Cast: Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin, Leonor Varela, Willem Dafoe
In the tradition of Hollywood thrillers of the 80s like The Burbs, Odd Thomas is a delightful, offbeat yet mainstream film that will be sure to please those looking for some old-school thrills. Anton Yelchin plays Odd Thomas, a short-order cook with the ability to see dead people, who uses his powers to bring killers and murderers to justice. Addison Timlin plays Stormy Llewellyn, while Willem Defoe is Chief Wyatt Porter, who knows about Odd’s powers, and helps to keep them hidden.
Stephen Sommers keeps the whole film lighter than a ball of marshmallow, while the set-pieces and special effects are impressive enough for a film clearly not made on a big budget. The central mystery is simple – for once it’s nice to see a thriller where there aren’t complicated layers after complicated layers – it’s a true Hollywood case of good guys vs. bad guys, and Odd Thomas is not a lesser film for it. Clearly trying to attract as wide an audience as possible, this is a breezy, fun-ride reminder of how good Hollywood mainstream can be when it chooses to. Delightful.
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin
Original Title:Ascenseur pour l’échafaud
Louis Malle’s 1958 debut feature Lift to the Scaffold offered a number of notable firsts. The director introduced key themes such as duplicity, moral compromise, weakness and fatal attraction that would permeate his work over a subsequent 30-year career. Released under a number of guises, including Elevator to the Gallows, but best known under its original language title of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, it made an iconic star of Jeanne Moreau and featured the first film score composed by Miles Davis.
The film is adapted from a relatively minor roman noir by Noël Calef that was clearly indebted to Double Indemnity; it is also an early example of a European take on film noir with a nocturnal Paris standing in for the mean streets of Los Angeles. Retaining the bare bones of the novel and bringing the marginalised female character to the forefront, Malle and his script writer, the left-wing novelist Roger Nimier, up the existential ante in the tale of a handsome veteran of the Indo-China and Algerian wars, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), and his lover, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), who plan the murder of her husband, an arms manufacturer. Returning from the crime scene, Tavernier becomes trapped in an elevator and Florence is forced to wander the streets of Paris forlornly awaiting their assignation. Any final flickering hopes of escape are extinguished when a teenage couple steal Tavernier’s car and take it on a joyride.
Influenced by Bresson and Hitchcock, Lift to the Scaffold boasts two remarkable achievements alongside its pervasive mood of melancholy, ennui and amour fou. The film is shot in high-contrast black and white by Henri Decaë and is striking to look at, with each frame resembling an intricately designed photograph; Decaë went on to work for Chabrol and Truffaut and became one of the finest cinematographers in European cinema. The other trump card is the aforementioned score by Miles Davis.
Malle was a huge jazz fan and carried a particular torch for the music of Miles Davis. While the director was editing the film in 1957, Miles was visiting Paris to play as a guest soloist for a few weeks at the Club St Germain, and the pair were introduced via Juliette Greco. Malle plucked up the courage to ask Miles to compose a score. Initially reluctant because he was travelling without his usual recording band, Miles was finally convinced after being shown a rough cut of the film and given an explanation of the plot and main characters. As recounted in Malle on Malle, a series of interviews between the director and Philip French, the duo agreed on the moments in the film where music was required, and on a rare night off from his club residency Miles gathered together musicians Barney Wilen (tenor sax), Rene Urtreger (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums). Renting a studio whose foreboding atmospherics matched the dark nature of the film, work continued from 10 at night until five in the morning with all the music, amounting to about 18 minutes in total in the film (a 2003 soundtrack reissue later compiled a further 40 minutes of out-takes), scored directly to screen. This was one of the first film scores recorded this way and improvised in its entirety. Malle found Miles’s efforts transformative, declaring that without the score the film would not have had the critical and public response it enjoyed.
The score is indeed remarkable, often acting as a counterpoint to what we see on screen rather than trying to simply reinforce it. The music is elegiac and detached, while the mood of the film is often one of anticipation and tension, contributing to the poignant sense of doom that shrouds the film from the first image to the very last. The score is particularly effective when we see Moreau’s character prowling the Paris streets at dawn, lending it a sense of abstract emotion. Jack Johnson aside, Miles Davis would go on to produce other feature film soundtracks, perhaps most notably the John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal triple whammy for The Hot Spot, one of those instances where the soundtrack is more memorable than the film it accompanies, but he never came close again to replicating what he did on Lift to the Scaffold.
The film also marked a major turning point in the career of Miles Davis, freeing the trumpeter from the conventional structures of modern jazz. The result was Kind of Blue, widely regarded as the bestselling album in the history of jazz.
Taking as its inspiration the C.I.A.’s MKUltra project, an experimental programme in mind control techniques covertly conducted during the latter half of the 20th century, Blair Erickson’s Banshee Chapter promises more than it can ultimately deliver, failing to mine the promise of its richly paranoid subject matter. Despite an entertaining turn from Ted Levine as a Hunter S. Thompson stand-in, the film only shows a Wikipedia-level understanding of its counter-cultural milieu, and ultimately falls apart in a haze of nonsensical writing and sloppy direction.
Opening with real documentary footage relating to the C.I.A. experiments, Banshee Chapter seems to be positioning itself as yet another found-footage genre movie, as we first witness James (Michael McMillian) testing a suppressed drug he claims was used in the MKUltra programme (with predictably dire off-camera results), and then pick up with James’s old college buddy, investigative journalist Anne (Katia Winter), vowing to discover what happened to him (and that’s pretty much all she does, Winter’s rather thankless role basically being to get the audience from A to B and to serve as the ubiquitous final girl in a tight tank top). All of this material is delivered documentary-style, either on camera or in voiceover, but having set itself this formal limitation, the film seems to subsequently shy away from the demands of the sub-genre, only occasionally (and pointlessly) cutting away to ‘real’ video footage at random interludes thereafter (a can’t-be-bothered quality it shares with other such semi-found footage films as David Ayer’s recent End of Watch and Ti West’s upcoming The Sacrament).
In a scene that signposts the all-too-convenient scripting that is to follow, Anne then heads to James’s abandoned house, and within minutes finds a letter written to him from the unnamed Colorado source that supplied the illegal drug, a communication that was handily not discovered by the police. The letter ultimately leads her to Thomas Blackburn, a burnt-out author modelled closely on the aforementioned Thompson. Despite Levine’s game performance, one can’t help but notice the film is largely content to portray the author in one-dimensional gonzo mode, with little suggestion of the fierce intelligence and questioning of authority that fuelled HST’s seminal early work, a sense of which might have added more depth to the narrative. One might argue that Thompson eventually became a victim of his own image, and that Banshee Chapter is only reflecting his real life arc (perhaps not without some regret), but equally the suspicion is that if he’d lived to see his cartoon portrayal here, he’d have been reaching for his gun collection within seconds.
It transpires that Blackburn’s drug opens up levels of perception in the user’s brain, allowing them to see entities existing on other planes; the drawback being that said entities can then also see them back (the lift from Lovecraft’s From Beyond is intentional, the film knowingly establishing its genre cred by having Blackburn reference the actual story). And once they see us humans, they want to ‘wear us’ (a nicely chilling moment of dialogue). The fact that Blackburn has had the drug in his possession for quite some time and yet apparently hasn’t bothered to sample it unfortunately serves to question either his supposed drug fiend status, or else Erickson’s ability to write a coherent, believable screenplay.
Horror predictably ensues thereafter; but sadly, the film avoids any real attempt at constructing scarily effective set-pieces in favour of having one of the unnamed entities pop screeching out of the dark whack-a-mole-style every few minutes. Dodging these clichés as they go, Anne and Blackburn soon follow the trail of convenient plot points to a disused military installation in the desert, abandoned entirely without any governmental security despite the fact that, as we discover, Bad Things are still present there. After which Erickson is content to go through the usual genre motions of wrapping everything up before pulling out a nonsensical ‘aha’ epilogue (the MKUltra drug apparently not the only formula the film’s characters are following).
A shame, because if Banshee Chapter had dug deeper into its characters and the real life conspiracies and horrors of the C.I.A.’s covert activities, we might have had a meaty, subversive genre film worth reckoning with. But as it stands, it’s not enough fear and too much loathing.
To tie in with our ‘Daughters of Darkness’ theme, Howard Hardiman revisits Brian De Palma’s supernatural horror classic Carrie (1976), based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King. Carrie is out now in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray (R2/B), released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
More information on Howard Hardiman can be found here.
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish
Robert Mitchum’s silhouetted figure must be one of cinema’s most menacing presences. It lurks outside clapboard houses and swaggers its way across expanses of Depression-hit West Virginia. Its stark Puritanical dress provides an eerily alien vision as its warm, rich voice repeats a trademark 19th-century gospel refrain: ‘Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms; leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms’. Mitchum as the Preacher, Reverend Harry Powell, does lean on God: he quotes the scripture; he talks of plans to build a tabernacle; he gives dramatic demonstrations of moral battles between good and evil, wrestling his tattooed fists (LOVE and HATE) like a Biblical Punch and Judy show. But, in a delicious treat of dramatic irony, we – the audience – see that this leaning is not heartfelt belief, but a reliance on religious doctrine to manipulate those around him.
The tension we feel as Mitchum cons and schemes his way through 93 minutes of spectacular cinema is very occasionally blackly comic, but mostly painfully unbearable. When Powell takes up with a young widow, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), in an attempt to find a stash of stolen money hidden by her dead husband, her young son John (Billy Chapin) is alone in seeing the preacher’s true colours. That the only person to divine the truth is an easily dismissed child creates a throat-tightening level of suspense, reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1948). Hitchcock spent decades honing his narrative techniques but, as a critical and commercial failure on its release, The Night of the Hunter was actor Charles Laughton’s only feature as director. We can only dream what he might have created in the wake of this stunning debut.
‘…Dream, little one, dream’
The film opens with stars hung like beads across a make-believe velvet sky. Five innocent faces appear from the darkness while the sagacious narrator, Rachel Cooper (beautifully acted by Lillian Gish, star of the silent era), intones Sunday school lessons and makes an ominous warning to ‘beware of false prophets’. The camera cuts to an outside aerial shot of children scattering in a game of hide and seek. A crescendo of orchestral music fills our ears as a child points to two stocking-covered legs laid out on basement steps. We can only imagine the horrific end meted out to the victim. These succinctly shot opening scenes set out several themes and dichotomies at the heart of The Night of the Hunter: childhood innocence versus adult violence; dreams and fairy tales versus reality; and how action differs from the written word.
The Night of the Hunter may appear to be a simple, childlike story of the wrestling hands of good and evil, but it is much richer than that. When Rachel Cooper duets with Harry Powell, cradling her shotgun, prepared to fire if necessary, we see two competing forces, but both are singing a hymn to Jesus and both are ready to enact violence. Subtle parallels or ‘twins’ pop up throughout the film. The two bedroom scenes between Willa and Harry mark a beautiful contrast between Harry’s calculated, dogmatic rhetoric and Willa’s own feverish, heartfelt belief, gained in the wake of her suffering. The expressionist lighting in the latter scene is a work of art; the bedroom becomes a spot-lit triangular chapel while Willa lies out on the bed, like a saint’s stone tomb, her head glowing with a brilliant halo. The triangular church effect is echoed in the bedroom scene at Rachel Cooper’s house as the children huddle for shelter while Harry Powell waits outside, just as he earlier waited outside the Harpers’ home. Once you become aware of these fascinating symmetries, the film becomes much greater and finer textured. We see the hangman’s differing reactions to the task of execution. We see the differences between John’s father and Harry Powell, both wrongdoers in the eyes of the law. We see the apple recurring as a gift of purity and innocence.
The film’s credited scriptwriter, James Agee, wrote critically of his work in a letter to a friend: ‘Most of it has hung somewhere between satire and what I suppose would be called “moralistic” writing: I wish I could get both washed out of my system and get anywhere near what the real job of art is: attempt to state things as they seem to be, minus personal opinion of any sort.’ I would argue that while Night of the Hunter does deal with simple moral questions and presents satirical views of religion and society, it reveals itself to be more complex and thought-provoking than at first impression; just like the gullible cast, perhaps we are too ready to buy into those fists of ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’.
Agee worked on the script as an adaptation of a novel by Davis Grubb (although due to disagreements between Laughton and Agee, just how much of Agee’s script ended up on the screen has been contested). Both Grubb and Agee aimed to present the reality of the Depression through their writing; Grubb in his novel and Agee in the text of his 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which presented the era-defining photography of Walker Evans. The images captured by Evans’s camera are partially re-created in the film as John and his sister Pearl take to the countryside, their clothes turning to rags and their faces etched with grime; but, in parallel to this realist aesthetic, there are several stylised, fantastical sequences, sculpted by Stanley Cortez’s high-contrast lighting and Walter Schumann’s haunted music. They are quite possibly some of the strangest, most beautiful scenes I have seen on film. Perhaps that’s because they surprise the audience, nestled away among more conventional narrative. They provide a wonderful lilting counterpoint to taut, suspenseful scenes. In bringing together these two different approaches, Laughton made a unique and sublimely stunning film. It enchants, haunts and frightens in equal measures.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms…
UK Asian film distributor Third Window Films continue with their releasing of titles by Japanese filmmaker Shin’ya Tsukamoto. His 1995 cult classic, Tokyo Fist, has been digitally restored from the film’s original negative, supervised and approved by the man himself.
Tokyo Fist represents the turning point from the macabre genre cinema that launched Tsukamoto’s career to films that are invariably described as being more ‘grounded’ and ‘mature’, a traditionally shaky prospect for many directors in this situation. However, the belligerent confidence of Tsukamoto’s vision for Tokyo Fist is such that not only is the evolution a success but that the film arguably remains his most viscerally compelling after nearly 20 years.
Tsukamoto plays Tsuda, a chronically fatigued insurance salesman who trundles around Tokyo’s bustling, high-rise metropolis in a state of near-catatonia, reciting his product pitches to equally disinterested customers. By chance he bumps into Kojima (Kôji Tsukamoto – Shin’ya’s real-life younger brother), an old school friend who is now a semi-professional boxer. Kojima continues to insinuate himself in Tsuda’s home life and makes advances towards his fiancée Hizuru (Kaori Fujii). Aggravated by Tsuda’s increasing jealously and intrigued by Kojima’s physicality, Hizuru packs her bags, prompting Tsuda to start his own boxing training regime so that he can reassert his dominance.
Despite its shift away from genre, Tokyo Fist still adheres to the basic template of Tsukamoto’s earlier Tetsuo films. A weak salaryman loses his partner due to a third party complicating their precarious lifestyle, and both the salaryman and the antagonist undergo a process of transformation, with their own changes encouraging further changes in the other. Tsuda begins this process as a soft and innocuous man but gets increasingly more violent and focused; Kojima, on the other hand, starts as the aggressor but slowly slips into undisciplined cowardice. Once again, there is a corporeal aspect to these metamorphoses, but rather than metal erupting from the flesh, pulpy, larger-than-life bruises begin to cover the boxers’ faces as they square off against each other, or, in Tsuda’s case, the city itself. In one scene, he repeatedly slams his head into a concrete motorway support pillar in delirious submission. The results border on the comical (then again, the ridiculous macabre of Tetsuo is not without humour either), but these hyperbolic wounds strongly suggest the idea of violence as mutation, contorting the countenance of each character beyond recognition as rage takes hold. Tsukamoto would continue to ruminate on issues of rage and revenge in Bullet Ballet (1998), but in far starker and more stripped down manner.
Let’s not forget Fujii’s role in all this as the woman who plays the two men against each other. She embarks on her own process of transformation by modifying her body with tattoos, piercings and steel bars as an extension of her rebellion. It’s an interesting continuation of Tsukamoto’s metal fetishist character from Tetsuo, although the film introduces many nuances to the director’s canon, accomplishing an invigorating fusion of both old and new sensibilities.
What is perhaps most commendable about Tokyo Fist is that it reveals Tsukamoto’s growing knack for finding subtlety and emotional texture, all while retaining – or rather, revising – his trademark corybantic camerawork, quick pacing and impressionistic narrative structuring. The film expertly captures that sense of male jealousy and emasculated frustration that comes when losing to a romantic rival. This is partly due to the performances by Tsukamoto, proving him to be a legitimately decent (and quite underrated) screen presence, and his brother, Koji, a non-actor chosen for his real-life boxing experience (although the contribution of story co-creator Hisashi Saito should not be underestimated).
It is the personal nature of the production that allows the film to be as passionate and energetic as it is, coupled with Tsukamoto’s ability to stitch together various visual fragments that act as complementary, almost kaleidoscopic leitmotifs: the regular training montages; brief shots of both Tsuda and Kojima staring into the mirror, only for the proverbial abyss to stare back at them just as hard; and Tsuda’s need to consume a post-training energy drink from a vending machine, a crutch he requires less and less as his strength builds. The anger and intensity are both palpable and, later on, pummelling. Tokyo Fist is a viewing experience that will leave you exhausted, but in the best possible way.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet and Tetsuo are also available on DVD + Blu-ray (R2/b) from Third Window Films.
Cast: Gian Maria Volonté, Florinda Bolkan, Gianni Santuccio
Original title:Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto
An ambitious amalgam of fascist noir and absurdist satire, Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion has unjustly been relegated to Oscar winner turned semi-obscurity status. The 1970 recipient of the Best Foreign Language film award, it follows the ethical and intellectual disintegration of a recently promoted police investigator.
Played by Sergio Leone favourite Gian Maria Volonté, the nameless Inspector slits his mistress’s throat in an act that, at least initially, appears to be a logical progression of the pair’s increasingly deviant psychosexual gamesmanship, reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. The Inspector then audaciously parades concrete evidence of his own guilt before the Gestapo-like task force he commandeers. Suspense is measured not by how long he can avoid being caught, but by how far his colleagues will stretch their belief in the innocence of their superior.
At least in a surficial sense, Investigation’s conflation of the personal and the political most immediately resembles Bertolucci’s The Conformist, another 1970 film that utilizes a flashback structure to probe the childlike neurosis that cripples the man at the centre of its narrative. Yet Volonté’s inspector, a creature of carnal energy and rabid intelligence who continually succumbs to infantile rages and bestial perversities, is practically the inverse of the soul-shaken title character of The Conformist.
Director Elio Petri, a one-time communist journalist, immerses his central character in a skewed bureaucratic world defined by the sickly, death-pallor humour that percolated just under the skin of Bertolucci’s film. The Inspector offers maxims such as ‘Revolution is like syphilis, it’s in the blood’ to his followers, and maintains an easy rapport with a paparazzo covering the murder case. High-level officials gather to catalogue and scrutinize instances of leftist vandalism in their jurisdiction, and the meeting is ludicrously filled with earnest analysis and pregnant pauses; aside from the typical graffiti favouring Trotsky and Mao, there’s been a curious upswing in pro-Marquis de Sade tagging amongst brutalized revolutionaries.
Yet Petri gamely imbues the proceedings with a genuine sense of Big Brother menace that predicts the post-Watergate nightmares of The Conversation and Alan J. Pakula’s 1970s oeuvre. Creeping zooms from obscure, elevated vantage points suggest a clandestine, all-knowing hierarchy stretching upwards into infinity, while a tour of the police headquarters exposes miles-long caverns occupied by an army of wiretapping professionals and wall-to-wall surveillance equipment. And in the only instance we see the Inspector allowing for self-examination, he torturously sweats over his home tape recorder, feeding it riddles on the nature of power and the law. Of equal import to this balance of vicious satire and omnipresent paranoia is the film’s jaunty yet queasy Ennio Morricone score, referred to by the composer as a kind of grotesque folk music. That Morricone wrote the theme without having actually seen the film somehow only heightens the levels of moral and ideological incongruity on display.
Struggling with the very complexities of the film’s tone, Petri overstrains for narrative tidiness in the final act, employing an unwelcome excess of expository dialogue. Yet the painfully forthright points made about the jealousy, emotional regression and fascist madness consuming the Inspector’s psyche are offset by a spellbinding fever dream finale wholly worthy of the Kafka quote which graces the film’s last frame. And as a riotous gathering of fiery leftist students becomes nothing more than another layer of background ambiance against which the Inspector’s sanity unravels, Investigation ultimately reveals itself as an amber-preserved instant of 60s counter-culture fury transformed into new-decade fatalism.
Cast: Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Kirina Mano, Takahiro Murase, Tatsuya Nakamura
Although it has the kind of title that puts you in mind of the gunplay heroics of John Woo and Chow Yun-fat, Bullet Ballet (1998) is the latest Shin’ya Tsukamoto release from UK Asian film distributor Third Window Films, complete with a new HD transfer supervised by the cult Japanese director himself.
Goda (Tsukamoto) is a thirty-something TV ad director who returns to his Tokyo apartment one evening to find that his fiancée has committed suicide for no discernible reason. But rather than dwelling exclusively on the enigma of ‘why’, Goda’s mournful obsession soon turns to the practicality of ‘how’ and he tries to acquire the same model handgun – a .38 ‘Chief’s Special’ – that his fiancée used to end her life. However, due to Japan’s strict gun control laws, Goda settles with trying to build his own and becomes embroiled with the Tokyo underbelly, where anarchic young thugs run wild. He homes in on a particular group who have mugged and humiliated him in the past. His obsession with destruction turns into a desire for revenge.
Bullet Ballet returns to the punchy monochrome look that helped make Tsukamoto’s first Tetsuo (1989) film feel like a nightmarish fever-dream caught on celluloid. The style embellishes the béton brut of Tokyo’s alleyways, underpasses and stoic apartment blocks, but also feels apropos to Goda’s stark mindset as he embarks on his odyssey of rage and self-destruction. These are typical themes in Tsukamoto’s filmmaking, where the protagonists – often emotionally deadened white-collar slaves – reacquaint themselves with their primal humanity, previously thought to have been lost to the crushing modernity of the sprawling metropolis. As in Tokyo Fist (1995), anger is the key to reconnection. However, Bullet Ballet sheds the last remnants of the fantasy violence that characterised Tsukamoto’s early work and still lingered in Tokyo Fist, leaving us with a film that is forged from grain, grit and lack of compromise.
What also sets Bullet Ballet apart from Tsukamoto’s other films is that his typical viewpoint of the repressed salaryman shares the stage with characters from delinquent youth culture, in particular the reckless Chisato (Kirina Mano), a tough young woman with a death wish, and gang leader Goto (Takahiro Murase), whose newly acquired day job causes the rest of the gang to question his street cred. The disenfranchised, no-future attitude of these petty criminals feels not only like a tipping of the hat to the early punk films of Sogo Ishii (a big influence on Tsukamoto), but also taps into the general pessimism of Japan’s out-of-shape economy during the 1990s. Tsukamoto has always been aware of his surroundings, but this seems to be the first time that he is drawing directly from the zeitgeist. Like New York City in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Tokyo is rotting away from the inside and is quickly becoming a playground for anarchy and mayhem. ‘In dreams you can kill people and never get caught. Tokyo is one big dream,’ says the drug-dealing patriarch Idei (Tatsuya Nakamura) to Goto, who has been coerced into shooting a stranger of his choosing in order to regain his honour.
Bullet Ballet is an exhilarating descent into this decaying urban labyrinth and the result is as brilliantly intense as you would expect from a Tsukamoto film. He frames his generational conflict within a fluid, jangly editing structure, reminiscent of the nouvelle vague, that cuts to the quick. But although the film nihilistically depicts a society seemingly on the brink of collapse, and boasts the tough and brutish aesthetic palette of a multi-storey car park, there is a delicate beauty waiting to be found amidst the ugliness. It is especially true in the film’s strangely edifying closing moments, where escape and embrace become an ethereal blur.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tokyo Fist and Tetsuo are also available on DVD + Blu-ray (R2/b) from Third Window Films.
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