Friday, June 30, 2017

I first encountered Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu when I was a sophomore in college, sometime around 2005. While I had been interested in film for years already, college really helped expand my horizons. I was just beginning to take classes for my film studies minor, and my school library was stocked full of Criterion DVDs. I was in heaven.

I was unfamiliar with Mizoguchi at that point in my life. I had no knowledge of his silent films, or early social dramas like Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy (something I have remedied in subsequent years). But Ugetsu was one of those rare films that immediately became one of my all-time favorites. I was in awe of Mizoguchi's craft, and it made me hungry for more.

Ugetsu came at the peak of Mizoguchi's career - he won the Golden Lion three years in a row for The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), a trio of masterpieces that showcase a consummate artist at the height of his powers. For this reviewer, however, Mizoguchi never topped Ugetsu, a haunting, supernatural love story that is as beautiful as it is tragic.

The film is a combination of Japanese ghost stories, one about an aspiring samurai who forsakes his family to pursue his dream, leaving his wife to take up prostitution to make ends meet. The other is a potter fleeing war with his family, who is seduced by a mysterious noble woman who turns out to be a ghost. Released eight years after the end of WWII, Ugetsu is as much a cautionary tale as it is a medieval legend.  Weary and plagued by war, these peasants give in to lust and greed, seeking a better life but ultimately waylaid by their own desires. Mizoguchi explores their fate through mesmerizing long takes and a quiet, eerie atmosphere, awash in fog and foreboding. Pay close attention to where he places his camera - unblinking, never judging, but always displaying a deep compassion for its characters humanity. The first time I saw Ugetsu, I wept profusely. Yet even in its tragedy, Mizoguchi finds a strange and otherworldly beauty.  Its use of the supernatural almost feels more metaphorical than literal - representing a man always chasing dreams rather than paying attention to what is right in front of him.

Ugetsu is a masterpiece. Not just one of the finest examples of Japanese cinema, but one of the all time classics. Mizoguchi's craftsmanship remains unparalleled, providing a deep and powerful exploration of human folly that achieves an almost mystical status. Like watching an ancient folktale being born right before our eyes, it remains one of cinema's most uniquely beautiful experiences. The long-awaited Criterion Blu-Ray adds no special features to the original 2005 DVD, but the new 4K restoration is absolutely breathtaking, and worth the upgrade for any fan of the film or the filmmaker. While Criterion has faithfully released Blu-Ray editions of Sansho, Oharu, and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, in recent years, the arrival of an HD transfer of his greatest work is cause for celebration.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary by critic, filmmaker, and festival programmer Tony Rayns 
  • Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, a 1975 documentary by Kaneto Shindo 
  • Two Worlds Intertwined, a 2005 appreciation of Ugetsu by Masahiro Shinoda Process and Production, a 2005 interview with Tokuzo Tanaka, first assistant director on Ugetsu 
  • Interview from 1992 with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 
  • Trailers 
  • An essay by film critic Phillip Lopate (Blu-ray and DVD) and three short stories that influenced Mizoguchi in making the film (Blu-ray only)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992, Kino)

For a film that clocks in at over two and a half hours, Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise feels strangely rushed. Chronicling the first two voyages to the New World by Christopher Columbus, 1492 has a lot of ground to cover. Clearly in a hurry to get to the actual voyage, Scott never really gives the film time to breathe, or the sense of discovery and adventure to feel truly momentous (despite a glorious score by Vangelis).

Ignoring for a moment the fact that the film is basically a hagiography a man who in reality was a brutal murderer (it shifts blame for Columbus' atrocities to Adrián de Moxica), the film is either too long, or not long enough, depending on how you look at it. Scott is just trying to cram too much in here, and the result feels hurried, like a wildly historically inaccurate Cliff's Notes account of the Columbus story. On the plus side, the film is lovely to look at, beautifully shot by Adrian Biddle (although the Blu-Ray presentation feels a bit lackluster) and sumptuously designed by production designer Norris Spencer and costume designers Charles Knode and Barbara Rutter. And did I mention how amazing Vangelis' score is? It feels like it's building a legend, yet the film itself often feels like it's racing to catch up to its own ambition. Scott is a magnificent visual stylist, but 1492: Conquest of Paradise fails to dig deeper into its protagonist's mindset. It casts him as a simple dreamer, but ignores the actual history and ramifications of his "discovery." The result is a beautifully constructed drag that never seems to become the grand epic it truly wants to be.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

INFERNO (1953, Twilight Time)

Roy Ward Baker's Inferno is a lean, mean piece of work. The tale of a widely disliked millionaire who is left for dead in the middle of the desert by his wife and her lover after falling and breaking his leg, Inferno is a grueling character study that follows his struggles to make it back to civilization.

While Baker is best known for directing A Night to Remember, along with a host of B-horror pictures, Inferno is a unique beast all its own. Released in 3D in 1953, the film avoids most of the hokey visual gimmicks that were a hallmark of the 3D craze during the era, instead focusing on its protagonist's growth during his time in the desert. A vain, aloof, selfish man, he discovers new depths to himself as he struggles to survive. At first, it is a desire for vengeance keeping him going, but he soon discovers that he has much more to live for than he ever realized.

The central performance by Robert Ryan is excellent. While the film itself hasn't survived in the best condition (even on Blu-Ray, much of its Technicolor cinematography has faded to a pale blue), it remains a tautly directed thriller featuring well drawn characters and a compelling plot. The phrase "they don't make 'em like this anymore" has become a cliche, but in this case it's true - they really don't. 20th Century Fox didn't invest much in 3D after this first foray into the already waning craze, but this was no throwaway exploitation film. It's a gritty ode to the resilience of the human spirit, and the capacity for great change in the face of great adversity.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE MAN IN THE MOON (1991, Twilight Time)

The Man in the Moon marked both the film debut for young Reese Witherspoon, and the final film for legendary filmmaker Robert Mulligan. Mulligan is perhaps most famous for helming To Kill a Mockingbird, in The Man in the Moon, he paints another indelible portrait of a young girl coming of age in a small southern town.

Witherspoon is nothing short of remarkable - a natural talent from the very beginning. As a 14 year old girl feelings the pangs of first love in the form of an older boy who has eyes for her sister instead, Witherspoon delivers a fully realized and wholly believable performance that heralded the arrival of a major talent. Mulligan's sensitive direction feels like an anachronism, something out of the 60's rather than the 90's, but the resulting film feels so natural, so lived in, it's like a time capsule in the best possible way. It's a slower paced film about a slower way of life. We watch young Witherspoon learn and grow, and feel as if we have become  a part of this close-knit, rural family. It's a beautifully crafted look at childhood romance and the pain of learning life's hard lessons. Few filmmakers have captured the American south quite like Mulligan, and The Man in the Moon is his graceful, deeply moving farewell.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN (1978, Twilight Time)

Nick Nolte stars as a Vietnam veteran who finds himself smuggling drugs from Vietnam back to the States for a war-addled photographer (Michael Moriarty) and his wife (Tuesday Weld). The wife, it turns out, has become an addict while her husband was away, and Nolte finds himself drawn to her as they run away from a gang of thugs out to steal the drugs for themselves.

Released only 3 years after the United States withdrew from Vietnam, effectively surrendering the country to the North and ending the war, Who'll Stop the Rain has a melancholy, world-weary air, as if the continuation for the war for those who lived through it was all but inevitable. Nolte is fantastic, as are Moriarty and Weld (not to mention Anthony Zerbe as the cooly calculating villain), but the film itself is something of a mixed bag, occasionally feeling likely a cheaply constructed thriller using Vietnam as a selling point. Still, director Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant's Woman) brings a wider sense of tragedy to the proceedings, as a long and grueling war continues to claim victims long after it's over.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE YEAR OF THE COMET (1992, Twilight Time)

A wine historian and a charming rogue go on the run in pursuit of the world's most expensive bottle of wine, which is also being in pursued by a band of criminals who believe it contains a formula they need to complete a new fountain of youth drug. The plot is silly, of course, but there's a certain charm to Peter Yates' and William Goldman's caper. Unfortunately, it's brought down by wooden lead performances that just can't sell the film's inherent outlandishness. Beautifully shot by Roger Pratt, and featuring a lovely score by Hummie Mann, but they're in service of a film that's just a bit too silly for its own good. Goldman's script features some sparkling one-liners, but the film's mix of action and romantic comedy often comes off as contrived rather than charming. Still, while it may be less than the sum of its parts, many of those parts are surprisingly entertaining, especially as the film nears its climax.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)