Monday, April 04, 2011
Exte: Hair Extensions 
Schizophrenic J-horror outing from generally underground artist Sion Sono (I've also seen his messily operatic Love Exposure and Suicide Circle). It isolates a signature element of that stereotypical look of the vengeful Japanese ghost child and imbues those face-shrouding black locks with absurd menace, ever-growing and threatening to violate one's body through any orifice they can find. But the concept's over-the-topness belies a pretty serious bent underneath: an attempt to link illegal organ harvesting, hair fetishism (trichophilia), and child abuse as examples of the commodification of human beings. An organ harvest victim's grudge travels after death through her hair, enabled by a skeevy morgue attendant (Ren Osugi) who lops off bits of corpse hair and sells them to unknowing local salons; meanwhile, a hairstyling apprentice (Chiaki Kuriyama, the schoolgirl assassin in Kill Bill) at one of those salons becomes the reluctant caregiver for her party-girl sister's bruised, neglected daughter. Harrowing family dynamics and the original victim's rapidly-cut (both violence- and editing-wise) demise rub uneasily against Osugi's broad comedy as the goofy, creepy trichophile; he's prone to belting out a joyous hymn to hair in pseudo-music video sequences that only intensify the more naturalistic flavor of Chiaki's plotline. From what I've seen, Sono's SOP is to viciously mix genres and ask questions later, so this slightly satirical take on J-horror (playing up the supernatural absurdity to highlight the real wickedness under the domestic surface) is de rigueur but fun for its practical effects and Osugi's madcap, committed performance. Plus, wasn't there an Amazing Stories episode, subsequently parodied by The Simpsons, natch, that did this same thing but with a toupee?
Looks like Christianne Benedict did a very recent review of this for the White Elephant Blog-a-thon.
Elevator to the Gallows  - rewatch
For an upcoming podcast on movie scores. The movie's still good, taut, and wholly dependent on the score for effect, since Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as the putative lovers never get to interact. So all tragedy registers through Moreau's glacially beautiful features or Miles Davis's plaintive, wailing trumpet. The pseudo-documentary style of Jeanne wandering the streets, male and female passers-by equally glancing at her swaying, wandering gait, is like a different movie from the vaguely political, proto-Breathless spree by the young thieves/lovers (accompanied by the more frenzied bebop-leaning tangents of Miles's improvised score). Everything is filtered through the music; it lends poetic weight when it's there and through its absence emphasized the uncertainty of fate. The dumb-kids-on-the-run counterpoint still deflates when compared to Moreau's moody nocturnal questing and Ronet's A Man Escapes-esque elevator quandary, but imagining the movie as an elaborate music video for the score seems to better make the pieces fit together.
American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein 
Without wading in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which the film doesn't really either; the point is more how Finkelstein's personality and history drive his politics than whether his politics reflect reality), the documentary is surprisingly evenhanded, delving into and celebrating Finkelstein's impassioned advocacy without shying away from his rudeness and tendency to overreach. The filmmakers in the end side with him, if only evidenced by documenting the constant looming threat of unfair academic discipline, forcing the proud but vulnerable scholar to relocate every time he publishes a book. An interesting, non-political bookend with my recent TCM viewing of Martin Scorsese's documentary interview with his parents, Italianamerican; both films emphasize an immigrant mother's overriding influence on the son's future career.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence 
Chuck Stephens's Criterion essay nails most of what I found intriguing about the film (the casting coups of dueling pop music heartthrobs Sakamoto and Bowie and comedy star Takeshi; its multinational flavor; parallels with the later Oshima film Taboo), but I'm surprised there was no mention of the mystical execution, echoing the entire conceit of Death by Hanging. Bowie was never better at evoking an alien British physical perfection, even when he was actually playing an alien. An excellent starting point for non-Oshimaphiles wary of In the Realm of the Senses' reputation of explicitness; Oshima here twists the David Lean, stiff-upper-lip template out of shape to examine the homoerotic undertones and intermingled contempt and admiration men in war have for each other, especially when the ostensibly defeated refuse to act defeated. Tom Conti is perfect in the crucial but least flashy part of the titular Lawrence, stoic bridge between cultures but frequently baffled by both.
Three Comrades 
Except to build to an amazingly tense street chase sequence, the historic and political background of director Frank Borzage's romantic weepie seem, like much of the scenery and the ethnicities of the leading players, wholly artificial and beside the point. For the record, three close-knit German veterans of World War I try to continue life after the Great War, befriending, romantically and otherwise, Margaret Sullavan in a vague but extremely sensitively portrayed part, and struggling against economic depression. The three protags nearly always function as a unit, refreshingly without much squabbling or romantic entanglements. Sullavan's beau is ardent, amiable lunkhead Robert Taylor; idealistic Robert Young, after some soul-searching, falls headlong into anti-nationalist fervor; and wry Franchot Tone makes the strongest impression by counseling and knowing everyone better than they know themselves. Borzage, master romanticist of American cinema, gives the beleaguered lovers a brief respite from political and emotional turmoil before deploying the Hollywood Syndrome and staging some exquisite deathbed scenes. Better to have loved and lost...and all that. Things culminate in the still above and a literally haunting final shot that I morbidly posted alongside an altogether less sentimental and passionate ending. Swooning and never less than watchable. Also, some up-and-comer named F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently co-wrote the screenplay.