Playing Catch-Up 4

Crash (1994)

crash posterWhy, yes, why SHOULDN’T I start the (hopefully) last of these compressed reviews with another odd, hard-to-categorize movie? Is it not traditional, at this point?

The 90s were a strange time for David Cronenberg. His acclaimed adaptation of the play M. Butterfly was bookended by movie versions of two “unfilmable” books – William S. Burroughs’ taboo-busting Naked Lunch, and this equally sui generis piece, just as controversial, by J. G. Ballard.

James Spader plays James Ballard (yes, that’s his name in the novel, too), a film director who is a little too prone to trying to do organizational work while driving. This results in his head-on collision with another car, a dead man through his windshield, and the sight of Helen (Holly Hunter) in the other car, her breast exposed. He recovers in the same hospital as Helen, and that is where he also meets Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a lab-coated fellow walking with Helen during her therapy. Vaughan is carrying color photos of other peoples’ injuries and seems very interested in the metal sticking out of Ballard’s fractured leg.

james-spader-and-elias-coteas-in-crashHelen and Ballard meet again while examining their respective wrecked cars, and Ballard finds himself following Helen into Vaughan’s world of people fetishizing car wrecks, the violent intrusion of hurtling metal into the human body. Vaughan restages famous auto wrecks with stunt drivers (we first see this as James Dean’s death is recreated in front of an admiring crowd in bleachers, like a Little League game).  Ballard and Helen integrate into a strange group of fetishists – a cult, really, under Vaughan’s guidance – which includes Rosanna Arquette, practically armored in a set of braces and harnesses holding – perhaps even cradling – her damaged body together. It even begins coloring Ballard’s troubled sex life with his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger).

crash71The movie is a series of episodes which somehow does not feel episodic, but more like the story is slowly gathering speed and headed toward an inevitable collision; the sex becomes more polymorphous and perverse as the story continues. Catherine and Ballard are both shown having brief sexual flings before his accident, but neither seems as satisfying to them as the dark encounters that come afterward, starting with Catherine talking dirty to Ballard about Vaughan during sex, and progressing through the almost inevitable coupling of Ballard and Vaughan. The box copy uses the word “omnisexual” to describe the movie’s characters, and that seems more fitting than a simple “bisexual” – these folks are moving beyond gender and into flesh being penetrated by metal at high velocities. Crash is possibly the most un-erotic of erotic movies, willfully perverse – and absolutely unique and fascinating.

Also, naughty Holly Hunter is the best Holly Hunter.

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Lady Snowblood (1973 & 1974)

This may surprise you young’uns, but some of us actually knew about Lady Snowblood before Quentin Tarantino became a thing.

A couple of years earlier in Japan, the Lone Wolf and Cub movies had done good business, so making a movie based on another kinetic manga series written by Kazuo Koike only made sense. Even for that writer, the setup is unusually dense: in the waning years of the 19th century, as Japan ramps up its drive to become a major military power, four criminals are running a scam on a farming village, taking money to supposedly excuse the local young men from the draft. A new elementary school teacher arrives with his wife and child; the villains frame him as a conscription officer, and the villagers murder him and his boy. The wife is raped and kidnapped; she eventually kills her tormentor, but is arrested while hunting down the other three. She seduces every guard in the prison until she finally gives birth to the daughter that will carry on her vengeance, naming her Snowblood.

Whew.

Film_790_LadySnowblood1_originalThe first movie, simply named Lady Snowblood, gives us that origin story, her training as a swordswoman, and her hunting down of those last three villains, twenty years after the fact. She’s grown up to be Meiko Kaji, capitalizing on her success in the Stray Cat Rock movies and Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41. Snowblood’s gimmick is her sword hidden in an umbrella – we first get to see it as she plies her trade as an assassin while tracking down her three targets.

The only real problem I have with the movie is director Toshiya Fujita’s over-reliance on handheld camera work, which is generally pointed out – favorably – as giving the movie a documentary feel. All it does for me is remind me that there is a movie camera in the streets of 1895 Japan. That’s a small complaint, though, as the story barrels along. And barrel it does; Fujita plays fast and loose with the timeline, which keeps things interesting, and the challenges to our heroine varied. This movie is a major inspiration for Kill Bill Vol. 1, and watching the Criterion blu-ray it is possible to go Um hm, I recognize that now at various points. That Fujita doesn’t seem to mind cribbing an idea or two himself only seems appropriate in that context.

screenshot_2_18861Fujita had been previously known for making popular movies about disaffected youth, which was something of a hot ticket in Japanese cinema at the time (note their inclusion in a couple of Zatoichi movies made in the same time period). That does color the presentation of the story in ways interesting enough to differentiate them from the Lone Wolf movies.

For the next year’s Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, we have the same personnel, though in the extras of the Criterion blu-ray, screenwriter Kazuo Kamimura says, somewhat proudly, he strayed from the manga. I have no idea how true that is, but I can testify that Lady Snowblood all but vanishes from her own movie for a large portion of its running time.

Lady Snowblood 2 beach fightSnowblood is captured and condemned to hanging for her various murders, but she is sprung by the head of the Secret Police, so she can go undercover as a maid to the house of an anarchist rabble-rouser and find a secret document which would spell disaster for the current government if it were ever made public. Snowblood understandably finds the anarchist and his cause much more sympathetic than her murderous and corrupt employer. One machination leads to another, the anarchist is arrested, Snowblood spends the next hour or so recovering from a gunshot wound, only occasionally peeking in to witness the plot major involving marital betrayal, the black plague, entire ghettos burned down, and other antisocial activities before picking up her umbrella and Snowblooding a bunch of assholes.

ladysnowblood2-hr_1349613056_crop_550x368Now, admittedly the only Koike series I’ve read in depth is the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and this is a device he does employ – a human interest story taking front and center before Itto Ogami clears the board, but at least his son Daigoro is usually more involved – having your solo heroine sit out most of the story, only cropping up time to time to look sad is not terribly dynamic.

So I fear I’m rather ambivalent toward the two movies, though obviously I find the first one much more satisfying. That one, at least, I can recommend.

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Andrei Rublev (1966)

Andrei Rublev poster 1I admit that I sneaked my way into the Andrei Tarkovsky camp, with Solaris, reportedly the most un-Tarkovsky of his movies. It took me a bit longer to seek out more, probably because finding more takes some effort, compared to other directors’ work (though not, happily, as hard as finding copies of the work of Klimov or Ptushko!). So when Andrei Rublev was all but thrust into my hands, it became sort of an imperative, though I will be honest and also admit that the three hours and forty minute runtime was… daunting.

That being admitted, I must follow up with my initial reaction, which was Idiot! Why did you wait so long?

First, for the non-history majors: Andrei Rublev is considered to be the greatest of the medieval icon painters in the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 14th to early 15th century.

Andrei Rublev_PrologueNow that I’ve told you this, I will now tell you that the first section of this movie begins with a medieval thinker who is hurriedly attaching himself to a hot air balloon made of animal skins and the like before a mob of villagers stop him. He manages to fly for a few ecstatic minutes before he crashes to earth.

This segment is never brought up again, and has no apparent connection with the rest of the movie.

And that was when I knew I was going to like it.

maxresdefaultThe rest of the movie is going to follow Rublev (Anitoliy Solonitsyn) through several great swaths of his life… sort of. How he becomes assistant to another famous icon painter , Theophanes the Greek, with whom he will argue about theology; his commission to paint the Last Judgement in a church in Vladimir, outside Moscow, and his delaying the task for months because he does not see the point in terrifying believers, finally painting a great feast, just in time to survive the sacking of Vladimir by the villainous Tatars, in alliance with a treasonous Russian prince. His forsaking of painting and a vow of silence sworn to atone for his killing of a man during the attack, and his witnessing of the casting of a massive bell for the Crown Prince, which will rekindle his faith and show him the necessity of using his God-given talent.

andrei-rublevYou can rest assured that in the attempt to gain a worldwide audience, this movie was cut to shreds, and showings in New York resulted in reviews “comparing it unfavorably to Doctor Zhivago.” I read that with a bit of satisfaction – not because Andrei Rublev got ripped, but because that was a comparison I had made myself, while the movie was in progress. There are great swaths of story where Rublev vanishes from our sight (rather like Love Song of Vengeance, but it leads to a higher level of storytelling than that). Both movies are about a man buffeted about by history and forces beyond his control – a major difference, though, is Rublev doesn’t try to paper over that history with a love story (a love story based on betrayal, but that’s a complaint for another time) (obviously, I am no great fan of Zhivago). Rublev feels like it is truly more about Mother Russia than Zhivago could ever hope to be, its ability to withstand invasion after invasion, sea change after sea change, yet it and its people still remain.

screen-shot-2014-08-26-at-4-53-16-pmThe imagery is outstanding, the black-and-white cinematography often reminding me of Sven Nykvist’s work, and that is not a comparison I make lightly. Andrei Rublev‘s nearly four-hour runtime rumbles along like a glacier, but it truly feels like it’s earned it. Even that lengthy final section, with the forging of the bell, delivers an emotional payload that proves entirely logical in completing the story. There are a lot of overly-long movies in this world, but Andrei Rublev is not really one of them.

(Also, you need to see this movie for the Bawdy Jester – that guy is magnificent.)

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The Killers Times Three

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Nobody will be surprised to learn that I really love the Criterion Collection. I’ve had some people try to tell me they’re not all that, but this gets the same response as telling your great-aunt Emily June that Obama isn’t a Muslim: a few seconds of blinking uncomprehension, then renewed screeching. Yes, I am aware they put out Armageddon and The Rock. I am also aware that angel investors have to be rewarded.

176_box_348x490_originalA few months back, when visiting my parents, I discovered that someone had offloaded a bunch of older Criterion DVDs at the local Half-Price Books. That day I could afford only one, even at half price. When we returned a few months later for Christmas, I had made sure to bring more money, and this time I managed six. And one was a really fun concept package containing three versions of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”.

For those of you who did not have the privilege of being English majors, “The Killers” is considered to be a classic of American literature. Here’s a link to a PDF of the story as it originally appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927. Go ahead, read it, it’s short. I’ll wait. (One of the extras on the Criterion set is Stacy Keach reading the story and doing a bang-up job. It only takes 17 minutes.)

So anyway, for the tl;dr crowd (and I pity you), it’s the story of a small town diner terrorized by the title characters, two gangster types who are in town to “kill the Swede”, who always comes in at 6:00 to eat dinner. When the Swede doesn’t show, the two killers leave – leaving the diner’s occupants alive, to their relief – and one of them – Hemingway’s guy, Nick Adams, runs to tell the Swede – and the Swede refuses to escape or call the cops, saying it would be no use.

Russkies in blackface. But what you going to do?

Russkies in blackface. But what you going to do?

One of the three versions of the story in the Criterion set was made in 1956, and it’s the exam film of several students at the Soviet Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, one of whom was Andrei Tarkovsky, later the director of movies like Solaris and Andrei Rublev. It is the most literal version of the three, basically translating the short story directly onto film. It’s also only 19 minutes long. It’s worth seeking out just for that; there are a couple of minor film school flubs, but it’s remarkably assured filmmaking, otherwise.

The-Killers-PosterOur first movie chronologically, however, is the 1946 version, directed by Robert Siodmak. It starts with the Hemingway story, practically verbatim, though this time when the killers leave and Nick goes to the Swede – whose name is Ole Anderson, just in case you didn’t read the story – in his boarding house room, it’s barely ahead of the killers. We find out that the Swede is also Burt Lancaster (in his film debut!). He still refuses to run, because he’s tired of running, and “I did something bad.” So the killers bust in and kill him.

Yep, we’re only 19 minutes into a 105 minute movie.

So we leave Hemingway behind and meet Joe Reardon (Edmond O’Brien, increasingly a go-to guy for film noir post-WWII), ace insurance investigator. It seems the Swede had a life insurance policy through the gas station where he worked, and Joe sets out to find why someone would want to employ overkill methods on a grease monkey.

William Conrad takes NO guff.

William Conrad takes NO guff.

The rest of the movie plays out like a noir version of Citizen Kane as Reardon slowly puts together various people’s testimonies to fill out Anderson’s life: a prize-fighter with a career-ending injury, he falls in with the wrong people, falling for in the case of Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner, who plays a poison dame like you wouldn’t believe). Anderson even takes a rap for her, serving three years in the pen. When he gets out, Collins’ once and present sugar daddy, Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker, six years removed from Doctor Cyclops) recruits Anderson for a big job that will net them a quarter of a million dollars.

Now Reardon is really interested, as that job – stealing the payroll of that most necessary of noir establishments, a hat factory – was covered by his company. Anderson shows up after the robbery and hijacks all the dough and escapes, not being seen again until Big Jim spots him at that gas station (and after last week’s movie, Out of the Past, I now know not to work at a gas station if I’m hiding from a crime boss). There are too many things that don’t add up for Reardon, and he knows that if he’s going to solve this case, and find that money for his insurance company. he’s going to have to find Kitty Collins. I would say, “even if it kills him,” but that’s a pretty safe bet.maxresdefault

vlcsnap-2192371The 1946 Killers is pretty good noir, full of interesting characters and guys with suspenders carrying pistols and lit cigarettes. That opening sequence (remember, back when we were still doing Hemingway?) is a little masterpiece of noir camerawork and lighting, our two killers walking in and out of pools of darkness, finally splitting up and approaching opposite ends of the well-lit diner, like an Edward Hopper painting gone wrong, dark and violent.

the-killers-1964-movie-posterCompare this to the last version in the collection, made in 1964 by Don Siegel. Producer Mark Hellinger had wanted Siegel to direct the ’46 version but the studio nixed the then-fledgling director. Siegel now steadfastly refused to do a remake, and set out to make a movie as markedly different from the ’46 version as possible, and proceeded to filing off the serial numbers.

The movie, as shot, was to be titled Johnny North. North is the Anderson character, played by John Cassavetes. The killers are Lee Marvin and Clu Gulagher. They track North to a school for the blind, where he’s teaching auto mechanics to a group of blind men. Although warned the two men are coming, North simply stands there and lets them shoot him down, and that – along with the fact that somebody paid them more than twice their usual fee to kill a shop teacher – really bothers Marvin.

assassinsSo our two killers take the place of the insurance investigator in the earlier film, and find out North was a pretty good race driver who fell in with a sports groupie, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson, whose career keeps intersecting my interests). She’s also the property of a shady character named Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan, in his last movie, and playing a bad guy, which he hated).

imagesNorth has a crash that breaks his leg and screws up his vision, ending his racing career. Sheila later finds him working at a drag strip, and Jack needs a good driver for a big job. There are no more hat factories, so they are going to waylay a mail truck that has the weekend’s receipts from “all those resorts on the coast.” All goes according to Reagan’s evil plans, until Johnny slugs him and takes off with the loot.

As you can guess, now the killers have to find this Sheila dame and… well, let’s just say it doesn’t have quite the happy, tidy ending of its 1946 predecessor (although there are no loose ends). And they still wound up calling it Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, leading to a lot of critical drubbing, as this is a homeopathic version of the Hemingway story: there’s a molecule or two of the story, floating around in there, somewhere.

28The title change likely came about because, while it was being shot, it was going to be the first two-hour made for TV movie. When it was judged too violent and too amoral for TV, it was released theatrically, and the name change was likely thought more marketable. The TV origins do work against it, I feel. It feels too brightly lit, and several of the dialogue scenes drag. It has an amazing cast though; I haven’t mentioned Claude Akins as Johnny’s old mechanic, or Norman Fell as Jack’s stooge.

John Cassavetes acted in other peoples’ movies to make money to make his own. That’s not an uncommon story in Hollywood, but the thing about Cassavetes was he always gave value for the dollar. He always gave more in his roles than was necessary.

"HERE'S one for the Gipper!"

“HERE’S one for the Gipper!”

He was damned good, is what I’m saying.

And in The Killers, he gets to slug Ronald Reagan. I’m good with that.

The Killers box set on Amazon