01 September 2014

REVIEW ALL MONSTERS! - GAMERA AT THE BAT

In Gamera vs. Gyaos, Daiei Film's third film in as many years featuring the fire-breathing, flying, giant tortoise Gamera, the formula of a "Gamera film" was nailed down in its final form, while his most iconic and beloved opponent was introduced. A certain Gyaos by name, because whatever else is true of daikaiju eiga they believe in truth in advertising.

The point being, it is quite and all-round impressive milestone in the franchise, and it's immensely entertaining on top of it. I'm not sure if its for the right reasons or not: Gamera vs. Gyaos is by any meaningful objective standard a terrible, terrible movie, but it's also a huge amount of fun, and not only because its terrible elements are so hilarious. Let us make the obvious comparison: in 1967, when Daiei released this film, the more well-heeled Toho contributed to the more storied Godzilla franchise the execrable Son of Godzilla, while also handling the American co-production King Kong Escapes, a dumb-headed cartoon adaptation that's campy enough for its shortcomings to as a story to really stand out. Next to either of those films, Gamera vs. Gyaos is the clear winner: it's cheap as hell and virtually nothing done by any of its characters could possibly be mistaken for rational human behavior and it includes a subplot so totally, obviously unacceptable for the rest of the movie that I can't even imagine how it was dreamed up in the first place. But unlike Toho's offerings in '67 - unlike most nominally bad daikaiju eiga of any era - its insanity is unrelenting, and for 86 of the most batshit silly minutes that Japanese genre cinema has to ever, it's not boring for even a second.

And just to prove my point, when the movie opens, it's already running at speed. There have been volcanic eruptions across Japan! The latitude and longitude of the first one are given! The most recent one was at Mount Fuji! People had to be evacuated! Every one of those exclamation points is absolutely unmistakable in the original, too. The narrator catching us up on the chaotic goings-on is goddamn ecstatic to be telling us all of this.

All of this activity attracts the giant monster Gamera, to the immense pleasure of Eiichi (Abe Naoyuki), a little boy living in a farming village near Mount Fuji, where his grandfather Kanamura Tatsuemon (Ueda Kichijiro) is leading a protest against the construction team led by Tsutsumi Shiro (Hongo Kojiro). Which, with the eruptions and giant monsters and all, is looking like a pretty doomed project, but Shiro still insists on buying out the farmers for rip-off prices, and Tatsuemon still stonewalls him. But all of this of infinitesimal interest, no matter how much screenwriter Takahashi Nisan insists on returning to it over and over again throughout the movie, never feeling like anything but an abrupt downshift into a completely different film. Far more important is the discovery that Gamera loves lava, and will thus be sticking around Mount Fuji for quite some time, which is convenient, for as we're about to learn, the eruptions have awakened another monster from its millennia-long sleep. We don't see it as anything but a strange green glow in the forest, at first: a green glow that shoots yellow energy beams and destroys a UN research helicopter. The first and second people to actually see the beast are Eiichi and Okabe (Minatsu Shin), a shady news photographer whom the boy catches lurking around the village. Eiichi is the only one who counts, though, given that as soon as it becomes clear that something huge is hiding in the woods, Okabe runs in terror, leaving the unaccompanied child to fend for himself. In punishment for this greediness, the photographer is picked up by the huge soemthing and tossed in its mouth like a handful of popcorn. And this gives us our first good look at the face of the enemy.

Oh, these Gamera antagonists! Between Barugon in the second movie, and now Gyaos (so named by Eiichi, who shapes up to be the film's monster expert, advising scientists and the military on the proper way to deal with the new threat and support Gamera - I'm deadly serious), the films are two-for-two on creatures that are not really at all imaginative, and extravagantly crappy in execution, and precisely because they are both such complete botch jobs, they're hilarious and delightful and infinitely memorable. I'd still give the edge to Barugon, a far more defiantly shabby, weird concept, but Gyaos is a real special beastie, combining the basic shape of a pteranodon (and thus Rodan from Toho's bestiary) with the details of a bat, and a shovel-shaped flat head that resembles nothing so much as a piñata with little angry yellow eyes, and a perfectly triangular mouth that flops open to reveal its nubby teeth. The non-existence of a Gyaos plushie is heartrending to me, and I don't understand how the internet allowed that to happen.

The film's plot from here on resembles a perfect hybrid of Gamera and Gamera vs. Barugon. From the latter film, we have the basic shape of the narrative, in which Gamera and his titular foe square off, with Gamera ending up worse for the wear, and forced to go into hiding to patch up his wounds; after this, the Japanese government and military try their mightiest to defeat the new, far worse creature on their own, but their plans only succeed in slowing it down until a resurgent Gamera comes along to finish the job. From the earlier film, we have the human anchor for all this being a preteen boy who is rescued by Gamera and persists in regarding the giant turtle as his very best friend. And now, at least, he has every reason to: the shift from Gamera-the-destroyer to Gamera-the-unambiguous hero was complete largely by the midway point of the second movie, but without a chipper, rather smug child to prattle on and on about how wonderful Gamera is, it wasn't so violently clear that was the case. But with Eiichi popping up everywhere from disaster areas to top-secret planning sessions to bluntly insist that Gamera won't let harm come to humanity, it becomes extravagantly, unmissably clear.

Eiichi is the film's most present (annoyingly so) character, but the one who makes the most delightful impact is Dr. Murakami (Murakami Fujio), who instantly becomes one of the truly great characters in all daikaiju eiga during his conference where he's asked what, in his opinion as a great scientist, is the nature of Gyaos, and he pleasantly retorts that it's some kind of inexplicable giant monster. He is one of the chief reasons that Gamera vs. Gyaos is a marvelously entertaining bad movie instead of just an irritating one: the most damned deranged things come out of his mouth on a regular basis, and Murakami the actor does a phenomenal job of playing all this with wise sincerity, but without trying to convince us that it's anything but overheated cartoon nonsense. When he is soberly explaining that Gyaos has two throats, and that's why it can't turn its head but can shoot a beam of yellow sound waves, he doesn't talk down to the material. When he suggests that the best way to stop the blood-drinking, sun-fearing monster (Gyaos is baisically a daikaiju vampire) is to use a blood-scented mist to lure it to the top of a rotating hotel and make it dizzy until the sun comes up, he seems to have deeply considered that this makes the most sense out of all possibilities. He is both the conduit and the antidote for all of the film's most aggressively silly impulses, and because of him, Gamera vs. Gyaos finds a perfect mixture of kiddie goofiness and some kind of meaningful stability.

But it is still a giant monster movie, and it naturally enough lives and dies on its giant monsters. For all the remarkably cheesy limitations of Gyaos's construction, the effects work is actually quite good: there are some surprisingly ambitious composite shots that are executed flawlessly, or at least what passed for "flawlessly' in Japan in the latter half of the 1960s. The fight choreography is unexpectedly good as well: the film has a violent streak to it (including a memorably gross moment when Gyaos re-grows its toes after Gamera bites them off), and the fights turn into frenzied brawling that's legitimately exciting, if a little bit mystifyingly cut together. Blood spurts, Gamera flails and tears, and Gyaos is cunningly positioned so that you only notice about half the time that the suit has barely any points of articulation.

It's cheap, and it looks cheap (the attempt to give the Gamera suit more range of expression only serves to highlight how awkwardly stiff and unyielding most of it is), but there's a friendliness to this cheapness that sets it far above the junkier Godzilla films that were just starting to make themselves known at this time. The tone remains madcap and blazingly upbeat throughout, perhaps director Yuasa Noriaki's attempt to united the irreconcilable portions of a a film that wants to be half kids' horror movie, half adult sci-fi adventure. The film that emerges makes no sense and feels more than a little incompetent most of the time, but it has such an irresistible enthusiasm for being thus deranged that it's impossible not to fall in love with it a little bit; soon enough, the Gamera films would commit to being kiddie schlock, and the random, captivating mixture of impulses that make this such a singular film would start to look even more unique.

30 August 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1971: In which an underserved market is tapped

There's no shortage of aesthetic and cultural upheavals that rocked the American film industry in the 1970s, but the most important from a sociological standpoint absolutely has to be the sudden discovery made by the studios early in the decade that nonwhite people liked to watch movies, too. A lesson that has been forgotten and relearned and forgotten again in a depressing cycle over the intervening 40 years (just look at the eye-popping shock in the entertainment media when things like Ride Along do unexpectedly well at the box office), but if we try to re-hash the history of American race relations in the post-Civil Rights era, we shall never get as far as the movie part of this movie review. Suffice it to say that after a could of decades of unofficially having decided that one black movie star at a time was enough to prove that the movies were diverse and socially responsible, the film industry in the late '60s suddenly found itself woefully ill-equipped to deal with the abrupt and frequently painful shifts in the culture, no matter how many times they had Sidney Poitier be a stiff-chinned noble saint in front of bumbling racists.

Now, before we go any farther into things, it's important to recognise that there is a full history of African-American cinema prior to the 1960s: as early as the 1910s, we find the existence of the "race film", movies made with all-black casts (though not always by all-black crews; the Chicago-based Ebony Film Company, founded in 1915 as the first studio entirely focused on race films, was owned and operated by whites), and it wasn't until the slow emergence of halfway decent roles as anything besides sassy servants for minority actors in the 1950s that the race films petered out. Throughout the history of American filmmaking, African-American movie stars or directors crop up here or there. But this was all on the fringes; mainstream commercial cinema knew absolutely nothing of this robust independent subculture (indeed, that's part of how we can define it as "mainstream"). And it wasn't until 1969 that we can definitively point to a Hollywood studio actively trying to bridge that gap, for it was in that year that Warner Bros. released The Learning Tree, directed by Gordon Parks, the first major studio picture helmed by an African-American. Having thus discovered that movies by and about black people weren't going to bring about the end of the world in a fiery explosion, other studios began to follow suit: Watermelon Man, a race-theme picture written by a white guy but directed by Melvin Van Peebles, and Ossie Davis's adaptation of Chester Himes's novel Cotton Comes to Harlem were released by Columbia and United Artists, respectively, in 1970, both doing fine business.

The explosion happened in 1971. In April, Van Peebles broke away from the studios to make the politically radical crime movie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which did unbelievably huge business, ending up as the highest-grossing independent movie ever released till that point. And in July, Parks directed Shaft, a politically safer crime movie (adapted by white men Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black from Tidyman's novel) that was also an enormous hit, one of the only films MGM released that year to turn a profit at all, and yet its profit was so considerable that it managed almost by itself to keep the company afloat. Incidentally "that time MGM turned a huge profit on a grimy urban crime thriller with African-American themes" has to be one of the unlikeliest developments in the entire history of the Hollywood studio system.

The seismic impact of these two films - both ended up in the top 20 films at the domestic box office, with Sweet Sweetback barely missing the top 10 - had the immediate impact of creating an entirely new subgenere that would dominate low-budget filmmaking for the remainder of the decade: blaxploitation. To a certain degree, that rather unfortunately-named style describes a setting, rather than any kind of particular tone: films with a mostly black cast, with the protagonists more often than not facing off against a white power structure, which is bone-shatteringly ironic when you think about how virtually all of these movies were financed by white men and the great majority were directed by white men as well. Many, though not all, of the films were urban crime stories, and many, though not all, tended to reinforce the idea that African-American life centered around violence, pimps, drugs, and grinding poverty. And that's part of where the "exploitation" part comes in; the other part is that these were, after all, movies actively exploiting an African-American audience, who were being sold tales of revolution against social injustice by the same class of people who most profited off that social injustice: old white farts with high-ranking positions in enormous corporations.

And if I go to far down that rabbit hole, we will also not as far as the movie part of this movie review, which is closing in on 1000 words without me even clarifying that I am, in fact, talkin' 'bout Shaft, as one of the two key films in the explosive birth of the blaxploitation genre. For Sweet Sweetback was an indie film, and thus outside the purview of this studio-focused series. And also, by virtue of the same fact, Sweet Sweetback's claim on being true blaxploitation has always seemed questionable to me - it is not exploitative in that way.

Anyway, Shaft is John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), a black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks. We first meet him in one of the most enormously impressive introductory sequences ever given to a film character: the camera, high on a crane, pulls back down along 42nd Street in New York, in all its appalling, filth-ridden glory of the early '70s, past movie marquees advertising Robert Redford and Burt Lancaster movies right next door to pornography. Parks may not have been looking to play as blunt a political game as Van Peebles was with his movie the same year, but it's still pretty hard to shake the impact of this very first moment, as we scroll by the names of all these white movie stars, tipping down to look at Roundtree storming right out into the middle of traffic and fuck any driver who thinks that something like traffic signals is going to stop him. The very first words we here him say are "Up yours!", accompanied with an emphatic middle finger, to a (white) taxi driver. And while this happens, the slinky, sexy funk theme song that made Isaac Hayes a music star overnight grabs us bodily and forces us into the heart of the early '70s. It's as iconic as it gets, using music and framing and performance to create a very specific attitude of urban decay that only the most self-assured and intense can survive, and making it absolutely clear that Shaft is such a person.

Absent any racial angle, Shaft's brusque, angry dismissal of propriety and the mainstream, as emphatically described in this opening sequence and never let up on at any point over the remaining 100 minutes, sets in in line with several other films from the same era. I don't know if it has a real name; I've always thought of them as the "New York is a filthy moral sinkhole" pictures, including such titles as fellow Class of '71 detective story Klute, and typified by 1976's Taxi Driver. You know the kind. A loner living the seedy, desperate life in NYC finds himself (it's not always "himself", but far more often than not) forced to burrow deeper and deeper into the grungiest holes where the nastiest people live in order to resolve some grubby, disgusting crime or personal slight. They are films which depict the vast pageant of New York with a great deal of color and sound and electricity; that city in that decade might very well have been depicted with with the broadest scope of detailed realism of any city in cinema. And seemingly every last one of those movies, except the ones made by Woody Allen, are heavily invested in the idea that New York is just the fucking worst. Shaft certainly doesn't depict a place that is very livable, though it teems with life: mafiosi and pimps fight for dominance and the only decent people are the dysfunctionally impoverished. And it got out right on the front wave of that movement, so its version of the city seems especially cutting.

And, of course, it's even more cutting since we can't, of course, actually separate the film from its racial context. Shaft is irreducibly a film about a minority population. Its plot situates the titular private detective in the position of having the find the daughter of black gangster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), kidnapped by the Italian mob, in the hopes not of just helping one criminal get revenge against other, worse criminals, but of staving off an open war between whites and blacks on the streets of New York, where the conflict between the racially-divided crime syndicates has been steadily increasing tensions between non-gangsters of those races. In order to do this, Shaft has to play some racially sensitive games of his own, working alongside white police lieutenant Vic Androzzi (Charles Chioffi) with a delicate mutual respect couched in language of half-playful racial antagonism.

But beyond its depiction of white/black relationships in the Harlem crime world, Shaft is also explicitly about the internal life of the African-American community of Harlem, at least as far as its hoods, detectives, and pimps (blaxploitation, as an urban crime subgenre, has very little use for normal, decent people). Much of the action that goes on within the film is explicitly political in nature: a minority community at a crisis point grappling with questions of how much it should assimilate into the majority culture, or if it is better to push back, violently if necessary, against such assimilation. One of the main allies Shaft relies on in his quest is Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), leader of a black power group manipulated into a position where they have to be on Bumpy's side in the gang war; Shaft himself is plainly none too impressed with the passionate, revolutionary black nationalism on display in Buford's group, preferring instead to look out for himself; anchoring its politics around an avowedly apolitical, mercenary hero allows Shaft to ask its questions with a thoughtful objectivity not usually present in a genre that, like most, is more concerned with what will provide the most exciting, visceral action (being one of the few blaxploitation films actually directed by an African-American probably helps with that too).

Shaft is not, to be sure, so interested in racial identity issues that it becomes "about" them: it's unlikely the film would have been a smash hit if that were the case. Instead, it relies on the tried and true formula of being a pretty terrific detective thriller with a hard-edged attitude and a caustic urban setting. There are a lot of movies from that era that do basically the same things as Shaft, but not many of them do them as well. Parks might not have been one of the great thriller directors in history, but he does a superlative job of miring the film in Shaft's cool but brutal emotional state, rather than in the plot, which is frankly not so enthralling on its own rather derivative merits. But by tethering the film's scenes to Shaft, and privileging Roundtree's position in frames and his POV in shots where he doesn't appear, the movie isn't really "what Shaft does" but "who Shaft is", and that is enthralling. So is the film's prescience in assembling just the right number of signifiers for a very specific window of time in '70/'71 that it feels like the kind of time capsule that makes a moment come alive, rather than calls our attention to how many years have gone by since those fasions, buildings, and songs were a going concern. All that on top of the clear-eyed realism of the visuals, shot without poetry but with a great deal of precision and sharpness by Urs Furrer, and Shaft is both an exciting cop movie and a peerless social document. There problems both dramatic (I always start to seriously lose interest in the story a good half-hour before it resolves) and aesthetic (the sound recording, maybe owing to budgetary and location restrictions, is abysmal), but this is still as out-and-out good as any blaxploitation film ever made, and it's surely in the top rank of '70s New York crime thrllers; it's an important film that's also hellaciously fun to watch, a great combination that makes it essential viewing for several completely unrelated reasons.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1971
-Violent anti-heroes are all the rage, with Dirty Harry, The French Connection, and Billy Jack tearing it up at the box office
-Comic genius Elaine May makes her directorial debut with the pitch-black A New Leaf the first in an uninterrupted run of movies that underperform and confuse people and fail to find their richly-deserved audience
-Future father of the modern blockbuster George Lucas makes his debut with the sci-fi parable THX 1138

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1971
-Yugoslavian avant-gardist Dušan Makavejev makes W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, a groundbreaking depiction of sex-as-politics
-Japan's Daiei Film declares bankruptcy at the end of a year that saw them release the series-ending Gamera vs. Zigra
-Jacques Rivette releases the first, full version of Out 1, which at more than 12 hours in length is at that time the longest individual work of narrative cinema ever made

29 August 2014

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE 21st CENTURY SLASHER

In my head, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a beloved consensus highlight of 2000s meta-horror that is well understood to be an essential work for genre fans. And maybe that's how it works in the real world, since every review I read about it seems to contain the sentiment "this is such a great film, even though nobody has ever heard of it or seen it", and all those dozens and dozens of reviewers can't have stumbled upon the same microscopic, obscure gem just like that. On the other hand, if the film's cult had any sort of heft to it at all, than producer/director/co-writer Scott Glosserman and co-writer David J. Stieve would have more (any) impressive horror films to their name since Behind the Mask hit the festival circuit in 2006, and leading man Nathan Baesel would have more credits for acting than for working in post-production on reality television shows. The universe is just a cruel prick sometimes, and so, while the dipshits behind stuff like V/H/S have an entire self-reinforcing cottage industry going on for themselves, Glosserman and Stieve, nearly a decade on, have just this one terrific little pearl of a satiric horror-comedy to their name.

But at least they have that. At least we have that. Behind the Mask isn't perfect - it has a doozy of a formal complication baked right into the concept that might not ever have been resolvable in a truly elegant way - but you sit around waiting for a perfect horror film, you starve to death. And there's plenty of outright great material generously littered throughout the film, especially in its absolutely glorious first third, when it becomes the best extant version of the self-examining meta-horror film that had become so popular in the decade following Scream. The film takes place in a universe where Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddie Krueger have actually existed to do their killing in the small towns of Crystal Lake, Haddonfield, and Springwood, information communicated to us in a breathless TV news report that turns out to be the opening scene of a documentary being pieced together by Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), one-third of a team of graduate student documentary filmmakers (the others are Doug and Todd, played by Ben Pace and Britain Spellings in their limited onscreen appearances; I believe they are, respectively, the cinematographer and sound recordist). Their film is an investigation into the how of all these weirdly elaborate psycho killers who breed like rabbits in this universe, and to answer that question, Taylor has decided to go right to the source: Leslie Vernon (Baesel), who is building himself into the role of mysterious, possibly undead slasher monster for the little town of Glen Echo, Maryland.

The film shifts imperceptibly through two different phases in its first hour: the first part is an extravagantly funny and intelligent "behind the scenes" look into how all the contrivances and straight-up bullshit that go into making slasher movie plots actually involve a shitload of hard work and careful planning on the part of the psychos in question. Vernon is a proud nerd at heart, eager to show off his work, his research, bragging about how he's been carefully stalking his chosen Final Girl, Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson) - he prefers the term "Survivor Girl", which strikes me as the filmmakers being a little contrary just for the sake of it - making her paranoid without actually making her feel unsafe, planting clues about Glen Echo's mysterious (and partially fabricated) tragic history where he knows she'll find it, on top of doing things like working his ass off at cardio to make sure that he can run fast enough to do that "killer who only walks slowly is always just a few paces away" routine.

It's a film for and by people who understand the rules of the slasher movie very well, have some affection for the form, but also recognise that it's basically terrible. And having opened by complimenting those of us in that niche audience for our intelligence and sophistication, the film starts to get really interesting in its middle, and best third, when it ceases to be just one more post-Scream parody of slasher film tropes. Though, to be absolutely clear and absolutely fair, it is far more cutting and inventive in that vein than just about any film I've ever seen, certainly more than the Screams. Glosserman and Stieve have the knack for answering questions that we'd never think to ask, but once we see oh, that's how a psycho slasher killer would do THAT, it's clear and logical and easy to map onto the Jasons and Michaels and their numerous, less iconic brethren. Parts of Behind the Mask are just plain delightful in the way that a caper movie is delightful, as we see puzzle pieces coming into play in ways that are unpredictable and surprising and always, always rewarding.

That, anyway, is the superficial reason for loving the film. The deeper, frankly discomfiting reason, especially if you're a big slasher fan (and the movie relies on you being so, both to make its most impact and simply so that you get all the jokes), is that Behind the Mask rather craftily and invisibly turns itself around on the viewer through the form of its internal filmmakers, asking without voicing the words, "so anyway, why do you watch this shit?" There comes a point when Taylor... not exactly realises that she's filming the preparations of a terrifically friendly, funny geek who is, that night, going to murder at least seven teenagers, but more realises that she already realised it a little while ago. And then the film becomes explicitly about the ethics of filming a criminal act that the documentarian has the means to stop, but implicitly, and far more rewardingly, about the ethics of entertainment based in violent, elaborate death - something that, incidentally, Behind the Mask almost completely lacks. Only one of its fourteen actual or "what if?" deaths can be legitimately described as gory, and that's largely because it's paying off a silly one-off line about post-hole diggers from much earlier in the film.

I've seen the film three times now, and I'm still distinctly aware that I haven't unpacked everything going in on that middle chunk, as it implicates the viewer, and confounds its own status as a work of art. Vernon explains to an increasingly incredulous Taylor why all of the baroque elements of his work are necessary, how his entire focus is on empowering the Survivor Girl while also depriving her of her femininity, in terms that reek of medically outdated psychoanalytic lit theory, providing an intellectual spine for "doing slashers" that's plausible viewed from one angle, puffed-up double-talk from another; the film manages to discuss in easy, bite-sized form some of the weightier pro-horror arguments that have been offered and give them quite a bit of validation, and at the same time to make those arguments seem forced. "But aren't you really just excited to watch people die?" the film asks. "And don't you wonder if that kind of makes you a bad person?" There's even a gratuitous boob shot that's called out as gratuitous and then allowed to linger in a way that feels more self-aware and self-critical about male gazes than any other gratuitous boob shoot I've seen in a slasher movie.

The other important thing going on is that Behind the Mask really asserts itself not as a movie about the life of a slasher killer, but a movie about making a movie about a slasher killer. Between its 2006 premiere and its insultingly tiny 2007 theatrical release, the film came out too early to be consciously commenting on the "found footage" trend that exploded just a year later, though it's not really aping found footage to start with. Rather, when we see things through the camera's perspective, as we do for the great majority of the first hour, we're being put in the perspective of spectators of that footage - which is a dumb tautology, of course. Any time you watch a movie, you're a spectator of footage. But in Behind the Mask, there's not just documentary footage: the first scene, and a couple of moments dotted across the first hour, take place "outside" the documentary footage. And this makes the film different from virtually all found footage movies, where the entirety of the film takes place "within" the footage. The action of Behind the Mask takes place in a reality, and the film crew stands within that reality, filming it; when we then watch their footage, we're subtly being situated within that reality as well, since we know that the footage is a thing to be watched inside the film's universe, and we're watching the footage, and so it goes. And this makes us complicit with the film to a degree that we virtually never get to be with movies: not that we are present with the action and thus able to prevent, because that's just stupid. But because we become conspicuously aware that the footage has been made in order for us to watch it.

It's heady stuff, but it's also the direct cause of the film's greatest failure, and one that is completely inevitable. The peculiar effect of watching the footage as being separate from watching the movie only works because the film divides itself between "reality" and "filmed-reality"; but that exact same division cheapens the film. Every single time the movie shifts out of the camera's perspective into a more normal "horror movie" aesthetic (it's completely open about this, the lighting and video quality both dramatically change, and there's suddenly a musical score) it's jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. To me, anyway. And then we come to the last third, when Taylor, finally thrown into moral awakening, aware that abstracting this killer's actions through the lens of cinema has been a tool to remove herself from the ramifications of filming and watching those actions, announces that the documentary is over - and just like that, the documentary is over. The rest of the film plays out in the top-level reality of polished lighting, classical visual vocabulary, and ominous music. It moves through the third act of every single slasher on the books, and let me be frank, it moves through that act beautifully. As a conventional slasher film, the last third of Behind the Mask is really one of the best out there. But it's also a conventional slasher film.

I truly don't think there was a way to "solve" that, so I'm not harping on the filmmakers for not doing it. The end of Behind the Mask is a logical and inevitable extension of everything that was set up before: countless little Chekov guns fire off, and there's one piece of foreshadowing that pays off because it specifically wasn't mentioned, which is a really awesome way of teasing the viewer's genre savviness (I don't want to give away things, so I'm putting it in spoiler bars, in all his chatter about gender metaphors, Leslie conveniently fails to mention to Taylor that the increasingly masculine Final Girl tends to have an androgynous name, something Kelly lacks). But after the complexity, the wit, and the astonishing versatility of Baesel's performance, veering from giddy enthusiast to unexpected sorrow and introspection to dead-eyed menace, even a very good conventional slasher ending feels like it's letting all the air out of a movie that has been, till that point, one of the boldest examinations I know of what viewers demand of the narrative, of the characters, and of themselves as they watch horror movies. It has a fine ending, but nonetheless a disappointing one.

But then it goes ahead and resolves its plot during the end credits: not a little bonus, but an actual scene without which the narrative of the whole is, though satisfying, literally incomplete. And so, having once again bent the reality of "what is the 'actual' movie and what isn't?" one last time - and with a Talking Heads song, on top of it! - the film gets itself back in my good graces for its final bow.

Anyway, it's funny, it's legitimately tense, and it's smart as all hell, and it's one of my favorite American horror movies of the 21st Century. Not a lot of competition for that title, we all understand, but a damned impressive film anyway, and badly in need of a bigger fanbase and more love until that glorious day when it finally asserts its birthright as a modern horror classic.

Body Count: 10, three of whom are also seen in a theoretical "what if they died this way?" flashforward. Also one person who dies in the same theoretical flashforward, but not in "reality".

28 August 2014

SUMMER OF BLOOD, WEEK 15 POLL: READERS' CHOICE #3

VOTING CLOSED - WINNER: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
Thanks to everyone who voted!

And so we come to end, my dear readers, of another year's Summer of Blood. It's been one of the most fun for me to write, and I hope fun for all of you to take part in, and to wrap things up I have one final poll for you to vote in.

In the first and second Readers' Choice weeks, you nominated a total of 62 horror or horror-like films to be reviewed as part of the Summer of Blood; the winners of those races were 1977's House and 1982's The Thing. For this climax to Antagony & Ecstasy's grand experiment in democracy, I've taken the remaining 60 titles, and sorted them by the percentage of the overall vote they received (going with the higher score for those films which showed up in both polls). And I then have taken the top quarter of that list - a nice, clean 15 films - to make the pool of nominees for the very last week of Summer of Blood '14.

So here you have it - the 15 most-requested horror reviews of the summer! To make things even more exciting, I'm dispensing with multiple choices: you get one and only one vote between all these 15 movies. Choose well, for my sake as much as yours.

Jump to the poll

28 Days Later (2002)
From IMDb: "Four weeks after a mysterious, incurable virus spreads throughout the UK, a handful of survivors try to find sanctuary."

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
From IMDb: "Despite being under heavy sedation, Elena tries to make her way out of Arboria, a secluded, quasi-futuristic commune."

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
From IMDb: "Three film students vanish after traveling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind."

Candyman (1992)
From IMDb: "The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster's myth."

Dead Alive (1992)
From IMDb: "A young man's mother is bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey. She gets sick and dies, at which time she comes back to life, killing and eating dogs, nurses, friends, and neighbors."

The Fly (1986)
From IMDb: "A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong."

Freaks (1932)
From IMDb: "A circus' beautiful trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance."

Kill List (2011)
From IMDb: "Nearly a year after a botched job, a hitman takes a new assignment with the promise of a big payoff for three killings. What starts off as an easy task soon unravels, sending the killer into the heart of darkness."

The Mummy (1999)
From IMDb: "An American serving in the French Foreign Legion on an archaeological dig at the ancient city of Hamunaptra accidentally awakens a Mummy."

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
From IMDb: "Jack Skellington, king of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas Town, but doesn't quite understand the concept."

The Ring (2002)
From IMDb: "A young journalist must investigate a mysterious videotape which seems to cause the death of anyone in a week of viewing it."

Rosemary's Baby (1968)
From IMDb: "A young couple move into a new apartment, only to be surrounded by peculiar neighbors and occurrences. When the wife becomes mysteriously pregnant, paranoia over the safety of her unborn child begins controlling her life."

Se7en (1995)
From IMDb: "Two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, hunt a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi."

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
From IMDb: "A young FBI agent disappears while investigating a murder miles from Twin Peaks that may be related to the future murder of Laura Palmer; the last week of the life of Laura Palmer is chronicled."
-To those for whom this effects their vote, I have seen the entirety of the TV series Twin Peaks, including this movie, twice through

War of the Worlds (2005)
From IMDb: "As Earth is invaded by alien tripod fighting machines, one family fights for survival."

This poll closes on Thursday, 28 August, at 11:00 PM CDT (GMT -5:00)!


REVIEW ALL MONSTERS! - STATUE OF LIMITATIONS

I don't know what the hell it is with third films always being such a titanic step down in quality, but at least Daimajin Strikes Again comes by it honestly: it was Daiei's third film in the loosely-connected series within the span of eight months in 1966, meaning it was also screenwriter Yoshida Tetsuro's third Daimajin movie in the same span, and there's only so many ways you can re-arrange the same essential plot elements in such a brief window of time without it starting to take a toll on one's creativity. What's odd, actually, is that compared to Daimajin and Return of Daimajin, the third film arguably has the freshest plot, recycling elements from the original movie but not largely remaking it, as was generally true of the first sequel; and despite that, it feels far more stale. Blame fatigue, blame the strained budget: I have no idea if Daimajin Strikes Again was or wasn't made on whatever scraps the first two films left over, but I do know, if only from the evidence of my eyes, that it's a lot chintzier than they. The effects work, a major highlight of the first two movies, is positively threadbare here; the sets look like sets, and not in the beautifully theatrical way that they do in Return of Daimajin, but in the way of "we threw some dry ice and food coloring at a concrete pool - poof! instant deadly sulfur pit".

Or just blame the kids, as most negative responses towards the film seem to do. It's certainly the biggest single shift between this film and the two earlier pictures. Instead of following the adult members of a noble family being persecuted by an evil warlord, Daimajin Strikes Again makes as its protagonists a quartet of peasant boys: Tsurukichi (Ninomiya Hideki), Daisaku (Hori Shinji), Kinta (Iizuka Masahide), and Sugitatsu (Nagatomo Muneyuki). Any Daiei daikaiju eiga centering on young boys can't help but make us think of the company's Gamera films, with their litany of awful little children befriending that series giant turtlebeast - of which, to be entirely fair, only one existed by the end of 1966, from the previous year's Gamera. And given that the strength of the first two Daimajin pictures was their immense gravity and surprising effectiveness as jidaigeki - feudal period epics - it's especially frustrating to have hit the point where the producers seem to have decided, "hey you guys, we can totally make this a frothy kids' movie!"

For all that, it's still a better kids' movie than the Gamera pictures. It would be unfair to pretend that I know anything whatsoever about the short stories that Japanese parents tell Japanese children when tucking them in for bed at night, but with my isolated, culturally European worldview, I can't help but think that Daimajin Strikes Again is basically a fairy tale: complete with four very brave boys walking through the forest where they meet a strange old woman (Kitabayashi Tanie), have to hide in a cave in a mountain to survive a snowstorm, and eventually save their daddies from a wicked warlord, Arakawa (Abe Toru), whose characteristics don't really extend beyond his all-purpose villainy, stealing local woodsmen (shit, what occupation is more Brothers Grimm than a woodsman?) to build his evil palace and throwing them into the sulfur pits when they can't work any longer. The film's shallow slip of a narrative isn't so bad when you think of it that way; and while I much prefer the more well-established dramatic stakes of the other two films, the basic, elemental situation that Daimajin Strikes Again presents for itself has an appealing cleanliness and directness to it, taken on its own terms.

The next problem, and the unanswerable one, I should think, is that if Daimajin Strikes Again is thus apparently a children's film, it commits a sin common to so many children's films: it wants to try an snooker children. There are opinions and then there are damn facts, and it is a damn fact that this film suffers from worse sets, blander cinematography, and sloppier editing than the preceding pair of Daimajin vehicles. I don't know what director Mori Kazuo (the third veteran of the Zatochi series to helm a Daimajin film) had to work with, and I will not blame him for anything; but whatever caused it, there's very little of the sweeping visual grandeur and drama that made the first two such delightful, memorable experiences. This is especially true near the end, when the boys conjure up the protector god whose avatar is a statue standing imposingly at the very top of a mountain peak: though there are some individually impressive shots (the first image of the static statue is absolutely terrific), and the decision to stage much of Daimajin's rampage in the snow adds a level of visual flair that distinguishes it nicely from the other two films, there's not so much sense of raw power being unleashed and treading around; no cosmic overtones to the action. In a couple of different moments, the framing and the dubious compositing of effects all together have the absolutely terrible effect of under-emphasising Daimajin's height at exactly the point in the story when his sheer scale is meant to be driving a mortal panic into the bad guys. The film doesn't have the weightiness that the first two ended on; it's awfully disappointing to have two such robust climaxes give way to stock-issue daikaiju tromping about.

Well, stock-issue-esque. Daimajin Strikes Again suffers mightily as the third Daimajin film, but as a daikaiju eiga from 1966, it's actually quite impressive, all things considered. The human element is a bit wan, and the four boys are a bit hard to parse: the one who's a bit older, the one who's more servile, the one who's kind of the main hero if any of them are, the one who's left over. But taken as a group, they're not unnecessarily annoying, which is always a plus for children in monster movies. And while the action is a step down at least from the heights of the first two movies, it's still able to hold its own with anything in any of the Gameras, or any of the middle-tier Godzilla films. If Ifukube Akira's score is just openly pilfering from his Godzilla cues at this point, well, those cues are pretty damn terrific in the first place. And so it goes. The film is derivative, undernourished, and a bit tacky, but it's solidly average to above-average within its genre, and only the inordinate success of the first two movies in the trilogy make that very satisfactory achievement seem somehow wanting.

27 August 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1970: In which an old curmudgeon jumps in with the young turks, and brazen experiment can also be popular entertainment

The New Hollywood Cinema was largely a young man's game, with most of its leading lights part of the first film school generation. Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Michael Cimino were both born in 1939; Brian De Palma in 1940; Martin Scorsese in 1942; Terrence Malick in 1943; George Lucas and John Milius in 1944; Paul Scharader and Steven Spielberg were the babies, born in 1946. We start to creep older with Warren Beatty (b. 1937), Dennis Hopper (b. 1936), Robert Towne (b. 1934), Bob Rafelson (b. 1933), Robert Benton (b. 1932), Mike Nichols (b. 1931), and eventually we land at editor extraordinaire and underappreciated director Hal Ashby, born in 1929.

There is one great outlier, not just in age, but in experience: his career had begun in industrial short films a full 20 years before the New Hollywood found him and gave him a chance to explode as one of the most creative, challenging filmmakers of his generation - well, not of his generation at all, of course. The '50s and '60s found him cranking out TV episodes by the handful, and out of all the names I have dropped thus far, he'd be the one who, from the vantage point of 1970, was most clearly part of The Establishment; though he'd do more to demolish The Establishment from inside out than any other American auteur in the most radical decade of American cinema. The man I'm referring to is Robert Altman, not quite 45 years old when he dropped a bomb called MASH on the cinematic landscape.

I'm going to get the ugly part out of the way, so we can get on to ignoring it: I'm not terribly fond of MASH. The most impressive things about it were all re-done to better effect and with more sophistication in Altman's later work throughout the decade, and without MASH's conspicuous flaws of snotty, juvenile humor and a real sense of needless cruelty, both of them typified by it's most signally obnoxious scene, a cheap joke built around the sexual humiliation of the movie's most important female character. It's crude and shaggy and smug, absolutely impossible to square with the wide-open appreciation of humanity's warts and strengths in Nashville, or the complex, ghostly depiction of people outside of the mainstream of self-described Civilisation in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (made just a year later!). As far as depictions of sloppy, self-congratulatory masculinity, The Long Goodbye is infinitely more rewarding.

Of course, Altman could have made none of those films without MASH paving his way, both aesthetically and commercially. He got to make the film almost entirely without oversight, while 20th Century Fox was far too busy fussing over the more expensive war films Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora! to give much of a shit about the ramshackle little Korean War comedy that the TV director was making with a bunch of nobody actors from a Ring Lardner, Jr. script that he was constantly changing. And he ran with it as far as he conceivably could, making a movie that broke rules, invented rules, didn't give a shit about the rules, captured a specific moment in the Zeitgeist as perfectly as it could be captured, made a huge pile of money, and gave him a blank check to pursue bizarre personal indulgences for years. Glancing over his filmography, it apparently wasn't until the very visible collapse of his film of Popeye, a full ten years later, that he finally ran out of post-MASH goodwill from the big studio moneymen.

Anyway, having confessed (and felt kind of shameful about it) that I'm no particular fan of the film, I nevertheless admire what it does and what it represents, and I can admit that some of the things I like least about it - it's almost complete shapelessness, for one - are exactly why it made such a tremendous impact in '70. MASH is not just a mere comedy, not even a mere anti-war comedy - which is all the very long-running, equally iconic TV spin-off is, for all that I prefer the small-screen M*A*S*H to its cinematic big brother - but an entirely self-contained anti-Establishment weapon of mass destruction. It's not enough to mock the serious people who were seriously running the war in Vietnam in to a very serious quagmire: the very object that MASH is functions as a "fuck you and the horse you rode in on" to the nice, sensible, moderate people who form the Establishment's backbone. The film is laconic and flippant, but mostly it is pissed: it's just that the anger doesn't express itself through the characters and scenario (as the TV show played it), but through the way that the film has been constructed. The messy, busy, discontinuous aesthetic of the film, and its completely ragged non-plot, are acts of aggression against normalcy, suggesting that the world of '69 and '70 were too colossally fucked-up for normalcy to keep going on. Honestly, of all the major early works in the New Hollywood Cinema, it's probably the most important for this reason, along with Easy Rider: plenty of films argued that "This isn't working" and proposed a change socially; these two films were far and away the most prominent and successful attempts at making the same argument cinematically.

It gets there through somewhat less chemically-induced means: the most immediately noticeable thing about the film, even before it's raggedy, extravagantly European editing scheme (credited solely to Danford B. Greene, though Altman was also in the room), is its legitimately revolutionary sound recording and mixing, the most exciting upheaval in Hollywood sound aesthetic since Howard Hawks realised that movies were funnier and more exciting if people's lines overlapped. The sound, by Bernard Freericks and John Stack, is jaw-dropping, and even the refinements made to it by Altman and others (it reached its apotheosis in Nashville) haven't robbed MASH of its sonic audacity. Offscreen noise is omnipresent, we have to parse two, three, four speakers involved in different conversations simultaneously, and one of the film's most vivid and memorable characters is the P.A. announcer played by David Arkin, who also wrote the pedantic, weird, dreamlike announcements that he speaks in a confused, harried tone, cutting through the action with erratic non sequiturs regularly throughout the movie. Combined with the graceless cutting, which snaps the ends off words and jams scenes together so artlessly that it starts to take on its own internal logic, the overwhelming impression MASH leaves is that of chaos. It's legitimately edgy in a way that most films that more openly court edginess through sex and violence wouldn't know what to do with, suggesting that war, and society, and human life, and the whole damn thing are messy, inexplicable, and confusing, and coming at a moment of such widespread dissatisfaction as America was feeling in the turnover to the 1970s, it's little wonder that the film grabbed the mood of the nation in a big way.

And that, again, does serve to inoculate the film against the easiest criticisms against what look like enormous problems: I could write hundreds of words about the football game that takes up the last quarter of the not-quite two-hour movie, complaining about the abrupt shift of tone, the hash it makes of at least one character's internal logic, and the weird shift from sly, sardonic hang-out comedy to big goofy antics, but of course MASH can come right back at me and demand, well, why not end with a ridiculous comic football scene? The Marx Brothers did it, and they were dangerous cinematic anarchists working in a time of mass dissatisfaction too. And while this doesn't make me like the football sequence any more, it certainly makes it impossible to objectively argue against it.

The broad strokes of the film (structure, sound, tone) are so compelling that it's easy to overlook the smaller elements, though only in a film like this could I use the phrase "smaller elements" and be referring to things like the actors, story, and theme. The first of Altman's films with an enormous ensemble, MASH boasts an extraordinary ensemble: Sally Kellerman, Bud Cort, Michael Murphy, Rene Auberjonois, Tom Skerritt, Robert Duvall, just right off, with the whole thing headed up by Elliott Gould (the closest thing to a big name at the time, on the strength of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) and Donald Sutherland as two anachronistically counter-cultural surgeons in a surgical camp in a Korea that Altman was hellbent on convincing us was actually Vietnam (the studio forced him into an opening title card to clarify things, but the intent remains clear). It's a heavily improvised film, setting a standard for Altman films that would continue to the director's death; the result is less a story about character arcs than a collection of events that cause people to react to them, and it's tremendously impressive how well the actors, down to the smallest roles, inhabit their roles with such organic naturalism that it seems right describe it as "people reacting" and not "characters doing X" or "actors doing X". Punctuated with harried, gory scenes of wartime surgery, so the film can give propriety one last smack in the face (it's also the first American studio film with the word "fuck" in its dialogue).

That MASH is so much of its moment doesn't mean that it's aged poorly. In a lot of ways, frankly, it's brash enough and inventive enough to still feel like a work of radicalism, more than 40 years on - except in matters of social mores; the sexism feels all the more disconcerting for how otherwise contemporary the style is. And the iconic theme song "Suicide Is Painless" - written by Altman's teenage son, and oh, how very teenaged it feels - is unabashedly dated. But these are little things: MASH is still a wildly alive, rampaging piece of cinema, whatever my own measured response to it, and essential viewing for anyone who cares even slightly about the history of American cinema. Nothing I nor anyone can say makes it less of a milestone or less of a triumph of getting away with it, right underneath the studio's nose.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1970
-Love means never having to say you're sorry for ruining an entire generation with the treacly bullshit of Love Story
-The Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin's documentary on the Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter, films the exact moment when the '60s counter-culture implodes
-Hot young film critic Roger Ebert and tit fancier Russ Meyer collaborate on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1970
-Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky makes El Topo in Mexico, the first of his major spiritual-surrealist epics
-Dario Argento's stylish thriller The Bird with the Crystal Plumage kicks the Italian genre of the giallo into overdrive
-Michael Lindsay-Hogg's documentary Let It Be, shot for British TV but released theatrically, documents in excruciating detail the in-group hatreds that would eventually break up The Beatles

26 August 2014

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: THE MERRY WORLD OF FRANK MILLER

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, we return to the charming world of Basin City, where men are brutal nihilists and women are slutty slutwhores and buildings are CGI. All this was a little fresher last time around.

There's such a huge gap between the experience of watching Sin City when it was new in 2005, and the experience of watching it almost a full decade later, it feels like two entirely different movies, damn near. Thus it is with films which were at one point on the technological bleeding edge - and oh, how very bloody that edge was in the case of Sin City when it was new. It's almost quaint to think of it now, but there was a time when a "live-action" movie that took place almost entirely in CGI environments was enormously radical. Prior to Sin City, there had been the half-steps of George Lucas's Star Wars prequels, both of which (in those glory days, there was merely a "both", and we could still hold out hope that he'd right things) involved extensive use of CGI set-building; and in 2004, Kerry Conran wrote and directed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the first American film with 100% digitally-created backdrops for its human actors to interact with; or rather, not to. And in the same year, the French Immortel and the Japanese Casshern were released, both of which also featured only synthetic sets.

But the Star Warses were unpleasantly eager to declare themselves tech demos with terrible narratives and insipid characters reluctantly tacked on, Sky Captain married truly exquisite, imaginative world building to a story that barely exists, and the foreign films made nary a ripple in the States, incapable of proving to Hollywood that an extraordinary new tool for making whole worlds without the tedious labor of making whole worlds now existed, and thus creating the rather dubious world in which we now live. That honor fell to Sin City, the first film of the lot to use this all-digital set creation because it served the greater purposes of the movie, rather than as an end in and of itself. Now that every single mainstream movie from the enormous effects-driven tentpoles to the modest character stories comes in with a sheen of computer-generated Vaseline over everything, it's easy to forget how astonishing this felt at the time; that a movie could and should create a completely synthetic world to provide the right environment for its story to thrive.

In the particular case of Sin City, that environment and that story (stories, rather) can be described in the same way: an amped-up exaggeration of the style, world, and moral ethos of film noir. It's asking far too much to suggest that the film is a parody of the genre, for Frank Miller, author and artist of the comic book series from which the film has been slavishly adapted, would not appear to have nearly enough of a sense of humor to write such a thing as a parody. But it is an exaggeration to the most absurd extremities, a kind of apotheosis of the curdled nihilism, violence, sexism, and urban rot that make up noir. The enormous stylisation - also slavishly adapted from the comics, which functionally serve as the movie's storyboards - is, likewise, an intensified version of the Expressionist photography that turned realistic urban settings into hellish, almost surreal spaces, rendered as little more than black and white lines and shapes with absolutely no room in between for shading, or for human habitation. Individual elements of color, mostly reds with some yellow, blue, and rarely green here or there, serve to provide some minute measure of respite from the savage black and white, a flicker of life whether in the form of love, death, or terror, anything that's not the sheer grinding agony of life in Basin City.

The film's overriding problem - assuming that the whole "ultra-nihilistic extreme expression of film noir style and morality" isn't a problem for you, as it is not for me (and making allowances for how the film watches in 2005 as opposed to 2014, I'm still quite a big fan of the movie) - is that it's so indebted to the comic books, adding nothing but motion and the various textures of the performances. The nominal director, Robert Rodriguez, does very little to the film other than facilitate it; the honorary directorial credit he gave to Miller (without which we would maybe not have Miller's putrid 2008 film of The Spirit, a film that blindly copies Sin City's aesthetic with an incomparably worst script and performances) admits as much, and the fact that the one scene "guest-directed" by Quentin Tarantino is indistinguishable from the rest of the film other than having a slightly looser performance from Benicio Del Toro speaks to how little personality the movie actually possesses that it didn't borrow from Miller.

And as we kind of knew in 2005, and know to an absolute dread certainty in 2014, borrowing personality from Frank Miller is a rather dubious thing to do. This shows in Sin City itself, which is good and bad almost entirely as a function of the quality of the original comic stories it's adapting: it's based on the first, third, and fourth "Sin City yarns", as Miller referred to them during the book's original run in the 1990s, apparently recognising that the word "stories" implies more structure and discipline than his feverish lashings of urban nightmare rage possessed. The first and third - "The Hard Goodbye" and "The Big Fat Kill" - are possibly the best of all seven Sin City miniarcs, in the tightness of their construction and the effectiveness of how Miller's art (which is literally re-created onscreen) works within the mood created by that story. The fourth - "That Yellow Bastard" - is, I would argue, the exact moment when you can watch the early Frank Miller who was largely good if thoroughly retrograde in some of his opinions about vigilante justice, women, and government, starts to turn into the sour-minded crank Frank Miller, who'd fully emerge in the final Sin City yarn, "Hell and Back", and would be responsible for the ghastly The Dark Knight Strikes Again and Holy Terror and the angry, unfunny pastiche All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder. And that plays off in the movie, as well, which somewhat awkwardly welds the three units into one film that presumably was meant to have the structural payoffs of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, but doesn't get there. The first two segments (following two prologues), centering around Mickey Rourke's big menacing thug with a heart of gold Marv, and Clive Owen's hitman-in-hiding Dwight, are both delightful, nasty-minded wallows in excess, misanthropy, style. The third, with Bruce Willis as Hartigan, a disgraced cop sent to prison for taking down the psychopathic son of a powerful senator, only to emerge years later to protect the demure, almost fully-clothed stripper, Nancy (Jessica Alba) that he'd rescued as a girl, from the yellowish gnome-man (Nick Stahl) trying to kill them both... that part's just bleak and miserable and gross.

Of course, all of it's a little bleak and miserable and gross. There's a whole cannibalism subplot. But there's a difference between the grubbiness of the third sequence and the arch, even self-parodying way that it's depicted in the first two segments, with their geysers of white blood silhouetted against black, their armies of militant prostitutes (led by an absolutely terrific Rosario Dawson), their curt dialogue that suggests what happens when you take hard-boiled tough-guy slang and let it sit on the fire for another hour or two (Owen, grim and staring, never flexing his chin at all, is terrific at delivering this). Two-thirds of Sin City comes from a place of love and enthusiasm for the overblown possibilities of guttural, pitch-black noir, and that's the part that matter most, the part that especially benefits from the film's prideful creation of elaborate, wholly unpersuasive digital sets. When it's working, Sin City primarily resembles people giddily play-acting at being film noir toughies, everybody going as bad-ass as they can manage to top the actors that, in many cases, they weren't even performing against. It's extremeness and artifice take on an energy that's surprisingly playful, given how pitch-black everything is: so hyper-dramatic that even the most horrifying elements play as a sort of quiet camp rather than bland torture porn. The years have, alas! dulled it somewhat. But the bad-boy naughtiness still works, and if the film has suffered, it's only a victim of its own success.

BEST SHOT: GONE WITH THE WIND, SECOND HALF

The sequel to last week's edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, which finds us looking at the second, more exclusively post-war half of the legendary epic Gone with the Wind.

I don't usually post this early in the day, but I had a reason for doing it today: I am most certainly not going to be the only person to pick this shot, and I hoped that by getting in first, I might possibly seem a little less hopelessly obvious.

Not the first time I've shared this still on the blog, either. It's the moment that sums up absolutely everything there is to sum up Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara, one of the great characters and performances in the annals of cinema. As I said last week, "When faced with such a monolith, it seems idiotic to aim for cunning; better by fair to just own that it's a damn icon and go with something damn well iconic." And this moment of Scarlett is as damn well iconic as it gets. Knowing that she's about to walk into social humiliation, furious at being tricked into doing so by her lover-antagonist Rhett Butler, perhaps even furious at herself for electing to wear That Dress, a brazen, hyper-sexual blast of the most passionate red in all of Technicolor, despite all this, Scarlett holds her head erect, and faces her inevitable accusers with the most fiery "fuck you" attitude that Leigh could muster up for her. And that's a lot of "fuck you" indeed.

I don't think I've ever written a Hit Me with Your Best Shot entry this short. But a picture is worth a thousand words, after all, and I can't say anything about that image that it doesn't already say better than I could do. Leigh is perfectly framed, and the colors perfectly balanced, for a frame of devastating immediate impact. Here is this woman, it says. She is proud, she is powerful, she is defiant, she is haughty. She is Scarlett O'Hara, and in the four hours of Gone with the Wind, there's not another instant where she makes herself, the world, and the audience so inescapably aware of that fact.

25 August 2014

AN UNHEALTHY DOSE OF SKEPTICISM

The very best thing that ever happened to Magic in the Moonlight is that writer-director Woody Allen made The Curse of the Jade Scorpion prior to it. The two films resemble each other in multiple ways: they're both set just outside the Great Depression (Jade Scorpion in New York in 1940, Magic in 1928 in France), both have plots based on the voguish paranormal interests of their setting (hypnotism, spirit mediums), both touch on rather awkward Orientalism also befitting their setting without necessarily embracing it. But Jade Scorpion is down around the absolute bottom of Allen's cinematic efforts, confused in its plotting, angrily old-fashioned, and hobbled by what might well be the worst performance of Allen's entire career (he took on the part only when he ran out of time to find a better-suited candidate). Magic in the Moonlight, in contrast, is merely not good, and that makes it seem a great deal better than it actually is, according to the rules of the ever-more-complicated game by which Allen's wildly inconsistent career is ranked and sorted.

The other very best thing that happened to Magic in the Moonlight is that Colin Firth plays the lead character in just about the most rewarding way that I suppose is possible. Like most Allen protagonists, Stanley Crawford is a vessel for the author's opinions and nervous energy; unlike most Allen protagonists, he's being played by an actor who has the good sense not to play the character as a Woody Allen impression. Firth's portrayal makes Stanley a supercilious, spiny, entitled, heavily British figure, without a hint of the Allen-esque neurotic, and the actor's refusal to soften the character or demand our affection beyond the fact that he's Colin Firth, and thus the handsomest and most charismatic motherfucker in the room, is almost solely responsible for saving the film from its worst impulses.

Stanley has two main drives in life: he performs stage magic under a heavy layer of yellowface as Wei Ling Soo, the toast of Europe, and he moonlights, like great illusionists before and since, as a professional skeptic debunking claims by psychics, mediums, and other paranormal claimants. He's approached after a show in Berlin by his colleague Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), who has already failed to debunk the claims of an American named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), currently fleecing an enthusiastic family of her countrymen residing in the Côte d'Azur, very near to Stanley's beloved aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). Excited at the chance to prove his one-of-a-kind skills at being a priggish skeptic, Stanley takes up the offer, putting of his vacation with his very sensible, logical fiancé Olivia (Catherine McCormack) to meet the enthusiastic believer Grace Catledge (Jacki Weaver), hoping to pour money at Sophie and her grim-faced mother (Marcia Gay Harden), her lovestruck son Brice (Hamish Linklater), and her concerned, skeptical daughter Caroline (Erica Leerhsen) and son-in-law George (Jeremy Shamos). He's a superior jerk, not remotely disguising his contempt for Sophie or any of the people who believe her, but the young woman is oddly unruffled about the whole thing, calmly and patiently proving herself to him over and over again, and ultimately winning him over to her side. Suddenly convinced of the existence of an unseen world and an afterlife for the first time in his bleak, nihilistic life, Stanley goes all gaga on the possibilities of living, not stopping to notice that Sophie has begun going gaga for him. And this being a Woody Allen picture, it's obviously only an exercise in waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for Stanley to figure out just how Sophie has, in fact, been swindling him with her fake psychic gifts.

The thing where Allen's male heroes and female love interests are always separated by a full generation is conventional wisdom enough that it's almost lazy to bring it up, but even so, Firth and Stone are a brutally mismatched pair of lovers. Which honestly has less to do with their ages, than with the simple reality of film star chemistry (they have none), plus the way that script, particularly in its final act, so clearly establishes characters who would have absolutely no real reason for tolerating each other. And Firth's tendency to sharpen his role's edges rather than blunt them. It's death to any romcom when you don't merely fail to believe that the central pair would end up together, but are driven to root against them.

In fairness, Magic in the Moonlight is not, primarily, a romcom; it's a prickly little sitcom about a jackass saying arrogant things to people who deserve them. Which also doesn't really work very well, though thank God for Firth, doing all he can to make the character seem funny and erudite instead of just sour. Everything else in the movie is flat and tone-deaf; even Stone, a terrific comic player who has done more with weaker scripts than this more than once, but ends up straitjacketed by the story's incomprehensible designs for Sophie's motivations over the course of the film.

At points, it does seem like a good movie could have been crafted out of this at a very early stage: say, before it gained its concept. The earliest scenes, in Berlin, are actually quite good at capturing a sense of the very particular place and time being depicted (obviously none of us want to see Allen direct a new film of Cabaret, but I'm suddenly kind of curious). Throughout the whole thing, Sonia Grande's slightly artificial, bright costumes give the movie a playful period feeling that suggests the movies of the late '20s more than the actuality of the late '20s, but in so doing, stress the fizzy genre elements of the film, and give it a little bit of lighthearted energy that it badly, badly needs. And Darius Khondji, working with Allen for the fourth time, makes the southern French landscapes looking terrifically gorgeous without just relying on blunt travelogue photography.

So it looks decent, at least, which isn't the most common thing for an Allen picture. It's also bogged down by clumsy, obvious jokes, which is increasingly more and more common, sad to say. There's no charm and a lot of broad insipidity here, and even by the current trend of every other Allen film feeling rushed, flimsy, and obvious, it's a rocky thing. It's not funny enough to cover up its lack of fresh ideas; or maybe better to say that it's not insightful enough to make up for how flat the jokes are. Anyway, it's not even good enough to be half-insulted with the phrase "minor Allen": it's a misfire with good costumes and a deeply pleasant Colin Firth, and the laziest writing in the filmmaker's canon since at least Whatever Works. History tells us that Allen will rebound from this quickly; let's desperately hope so, because this is about as generic and uninteresting as his films get.

5/10

24 August 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1969: In which the gaseous, bloated corpse of the old system heaves up its last opulent monstrosities

Earlier this year, I reviewed the legendary dismal 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon; and would would like to suppose that it's enough to have hacked through just one of that year's most notorious genre misfires. But if one is looking at the ebb and flow of Hollywood filmmaking over the years, it would be a terrible mistake to try and get away without coming to grips with the other musical from '69, Hello, Dolly! For it is even better as an example of the overwhelming awfulness of the insanely indulgent system of mindless spectacle-mongering that was being replaced by the raw aesthetic of the New Hollywood Cinema. Though both films saw huge box office returns that didn't offset their even huger budgets, it was Hello, Dolly! that somehow managed to scratch its way to three Oscar wins and another four nominations, one of them for Best Picture - the third time in six years that 20th Century Fox had managed to hoist one of its gargantuan, tacky megaproductions into that nominally august company, after 1963's Cleopatra and 1967's Doctor Dolittle (and credit where credit is due: Hello, Dolly! may be a tasteless behemoth, but it's still far better than the enervating Dolittle, surely among the worst movie musicals ever made).

The Oscars are no measure of quality, of course, but they're a good barometer of what the Hollywood establishment thought to be important, socially and cinematically, in any given year. That Hello, Dolly! was taken to belong in the same set of nominees - to say nothing of the same aesthetic universe - as the urban realism of Midnight Cowboy and the politically incendiary foreign import Z is mind-boggling; that it and the shaggy, indulgent radical madness of Easy Rider could occupy consecutive slots on the year's list of Top 10 box office hits feels like a dadaist joke. But it is what it is; and what it is pretty damn ugly, not as hilariously terrible as Paint Your Wagon, but also lacking that film's car-crash novelty. It's a doomed attempt to marry some kind of realistic shooting style with bluntly artificial everything, buoyed up by the comic energy of a nevertheless stunningly miscast lead, hobbled by Jerry Herman's samey, mostly anemic songs. It's sad to think that in 800 years, this will be the last scrap of pop culture left on Earth to teach the robots that follow us about emotions, but there you have it.

Adapted by Ernest Lehman from a record-setting 1964 Broadway musical that was itself based on Thornton Wilder's 1955 play The Matchmaker (which based on Wilder's earlier The Merchant of Yonkers and onward back to the beginning of time), Hello, Dolly! opens in New York City, where the region's most famous and beloved matchmaker/factotum Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand) is heading off to the suburb of Yonkers, with her own marriage in mind: she's hellbent on snaring wealthy, grumpy H & feed store owner Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthew). This requires a great deal of plotting on her part, for Horace is just now heading into New York City to propose to wealthy lady haberdasher Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew). The scheme involves encouraging Horace's bored 28-and-three-quarters-year-old chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford) and his young coworker Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin) to head into the city themselves to meet Irene and her clerk Minnie Fay (E.J. Peaker); simultaneously, she encourages Horace's despondent niece Ermengarde (Joyce Ames) to sneak off with her illicit boyfriend Ambrose Kemper (Tommy Tune), to compete in the dance contest being held at the classy restaurant Harmonia Gardens. Farce ensues, by the end of which everybody is paired off with the most ideal person, assuming that there exists a world in which 27-year-old Streisand and 49-year-old Matthau qualify as an ideal pair.

That kind of spirited nonsense requires a very special light hand to carry off, and at no step of the way does Hello, Dolly! evidence any such thing. Not in the directing, not in the choreography, not in the acting, not in the source material. It is a lead-footed beast that has been made in a style that's simultaneously overbearing and emaciated, with hundreds of thousands of dollars obviously plastered everywhere in the fussy period sets and costumes, and yet it feels chintzy as a community theater production made by people who weren't feeling terribly inspired. For any megaproduction to have the enervating overproduced, under-imagined energy of this would offensive: it's a despairing, mortal sin for one directed by Gene Kelly and choreographed by Michael Kidd, both of whom absolutely deserve to be called geniuses for their earlier contributions to the movie musical at MGM under producer Arthur Freed. Every song is exactly fucking the same: a couple of people dancing and then every new cut adds a couple more until the whole of the Todd-AO frame is crammed full of people who have no earthly reason to be there except to add a lot of moving bodies, for the hell of it. And Kidd is addicted to a tiny range of dance movies: oh, how much kicking, taking a half-step back, and leaping there is in Hello, Dolly! Or, in the enormous prologue to the even more enormous title number, there are waiters tossing around trays with plastic food glued to them in gestures that make not the tiniest effort to convince us of the reality of what's going on, and those seem remarkably unimpressive, no matter how much obvious energy the dancers are expending. In all cases, it's a great deal of complicated, busy movement without any emotional connection to any other scene - any other shot - in the movie, a gaudy conviction that "more is more!" that proves deeply incorrect in this instance. Less would be a great deal more than the teeming heaps of dancing bodies Kelly and Kidd puke out all over their musical, all so much desperate, flop-sweaty nonsense filling the frame just for the sake of filling it. Widescreen is only "for snakes, and funerals", Jean-Luc Godard once ventriloquised through Fritz Lang; the dances in Hello, Dolly! are as good a proof of that contention as exists, for they are awfully damn funereal.

I do not mean to pick on the dancing. But for all its failures in other areas - a bloated, heavy farce, or a character comedy full of generally tedious cartoons - its abysmal shortcomings as a musical are the saddest. Compounding things, in a fit of perversity, it's the show's two stand-out numbers in a sea of rather shallow musical noodles - "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "Hello, Dolly!" - that have the gaudiest, busiest staging. The whole thing is too depressing for words: hunting for anything that gives a hint of interest to any of these sequences, whether it's an interesting use of color, or an unexpected gesture. Even a playful spin on one of the lines. There's nothing, though - every beat is pre-embalmed, the look of the thing glazed and waxy, the sound mixing alarmingly awfully and erratic.

The film's failures as musical spectacle are so complete that it's missteps as farce are merely annoyances. It's too slow (in part because of how completely it jams on the brakes for those lumbering musical numbers), and the puckish inevitability of Dolly's schemes never feels like it takes on momentum of its own. And the performances are pretty consistently unfortunate: Matthau is so effectively crabby (on top of his singing, which resembles an infant cow keening for its mother) that he's more unpleasant than comic, and his eventual thawing-out comes from nowhere whatsoever. Crawford's rubber-faced exertions are slightly painful to watch; nobody else in the cast emerges as anything other than an object in a dithering narrative.

Except for Streisand, of course. This was just her second film performance, one year after Funny Girl, and it's obvious why that film recommended her for this one: a period comedy (though some 20 years later than Hello, Dolly!), numbers that demand a big voice, jokes that require a certain fearless corniness. The difference is that in Funny Girl, Streisand had a top-notch director of actors in William Wyler; and that she was actually appropriate for a the role of Fanny Brice. Dolly Levi requires a wholly different bearing: Carol Channing was 43 when she created the role onstage, and that's just about the minimum required for a worldly widow who has spent a lifetime tinkering with everybody else's lives, before deciding that dammit, it's her turn now. Streisand simply didn't have the visible miles to sell that aspect of the character. And it shows in her frequently nervous expressions that she knew it, too.

That being said, Streisand is frequently the only thing worth watching onscreen: she's probably playing "Barbra Streisand" more than the role in the screenplay in her best moments, where she launches into vivacious patter or privately amused innuendos, but if that's what it takes to drag some real sparkle and comic energy into the dessicated proceedings, than so be it. She sings the songs in the same way - Channing on the original cast recording is playing a character, where Streisand is performing a pop album - and I'm inclined to be less forgiving of that, but then, it's acknowledged that Streisand had a good voice, and once again, even inappropriate pleasures from Hello, Dolly! are better than no pleasures at all.

There is a shot that, I think, sums up the whole movie, and it comes early on. As Matthau and an inexplicable cast of dozens choke through "It Takes a Woman", Crawford is standing by a horse, that turns and pokes its nose right into his face. The actor steadily retains his composure, bless him, but the moment is so patently a mistake, and either nobody making the film cared enough to do it over, or they gave up trying to keep the horse in check. And all without thinking, gee, maybe we could move the goddamn horse so it's not in the center of frame. But that's the kind of film this is: the kind where having animals on set was more important than doing interesting or coherent things with that animals. It's gigantic, sloppy, unbearably boring, and tackily obsessed with its own sense of scale. As an exemplar of a decadent, soon to be extinct way of filmmaking, it could hardly be topped.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1969
-Gordon Parks's adaptation of his own novel The Learning Tree is the first studio film directed by an African-American
-Sydney Pollack directs the piercing comparison of the Depression and the Vietnam era They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
-The Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes series ends after nearly 40 years with Bob McKimson's forgettable, racist cartoon Injun Trouble

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1969
-Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow ignites the first Iranian New Wave
-One of the leading lights of the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder makes his feature debut, Love Is Colder Than Death
-Andrei Tarkovsky's final cut of Andrei Rublev premieres at Cannes, three years after its completion in the U.S.S.R., where it remains unreleased until 1971

SERVICE NOTE

Oh my readers, I feel rather bad about taking an impromptu 2-day vacation without even a by-your-leaves, especially with all the series I'm juggling. But it has been a busy weekend of fun, friends, weddings, and silently contemplating the nature of death. Should all be back to normal by Sunday night, and I thank you for your patience!

21 August 2014

REVIEW ALL MONSTERS! - IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD

By the time the first Daimajin film opened in 1966, it already had a sequel mostly ready to go. In fact, Daiei Film released an entire Daimajin trilogy in that single calendar year, a burst of extreme energy after which the stone daikaiju would go completely silent until a 2010 TV series created by Daiei's successor, Kadokawa Pictures.

Before I can speak about the first of these sequels, I'm going to have lay a bit of groundwork. For films that barely ever had a release in the English-speaking world, the second and third Daimajin vehicles have suffered from appalling confusion regarding their titles. The first sequel is titled 大魔神怒る, Daimajin ikaru, which translates to Daimajin Becomes Angry. But it has never been called that in English, released instead as both Return of Daimajin and Wrath of Daimajin. The second sequel is titled 大魔神逆襲, Daimajin gyakushu, and in English it has also been titled Return of Daimajin and Wrath of Daimajin (presumably owing to distributor confusion over which film was which), as well as Daimajin Strikes Again and Revenge of Daimajin, none of which are its actual, literal title, Daimajin's Counterattack. I'm going to abide by the release that I used to watch the films, the 2012 Region A Blu-ray release of the complete trilogy by Mill Creek Entertainment, which calls the first sequel Return of Daimajin and the second sequel Daimajin Strikes Again, and from this moment on, you shall hear me refer to this naming controversy no more. But for the sake of not having everybody be helplessly confused, I thought it was worth walking through all that nastiness.

So on we go to the film that I can now confidently and definitively refer to as Return of Daimajin. And oh, what a pleasure it is to report that it's very nearly up to the level of its rather impressive predecessor. Better in some ways, in fact. Other than the figure of a giant stone statue that is imbued with the spirit of a divine entity, there's nothing linking the films: technically, I don't know that it's even fair to call the statue in this film "Daimajin", which in the first movie referred to a malevolent being, while the one in this movie is rather more explicitly a protector god. But that's what Daiei wants me to do, so that's what I shall do.

The plot is broadly the same, though Return of Daimajin doesn't bring in the paranormal theatrics until later. In the region surrounding a lake, there are three feudal communities. Two of these, Chigusa and Nagoshi, directly overlook the lake and receive the protection of a god who lives on an island, which the locals worship in the form of large stone statue on that island. And it's become especially necessary for them to worship, since the neighboring Mikoshiba, ruled by the vicious Lord Mikoshiba Danjo (Kanda Takashi) has lately begun to increase its attacks against Chigusa, which has been a welcoming home to many refugees from Mikoshiba's tyranny. Lord Juro (Hongo Kojiro) of Chigusa, a longtime ally of Nagoshi and presently courting Sayuri (Fujimaro Shiho) daughter of the lord of Nagoshi (Uchida Asao), manages to escape from Chigusa shortly before Mikoshiba overtakes that village; in his rage, Lord Mikoshiba pursues Juro all the way to Nagoshi, where he takes out his frustrations on that community. As Sayuri flees to the idol of her god to pray for deliverance, Mikoshiba's men follow, and destroy the idol, pitching the rubble into the lake, which bubbles and glows red with the wrath of the deposed god. For the remainder of the brief (78 minute) film, the disembodied spirit of the god makes life hard for Mikoshiba, still trying to quell the rebellions led by Juro, Sayuri, and her brother Katsushige (Uenoyama Koichi), until eventually, as he prepares to executed Sayuri and other Nagoshi troublemakers by burning them at the stake, the god reforms himself into a living statue, its blank stone face replaced by an angry mask of wrath, and things progress as they will.

Were I going to sum up the difference between Daimajin and Return of Daimajin in the most succinct way I knew, it would be that the former film, directed by Yasuda Kimiyoshi and shot by Morita Fujio, has a much riper, omnipresent sense of uncanny energy; the sequel, directed by Misumi Kenji and shot by Morita and Tanaka Shozo, favors a great deal more earthbound realism, through we need to be awfully delicate about where we put our definition of the word "realism" in the context of a samurai epic that climaxes with a giant paranormal statue defeating an army. Certainly, Return of Daimajin isn't wanting for atmosphere, and it includes many beautiful, ornately composed shots - the image of the torii gate leading to the god's idol, emerging in bright red against the slate rocks and grey water, is legitimately one of the loveliest frames I have ever seen in a Japanese movie - which openly, pridefully acknowledge the theatricality and falseness of the film's construction. It is presentational and formalised to a greater degree than the first film, its litany of noble characters more pageant-like and detached from us. There's atmosphere to spare, it's just that it's more of a distant, historical type of atmosphere than the raging, apocalyptic energy dabbled in by the first movie.

Not that Return of Daimajin doesn't have its moments. The sequence of the titular creature rising, intact, from the lakebed, is an awe-inspiring effects sequence, with sheer walls of water forming a dramatic backdrop for the harshly lit god to stand out as though emerging from primordial waters, with Ifukube Akira's score (good lord! How did I forget to mention before that the great Ifukube scored the Daimajin trilogy?) beating out on the soundtrack with primitive intensity and just a little bit too much of his iconic Godzilla themes, adding a sense of world-ending grandeur to the sequence. Certainly the fight between Daimajin and Mikoshiba's men is gorgeously frenzied and desperate, a perfect match of the typical daikaiju fight sequence repurposed with low-tech weaponry to greater effect than in the first movie.

The closest thing the movie has to a flaw - which I'm not ready to concede it does - is that it's so rigidly trapped within the rules of a very arch, artificial variant of the jidaigeki genre that it runs the risk of seeming brittle and inhuman. But frankly, the film's performative style matches so well with its deeply precise images and its unexpectedly religious storytelling that I'm not about to blame it. Even more than most movies which end with a giant monster stomping on people, Return of Daimajin is not to all tastes, but it's hard to imagine it being a better version of the particular genre hybrid it's aiming for.