Reviving the Dead: Insomnia (1997)

INSOMNIA

To view Insomnia click here.

There’s a moment in the 1997 thriller, Insomnia, where Detective Jonas Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgård) walks out of an autopsy and sighs, “I’m fed up with reviving the dead.” He’s with his partner, Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal), an older, more relaxed police detective. His philosophy is basically, “It’s whatever you make of it.” Engstrom replies, “No, it’s not.” Vik just smiles and changes the topic. Solving one murder after another has put Engstrom in the unenviable position of constantly getting to know dead people intimately that he can never know in life. He’s tired, physically and mentally, and his newest case won’t even grant him the luxury of a dark and quiet night in which to get some sleep.

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Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015)

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To view the work of Toshirô Mifune on FIlmStruck, click here.

A quick search of Filmstruck brought up an impressive 24 films featuring the late great Toshirô Mifune including Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Red Beard (1965) and Samurai Rebellion (1967). Mifune was a giant in the world of Japanese cinema and although I’ve written a little bit about his background in the past in pieces such as Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s John Wayne and in my review of his first film, Snow Trail (1947), I wanted to know more about the man who had appeared in so many of my favorite Japanese films. My curiosity led me to recently watch Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015). This 80-minute-long feature directed by Steven Okazki and narrated by Keanu Reeves is the first documentary to offer a careful examination of Mifune’s life and work. It is not available on FilmStruck at the moment but Mifune: The Last Samurai is a nice companion piece to their current programming and should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the rich history of Japanese cinema.

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Into Thin Air: The Vanishing (1988)

VANISHING, THE (1988)

To view The Vanishing click here.

Years ago, I watched a made-for-television movie starring Cloris Leachman and Dabney Coleman called Dying Room Only (1973). It was written by a personal favorite of mine, Richard Matheson, and told the story of a couple on a road trip stopping off at a diner to get a bite to eat and take a rest. While Leachman sips her coffee, husband Coleman goes to the restroom and never comes back. I was fascinated and gripped until the climax, when the movie reveals what happened. I won’t spoil it for you, but when I saw The Vanishing (1988) years later, based on the book The Golden Egg, I thought two things: One, did the book’s writer watch Dying Room Only and two, I’m glad he fixed the ending.

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Shattered Glass: The Tin Drum (1979)

TIN DRUM, THE (1979)

To view The Tin Drum click here.

There’s a scene in the novel, The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass, that portrays a place called The Onion Cellar Club. It’s a place where Germans can go to listen to music, cut open onions and weep. The onions provide the tears. It’s a harsh symbol, implying that the emotions that would naturally bring the tears are nonexistent. It also implies they’ve got a lot to cry about and much soul-cleansing to do. The movie does not contain such a scene but goes a different path, taking the seemingly unfilmable novel and narrowing it down to a little under three hours. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but many readers of the book were disappointed. I was not. I am never disappointed because a movie isn’t like the book. Two different mediums require two different routes to the same destination. I’m not even disappointed when a movie seems to project an entirely different attitude or tone than the novel, as long as it succeeds and stands on its own merits.  But does the 1979 adaptation do so? I’m not convinced.

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The Beast In Me: Le Bête Humaine (1938)

LA BETE HUMAINE (1938)

To view La Bête Humaine click here.

Following the transformative success of Grand Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir suddenly had an overwhelming number of opportunities. There was an offer on the table from Samuel Goldwyn to come to Hollywood, though he delayed his route there, at least temporarily. Instead he would direct the panoramic French Revolution drama La Marseillaise ([1938],which I will write about later in my Renoir series) and our subject today, La Bête Humaine (1938). The latter is a moody death-haunted drama adapted from the Emile Zola novel, returning to the author’s work for the first time since Nana (1926). A grimly fatalistic tale about a train engineer’s inbred compulsion to murder, and his desperate attempts to restrain it, it is graced by an iconic Jean Gabin performance that attempts to go beyond good and evil.

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Being Happy Together (1997)

HAPPY TOGETHER, (aka CHEUN GWONG TSA SIT), Leslie Cheung, Tony LEUNG Chiu Wai, 1997. ©Kino Internati

To view Happy Together click here.

One of my favorite directors, Wong Kar-wai, is represented in FilmStruck’s new theme “Gay and Lesbian Cinema.” His film Happy Together (1997), a deceptively simple story about a gay couple in a turbulent relationship, earned him the director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for the Palme d’Or.

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Ireland in the Movies

ODD MAN OUT (1947)

The following is a guest post by writer Gareth Higgins:

Many of us have had the experience of seeing a news story covering events of which we have first hand knowledge, and saying, Huh? That doesn’t sound like what I know. It’s even more pronounced in fiction – Italian American organizations protested The Godfather (1972), weekend sailors I know blanched when they saw Robert Redford fail to carry out apparently basic seafaring tasks in All is Lost (2013), and don’t get my Baptist pastor husband started on the portrayal of Southern clergy in the movies.

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Justifiable Homicide: Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)

LE CRIME DE MONSIEUR LANGE (1936)

To view Le crime de Monsieur Lange click here.

Jean Renoir considered  Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) to be a turning point in his career, a film that opened “the door to some projects that are more completely personal.” He would go on to make A Day in the Country (1936) and The Lower Depths (1936) immediately after (I have written about both in previous weeks), on which he had significantly more control. Lange was originally proposed and conceived by Jacques Becker, and its script was later revised by Jacques Prévert. Renoir invited Prévert on set to collaborate in its production. The film is a provocative blend of performance styles, with the radical Popular Front aligned October Group (Florelle, Maurice Baquet, Sylvia Bataille, Jacques-Bernard Brunius) meeting the old-fashioned theatrical boulevardiers, the latter exemplified by Jules Berry’s craven, charismatic depiction of the womanizer Batala, owner and operator of a struggling publishing house. His incompetence and greed take advantage of mild-mannered Western writer Lange (René Lefèvre) until Batala disappears and the company is run cooperatively by its employees. It is a both a joyous vision of a worker-run business and finely tuned character study of what could drive a man to murder.

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Fear of Flowers: Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975)

UNDER THE BLOSSOMING CHERRY TREES (1975)

To view Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees click here.

“Without people, a forest of cherries in full bloom is not pretty, just something to be afraid of.”
- Ango Sakaguchi

Although typically described as a horror film, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975) defies simple categorization. This grisly adult fairy tale, currently streaming on FilmStruck, is a strange amalgam of traditional Japanese theater, folktales, ghost stories, social commentary, anti-war sentiment, dark humor and existential philosophy based on a story by Ango Sakaguchi titled In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom. Sakaguchi was a bold libertine and like many postwar Japanese writers and artists, he was also a proponent of the European decadent movement that found beauty in death and death in beauty. His wartime experiences deeply affected him and Sakaguchi’s thought-provoking essays and stories expressed his distaste for authority while embracing and eroticizing the destruction that had consumed his country. It’s not surprising that director Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower [1964], Samurai Spy [1965], Double Suicide [1967]) was motivated to adapt one of Sakaguchi’s subversive stories for the screen. Much like the author, Shinoda was also a devotee of the decadent movement and his best films incorporate similar ideas and themes. Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees may not be a conventional horror movie, but like the transgressive literature and art that inspired it, this violent tale of carnal desire and obsession contains plenty of horrifying moments.

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For Richer, For Poorer: The Lower Depths (1936)

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To view The Lower Depths click here.

“That man who makes films where people spit on the ground.” – Jacques Schwob d’Héricourt (producer) on Jean Renoir

When the funding ran out on A Day in the Country (1936), Jean Renoir left that film unfinished to start casting on The Lower Depths (1936). An adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play starring Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet, it was a major step up in budget from the independent operation he was leaving. The Lower Depths captures the changing fortunes of Gabin’s flophouse thief and Jouvet’s gambling Baron, their lives intersecting up and (mostly) down the social ladder. Production started on September 5, four months after a coalition of leftist groups known as the Popular Front swept into office in France. Renoir was becoming one of the public faces of the movement, writing articles for the Communist paper L’Humanite and attending meetings and screenings at the Ciné-Liberté, a self-described “worker’s cooperative for variable-capital production” that would battle “against the ill fate with which film is saddled.” The political Renoir was not the artist Renoir, however, who took his production money wherever he could get it. The Lower Depths, for example, was produced by Films Albatros, which was founded by White Russians who fled the country before the 1917 revolution. While restricted somewhat by its stagebound material The Lower Depths still contains remarkable scenes of downward mobility, highlighted by Louis Jouvet’s smirkingly disgraced Baron, who finds a home dozing in the grass.

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