Scabbard Samurai (2010, Hitoshi Matsumoto)

My main thought after watching this and Sokurov’s The Sun, more than any thoughts about the films themselves and their content, is that SD video is dingy and blurry and should be abolished. I know I don’t have the persistence to actually do this, but I should just limit myself to HD from now on, since (a) there are already more movies available in HD than I have time to watch and (b) if I’ve seen something in SD and it comes out in HD I always tell myself I have to see it again anyway.

Another fun Matsumoto movie, but unlike R100 and Symbol, which start out weird then go in crazy new directions, this one has a clear structure. Swordless samurai Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi, per Hollywood Reporter “a near-toothless, goblin-like sixtysomething with zero acting experience”) is caught and sentenced to death, but he’ll be pardoned if he can make the young prince, in a funk since his mother died, laugh. Nomi’s not very funny, so every night he and his daughter Tae and his two sympathetic guards try to come up with something more ridiculous than yesterday in order to amuse the sullen prince, eventually involving stunts and giant props. Ultimately he’s forced to commit seppuku, but the prince starts to lighten up around Tae – they bond over the deaths of their mothers (and now her father) and become friends. Hardly a masterpiece, but cute enough, and builds very effectively towards its unexpected ending.

In the early days, his daughter’s pained expressions are funnier than Nomi’s attempts at humor:

L-R below: Would-be assassins Pakyun (Rolly, death cult leader of Suicide Circle), Oryu (Ryô of Tsukamoto’s Gemini) and Gori Gori (Fukkin Zen-Nosuke of the Kamen Rider saga), who end up rooting for Nomi once the palace starts selling tickets to watch his daily gags.

Thanks to J. Mobarak at The Film Stage – no other site wanted to translate this movie’s credits. Nomi’s guards are the more serious Itsuji Itao (evil cyborg leader of Tokyo Gore Police) and Tokio Emoto (in Outrage and Norwegian Wood the same year), who I found unaccountably hilarious with his mouth always hanging open. The lord was played by the prolific Jun Kunimura (Takeshi’s boss in Outrage), and the guy who yells “I sentence you to commit seppuku!” after each failed attempt is Masato Ibu (of Shield of Straw and Turtles Swim Faster Than Expected).

Matsumoto in Cinema Scope:

I wanted to make a film that in the beginning is not at all like a film, not filmic. Only towards the end it becomes more and more like a movie. This was one of my central intentions.

C. Huber:

As for the samurai, he breaks free of the ritual cycle when he finally rejects protocol and, pointedly, refuses to read his arduously prepared “death note.” Instead he proves that, like all of Matsumoto’s protagonists, he is, curiously, a man of action.

The Sun (2005, Aleksandr Sokurov)

A fascinating historical portrayal of Emperor Hirohito on the (fictionalized) day Japan surrendered WWII to the Allies. Hirohito is portrayed as knowledgable but distracted, pontificating on the war, next steps and the causes of defeat, but choosing to focus primarily on marine biology and poetry instead of letting the war get him down.

Watching The Sun (and Whispering Pages) to be more Sokurov-literate when Francofonia opens later this month. Two features earlier, his Russian Ark had been a major milestone of digital cinema, but here the underlit interiors are paid no favors by digital video. It’s not very engaging as a film – two hours of an extremely out-of-touch ruler talking to himself in dim rooms. I did enjoy the dream sequence, the Emperor imagining fiery devastation with fishes as warplanes.

A. Gilbert has another take on the film’s look:

Sokurov shot The Sun himself — on digital video, which was then transferred to film. The resulting grainy, nebulously-lit sepia-toned images mark an exquisite canvas on which he has expressionistically displayed his visual panache (Sokurov has stated that the crepuscular look was inspired by the work of Rembrandt).

Cranes outside the compound:

Lighting off General MacArthur’s cigar:

The Emperor (Gilbert again: “His facial tics, including constant mouthing of inaudible words, are meant to relay the strain of the divine monarchy, which Hirohito’s actions altered forever.”) was Issei Ogata of Yi Yi and the next Scorsese movie. Plenty more credited actors but they hardly seem worth mentioning, though the briefly-appearing Empress was Kaori Momoi (the young kid’s badass grandma in Sukiyaki Western Django). So, a one-man show of a haunted, mumbling ruler – I wonder if Sokurov had seen Secret Honor.

Taking time to flip through some movie star promo stills:

Part of Sokurov’s “tetralogy of power” including Taurus (Lenin), Moloch (Hitler) and Faust (Faust). WWII capitulation was in the air: Downfall opened just five months before The Sun. One of Cinema Scope’s top films of 2005, and one of Rosenbaum’s top films of 2009 – apparently it took some time to come out in the USA. Rosenbaum called it “an almost unanimous critical smash” and said it’s “the first film by Aleksander Sokurov that ever made me laugh, and its subtle, whimsical curiosity about the Japanese emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II reminded me of Roberto Rossellini’s curiosity about the title hero of The Rise of Louis XIV.” Considering that everything I’ve read about the movie mentions its visual beauty, maybe my DVD just wasn’t great.

Hyènes (1992, Djibril Diop Mambety)

“The reign of the hyenas has begun.”

The famously wealthy (“richer than the World Bank”) Linguère Ramatou is returning to her village of Colobane after 30 years away. The village has fallen on hard times lately, so is doing everything it can to impress her so she’ll leave a generous gift, including promise the upcoming mayoral “election” to shop-owner Dramaan Drameh, a former flame of Linguère’s.

Turns out she has returned to take revenge on Dramaan, who got her pregnant 30 years ago but wouldn’t marry her, leaving her exiled from town to become a prostitute. We don’t know how she became rich and renowned after this, but it doesn’t matter – she offers the town more money than they can spend if they’ll just agree to kill Dramaan for her. Everyone says aloud that this is absurd, that lives aren’t for sale and they’ll never agree to sacrifice the beloved Dramaan, but everyone starts stealing from his store, denying him privileges, following him around and not allowing him to leave town. The women, including Dramaan’s wife, stockpile modern appliances on credit and won’t answer when Dramaan asks them how they plan to pay the bill.

Dramaan leading the welcome party:

In the end, the townspeople tell themselves they’re enacting delayed justice, carrying out a sentence on Dramaan for his unfair treatment of 17-year-old Linguère Ramatou. Though they’re cynically murdering him for the money, at the behest of a bitter woman who tells her servants “The world turned me into a whore. I’ll make the world a whorehouse.”

Ramatou and her entourage:

Played Cannes in competition with The Long Day Closes, Fire Walk With Me and Simple Men. I guess I’ve seen all available Mambéty films… nothing more to look forward to. Based on a popular Swiss play also adapted by Bernhard Wicki (with Ingrid Bergman) and about ten others.

California Newsreel:

Hyènes was conceived as the second installment, following on Touki Bouki, of a trilogy on power and insanity. The grand theme, once again, is human greed. As Mambety himself observed, the story shows how neocolonial relations in Africa are “betraying the hopes of independence for the false promises of Western materialism,” and how Africans have been corrupted by that materialism … After unleashing this pessimistic vision of humanity and society, Mambety began a trilogy of short films about “little people,” whom he called “the only true, consistent, unaffected people in the world, for whom every morning brings the same question: how to preserve what is essential to themselves.”

The director, playing an ex-judge now working for Ramatou:

Mambety:

The hyena comes out only at night … He is a liar, the hyena. The hyena is a permanent presence in humans, and that is why man will never be perfect. The hyena has no sense of shame, but it represents nudity, which is the shame of human beings.

Treasure Island (1985, Raoul Ruiz)

Ruiz made a series of films in the mid-1980’s involving sailors, pirates, children, islands, treasure and magic. There’s an explicit Treasure Island reference in Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), and in between the similarly-themed City of Pirates and Manuel on the Island of Wonders, he made the movie Treasure Island, and wrote a book called In Search of Treasure Island.

As I learned from The Golden Boat, I’m not a big fan of Ruiz’s English-language films (actually Klimt was good). Treasure Island is full of fascinating work, especially when the plot comes together at the end, but while watching all I can think of are the language problems. Most actors (not Martin Landau or Anna Karina) are badly dubbed. Dialogue is imperfectly translated and conveyed, and performance styles are inconsisent – I tried to overlook it, but it’s too clunky to ignore. Little things make me think Ruiz wasn’t at the dubbing sessions (paella is pronounced “pai-YELL-ah”). And it’s cool that Jean-Pierre Leaud was cast, but distracting to hear him speak with no trace of French accent.

Ruiz’s Treasure Island isn’t an adaptation of the novel… not exactly, anyway. After a while it starts to follow the story when young Jonathan’s father dies while his seaside home is being visited by Landau (who asks to be called The Captain), then after Jonathan runs off he’s picked up by a sailing shoe salesman named Silver.

Some mutinies and mercenaries later, it comes out that this is an annual reenactment LARP, performed with a different Jim Hawkins every time. Captain Silver is the professor who invented the game, an “expert on game theory” (maybe not coincidence: when Silver gave his real name I wrote it as Omar Amiralay, which is also the name of a Syrian filmmaker who was active at the time). Jim/Jonathan sees through the ruse when he realizes during a gun battle that the fighting is fake, so he goes off alone, commandeering the ship with only Israel Hands (who soon dies) aboard. I start to lose track of the characters as the roles shift (The Dead Father returns as the ship’s doctor, for instance) – shades of the re-enactment identity-blending of The Territory. Even the narrator, who we assumed all along to be Jim/Jonathan, is revealed to be another character, who kills J/J offscreen at the end.

Jim and Helen:

Martin Landau, who dies, comes back to life, declares Jim is his son during an earthquake, and jumps out a window:

It’s fun to analyze the movie afterwards, to go through the screen shots and read reviews – maybe a less painfully-dubbed version exists in another country and will come out someday (argh, a restored print played Paris last month – the poor dubbing remains, and the movie has lost 15 minutes). Anna Karina is very good as J/J’s mom, anyway.

Karina and Helen:

Don’t think I got all the characters straight. Multiple possible captains – besides Landau we’ve got Silver (Vic Tayback of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), the French Captain (Yves Afonso, who appeared with Karina and Leaud in Made In USA), and Mr. Mendoza (Pedro Armendariz Jr. of Walker in a Yankees hat). Mendoza is obsessed with a different ship-mutiny novel, Benito Cereno by Herman Melville. There’s the doctor / Dead Father (Lou Castel, Bruno Ganz’s driver in The American Friend) and J/J’s aunt Helen (singer Sheila). Crabb (Michel Ferber) imprisons J/J, Ben Gunn shoots diamonds from a slingshot. That leaves Israel Hands (Jean-Francois Stévenin, the immortal Max in Le Pont du Nord), Squire Tim Moretti (Jeffrey Kime, the doomed Jim in The Territory), and back on shore before the adventure began, Leaud as a writer (and possibly the narrator), and the creepy Blind Man (Charles Schmitt). Jim/Jonathan himself is regular Ruiz star Melvil Poupaud, returning from City of Pirates.

The island scenes (second half of the movie) were filmed on the coast of Senegal, where Katy is now.

Back on land, The Blind Man with Karina:

Played in Cannes in 1991 alongside Yumeji, Boyz n the Hood, Hearts of Darkness, and three African films. Rumor is that Chris Marker assisted Ruiz in some way. A four-hour cut was planned, but I don’t think it was completed (nobody claims to have seen it).

Ruiz in conversation with J. Rosenbaum:

Treasure Island was a complete misunderstanding, because the money was there at the beginning and then suddenly the money was gone [not there anymore]. So I had to reduce the budget, and do it like a kind of B movie. This movie starts very strangely, with a good atmosphere, and then suddenly we are in a typical TV serial, because it was shot in continuity, so you can see the point at which the money starts to vanish.

From Michael Goddard’s book:

As [the film’s introductory] television transmission is interrupted by a power cut, we are informed that its tale of a coup d’etat, diamonds and treachery continued in Jim’s head. In other words while we may be aware that stories originate elsewhere and come to us from the outside it is we who continue them as they take possession of our imaginations; so before even introducing any of the elements of Treasure Island, the key theme of possession by prior stories that make up not only Ruiz’s film but in a more implicit way the original novel itself is already established.

As in the cartographic game in Zig-Zag this is a game played in real spaces with real lives and deaths but it is no less fictional than the novel on which it is based, while the latter is increasingly read not as fiction but rather as an instruction manual for how to operate successfully in the Treasure Island game.

JW McCormack:

For one thing, the pirates don’t look much like pirates, more like guerillas, revolutionaries. Jim’s friends the Doctor and the Squire appear without much fanfare. Other characters, like participatory academic Aunt Helen, are without an analogue in the book. The Oedipal strains of the Disney version have gone haywire, as everybody claims to be Jim’s father and nobody seems terribly concerned with treasure. But as Jim says — or, rather, as Jean-Pierre Léaud says, since we learn three quarters of the way through that he has literally run away with the script and has been telling the story from Jim’s point of view — “I didn’t see why we couldn’t just carry on without the treasure. It was an adventure anyway.”

But alas, no reconstruction is perfect: in perhaps the funniest joke in the movie, Silver, disappointed that the action has fallen so far from the book, echoes the sentiments of any reader who has ever been outraged by a movie straying from its source: he fires a machine gun into the air while shouting “It was not written! It was not written!”

Ruiz interviewed by D. Ehrenstein:

When I reread Treasure Island recently I discovered that the structure was stronger than the material. The way Stevenson tells the story is so remarkable that it could be about anything – pirates, kidnappers, whatever. We are surrounded by stories that are like houses we can enter. We play amidst these stories, sometimes being involved in two or three of them at once. In one you’re the hero, in another you’re a secondary character. These scripts are the society in which we live – if you want to be a sociologist. It’s a notion I feel more and more. This has been expressed in many ways – by Stevenson, by Orson Welles, Borges, and many others – this notion that certain stories have the structure of dreams. For those stories it’s as if the cinema had already been invented.

British Animation Classics Vol. 2, Part II

The Village (1993, Mark Baker)

Fun story with a fairly minimal drawing style. Small town is hateful and suspicious of each other until they have something to unite around: imprisoning and hanging their falsely-accused neighbor. After a rooftop fight, he manages to escape into the woods with his lover. I dig the decorative swarm of ants who end up complicating the plot. This won a pile of awards, also oscar-nominated against winner The Wrong Trousers.


His Comedy (1994, Paul Bush)

More an art piece than a short story – the poetic voiceover does nothing for me, and I couldn’t make out any sort of narrative. Maybe something religious or mythological? Ah, it’s all Dante quotes, as I should’ve known from the title. Cool looking, though – everything composed of wavy lines, with some parts (motion of bird flocks, fire, bombings) that appear rotoscoped. I liked Bush’s later, twitchy Episodes from the Life of Jekyll and Hyde.


Dreamland Express (1982, David Anderson)

Sleepwalker finds a train in the woods and takes it for a ride. All manner of wonderous imagery ensues. One of those animations that reminds you how limited and straightforward most animations are. Glad I didn’t skip this after realizing it’s by the same guy who made Deadsy. Won a Bafta (interesting thing that year: Burden of Dreams won an award; Fitzcarraldo was nominated but lost).

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993, Dave Borthwick)

Happy to come across this again – haven’t seen it since the VHS days. Awesome, hour-long stop-motion with live actors interacting with the miniature creations, which must’ve been difficult. Dark sci-fi fairy-tale following tiny Tom, born to normal-sized parents, then abducted away to a torture-lab, adopted by a tiny-people society, and brought on a guerrilla mission with a well-armed little guy. Death and horror is around every corner, and pretty much everyone is doomed. The grimy, insect-filled design is marvelous, would be cool to see this in HD someday.

Stills cannot convey the majesty:

Oh no, writer/director Dave Borthwick died a few years ago, after codirecting a kids’ animated feature. Dave’s “Bolex Brothers” partner Dave Alex Riddett is a stop-motion cinematographer (Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, way back to the Sledgehammer video), and the Bolexes also produced the great short The Saint Inspector.

A Bigger Splash (2015, Luca Guadagnino)

Rock goddess Tilda Swinton is relaxing at a Mediterranean island paradise with boyfriend photographer Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) when her ex, music producer Ralph Fiennes (an overpowering, charismatic performance) shows up with his newly-discovered daughter Dakota Johnson (Black Mass). Sexual and other tensions get extremely high, and the movie, which has an otherwise excellent soundtrack, tries in vain to get me to appreciate the Rolling Stones song “Emotional Rescue.”

I was disappointed when the story twists into murder-investigation territory after Matthias drowns a belligerent drunk Ralph in the pool, but this ends up justified. After initial interviews the chief investigator reveals himself to be a trembling Tilda superfan, gets her autograph and lets them all go. Tilda had previously, not at all convincingly, suggested to him that one of the immigrants flooding onto the island (many dying at sea) could have snuck onto the property, drowned Ralph, stolen nothing and run off. We didn’t realize that Tilda or her friends, in their wealthy bubble, even noticed the immigration crisis in the background noise around them – until it becomes useful to get themselves out of trouble.

Based on a story previously filmed by Jacques Deray with Alain Delon, and by Francois Ozon with Charlotte Rampling. Played in Venice with Anomalisa, Francofonia, Blood of My Blood and 11 Minutes. I finally warmed up to “Emotional Rescue” during the St. Vincent cover over the closing credits.

D. Ehrlich:

There are few better metaphors for the myopia of hedonism than a swimming pool on an island paradise surrounded by the sea … In lesser hands, this could’ve been a Woody Allen movie, but Guadagnino — always with his chef’s hat on — takes the ingredients for a sunbaked creampuff and slowly stirs them into a three-course meal. Working with regular cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, Guadagnino shoots in a sensual register where every shot feels just a hair too perfect to exist anywhere outside the movies. Snap zooms playfully focus on emotions that burst like firecrackers, rhythmic cuts throw you back on style whenever things risk becoming too realistic, and Marianne’s aviator shades reflect every character against their true intentions. Best of all, the soundtrack is wild and true, running the gamut from Harry Nilsson to Popol Vuh.

Michael Dudok de Wit animated shorts

Cannes Month isn’t over until I say it is. Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle premiered two weeks ago to absolute raves (an A+ from indiewire) so I’m checking out his shorts.

The Monk and the Fish (1994)

A monk goes out of his damn mind trying to catch a fish. Great motion and poses, and this movie does one of my favorite things, having the main character always move to music. I believe it ends with the monk reaching a spiritual oneness with the fish. Won the César, nominated for the oscar.


Tom Sweep (1992)

Found in low quality on streaming sites – a proto-Monk/Fish short, with beleaguered bin-man Tom’s garbage-collecting movements set to music.


Father and Daughter (2000)

A terribly beautiful story about a girl whose father sets off in a rowboat and doesn’t return. Won the Oscar and the Bafta and the BAA and the Annecy and the Zagreb and deserved them all, although I certainly didn’t think so on oscar night when I was rooting for Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected.


The Aroma of Tea (2006)

A dot moves rhythmically through painted patterns, again set to music. Aha, it was painted with tea.

Tom at the Farm (2013, Xavier Dolan)

Psychodrama following young Tom (Dolan), whose boyfriend has just died, visiting the departed’s mother and brother for the funeral. Brother Francis threatens Tom to shut up about his late brother’s sexuality around their mother Agathe, first insists Tom leave and then prevents Tom from leaving… meanwhile Tom alternates between wanting to flee and to stay, while bonding with Agathe and getting into a twisted hate/need relationship with Francis.

Cannes Month is all about becoming familiar with the fest-regular directors whose work I’ve never seen before, so now that Dolan has won Cannes prizes with five of his six features, and starred in the best Cannes GIF of the year, he’s top of the list, despite my favorite critics’ aversion to his movies. I chose maximalist Dolan’s most pared-down work, also his only movie that didn’t go to Cannes (it opened in Venice instead, winning a critics prize).

In the second half, as part of Tom’s flip-flopping allegiances, he recruits coworker Sarah (Evelyne Brochu of Orphan Black), who played the dead lover’s girlfriend in photographs sent to the family, to join him at the farm. Maybe the invitation is meant to cheer up the mother, though Tom forget to tell coworker-Sarah details about girlfriend-Sarah’s fictional life, or maybe to rescue Tom, though once she arrives he informs her he’s staying. Just after her visit, Tom finally gets spooked enough by Francis’s past behavior to make his escape. Dolan makes all this indecision and ambiguity work for the movie, maintaining tension by never giving away exactly what the characters are thinking. Actors are shot largely in closeup, but outside dialogue scenes there’s enough shot variety that it doesn’t become Blue Is The Warmest Color-oppressive.

Full cast:

D. Ehrlich: “If Tom at the Farm is occasionally impenetrable as a drama, it’s seldom less than gripping as an exercise in suspense.”

A. Muredda in Cinema Scope disagrees:

One detects Dolan’s yearnings to transcend his wunderkind origins in the thematic heaviness of the push-pull almost-romance between Tom and his abuser, the kind of charged dynamic that lends itself to critical think pieces on the twin horrors of homophobia and conformism. This pretense to seriousness aside, Tom à la ferme feels like a mild regression: too artfully manicured to work entirely as a thriller, and not florid enough to be a pure melodrama.