directory of world cinema: american independent and sinescope

It’s been pretty busy around these parts and as the summer crawls forward… it’s only going to get busier as the Terry Gilliam book gets finished and a new book project gets started.  I’m not going to say anything publicly about the latter thingy… but it’s exciting and in time I can be more open about it.

First off, I noticed this evening that my comrade from across the pond, UK film academic/editor/writer John Berra, has been interviewed by Jeremy Richey over at his fabulous site Moon in the Gutter.  I was fortunate to have been able to contribute a number of reviews (and an essay on Yakuza cinema) to both of the books that Berra edited (when not teaching film studies at Sheffield Hellam University), Directory of World Cinema: Japan and Directory of World Cinema: American Independent (both published by Intellect).

The book on Japanese films is now available in the UK and will soon be available in the US.  The American Independent book can now be pre-ordered here.

I also want to mention a project that I’m very happy about.  I’m now a contributing editor and resident film critic at the online arts journal Sinescope.  The site just went up Sunday evening and… well, it’s just getting started.  Plenty of wonderful essays already up over there–including my own piece on Quentin Tarantino’s war epic Inglourious Basterds–and I also have a film-oriented blog (He Watched by Night) there too which will include DVD/Blu-ray, theatrical, and movie biz items.  And if you head over there you can read my reviews of the recent superb Criterion Collection releases Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy and Steve McQueen’s remarkable feature-film debut Hunger.

Whew!  Sorry for the self-promotion, but I really wanted to mention those nifty things.  We now return to regular programming…

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last to perish: ossos (1997)

Like many people, even among those who avidly watch international movies, I had no idea who director Pedro Costa was until a few years ago.  Access to the Portuguese filmmaker’s films was difficult to come by, at least where I was located.  None of his work was available in the States on region 1 DVD and as far as I can recall none of his films played at the Portland International Film Festival when I was still living there.  If you aren’t lucky enough to live in New York City, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin, or any other major city where access to less commercial cinema is easier to come by… you’re fucked.

So I was anxiously awaiting the release from the Criterion Collection of Costa’s so-called Letters from Fontainhas trilogy on DVD, films consisting of Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006), all set in the now razed Lisbon slum of Fontainhas and starring mostly non-actors who lived there.  Having watched only Ossos so far (last evening), I’ll reserve saying anything about Costa and his films until I’ve watched at least the rest of the trilogy.  But just from viewing Ossos I can say that I was quite surprised by what awaited me.  Pleasantly surprised.  The film is elliptical, hypnotic, politically aware, evasive in regards to narrative, and oddly formal in its compositions.  It’s a strange and entrancing mix of gritty, neorealist “authenticity” and rigorous staging, quietly stunning and profoundly moving despite a melodramatic scenario.  It feels lived in… yet Costa is always aware that he is an intruder in the lives of these people, a tourist ultimately unable to embed himself within the reality of Fontainhas until he relinquishes his aesthetic armor.

In an interview with filmmaker/film professor Jean-Pierre Gorin, Costas speaks about Ossos as the first of the trilogy but the end of a more cinematically traditional mode of filmmaking.  Ossos, which was shot on 33mm and made with a relatively large professional crew–featuring the cinematography of Emmanuel Machuel (who worked with Bresson on L’argent, 1983)–would eventually give way to a more stripped down approach in the subsequent films.  Costa would abandon the intrusiveness of working with the larger crew and opt for digital video instead, keeping things trim, and closer to the ground.

I’m curious to see how I react to the others in the trilogy since it was Costa’s formalism in Ossos that was so satisfying for me.  The mix of almost documentary actuality with the more painterly compositions and hollowed-out acting by the cast… unreality within the reality of Fontainhas… seems more honest to me than admitting no intrusion.  Maybe I’ll change my mind about that, though, once I’ve seen the other films.

It’s been a long time since a film has seeped into me like this.  Watching it late at night, its images trickled into my brain like tendrils of someone else’s dreams… nestling into my own… still resonating with me when I awoke.  It’s a strange feeling.  Especially when you realize that the experience isn’t reciprocal.  You’ll always be a tourist no matter how long you stare back.

directory of world cinema: japan vol. 1

I just wanted to inform you all about a new film guide just out entitled the Directory of World Cinema: Japan, edited by John Berra and published by Intellect Books.  I contributed a number of film reviews to it and an essay on the yakuza genre as well.  From what I understand, the book will be updated annually, and I’ll have a few reviews in the volume two edition also.

Whether it’s kill-crazy yakuza hipsters, a taciturn ronin who talks best with his sword, gigantic rubber-suited atomic monsters battling their genetic equals while scared Tokyoites watch on helplessly, tender portrayals of everyday people just trying to get through another day with some semblance of dignity, genre-bending new wave revolutionaries, or blood curdling tales of ghosts, demons, and horrors from beyond the realm of sanity–Japanese cinema has long been a consistent goldmine for the intrepid world cinema-goer.  Although Japan was producing films since the beginning of the medium, its bounty of cinematic offerings only really flourished into the outside world in the post-World War Two era when directors like Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, 1950), Kenji Mizoguchi (The Life of Oharu, 1952), Teinosuke Kinugasa (Gate of Hell, 1953), and Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, 1953) gained considerable notice from film festivals abroad with their respective films.  There was also, of course, the mighty Gojira (aka Godzilla) that stomped into cinemas in 1954 and would arguably become Japan’s most visible and popular cinematic export for decades.  Regardless of their entertainment value (which is high in my opinion), the kaiju movies unfortunately also gave many moviegoers–who wouldn’t know their Kurosawa from their Ozu–the wrong impression regarding the quality of Japanese films.  Unfortunately, for those who only knew about Japanese films via Godzilla, Rodan, Monster X, and the Smog Monster–films that were routinely shown on American televisions in horribly but hilariously English dubbed versions–the idea of Japan offering up anything other than plastic monster mashes was probably unfathomable.

But time and the luxury of modern technology has erased those impressions, I think.  The availability of classic Japanese films on DVD from Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, et al, and the emergence of such disparate contemporary directors as Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike, and Takeshi Kitano, has been a bounty for film enthusiasts the world over as more and more of their work has become available.  And if you’re a genre fan, the availability of previously obscure kaiju, chambara, yakuza, J-Horror, anime, and pink films, has grown as well, although there is still much left untapped.

If you’ve never watched a Japanese film before or your appreciation runs no deeper than Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but you want to plunge further although you really don’t know where to start… picking up a copy of the new Directory of World Cinema: Japan is a great place to begin.  And if your insights into Japanese cinema are well-honed and you’ve moved far beyond the established critically lauded films, I think you’ll still find plenty of valuable well-informed analysis in it.

The book is now available in the UK here, and it will be available in the US via The University of Chicago Press in April.  You can pre-order your US copies here.

underrated halloween movie picks

[This was actually supposed to be posted on Wednesday October 29.  Then on Thursday… and then Halloween came around and it still wasn’t up.  Now it’s November 2 and well… Halloween really is every day for those who love horror and the macabre.

You love horror movies and want to host a marathon of them for Halloween… only problem is: you’ve seen everything!  What to do?  You’ve seen all of the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies, you’ve had your fill of zombies, you’ve worn out your discs of Argento, Bava, and you want something a little edgier than your beloved Universal monsters, Hammer horrors, and wispy Val Lewtons.  What to do?  Here are my picks for some underrated horror films sure to scare, disturb, or freak you out.

Possession (1981)

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil are a married couple in peril.  She wants a divorce and her emotionally detached husband doesn’t.  So she does what any person would do in her situation… she has an affair with a monster.  Or something like that.  Crazy, brutal, surreal, bloody, and did I mention… crazy?  This is the trailer for the shorter American cut of the film, thankfully no longer available.

The Keep (1983)

Not a great movie by any means.  In fact, the second half is downright unintentionally hilarious, hideous, and memorable in all the wrong ways.  Up to that point, though, Michael Mann’s one foray into the eldritch regions of cosmic horror is pretty damn good and is a faithful interpretation of F. Paul Wilson’s Lovecraftian-styled vampire novel.  I think this film’s unavailibility on DVD has helped it generate a cult appeal that… well, would wear off pretty quickly if people actually watched it.

Having said that… there are some amazingly hypnotic scenes early on–e.g. the opening few minutes, the discovery by the two Wehrmacht soldiers of the hidden tomb, Scott Glenn’s “awakening” and his subsequent journey to the Keep–that easily separated this from the glut of slasher and gore films flooding the screens around the same time.  Hopefully, Paramount will unleash Mann’s “director’s cut” (rumored to be 180 mins) onto BluRay and DVD soon and I’ll be pleasantly surprised by how wrong I am about that second half.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

This is one of director John Carpenter’s lesser known movies, but one that has always had its share of supporters… me being one of them, though I didn’t come on board until the mid-1990s.  It has two terrible lead performances by Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, some hilarious unintentionally funny scenes, and yet… yet… it scares me.  In fact, it contains one of the scariest moments that I’ve ever seen in film.  And no, it has nothing to do with Jameson Parker.  My gods, what was Carpenter thinking when he hired him?  Guess he came cheap.

Santa Sangre (1989)

Director Alejandro Jodorowsky, no stranger to surrealism and provocative subject matter (see the cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain), here conjures up what is arguably his most cohesive and overall best film.  It’s also a strangely moving film, while never abandoning the grotesqueness and violence that frequently shape Jodorowsky’s films.

The Reflecting Skin (1990)

The nightmare of childhood indeed.  Plenty of great films have been made about the loneliness, pain, and horrors of adolescence–Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, Robert Mulligan’s The Other, Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Leolo, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, to name just a few–and though I don’t think Philip Ridley’s feature debut deserves to be placed in the pantheon, it sure does pull you down into its dark undercurrents, leaving you unsettled and lost afterward.  I haven’t seen it since 1990, so my recollection of it may be a bit foggy.  But I often think back upon the film’s American gothic sensibility and surrealistic touches… and that awful moment with the frog.  And then there’s that thing in the barn… and those greasers in the car… and that vampire….

Here’s the trailer.  Also look out for the great Viggo Mortensen in an early role.  Mortensen would team up again with Ridley for the director’s second film, The Passion of Darkly Noon.

Dust Devil (1992)

When South African director Richard Stanley’s post-modernist science fiction/horror Hardware was released in 1990, it seemed like the work of a true stylist and pessimistic visionary… a long fetid industrial howl in complete opposition to the overblown escapist fantasies that the Hollywood studies churn out and have perfected.  Hardware felt like a true cinematic comrade to the so-called cyberpunk literary sub-genre that was already burning out around that time.

Hardware wasn’t a hit when it came out and it quickly disappeared from theater screens in the US.  I managed to see it three times at the cinema and eagerly wanted to know where this Richard Stanley was going to lure us next.

But when Dust Devil was finally released a few years later, it arrived straight to video from Paramount as an 87 minute mess (courtesy of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax) and I was left frustrated by its incoherence. Then I read a review in Sight & Sound where a longer cut of it had been released, fleshing out the film’s more mythic ideas as well as the storyline involving Zakes Mokae as cop on the hunt of the supernatural serial killer played by Robert Burke.  Thankfully, the “Final Cut” and an even longer workprint are readily available on DVD, giving us an opportunity to reevaluate it.  Now, if only Stanley would direct a new feature.

Here’s the video trailer for the “Final Cut.”  Warning: graphic violence.

Dark Waters (1993)

The 1990s were not a great time for the supernatural horror film, especially of the European variety.  But for lovers of Argento and Fulci, Mariano Baino’s feature-length debut is a hot shot of sinister atmosphere and monstrous evil.  While pretty much ignored in the years after its release, the film has garnered a much deserved cult audience since its stellar US DVD release a few years back from NoShame.  A minor classic to be sure.

Cemetery Man (1994)

Here’s another brilliant, inspired Euro cult classic from around the same time as Baino’s film.  Although most serious horror aficionados were familiar with director Michele Soavi from his numerous supporting roles in films like Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, Lamberto Bava’s Demons, and many others, as well as his own directoral work with StageFright and The Church, it was Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man that made many of us realize how brilliant Soavi truly was.  Based on the long-running Italian fumetti (comic book) Dylan Dog, the film was unavailable legally for years in the US before finally being given a disastrous theatrical run a couple of years later.  The best Italian horror film of the 1990s, without a doubt.  And a zombie film to boot… when zombies were far from being hip.

Dead Birds (2004)

Now for one of the best American horror films from this decade, the supernatural Western Dead Birds.  Starting off like The Wild Bunch when a group of AWOL Confederate soldiers rob and shoot up a bank, the film careens into Lovecraftian cosmic horror when the bandits retreat to an abandoned plantation mansion.  Strong performances, especially from Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, and Isaiah Washington, and a deliberate pace help draw us into the creeping inevitable doom these characters face.  Highly recommended.  Why this wasn’t given a proper theatrical release from Columbia Pictures is beyond me.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Premiering at the 2005 HP Lovecraft Film Festival in my hometown Portland, Oregon (where I first saw it and reviewed it for VideoScope magazine), this short is a true labor of love.  Based on Lovecraft’s tale of eldritch terror and madness from beyond the stars, the film is a black and white homage to silent film (think Guy Maddin mixed with Weird Tales) and is surprisingly faithful as well.  Until Guillermo Del Toro finally makes the long rumored At the Mountains of Madness… this is the supreme Lovecraft adaptation around.  And there’s even a stop-motion sequence too!

some of my favorite things #4: toby dammit (1968)

It’s without a doubt a desert island movie for me.  I’ll leave the other two installments from the Euro horror anthology film Spirits of the Dead (1968), directed by Roger Vadim and Louis Malle respectively, at the pier… but Fellini’s is coming with me.  Vadim’s and Malle’s episodes are perfectly fine from what I remember.  It’s just that Fellini’s tour de force, Toby Dammit, is masterful–seeped in burned-out psychedelia, fueled by a terrific performance by Terence Stamp (was he ever better?), and is truly unsettling as we watch a seedy, boozed-soaked English actor played by Stamp journey to Rome to… well, you’ll have to find out what happens.  Clocking in at around 45-minutes, the short is a nightmarish, blackly humorous downward spiral that delivers in legion what many a longer horror film is limp to accomplish in twice the length.  It also contains one of the great, antithetical interpretations of the Devil ever… albeit one swiped with gratitude from Mario Bava’s equally masterful 1966 film Kill, Baby… Kill! which also featured a little girl in the role of the Great Deceiver.

This clip, showing Toby painfully having to make an appearance at an awards ceremony, is one of my favorite scenes.  And it’s particularly gratifying to view it since it showcases the original soundtrack, letting us finally hear Stamp in his native English tongue.  Currently, the only DVD that is available in the States is of the French soundtrack which is a dub when it comes to the Fellini episode (it should be in Italian, French, and English).

Anyway… enjoy.

help out film critic d. k. holm

For as long as I can remember, there’s been a D. K. Holm spinning around my orbit. In the early 1990s I regularly read his film reviews in the Willamette Week alternative rag while working at a Northwest Portland independent video store. I don’t recall agreeing with Holm a lot of the time, but I always read him and appreciated his insights, intelligence, and occasional brutal turn of phrase. When he departed to the town’s other alternative weekly, PDXS. I followed him. Later, I’d catch Holm’s cable access film review show and always appreciated his continued crusade to highlight the weird, esoteric, and just plain good DVDs that hit the shelves week in and week out.

For what it’s worth, we’re both Portlanders and have written books for UK publisher Kamera Books. Holm’s latest one (he’s written five, I think) is on independent cinema. We both love Tarantino’s Kill Bill (Holm also wrote a book on the film(s) as well as an earlier tome on its director for Pocket Essentials). And I suspect, being that we’re both from Portland, we both love a good microbrew. I don’t know Doug. But I sure would hate to hear that he was no longer around.

Holm has been diagnosed with a serious, though “treatable” form of esophageal cancer. On April 27 at the Northwest Portland landmark, Cinema 21, a benefit for Holm will take place in a hope to stave off some of the nightmarish medical bills the uninsured film critic is collecting.

So you can help. Go here for more details. Good luck, Mr. Holm. The microbrew is on me!

and it’s a battered old suitcase…

kissmescream.jpg

Living abroad, basically out of a backpack, prevents one from maintaining the lifestyle of a pack rat. Before splitting from Portland for European lands, my comrade in mischief and I sold off hundreds of books to Powell’s Books. And what they wouldn’t take, we gave away. Although we started packing and getting rid of items a month in advance, the pressure to clear out our cluttered yet pleasantly comfortable apartment was cranked up pretty high those last two weeks. So plenty of books and VHS tapes went to neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers. What we chose to keep–still a good, solid library–got packed up and is supposedly safe and sound in some climate controlled wonderland waiting for us to return one day. My DVDs all went to a friend for safe keeping. No doubt they will be put to good use.

But some of my discs managed to escape being orphaned and are currently accompanying me on my journeys. In the past, when I had traveled “close to the ground,” the thought of having immediate access to films was absurd. And though I would occasionally dream of having films at my disposal, the idea was completely within the realm of science fiction. In the early 1990s, during my first lengthy trip to Europe, I was basically living in a cave. No, seriously. Well, it was a small, unheated one room flat with stone walls and only a wood stove to heat the place. I craved movies, but I craved heat even more. The last time that I was overseas for an extended period of time was 1996, DVDs were still a year away from entering the forum of mainstream acceptability, and therefore the idea of packing a bunch of them with me was ridiculous. I might as well have had access to a jet pack.

Not that I would want to take a traveling case of discs with me anyhow. Traveling, at least the way I’ve always done it, has been about surrendering the comforts of home, relinquishing the familiar, and attempting to reconnect with the alleyways of life.

Anyway, books were more transportable.

Things are different now. Because of work, I have to have access to films, or at least access to the machine that can bring them to life: a laptop. So I brought some with me and it ended up being a perfect opportunity to test out the “desert island” theory of film watching. You’re on a desert island and you can only bring twenty-five films. What films do you bring?

I stowed away a fair bit. Films that would inspire, would sharpen the intellectual batteries, would amuse, would withstand the repeat factor, and would continue to charge the imagination when nothing else would. There was also “homework” to consider, so a few of those ended up with me as well, though most of the required viewing is still back in Oregon awaiting orders to re-enlist for duty.

So what did make the cut? Obvious favorites, to be sure: Seven Samurai, Blade Runner (in all its permutations), Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Le Samurai, Heart of Glass, The Conformist, Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, Suspiria, the Sergio Leone westerns, Bad Timing, The Thin Red Line, The Searchers and some other Ford/Wayne westerns, The Wild Bunch, a whole lot of Mario Bava and other European horror films from the 1960s, Barry Lyndon, some Godard, some Truffaut, a couple of Japanese horror films, a couple of samurai films, all of the Val Lewton films, and Lifeforce. Yes, Lifeforce, the craptacular 1985 Tobe Hooper movie. I also tossed in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise because I’ve never seen it (an embarrassing admission) and what better time to watch it than when abroad and more likely to have a little time to spare for a 190 minute masterpiece. I’d received the Criterion Collection disc for a review that never panned out and was always waiting for that appropriate rainy day. Well, it took a few years and me having to leave my abode to do it, but I plan on watching it soon.

When planning my exile, I’d expected to watch plenty of films. I purchased a good, compact traveling case and stuffed it with digital goodies. Much to my surprise, my old ways have sort of kicked in again. I haven’t watched much. The first month we were too much on the go, getting acclimated to traveling again. But this last month we’ve been stationary, so we managed to watch The Devil’s Backbone, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 Robin Hardy film not the LaBute/Cage carnival of guffaws) and a couple of nights ago I settled into the Lewton/Robson film The Ghost Ship. More about that last one in a near-future post.

This new, more accommodating style of traveling is weird. I’m not complaining, mind you. But it’s still weird to have the luxury of being seemingly so far from “home,” so far from the familiar and yet be so connected. It’s not exactly like I’m in some mountain retreat at the moment, so I’m not too worked up about it. But it does make me wonder that if I was on a real desert island, I think watching a movie would be the last thing on my “to-do” list.