PICKS OF THE WEEK
Tokyo Drifter (A-)
Japan: Seijun Suzuki, 1966, Criterion Collection, Blu-ray
Off the wall and over the edge from its first scene to its last, Tokyo Drifter is one of the outrageous crime melodramas and outlandish neo-noirs made in the '60s for Nikkatsu Studio by super-cult Japanese director Seijun Suzuki. It's a classic B-movie, made cheaply and quickly and with maximum audacity by a studio that ground them out by the numbers and was unafraid of piling on all the violence they thought an audience could handle, and by a director who jammed style into every crack and creaky crevasse of the wildly clichéd screenplays he was handed at regular intervals, just ahead of his paychecks.
Even if you've never seen another yakuza movie, Suzuki's world will seem familiar to you from American crime thrillers on film and on TV, from The Godfather and Goodfellas and even more, from the cheap, bad movies that copy them. And if you're Quentin Tarantino's psychic blood brother and you've seen hundreds of yakuza movies, by everybody else from Kinji Fukasaku to Kureyoshi Kurahara, starring everybody from Ken Takakura to Joe Shishido, you still haven't seen them the way Suzuki makes them. Set in a bizarre realm of gritty streets and pastel nightclubs, these are exploitative shockers that somehow morph into timeless melodramas of romance, betrayal, brotherhood and revenge -- by a director who could go all the way from "style serving content" to "style over content" to "style versus content" with, say, one overhead shot of two sprawled corpses and the click of an automatic.
Aficionado or not, with Suzuki, you've seen the story and the characters or their like before. We know where we are: We're in the nightworld of the corrupt postwar city, of Tokyo (or New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or Paris), the dark world of well-dressed, kill-crazy yakuza and of the adoring molls who love them and the cops who try to stop them and the older gangsters who have seen them all but are ready for one more go-round, one more bloodbath, one last heist.
The story, from a script by Kouhan Kawauchi, is about a young gun with ethics and a sense of fair play and an occasional hot temper named Tetsuya Hondo (played by pop star Tetsuya Watari, a sort of Japanese Elvis or maybe a Japanese Gene Pitney). And it's about his adoring moll and nightclub chanteuse Chiharu (Cheiko Matsubara) and his cool old ex-gangster mentor Kurata (Ryuji Kita), with whom he's trying to go legit, even as a yakuza war explodes all around them.
The movie is full of natty yakuzas sneering at each other in expensive suits from whose pockets they pull guns and shoot each other down like dogs. It's also full of musical numbers sung by Chiharu, who dispenses torch songs at a local night club with shocking red décor, and by Tetsuya himself who keeps singing a maddening title number called "I am a Tokyo Drifter" -- lugubrious, mournful, and uptight as Pitney's "Town Without Pity" -- and sings it so often that you begin to cringe every time he starts it up again.
Suzuki later revealed (in an interview on this DVD) that Tetsuya, who was being groomed for movie stardom by the Nikkatsu brass, suffered at first from such paralyzing stage fright that he froze and lost his lines in scene after scene. Suzuki had to get one of his assistants to hide on the set under chairs and behind desks and hit the actor with a broom every time he froze, a shock that usually made Tetsuya remember and spill out his lines. That, in fact, may explain the singer/actor's performance, in which he often seems to be painfully emerging out of a haze or a temporary coma.
Tokyo Drifter isn't memorable for the acting or the writing, which don't make much sense, but for the visuals, which are often astonishing -- from the first black-and-white shots of Testiya attacked by a small mob, to the last scene, where (bewilderingly) he rejects his beautiful, talented, faithful girflfriend and walks off into the night, singing "I am a Tokyo Drifter." Suzuki, here and elsewhere, does nothing to disguise the idiocy of the script. He simply tries to make it as entertaining and as much fun as he can. And he does.
But even if Seijun Suzuki is no Akira Kurosawa, he doesn't really need to be. Nikkatsu was a dream factory more in the factory sense. Nikkatsu movies were written in about a week, shot in about three weeks, edited quickly and dumped into theaters almost immediately.
And Suzuki, who made 42 movies in about 11 years in the beginning, knew how to make them fast and dirty and yet show enough imagination that the aficionados would laugh along with the workers and the kids and people wandering around at night looking for ways to kill time. He made movies with titles like Youth of the Beast and Gate of Flesh and Branded to Kill and Story of a Prostitute, some of them on serious subjects, most of them daring and candid.
If you've ever wanted to see a yakuza movie done partly in the style of Frank Tashlin or Stanley Donen or Chuck Jones, here's your chance. Suzuki could turn clichés into art, in Tokyo Drifter and the others, because he was a true original. (Extras: interviews with Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu; trailer; booklet with Howard Hampton essay.)
Straw Dogs (C)
U. S.: Rod Lurie, 2011, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Straw Dogs, Rod Lurie's remake of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 classic -- the movie in which Dustin Hoffman played a Vietnam-era intellectual forced to face the beast in himself and in others -- is an odd blend of two different directorial sensibilities, both somewhat spellbound by machismo.
Peckinpah's most famous films -- including Straw Dogs and his masterpiece, The Wild Bunch (1969) -- were often extremely violent, but also extremely vulnerable, and that was Peckinpah's point. He felt that most previous American action films, including most Westerns, trivialized violence, cheated on its pain and chaos, and removed much of its sting, and he intended to put it all back in, with a vengeance. He did.
But there was also an almost feminine sensitivity in Peckinpah's work, and an impassioned response to the lyricism of nature and humanity that belied the macho front that he used and which, by now, we can see through -- just as we can see through Hemingway's.
Rod Lurie, on the other hand, seems more of a solid citizen. His military tour was in the Army and he's a filmmaker who likes to make intelligent, liberal-minded political movies, with classy casts (Deterrence, The Contender, Nothing But the Truth).
So now come Lurie's Straw Dogs. Peckinpah's film, based on the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams, is the story of a young American college mathematician named David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman,) who has left the U. S., probably because of the Vietnam War and the turbulent campuses, and moved onto a farm, belonging to his wife's deceased father, in her hometown in Cornwall, England.
Sex and violence are the twin engines of Peckinpah's movie. The wife, Amy, is played, very well, by Susan George, one of the sexy young British actresses who thrived in the Beatles era and just afterwards, and her Amy manages to stir up sexual fevers in the local louts and layabouts who hang around the local pub -- chiefly a pushy old flame of hers called Charlie (Del Henney), who can't believe she loves this Yank wimp and tries to move in again. David, even though he can sense the electricity between them -- and even though Amy warns him -- hires Charlie and his mates to help repair the roof on his farmhouse. He is an unusually foolhardy chap, dealing stupidly with unusually dangerous people.
The die is cast. Charlie and his gang want Amy -- or Charlie wants her and most of the others are content to watch -- and they are all contemptuous of David. David is a semi-snob and semi-condescending college guy trying to get along with the working classes, who somehow feels he is protected by society. Amy is a hot-blooded lass, aware of her charms, who wants David to defend her, and is irritated when he doesn't. Charlie and his mates are horny, amoral thugs. This simmering sex-charged conflict eventually, inevitably explodes.
Straw Dogs is somewhat overrated and often forced, but it's still a powerful film, clearly the work of a master. And the first thing to understand about Lurie's adaptation is that, though it's flawed as well, it isn't a cheap and sleazy job. It's done with respect for the original -- even though Lurie has transplanted the action to a macho-drenched Mississippi town called Blackwater and though he makes the townspeople, who mostly have the same names as the Britishers in Peckinpah's movie, typical Deep South movie types.
Lurie turns brutal old drunk Tom into brutal ex-football coach Tom, played by James Woods with his hardest edge, in one of the movie's best performances. He turns Charlie into an old flame and one-time local high school football star, played by Alexander Skarsgard, Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard's son, who gives an even better one. Lurie makes the sturdy magistrate into a sturdy black sheriff (Laz Alonso), changes David (James Marsden) into a good-natured screenwriter working on a script about the siege of Stalingrad, and turns Amy (Kate Bosworth) into a beautiful blond actress who met David on a TV series they did together.
Despite all those switches, almost every scene in the Peckinpah Straw Dogs turns up in some way in Lurie's version too, and most of the new characters even have the same names as their counterparts in the remake. It's clear that Lurie knew he was adapting a movie considered by many a classic, and that he was determined not to make the usual crass, opportunistic overhaul. Even the famous 1971 poster closeup image of Dustin Hoffman and his broken glasses has been recycled for the new movie's poster, with Marsden.
Peckinpah's enemies said that his movies were a bloody mess. They weren't. The best of them showed, with great force and white hot intensity, the ways that life can be a bloody mess, and the ways that even good people, or seemingly good people, reveal their dark sides, the bad stuff that can be wrenched free from them in a crisis. That's what Lurie wants too. But his Dogs aren't wild enough. (Extras: commentary by Rod Lurie; featurettes.)
U.S.: Olivier Megaton, 2011, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Zoë Saldana, who was kind of blue in James Cameron's Avatar, plays producer-writer Luc Besson's notion of a rock 'em sock 'em action heroine in Colombiana -- which means that she's drop-dead gorgeous, often undressed, and frequently engaged in slaughtering people. Lots of people die in Colombiana, many at the hands of Zoë's character, hit woman Catelaya Restrepo, and they usually shuffle off mortal coils in ways as picturesque as Besson and director Olivier Megaton and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen (the Karate Kid movies) can dream up: eaten by sharks in a Scarface-style drug lord's orgy den/swimming pool, blowing up, or going down in alleged "safe" houses in hailstorms of bullets.
The first casualties are Catelaya's parents -- captured and slain by a Colombian cocaine cartel in the first big action scene, when she's only 10 (and played by child actress Amandla Stenberg). But most of the others are just preparation, or practice -- part of a furious quest for revenge by Saldana's Catelaya, who, as that 10-year-old, decides on a career in murder and vengeance, is helped along by her doting gangster Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis), who also makes sure she gets a good Chicago parochial school education and her own extracurricular lessons in slaughter.
When her assassin career heats up, Catelaya's "victims" are mostly miscreants and scumbags whom she kills in order to get to her parents' killers, the fiendish drug lord Don Luis (Beto Benites) and his main associate/torpedo Marco (Jordi Molla), two crook/killers who are being protected by the CIA in exchange for information that Don Luis never quite provides. This may all seem ludicrous, and it is -- though Besson and Megaton try to keep things barreling along at such a blistering clip that we won't notice.
There's not a scene in Colombiana that isn't nonsensical in some way or another. The only actor who manages a halfway convincing performance is Lennie James as dour FBI special agent Ross. But it's also clear that the filmmakers aren't really trying to avoid nonsense. They're aggressively pursuing it, and whipping up the whole senseless shmeer into an overedited frenzy of preposterous hyperactivity.
Saldana and Stenberg make the absurdities watchable. Stenberg spins her limber way though extreme action scenes of parkour, with little Catelaya seemingly leaping from rooftop to rooftop to sidewalk to street, pursued through sunny Bogota by Colombian cocaine cartel thugs. Saldana slithers and shakes and strips though slam-bang scenes of firefight and assassination and tiffs with Uncle Emilio.
The movie, which is shot well by Oliver Stapleton, just keeps piling it on.
Colombiana plays like an endless hallucination brought on by too much cocaine. But, no... it's a carefully plotted mass entertainment, intended for our amusement. There's some crazy fun to be gotten out of all this. But, since when did it become a rule of thumb that action movies has to be so wildly over the top, so utterly senseless -- all baloney, all the time?
Love Crime (B)
France: Alain Corneau, 2010, MPI Home Video
Movie murder mysteries can sometimes get too tricky and convoluted for their own good, and that's pretty much what happens in Love Crime -- a cool, nifty, well-constructed and very well-acted French film that would have been even better if it didn't try so hard to outsmart us all. It's the the final picture from the admirable and crafty French writer-director Alain Corneau, who died at 67 last year, after a notable career that included several high-grade policiers and prime neo-noirs, and also the very popular classical music bio Tous les Matins du Monde
Love Crime begins wonderfully, with a great snarling corporate office cat-fight between Kristin Scott Thomas as Christine, a pearly-smooth multinational executive with the silken moves of a chic leopard and the venomous morals of a glamorous snake, and Ludivine Sagnier as Isabelle Guerin, her nave and seemingly idolatrous, and maybe secretly venomous, assistant.
As we watch, often amused and sometimes appalled, Christine steals ideas and dignity and corporate standing from Isabelle, nearly seduces her, has her own wastrel lover Philippe (Patrick Mille) bed Isabelle instead, double-crosses her and makes a public fool of her. This is awful behavior, even for Kristin Scott Thomas at her meanest, and she does it with an evil, smiling, killingly well-bred panache that makes you think of Barbara Stanwyck gone French and all haute-couture on us. Sagnier responds at first with bewilderment, then with a vengeance. Also around, but no match for the two women (maybe) are two men who take Christine and Isabelle in interesting directions: the spineless Philippe and Isabelle's flawlessly organized, quiet, seemingly all-knowing office ally Daniel (Guillaume Marquet).
That's the "Love" part of the film. Then comes the "Crime" section: an ingenious murder scheme by one of the two -- or maybe a bystander, we'll never tell -- which proceeds to unravel and re-knit in a particularly complex way, one which, I'm sorry to say, kept losing me more and more the more it unwound.
The plot, which makes one of Dame Agatha Christie's least-likely-suspect mystery classics look positively simple and a snap to pull off, seems at first brush, very clever, but makes less and less sense the more you examine it.
Ludivine Sagnier, an ingénue with big hurt eyes, has had to deal with devious older women played by first-rate actresses before (notably Charlotte Rampling in Swimming Pool). And, despite her wounded, dazey looks and big pale eyes in the beginning, we know she knows how to win sympathy and fall apart and pull herself together again. As for Kristin Scott Thomas, her Christine -- wittily, icily chic and full of mean delight at her own serpentine machinations -- well, watching her reminded me of how incredibly good (at being bad) she was, what a great preening, smilingly destructive selfish wife she played, in Charles Sturridge's 1988 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's dark social comedy A Handful of Dust.
Love Crime's luscious cargo of impeccable décor, fine cinematics, and sheer raving, compellingly bad feminine behavior makes for a very good French neo-noir, just le billet for those cine-buffs who lust after the better brand of French screen crime and sadly miss the experts -- Clouzot, Chabrol, Melville, and even at times, Renoir and Truffaut -- who used to serve us the murders, fear, great characters and ingenious twists we craved. In French, with English subtitles.