It’s a venerable cliché, the idea of “one last big score.” The hero, reluctantly recognizing his glory days are behind him, deciding to make one last play for glory.
And so we find “Le Stephanois,” an aging gangster released from prison to a world that has passed him by. He has scores to settle, and dreams of a legendary haul. What if he could assemble a crack team of experts, and deploy them on a meticulously planned heist to rob a jewelry store? What could possibly go wrong? (As it turns out, quite a lot)
And behind the cameras, we find an echo and an inversion. Here is Jules Dassin, an American expatriate director on the run from the Blacklist, increasingly desperate to get back into movies. It’s been years, and the long arm of the Blacklist has been stretching across the Atlantic to frustrate his every move. An offer is given, but it’s a poor one—only a fool would take this assignment. But beggars can’t be choosers, and the desperate man will do almost anything. Somehow, improbably, he turns straw into gold. His film is more than good, it is influential, and with it he changes the rules for everyone.
This is Rififi.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 22, 2016
A Brighter Summer Day is an empathic epic of Taipei in the early 1960s. Four hours long, it is a finely detailed portrait of the families who fled China for Taiwan after the Communist Revolution, unsure if they would ever see their homeland again. It is how Edward Yang grew up, and he felt a responsibility to honor the memory of his friends and family who lived and endured this dislocated life, all under the martial law of the Kuomintang government, who stifled dissent in what became known as the “White Terror”. Freedoms were circumscribed and national loyalties scrambled, so in order to establish an identity many children joined street gangs and imbibed Western pop culture, especially Elvis Presley and rock n’ roll. The film is a succession of atmospheric reveries (Proustian sense memories of school uniform fabrics, clunky radio units and stucco dance halls) punctuated by spasmodic violence, boredom and confusion breeding obscure hatreds. The cast of characters is enormous, and Yang is able to build a real sense of a community, conveying the ragged dignity of alcoholic shop owners, philosophical gang leaders, and the apathetic teen who throws his life away with a few thrusts of the knife. It is a towering achievement, though it has been nearly impossible to see in the United States outside of rep screenings and muddy-looking VCDs. But today the Criterion Collection has issued A Brighter Summer Day in a beautiful DVD and Blu-ray from the 4K restoration performed by Criterion in partnership with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. It is one of the essential releases of 2016.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on March 20, 2016
A Quiet Place in the Country was nominated for a Golden Berlin Bear at the 1969 Berlin International Film Festival. The film was spearheaded by Italian director Elio Petri, stars Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave, and includes the work of Ennio Morricone. Billed as a sadistic and erotic horror film, it reminds me of Piero Schivazappa’s The Frightened Woman (aka: The Laughing Woman) which was released in 1969, a fitful year for Italian psychosexual thrillers. I’ll admit to preferring the latter to the former, but A Quiet Place in the Country is not without various selling points. [...MORE]
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 15, 2016
Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves (1974) is about a boy. Twelve-year-old Daniel climbs trees, flirts with girls, and punches classmates in the stomach. He is poised between youth and adolescence, and the film seeks to capture all the moments, and all the silences, of this befuddling transition. After Eustache’s coruscating The Mother and the Whore (1973), a logorrheic portrait of post-May ’68 despair, My Little Loves seems startlingly quiet and gentle. But each are after a kind of completism, of leaving nothing out. Discussing My Little Loves, Eustache told his fellow filmmaker, and Cahiers du Cinema habitue, Luc Moullet, that he wanted “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” With the help of cinematographer Nestor Almendros, All My Loves becomes a sensorial memory object. There isn’t much of a narrative – it drifts – but it builds up the fabric and texture of Eustache’s childhood in the small rural town of Pessac (outside of Bordeaux), and the industrial city of Narbonnes, on the Mediterranean coast. My Little Loves is screening on 35mm in the Metrograph’s Jean Eustache series, one of the inaugural programs for this ambitious new theater on NYC’s Lower East Side.
I’ve let this whole “Japanese Beat Cinema” kick run on way longer than I originally planned, and with your indulgence I’ll send it off with one last trip to the well: Keisuke Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home. Hailing as it does from 1951, this is a shade older than the rest of the films we’ve been exploring these best several weeks, but it definitely plays with the same themes: teenagers, sex, the generation gap, and what happens when (poorly translated) American values intrude into traditional Japan.
I’ll admit this is not likely to be familiar to anyone—I don’t believe it’s had a proper US release, ever. It’s not on YouTube. I ran across it on DVD as part of a set of “100 Years of Japanese Cinema” that was published in Hong Kong, but it’s long out of print. So, I’m talking about a movie that no one else has seen, and no one is really going to be see very easily. But, don’t be intimidated—that’s kind of point of this post. Go ahead, click the fold, and let’s see what happens when Carmen comes home.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 1, 2016
The animated films of Mamoru Hosoda are all about the practical aspects of the fantastical. Wolf Children (2012) begins with the transcendent love between a city girl and a werewolf, but instead of ending at their union, it begins there, with the bulk of the film concerned with the hard realities of raising two rambunctious lycanthrope kids. Summer Wars (2009) uses a video game virtual reality to tell a story about getting along with your prospective in-laws, while the girl in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) uses her powers to perfect a karaoke routine. His new film, The Boy and the Beast, is about a child runaway who discovers a secret world of warrior animals, where he is mentored by a splenetic bear-man. Though there are universe-shaking implications, the core of the movie is about how a kid fills in the emotional lack left by his absent parents. Opening in limited release on March 4th, The Boy and the Beast is another of Hosoda’s gorgeous spectacles that finds beauty and pain in the minutiae of existence.
As the recently paroled gangster Muraki in Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower, Ryo Ikebe is practically the definition of cool. He looks like Elvis playing James Dean, or James Dean playing Elvis. In a plaid suit.
More to the point, he’s a disaffected loner, an outcast even when at home among his own kind. This is 1964 Japan after all, where pop culture and nihilism went hand in hand. In the 1960s, youth culture the world over was cranking out stories of alienation and anti-establishmentarianist angst. But Japan had specialized in nihilistic heroes for hundreds of years.
Our journey through the world of 1950s-era Japanese Beat Movies continues this week with Yuzo Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyo-den. This was voted the 4th Best Japanese Film Ever Made by a critic’s poll from Japan’s leading cinema journal, and personally I think that may be even underselling it a bit. This is something ya gotta see, but that means tracking it down. For those of you in the UK or with the ability to play discs imported from the UK, that’s easy—seek out the Eureka/Masters of Cinema release and call it a day. But since that’s likely a small percentage of my readership, I’m sending the rest of you on a bit of a hunt. And you’ll find there a lot of different titles applied to this—all attempts to translate the title into English.
There’s Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, or The Sun Legend of the End of the Tokugawa Era. The Masters of Cinema disc opts for A Sun-Tribe Myth From the Bakumatsu Era. None of these are especially compelling, although the Masters of Cinema title comes closest, in my opinion. I’m generally in favor of translating titles into English—back in the days of video stores, it always used to drive me crazy when I browsed the “L” shelf to find all the French films thoughtlessly alphabetized there as if “Le” or “La” was the important word. A title is meant to be a marketing tool—a come-on to the audience, a label identifying the contents. If that title is incomprehensible, it cannot serve that purpose very well. A title like Bakumatsu Taiyo-den is hard to pronounce, hard to remember, hard to spell, and meaningless to most English-speaking viewers. But there are subtleties and nuances to the Japanese title that don’t translate well at all. In just seven syllables, Bakumatsu Taiyo-den efficiently signals (in Japanese) what you’re about to get: a mash-up of the “Sun-Tribe” genre of youth problem films (click back a couple of weeks to our discussion of Crazed Fruit for a refresher if needed) and the sword-and-topknot cycle of Samurai films (do you really need me to tell you what a samurai film is like?), specifically drawing the connection between the dawning of modernism at the end of the Samurai era and the uneasy postwar world of 1950s Japan. Oh, and did I mention it was a sex comedy?
For all you fans of Mad Men left bereft after the end of the series, here’s a treat: a 1958 Japanese satire on the Advertising Age with a lot of the same flavor. Like Mad Men, it wallows in that glorious midcentury style, but tempers that aesthetic indulgence with a wary eye about the social costs of relentless exploitation and cutthroat competition. As an added bonus, Giants and Toys actually hails from the era it critiques, as if director Yasuzo Masumura was live-blogging from the epicenter of advertising excess.
If you’ve grown tired of my singular focus on slapstick comedy these last 4 weeks, have no fear—I now plan to be singularly obsessed with 1950s and 60s Japanese New Wave Cinema for the next 3 or 4 weeks. Not sure yet how long I can keep this up—or which of us will blink first.
But even if you’re not already familiar with these movies or their makers, I encourage you to give it a try—there is some truly awe-inspiring and powerful filmmaking from a half a century and half a world away that rivals or bests any Golden Age Hollywood film you can name. We’ll start with one of the standard bearers of the genre, the best jumping on point I can imagine–Ko Nakahira’s 1956 Crazed Fruit.
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