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April 26, 2014
David Kalat
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Japanese Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the chilling 1964 British classic by Bryan Forbes, will be on TCM in the middle of the night tonight.  It’s a must-see.  It is not, however, my favorite screen adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel.  That honor goes to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s version, which effortlessly turned this mid-century British ghost story into a work of 21st century J-Horror, largely because Kurosawa hadn’t seen Forbes’ must-see version.

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KEYWORDS: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Seance on a Wet Afternoon
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When Insects Attack: GENOCIDE (1968)

genocideposter2Springtime has arrived in California and do you know what that means? BUGS! During the past week I’ve battled a couple of spiders in my kitchen, wrangled with a beetle that invaded my bathroom and took up arms against a small army of moths determined to raid my closet. These creepy critters seem to be everywhere so it seemed like a good time to revisit one of my favorite bug invasion movies, Kazui Nihonmatsu’s GENOCIDE (aka WAR OF THE INSECTS; 1969). GENOCIDE chronicles an attack on a small island community by a large mass of aggressive flying insects. It’s been made the butt of bad jokes by the folks behind Cinematic Titanic and Mystery Science Theater 3000 but this creative low-budget film is no B-movie bomb. Along with its strong antiwar message, GENOCIDE boasts some impressive visual touches and packs an emotional wallop during its explosive final moments that compassionate viewers won’t soon forget.
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Documentary Fortnight: Highlights From MoMA’s Non-Fiction Showcase

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Since 2001 the Museum of Modern Art has hosted “Documentary Fortnight”, a series devoted to formal innovations in non-fiction filmmaking. It’s where talking heads go to die. This year’s edition includes twenty features and a passel of shorts from twenty countries, covering a wide range of styles and subjects. I was taken with two documentaries that take wildly different approaches to the observational form. The Mother and the Sea is an immersive ethnographic study of pioneering Portuguese female fishing captains, while Campaign 2 (non Will-Ferrell division) is a run-and-gun vérité portrait of a Japanese city council election.  Running through February 28th, Documentary Fortnight is a one-stop-shop to witness the future of the non-fiction form.

My most anticipated title was The Mother and the Sea, the latest ethnographic deep dive from Gonçalo Tocha. At the beginning of his 2011 documentary It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, he promises to “to film everything we can” of the Portuguese island of Corvo, the westernmost point of Europe. That 3-hour epic captures the past in the present, as the history of the island emerges through dying out traditions and the reminiscences of its oldest inhabitants. Corvo was once a major whaling outpost, as well as the repository of local wisdom ranging from cheese mongering to hat knitting. Tocha tries to extend these traditions and incarnate memories through his patiently wandering camera, where static portraiture of residents conjures up whole histories in a glance. In The Mother and the Sea he takes a similar approach to the small coastal Portuguese village of Vila Chã, though with a narrowed focus. Tocha is  fascinated by the group of 1940s women who became captains of small fishing boats. He claims they were the only women in the world to captain their own ships at the time, their ages ranging from 16 to 60. He can only find scraps of published memory in the library stacks, consisting of a few articles and one heroic photo of the women standing at attention.

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Cinematic Cat-egories

Postcard of Luna Park

I was going to write about The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), because it’s screening tomorrow on TCM and, also, because the latest Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), opens theatrically this coming Friday. Instead, I got stuck on the Inside Llewyn Davis poster. There is something about its composition that I find very striking. To notice it, you’ll have to ignore the top and bottom, which are lame in the ways that most movie posters are routinely lame: emphasizing celebrity names up top, and then all the normal credits at bottom. The middle section, however, is inspired. I can’t stop looking at the cat. There are several reasons for this, and the first is due to the sight-lines, which immediately reminded me of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) painting by famous German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. It’s a classic example of a visual construction where all the lines lead to the center. Except in Friedrich’s case the lines of the natural landscape converge on man, whereas with the Inside Llewyn Davis poster, the sight-lines provided by the New York City streetscape converge on the cat. I think this is great because, in my humble opinion, any movie poster is immediately improved with the addition of a feline presence. Since our furry little friends are said to have nine lives, in this post I’ll be looking at how cats have been depicted throughout cinema in nine different categories. [...MORE]

Better Than Nothing: The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka

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The history of Japanese cinema can never completely be told. It is estimated that 90 percent of its pre-1945 film output was lost or destroyed, the silent era razed in the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and Allied firebombing in WWII incinerating the rest. One of the most tragic casualties of this cultural obliteration are the films of Sadao Yamanaka, of whose 27 features only 3 survive. A galvanizing figure in the 1930s, he was a passionate cinephile and member of the Narutaki Group of Kyoto that sought to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. His films bring the heroes of pulp novels and kabuki theater down to earth, into sake bottle level views of the everyday lives of the working poor. They speak in modern Japanese, in dialogues modeled after his drunken late night conversations with the Narutaki Group. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.”

He took flak for turning the popular nihilistic samurai Tange Sazen into an irritable layabout, but he gained fans and friends from peers like Yasujiro Ozu. He died at the age of 28 as a military conscript in Manchuria, from an intestinal disease.  The scrupulous Masters of Cinema label (the Criterion Collection of the UK) has released his surviving works in an essential two-DVD set (make sure you have an all-region player): Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (1935), Kochiyama Soshun (1936) and Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937).

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GUN AND SWORD: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980

gunswordbookI first became familiar with Chris D.’s (Dejardins) writing in the early 90s thanks to his work for a small-press magazine (or zine) called Asian Trash Cinema. At the time I was utterly obsessed with Japanese pop culture and history and for a 10 year period roughly between 1991-2001 I spent many of my weekends in San Francisco’s Japantown where I’d rent movies and anime (often without any subtitles), buy manga and books I couldn’t read and eat lots of good meals that I couldn’t pronounce properly. I was also writing and publishing my own zines at the time. Zine culture peaked in the ‘90s before the internet changed the way we all communicate but for a brief time the only place where you could really find good information about cult cinema, B-movies, forgotten gems and unusual art-house films was between the pages of self-published zines and small-press magazines like Psychotronic, Video Watchdog, Shock Cinema and Asian Trash Cinema. These are the kinds of publications that helped shape my own film interests and writing. While many film journalists may have found popular mainstream critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert inspirational, they held little interest for me because they weren’t talking (or writing) about movies that appealed to my own eccentric tastes and if they were, they weren’t particularly kind. But folks like Chris D. were and one of Chris’ early essays from Asian Trash Cinema (Issue #3, 1992) titled YAKUZA EIGA: Losers on Parade is one of my favorite pieces of writing on Japanese cinema. When Chris D. composed that love letter to gangster (aka yakuza) films that I was just discovering and beginning to appreciate, he was one of a handful of writers trying to thoughtfully grapple with a genre that had been ignored and maligned by critics and scholars for decades. Chris helped me see the often tenuous connection between Japanese cinema and the country’s complex cultural fabric that seemed to confuse and perplex many western writers. I mention all this because I’m not exactly an unbiased reviewer. In fact, Chris and I have exchanged numerous notes over the last few years and I was honored to be asked to write a blurb that appears on his latest book GUN AND SWORD: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980. I wanted to share his new book with Movie Morlocks’ readers but to be fair I thought I should let you know these facts first. What follows is my honest review of Chris’ latest book but read on at your own discretion.

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It’s Not Too Late to Start Again (Virus 1980)

The late 1970s and early 1980s were lousy with disaster flicks, a sub-genre to which Virus unquestionably belongs.  Apocalypse thrillers have always been in vogue, but they do tend to shift in tone with the cultural zeitgeist. But there was something about the Cold War era that gave rise to some wonderful end-of-the-world movies the likes of which we don’t really encounter anymore.  The bizarre illogic of the Cold War was somehow more conducive to nightmare poetry: two superpowers armed with enough firepower to destroy life on Earth countless times over, where in order to preserve the peace they each must threaten total war.  The only thing keeping those nukes in their holsters was the promise of Mutually Assured Destruction (quite appropriately, MAD).  Edward Albee couldn’t have thunk up any better.

And Virus, mind you, is the gift that keeps on giving.  It’s a rip-snorting good movie that packs in not just one apocalypse, but two.

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Art Meets Artifice in Shohei Imamura’s A MAN VANISHES (1967)

I’d like to destroy this premise that cinema is fiction.
– Shohei Imamura

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
- William Shakespeare (from As you Like It)

The fuzzy line that separates fiction from reality has become increasingly blurred in recent years. Reality television programs promise to provide viewers with an unscripted look at the life of individuals willing to bare all for our entertainment but there is very little reality found in reality television. Inquisitive cameras, altered environments and skillful editors make participants keenly aware of their involvement in an orchestrated production and truth eventually takes a backseat to drama as would-be stars and starlets compete for their moment in the spotlight.

Cinema has also become progressively more self-aware. The current influx of mocumentaries, docudramas, 3D movies and “found footage” films attempt to obscure reality and mimic authenticity while filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Michael Haneke and Abbas Kiarostami seem to enjoy encouraging viewer participation in oblique ways. Their films frequently refuse to provide easy answers to the problematic truths they present and directly or indirectly ask audiences to question what they’re seeing on screen. They illustrate how reality is often subjective, transitory and pliable.

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Snapshots of the Fall: Part II

In my last post I provided a look behind the curtain for the first five weeks of film programming for my fall film calendar. This week we look at the remaining 24 titles that round out the schedule. It features everything from classics such as Vertigo to the state premiere of the latest uncompromising and visually arresting film by Bruno Dumont, Outside Satan (a scene of which is pictured above). [...MORE]

Snapshots of the Fall

The art house film calendar that I program goes to press in two days and, although I’m still waiting for some confirmations, I’m sharing the rough-draft with TCM readers, along with some brief thoughts regarding the choices made.

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