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Silent Naruse: STREET WITHOUT END (1934)

17 Jan

Last year I saw eleven films directed by Mikio Naruse, raising to 24 the number of films I’ve seen by him. So far this year I’ve seen two more, making it 26 total. Before 2017 I’d only seen three of his films. I’ve rapidly come to the conclusion that he is one of the four greatest Japanese filmmakers, on a par with Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi and I may even have seen more of his films that I’ve seen by the latter two. (And not just the greatest Japanese filmmakers either, but four of the greatest filmmakers in the history of world cinema.)

My most recent Naruse viewing is STREET WITHOUT END (1934), Naruse’s final silent film and part of Criterion’s Silent Naruse box set. (The newly-composed accompanying score on the disc, by Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz, consisting of piano and violin, is excellent.)

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VICE SQUAD (1953) – The Real “Dragnet”

17 Sep

VICE SQUAD (1953) is a sharply-directed, fast-paced black-and-white crime thriller that follows a full shift in a day’s work for a police captain in the Vice Squad of the Los Angeles Police Department. The filmmakers shot it largely on location on a tight schedule and sought authenticity in every scene, adopting a semi-documentary approach that makes it one of the more believable police dramas of the era. As such, it offers a sharp contrast to the popular TV series of the time, “Dragnet” (1951-59), which, as much as I like it and as much as it was based on true cases, has always seemed to me quite stylized in its depiction of the LAPD through the quirky sensibility, off-kilter humor and incessant moralizing of its producer-director-star, Jack Webb, who played Sergeant Joe Friday in the show. I can imagine a conversation among the director, writer and producers of VICE SQUAD, where they wondered what “Dragnet” would look and sound like with someone in the central role who didn’t make speeches to all and sundry and wasn’t immune to bending the rules and making compromises to get the desired results in a case, i.e., someone less like Sgt. Friday (Webb, pictured below) and more like the actual police captain they consulted before making the film.

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Japanese Bus Rides: MR. THANK YOU and HIDEKO, THE BUS CONDUCTRESS

10 Jun

Two of the most charming Japanese films I’ve ever seen are about bus rides in rural Japan in the pre-war era. MR. THANK YOU (1936), directed by Hiroshi Shimizu, follows a single bus, driven by “Mr. Thank You” (Arigato-san), played by Ken Uehara, as it plies its route along the mountainous roads of the Izu Peninsula towards Tokyo over the course of a long day. HIDEKO, THE BUS CONDUCTRESS (1941), directed Mikio Naruse, chronicles the efforts of a bus conductress, played by Hideko Takamine, who basically punches tickets on a route in farm country, to enhance the ride by announcing to passengers the sites of interest along the way. They’re simple, gentle, touching movies about people trying to make the best out of difficult, economically trying situations.

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“I will never grow tired of hearing stories told” – Quotes from Orson Welles

6 May

The great actor-writer-director Orson Welles would have turned 106 today, May 6, 2021. I did a centennial piece on him six years ago. Thanks to the release of MANK last year, which offered a questionable treatment of Welles’s role in the writing of CITIZEN KANE, I’ve been eager to read Welles’s own account and wound up re-reading three different books of interviews with him and soon forgot all about MANK. Welles is never boring and never predictable and shares extraordinary insights into life, the arts, society, history, and culture. He loved the act of creation, no matter which medium he worked in: film, theater, television, radio, painting, essays, etc. and he loved watching other human beings invested in creating. I’ve been reading portions of lots of other books about celebrated film personalities lately, mostly directors and movie stars, and I’m constantly finding instances of behavior that absolutely appall me. Some directors thought nothing of putting their cast and crew members in situations of great danger and discomfort or simply treating them horribly. These include some of my favorite directors, so I don’t want to name names. Some movie stars made life miserable for other cast members and their directors. But I’ve never heard anything like that about Welles. He seems to have loved working with people and put himself fully into every one of his creative endeavors. Here’s a quote from a 1964 interview done in Madrid that ends with a sentiment I wish more directors had endorsed:

Q: How do you work with actors?

Welles: I give them a great deal of freedom and, at the same time, the feeling of precision. It’s a strange combination. In other words, physically, and in the way they develop, I demand the precision of ballet. But their way of acting comes directly from their own ideas as much as from mine. When the camera begins to roll, I do not impro­vise visually. In this realm, everything is prepared. But I work very freely with the actors. I try to make their life pleasant.

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50 Years in Times Square: Kurosawa and his Western Remakes

8 Apr

On April 8, 1971, 50 years ago today, I made my first trip to see a Japanese movie on the big screen. It was Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and it may have been the first time the full three-and-a-half-hour cut of the film was shown on the big screen in New York. It was also the first fully foreign-language film with English subtitles that I would see in a theater. The theater was the tiny Bijou Cinema on West 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Times Square in Manhattan.  Interestingly, just over two months earlier, on January 28, 1971, I’d seen John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), a western remake of SEVEN SAMURAI, for the first time at a theater around the corner from the Bijou, the Victoria on Broadway and 46th Street. On May 20 of that year, I would see Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), the first in the Italian director’s “Man with No Name” western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, at the Astor Theater, adjacent to the Victoria on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was an Italian western remake of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), which I would then see on July 17, 1971, at the Bijou Cinema around the corner. So I saw Kurosawa’s two greatest samurai films and their western remakes in a six-month time period on one strip of real estate in Times Square, all while I was still in high school. Where else and at what time period could that have happened? I was so lucky to be coming of age as a film buff at just that time.31337908446_1655225bc8 Continue reading

Gamera, Frankenstein, Sabata and Zatoichi: The Genre Films of 1970

30 Dec

50 years ago, in 1970, neighborhood theaters offered quite a varied landscape of cinematic fare, although it took me some time to find it all. I managed to see lots of 1970 releases in theaters in the years 1970-72. (Films sometimes took months or years to reach my local theaters.) Most of these were Hollywood films of varied genres or American independents. I would see everything from PATTON to M*A*S*H, KELLY’S HEROES to ZABRISKIE POINT, FIVE EASY PIECES to LOVE STORY and RIO LOBO to WATERMELON MAN, sometimes on double features! It would take years of TV watching, visits to revival theaters and, much later, cable TV and home video, before I caught up with all the great foreign genre films released in 1970, including England’s Hammer horror, Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. martial arts adventures, French crime thrillers, Japanese samurai, Japanese kaiju, and Italian westerns. One of my favorites from the year is one I first saw in 2018. So there are always new ones to be discovered or rediscovered after decades.

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Naruse’s FLOWING (1956): The Fall of a Geisha Household

5 Oct

The more films by Mikio Naruse I see, the more I feel he belongs in the pantheon of great Japanese directors alongside the three I have long considered the best: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. While all three have made films about contemporary life on the ground as lived by ordinary Japanese, whether in Tokyo or the provinces, Naruse seems to have visited this theme most frequently and, in my opinion, most effectively, especially in his 39 postwar films. I’ve seen 17 of his films, 14 of them in the past three years. I was especially moved by the one I’ve most recently seen, FLOWING (NAGARERU, 1956), which follows a group of women in Tsuta House, a once-renowned geisha company in Tokyo going through serious decline as it faces bankruptcy after some bad decisions by its owner and head geisha, Otsuta. We see the off-duty day-to-day life of these women chiefly through the eyes of a new maid, a housewife and widow sent by an employment agency. The maid turns out to be very resourceful and eager to fill various unmet needs and she soon becomes indispensable.

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Setsuko Hara Centennial

17 Jun

The great Japanese actress, Setsuko Hara, would have turned 100 today, June 17, 2020. She died five years ago at the age of 95. She’s most famous for her films for director Yasujiro Ozu, including LATE SPRING, EARLY SUMMER, TOKYO STORY, LATE AUTUMN and THE END OF SUMMER. She starred in NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), Akira Kurosawa’s first postwar film, and again for Kurosawa in THE IDIOT. She made four films for Mikio Naruse, including REPAST, SUDDEN RAIN, THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN and DAUGHTER, WIVES, MOTHER. Her last film was Toho’s all-star saga of the 47 Ronin, CHUSHINGURA (1962), and she played the wife of the protagonist, Oishi, a chamberlain secretly plotting over the course of a year to rally the ronin and avenge the death of their disgraced lord. Continue reading

SHAOLIN MANTIS: A Masterpiece of Acting, Design, and Choreography

11 May

I recently re-watched SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978), one of the greatest kung fu movies ever made, for the first time in seven years and I wanted to highlight three elements of the Shaw Bros. production that really strike me now as key to its success. (The film’s English-dubbed edition was known as DEADLY MANTIS when it played theaters in the U.S. and ran on American television in the 1980s. For the record, I watched the Dragon Dynasty Region 1 DVD edition, in Mandarin with English subtitles, for this review.)

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Toshiro Mifune Centennial, Part 1: The Samurai Trilogy

11 Mar

April 1, 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, arguably the greatest film actor in history. (He died in 1997.) I have tons of Mifune films I want to write about and I realize I can’t do it all in one piece, so I’m putting together a series on Mifune leading up to his centennial date. I’ve written about the Samurai Trilogy before, including a planned blog post that got delayed once I learned Criterion had released a new, updated, remastered edition that I needed to acquire and watch first. (The previous Criterion edition suffered from inferior print quality and inadequate subtitles.) I watched the new edition this month.

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