen a lot 35mm rentals as high as $1000, without even taking into account the cost of the equipment you would need to project it. Festival/promotional/educational copies, which often pertain to experimental films, tend to be in the $100 to $250 range. That’s a sign that the distributor is doing outdated celluloid copies not intended for the general market. Sometimes you just have to wait for them to get their distribution branch in order for the price to drop.
If the rights owners posses digitized copies of these films that could be written to a DVD-r with little hassle, I consider the prices quoted above to be unreasonable and beyond the means of the general public (though exceptions exist). I have occasionally resorted to bootlegs in that situation, but often I just ignore these films.
If a movie is just plain expensive, like a Criterion release or the latest Blu-ray blockbuster, that doesn’t count as unreasonable in my book. You need to just commit to the price tag or wait for the cost to fall and used copies to become available.

Q: What if the rights owner wants to restrict who sees a film or how it is displayed?
A: If the rights owner in this case is the original author (preferably the director), then you should listen to their explanation, if one is given, and preferably respect it. I don’t usually agree that a film must be seen in theatrical conditions (as some filmmakers and critics insist) to be correctly understood and fully appreciated, but that is one expression of an artist’s moral rights over their work.
Sometimes I give in to moments of weakness and watch bootlegs of these films anyway, but I promise myself that, even if I don’t like it, I will give it a proper chance on the silver screen given the opportunity.
If the rights owner is a special interest group or religious organization that has acquired the rights for the purpose of preventing distribution and suppressing the original artist’s message, I side with the artist.
If the rights owner is a company utterly unaware or uninterested in distributing the film and unwilling to sell the rights to someone who is, I look for a bootleg. I’ve heard that the rights to some Peter Greenaway films went through several bankruptcy and repackaging sales and are now bundled into some obscure Japanese investment holding. If that’s true, then it’s a good example of a copyright not serving anyone’s idea of the public good.

Q: What if you think a film is in the public domain?
A: If it really is in public domain then it is legal to download and copies sold by anyone can’t be considered bootlegs. However, you should do at least some research into the matter. If I can’t find any glimmer of extant copyrights for a film during an hour of internet searching, I’ve satisfied my own conscience. The United States Copyright Office will conduct a semi-conclusive search for $150, or if you live near D.C. you can search their records for free. I’ve never gone that far.
Just because a film is in the public domain, though, doesn't mean it's not worth paying for. Most free and budget releases of public domain films are god-awful lazy transfers. I've found myself paying extra to get a definitive edition in more than one case.

Q: What if a film is only available on the grey market?
A: The grey market is usually meant to refer to internet sellers, called dealers, who sell movies that no one else has actively asserted copyrights for. Sometimes rights are not renewed, get trapped in limbo by a legal dispute, disappear with a distributor who goes out of business or get sold piecemeal only to specific countries. Dealers often times have a message like this one on their websites:
“The United States Berne Act states that: Films unreleased in the United States, including original version of films altered and/or edited for release in the United States, are not protected by American copyright; thus, they are considered public domain.”
That’s BS, although for years I believed it, mostly because I wanted desperately to believe it and never bothered to check. Having since read the Berne Convention Act and related copyright laws, I can safely say that it states the exact opposite: Movies copyrighted in foreign countries (or at least the majority who signed the Berne Act) are fully protected by U.S. copyright law.
Still, if you have decided for whatever reason that this is the best way to get the film, then it is less illegal than downloading the film since the lion’s share of the liability is on the shoulders of the dealer. Most of the dealers I’ve worked with are good people and will immediately withdraw items from their catalogue if you can show that another entity owns the rights.

Q: What if you acquire an unauthorized version of a movie when nothing else was available and then an authorized version becomes available?
A: My personal code of ethics is that I have to buy the authorized version when if it becomes available. This is really hard for me if I didn’t even end up liking the movie when I saw the bootleg.
The same philosophy has served me well with videogames. In college, I downloaded emulated roms (bootlegs of old videogames that run on a computer) from obsolete systems, but now that Nintendo makes many of these available legally on the Wii’s online store, at very reasonable prices, I’ve squared myself with the company.

Q: Is it OK to make copies of rented material?
A: Generally, no. I have at least two friends who rip all their Netflix movies to their computer so that they can send the discs back the same day. The way I see it, if you watch the film multiple times on your computer or lend it out, you are getting all the benefits of buying the film at only rental prices. If you are just watching the films at a later time and then deleting them, that’s probably just fair use time-shifting.

Q: Be honest, how many unauthorized movies do you own?
A: If you’ve tried to get a movie I’ve reviewed on this blog, odds are good that it was suspiciously absent from Netflix or Amazon. I’ve bought a bit over a hundred grey market bootlegs, most of which I can justify in keeping with the answers I’ve given above. I really do try to make sure that the artist and/or rights owner is compensated for their work whenever reasonably possible. I plan to be even more careful in the future.
The one black market bootleg I own, “Kill Bill Part I,” was purchased in the Philippines by a roommate and given to me as a gift. I keep it around because the creative English subtitles are hilarious, and probably constitute an original work in themselves.

The conversation continues, with particular emphasis on the anime community, over at The Grump Factory. John shares some his own thoughts and reactions on the issue of downloads and bootlegs.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review of Princess Raccoon

It’s safe to say that most Japanese film enthusiasts are familiar with the cult director Seijun Suzuki’s work (thank you, Criterion!), especially his unconventional psychedelic yakuza films from his days at Nikkatsu. Suzuki was an important dissident from within the studio system, a spiritual brother of Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller who took subpar B-movie scripts from his producers and twisted them into surreal, inverted genre-busters infused with a unique auteur sensibility. While a cult audience followed his film even at the time, Nikkatsu’s higher-ups hated his unauthorized script changes and, inevitably, he was fired in 1968.

Somewhat ironically, the films that Suzuki made after his studio days are less well known despite his immensely increased degree of artistic freedom. I can understand why his studio work is more popular, given that Suzuki’s use of arty techniques and surprising aberrations hangs handsomely on the unpretentious genre frameworks that ground the stories. His later free-wheeling experiments are less accessible and harder to follow. The strangeness that initially popped out of the details came to take center stage. I confess to being somewhat disappointed with “Zigeunerweisen” (1980) and “Pistol Opera” (2001).

His most recent and probably last film, “Princess Raccoon” (2005), may be the key that has opened up my appreciation for his later career. It’s a musical starring Joe Odagiri as Prince Amechiyo and Zhang Ziyi as Princess Raccoon. Amechiyo’s father, a powerful demon, banishes his son to a lonely mountain out of pride (lest his son become more beautiful than the father). Before Amechiyo’s kidnapper reaches his destination, the princess of Raccoon Palace rescues him for her own mischievous purposes and soon falls in love.

“Princess Raccoon” is set in the world of ancient Japanese folklore and mythology, populated by gods, demons and shape-shifting raccoons (actually tanuki, but I refuse to enter into that debacle) who meddle in the affairs of humans. The time period is a bit nebulous, with renaissance era Europeans wandering around in the background and a giant classical Italian painting dominating one set. Equally so is the landscape, which includes soundstages in the heavens, earthly outdoor terrain and impossible CG environments.

The point, made clear from the very start of the film, is less the romance of the relatively uninteresting characters, than the spectacular design concepts that Suzuki engineers from this chaos. One suspects that he cast actors based on whether he liked their faces rather than on their emotive talents, and he tends to take more interest in their elaborate period costuming than their delivery. His rainbow palette is outright gaudy, but allows us to soak up a childlike love for color and contrast devoid of overly academic good-taste.

There’s a great deal of risk when a director becomes obssessed with orchestrating essentially undemanding eye-candy, and it’s doubtless that may viewers will find the film self-indulgent and shallow. However, Suzuki does his best to make us understand that the artifice is part of the point and that the visual presentation is worth our attention. Katie noted that the film reminded her of “Percival” (1978) in it’s intentional artificiality, but its lineage can be traced natively in the strong Japanese tradition of ritualized staging and detached abstraction (visible in films as diverse as 1963’s “An Actor’s Revenge” and 2001’s “The Happiness of the Katakuris”) that owes more to Kabuki than Brecht.

By foregrounding the methods behind the fantasy and illusion, “Princess Raccoon” makes us admire the process of creating as much as the experience of viewing. The intricate painted backdrops (sometimes with the wrong perspective), stuffed raccoon toys attached to strings and crude CG (I’d quibble that it goes too far) are never integrated systematically into a kind of realism, but are left isolated enough so that we can appreciate them as individual elements within a swirl of arts and crafts.

[Images: Some of the backgrounds are designed in the style of traditional Japanese ink and woodblock art.]

This makes for a film that isn’t particularly smooth and cohesive, but somehow Suzuki never lets it devolve into the type of postmodern pastiche where the humor comes from random non-sequiturs and anachronistic juxtapositions. He unwisely includes a weak subplot that breaks up the flow of the romance, music and adventure, but he makes the right decision to eschew manic editing. The craziness is contained, if just barely, and everything fits comfortably into Suzuki’s overarching vision, though his is a dreamlike vision divorced from ordinary reality.

[Images: One set is nominally reconfigured and relit as Prince Amechiyo walks in a circle around it. The shot changes from arctic to desert, either to symbolize the long passage of time on his journey or the variety of terrain he traverses. By recycling the same camera position and layout, we can’t help appreciating how the mild redressing of the few props changes the atmosphere completely. The taxidermied hawk adds a touch of humor.]

Suzuki preoccupation with beauty is also addressed thematically within the narrative. Beauty is shown to be a powerful force independent from morality; a force capable of both good and evil. The prince’s father, for instance, is fatally consumed by pride in his beauty, while vanity hampers the budding romance between Amechiyo and Princess Raccoon. But the film also shows how beauty is an inspiration, a cause for celebration and a foothold for love. The film is neither particularly original or deep in what it has to say on the topic, but it’s self-aware about its superficiality.

[Image: The princess is so beautiful that the firewood for her warm baths burns with jealousy.]

The eclecticism in the art design is shared by the music numbers. Suzuki bounces around the world and across history with everything from traditional poetic pieces and show tunes to rap, tap dance, ska, hymnals, hard rock, opera and children’s choir. Like Hollywood musicals of old, the songs are funny and buoyant and more about having a good time than about demonstrating raw musical talent.

[Image: (Bottom) A literal and Greek chorus of Japanese ladies-in-waiting.]

Suzuki’s biggest flaw in his musical numbers isn’t the questionable vocal training, but his limp choreography. He never quite manages either the graceful precision of geisha dancing or the effervescent energy of a Hollywood showstopper, though some of his concepts are intriguing, including dancing duets of women giving birth and sumo wrestlers who play drums on their massive bellies. Suzuki has always been better at composing static images than at capturing motion (it’s part of what makes his action movies so startlingly different), causing the dancing to feel poorly directed and less spectacular than the backdrops.

The films from both the highest of high culture and the lowest of pop culture are often accused of having poor plots and acting, but for very different reasons. Somehow “Princess Raccoon” manages to sample those flaws from both ends while also capturing their best attributes: inventive artistry and unabashed entertainment, respectively. It’s a combination that might be said of Suzuki’s 1960’s work, though it manifests quite differently. If this really is his final film, I think it makes a fine finish.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

[Image: One croak from the Frog of Paradise is all you need.]

Friday, June 19, 2009

Review of The Lost World (1925)

When I was young I tried reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” (1912), about the discovery of an Amazon region where dinosaur still reign, and I don’t think I ever finished it. I had much better luck with Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which I sometimes read aloud to my brother as a form of speech therapy (sadly, I never acquired a British accent). But back in the turn of the century everyone and their literary agent, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Henry Rider Haggard, was trying to get a lost world story to market.

Now nearly 100 years later, the subgenre is making a bit of a comeback, albeit with far less serious treatments. “Land of the Lost” (2009), the latest in the uninspired “Will Ferrell plays the fool” franchise appears to have already sealed in its fate as an artistic and financial disaster. What that means for the knock-off created by The Asylum, “The Land That Time Forgot” (2009), which comes out next month is easy to guess. The Asylum, an unscrupulous studio that makes no-budget films that ride on the coattails of blockbusters with similar titles(amongst them “The Transmorphers,” “The Day the Earth Stopped” and “The Da Vinci Treasure”), deserves a post of their own, but it will have to wait.

The subgenre’s only real success since “Jurassic Park” (1993) may be Pixar’s delightfully self-aware “Up,” which has the sideways wisdom to update The Lost World while dropping the dinosaur angle at the crux of the original. It manages to be satiric and yet still whimsical, heartfelt and original. Amongst the clever nods to Doyle’s story in “Up” is an image of ‘Paradise Falls,’ a sheer Venezuelan plateau taken right out of the 1925 adaptation of “The Lost World.” It’s that film, which might be considered the grandfather of lost world cinema that I’m going to review today.

“The Lost World” (1925) begins with journalist Edward Malone being told by his girlfriend that she won’t marry him unless he proves his manliness by facing death. Looking for a dangerous assignment, he agrees to sneak into a conference by the irascible Professor Challenger, a scientist whose reputation lies in tatters after championing the lost journals of Maple White, which depict dinosaurs on an obscure South American tepui. Challenger becomes the laughing stock of London high society, but manages to mount an expedition with Malone, big-game hunter Sir John Raxton and White’s beautiful daughter Paula.

It doesn’t take them long to reach the plateau and they’re soon sighting more dinos than they know what to do with. After crossing unto the plateau by felling a tree over a vast chasm, a brontosaurus destroys their makeshift bridge and leaves them stranded. The scientific inquiry and search-and-rescue mission quickly become secondary issues compared to survival and escape.

Director Harry Hoyt let his special effects team go wild, headed up by Willis O’Brien of later “King Kong” (1933) fame. In the fully restored version of the film his stop-motion battles between various dinosaur combinations threaten to overwhelm the rest of the story. Most of the action with the giant reptiles has little to do with the human characters, who mostly stand by and share our rapt attention rather than running for cover.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s primary villains, a race of violent ape-men, have been consolidated into a single character. This ape-man, who hasn’t any backstory, motive or means of expression, is incongruously bent on murdering the rescue party. Lacking higher cognition or anything to rival the firepower that Raxton possesses, he’s something of an anticlimactic pushover when compared to the potential killing-power of the dinosaurs. The result is that there isn’t much tension or oppositional force to drive the film until the film’s memorable last act, in which Prof. Challenger’s pet specimen breaks free and rampages through London. The idea was so much better than the novel’s ending that it was also tacked onto the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World” in 1997.

Hoyt’s handling of his actors is not nearly as bad as I was expecting for a special-effects driven silent-era film. Lloyd Hughes is fine, if forgettable, as the gung-ho handsome lead and his biggest fault may be that he’s chained to such a predictable character arc that includes an inevitable romance with Bessie Love’s Paula White. Bessie Love makes the best of her role considering that she has no qualifications for being on the trip and serves little purpose but to provide a love interest, a duty made difficult considering that she’s also required to be constantly screaming with fear and crying over the death of her father.

The minor roles are much more interesting. Professor Challenger is no fatherly academic, but the type of guy who chops his own firewood and can handle himself in a fight. His performance is proud, angry and determined, but just short of hacky mad-scientist overtones. Sir. John Raxton is surprisingly sympathetic as the uptight British hunter who shows a good deal of quiet humility and restraint as he comes to accept that Paula prefers Edward. He gets to have a subtle performance amidst all the huff and roaring. There’s also Jocko, an ingenious monkey who actually plays into the plot somewhat cleverly. I also liked that Arthur Conan Doyle has a cameo at the beginning, where he introduces the film.

“The Lost World” may stray into cheesiness at times, but it’s really never bad (well, excepting scenes involving the blackface natives) and is overall a highly entertaining treat for fans of old-timey adventure yarns. Despite the excellent job restoring the film, there were still cuts that made me think there was still footage missing and pieces mismatched and that may explain why the action isn’t as sustained and smooth as it could have been. If you can live with that, and appreciate the fact that the stop-motion and live-action events are necessarily a bit detached from each other, you’ll enjoy the film’s charm and gusto.

Walrus Rating: 7.0

Monday, June 15, 2009

Film Noir Poetry

I’ve written a script/poem that uses only classical-era film noir titles for words, making it arguably more referential than a Tarantino screenplay. Punctuation and formatting has been used to manipulate the meaning, but there should be no added words. See if you can follow the story and recognize all the films. (I’ve by no means seen them all myself!)

Kansas City _________ [[[Confidential]]]
‘Crime Wave Niagara’
‘Underworld USA’
‘The City that Never Sleeps The Big Sleep’

Black Tuesday, Nightfall.
I Walk Alone Down Three Dark Streets.
So Dark the Night; The Night and the City.

Danger Signal! Sudden Fear.
Cause for Alarm?

Clash By Night.
Witness to Murder!
Crime of Passion? Murder By Contract?
Crack-Up, Vertigo, Whirlpool… “...Angel Face?”

I Wake Up Screaming.
T-men: “The Killers?”
[Spellbound] “…Phantom Lady...”
Ruthless Rogue Cop: “Gun Crazy Guilty Bystander.”

Panic in the Streets
"#%$&! Raw Deal."
The Wrong Man Pursued!

The Chase:
99 River Street, 711 Ocean Drive,
Plunder Road, Scarlet Street.
(Sunset Boulevard - Nightmare Alley)
He Ran All the Way, He Walked All Night.

Mystery Street; The Street with No Name.
Detour? One Way Street…
Suddenly Cornered. No Way Out.
Pickup on South Street.

Accused of Murder Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Convicted: “The Killer Is Loose Among the Living!”
They Won’t Believe Me!Cry of the City: “Rope The Accused.”
Railroaded Behind Locked Doors.

Caged In a Lonely Place.
The Big Clock, The Long Wait, The Desperate Hours
Journey Into Fear…
Private Hell 36

Betrayed? Framed?
Suspicion: I Married a Communist.
The Suspect: Rebecca, Laura, Gilda?
Out of the Past, The Dark Past, Shock!
“The Unholy Wife: …M-Mildred Pierce!”

I Want to Live!
The Breaking Point (The Turning Point?)
“Notorious Black Widow,
Force of Evil Born to Kill,
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye!!!”

Body and Soul Possessed.
Desperate Act of Violence:
Bodyguard Conflict
The Dark Passage => High Wall.
Loophole: The Window! Ivy…
Side Street… Asphalt Jungle!
Illegal Second Chance!

Knock on Any Door.
{House of Strangers}
“Call Northside 777.” Dial M for Murder

...****...****...(The Postman Always Rings Twice)
Mildred Pierce: “Johnny?” [Eager]
“Sorry, Wrong Number.” Beware, My Lovely!

Fallen Angel, Somewhere in the Night;
The Night of the Hunter.
The Set-Up, The Trap, Temptation Lured...
Caught The Guilty Mildred Pierce!
Sweet Smell of Success!!

Human Desire… Inferno Fury
I, the Jury.
Shadow of a Doubt…?
Without Pity.

“Follow Me Quietly.”

Brute Force, The Killing Kiss of Death:
“Murder, My Sweet,” I Confess.

Pushover The Narrow Margin
The Lady in the Lake
The Raging Tide,
Dark Waters…
[Blast of Silence]

“Sleep, My Love. Nobody Lives Forever.”

Hollow Triumph? Too Late for Tears.
Leave Her to Heaven…

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review of Four Flies on Grey Velvet

[Image: Robert, moments before squashing a fly with a climactic cymbal clash.]

“Four Flies on Grey Velvet” (1971) was released for the first time on R1 DVD this February, and I didn’t even find out until last month. That’s pretty inescapable evidence that I’ve been slacking off on my giallo intake, but no reason why I can’t have an excited delayed reaction. “Four Flies” is the last of Dario Argento’s ‘Animal Trilogy’ and the last to get released. It falls somewhere between the quality of the groundbreaking “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1970) and the stodgy “Cat o’Nine Tails” (1971).

[Image: Robert and Tobias.]

Robert Tobias is a rock band musician who finds himself annoyed by a mustachioed stalker. After pursuing the man onto the stage of an abandoned theater, Robert accidentally knifes the confused guy, a murder inconveniently photographed by a masked fiend in the upper galleries. Robert and his wife Nina are then terrorized by the murderous blackmailer, who knocks off their diverse network of friends and helpers (including a gay private eye and a hobo named God). After about an hour and a half of this, the deranged killer is finally revealed.

The plot is easily amongst the worst of Argento’s oeuvre, with some of the poorest psychological balderdash to motivate the killer in particular. There’s vague hints concerning the identity of the villain, but nothing resembling actual clues, and with our protagonist passively going about business as usual while he hopes for one of his friends to catch the blackmailer, there’s no sense of an investigation with forward moving progression or rising tension.

[Image: At least there’s no shortage of focus pulls, like this elaborate zoom into Robert’s rearview mirror.]

The upside is that Argento, cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo (“Who Saw Her Die?” (1972), “The Killer Must Kill Again” (1975)) and special effects wizards Carlo Rambaldi and Cataldo Galliano work out a visual style easily on par with Argento’s best work. Their inventiveness is rather astounding, including at least three ideas that I’ve seen ripped off (more likely reinvented given the film’s low penetration) and praised in many films made decades later: slow-motion “bullet time,” following a phone cable from caller to the recipient and pulling the final image off the retina of a corpse (which even Argento admits was a stupid concept, but he liked the way it looked in the film).

[Image: A step-by-step transition from a phone booth to the killer’s home set along the route of the wires themselves.]

The special effects sequences largely guide the plot, rather than the other way around, but Argento makes this into an asset and even a primary theme. “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” focuses heavily on what we see and how we interpret it, but “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” is more about vision on a more fundamental if less tantalizing level: how what we can and can’t see creates fear and how vision can grant power and strip privacy. Robert is tricked into manslaughter (staged, quite literally, on a stage) because he is being spied upon, then spends the rest of the film rather helpless as the villain taunts him by repeatedly breaking into his house and planting photos of the crime. At least two characters witness the villain’s work and try to blackmail the blackmailer, creating a spiral of peeper power struggles with predictably deadly results.

[Images: Plays on vision: (1st) Running a laser through an eye to get its last sight, in this case the titular four flies. (2nd) A classical peering-out-of-wardrobe-as-the-killer-searches shot with the eye caught in a sliver of light. (3rd) The type of doorknob every private eye should have. (4th) The killer’s wide-eyed grinning mask, paired with spotlights and a camera lens to make it the ultimate gaze.]

Most of the scenes are quite dark, probably one of the oldest and most worn tactics for generating fear and uncertainty in horror films. Despite this, however, Argento’s colors are usually remarkably vivid in “Four Flies,” very much in keeping with his other works from the 1970’s. It’s a combination the director often uses to apply lurid, emotion-inflected splashes onto the more typical canvas of brooding shadowy suspense. “Four Flies” contrasts the darkness with an even more unique technique, in that scenes set in the mind’s eye are brightly lit and uniformly white.
[Images: The killer’s traumatic memories of time spent in a padded cell and Robert’s reoccurring dream of a Mid-East execution.]

Like with many gialli, the games played with lighting, color and camera position don’t necessarily have any particular meaning; what’s important is how they make a viewer feel. To take an example, one scene has Robert’s maid waiting in the park to be paid off by the killer. From the first shot, we know she’s going to die and the whole exercise could unfold with excruciating predictability. Instead we get a series of intriguing flourishes: the mood changing from safe to scary via startling jump-cuts, the chase runs through an illogical hedge maze and crushingly tight tunnel and the final stabbing is left unseen, but heard from the opposite side of a tall brick wall where a young couple impotently responds to the cries for help (reminiscent of a scene in “The Leopard Man” (1943)).

[Images: The music on the park’s loudspeakers cuts off abruptly, followed by a trio of jump-cuts (every bit as quick as just glancing down the two screenshots above) showing the park going from full-swing to empty. By dramatically abridging the maid’s wait from an hour or so to a few seconds, we’re thrown off-balance.]

Other set pieces may go a bit too far, particularly one at a luxury coffin convention that serves almost no purpose and is probably intended as comic relief. There are a few other moments of largely misguided humor, including a bible-quoting bum and an incompetent mailman, that only drag out the already sparse pacing.

[Image: Presenting the race-to-heaven and honeymoon coffins!]

My biggest complaint, other than the story, is the music. It’s very rare for me to give a thumb down to anything composed by Ennio Morricone, but this is some of his least impressive work. Robert is a drummer, and I wanted to like the way that his band’s music and his rambling drum solos are crosscut into the action, but it doesn’t have nearly the right feel. Apparently Argento wasn’t happy with it either, and the two didn’t work together again until the mid-90’s.

One of the best reasons to watch giallo is the visuals, and they’re strong enough here to compensate for the admittedly extensive flaws. With the DVD now widely available and the print cleaned up expertly, giallo collectors owe it to themselves to pick this one up.

Walrus Rating: 7.0
[Image: What do you think: the most horrifying cat corpse ever or what?]