Ash Ketchum’s Criterion Challenge September 2011
From Zatoichi to Akira (Kurosawa)
Sept. 1, 2011
1. THE BANK DICK
(1940/U.S., 72 min., b&w, comedy/Universal) VHS.
Dir.: Edward Cline. Star: W.C. Fields.
I needed some laughs so I decided to start with a comedy. And they don’t get much funnier than this.
Sept. 2, 2011
2. THE TALE OF ZATOICHI
(1962/Japan, 96 min., b&w, samurai drama/Daiei)
DVD (#1 in the HVE Zatoichi series) In Japanese with English subs.
Dir.: Kenji Misumi. Star: Shintaro Katsu. The first Zatoichi film—and it’s in b&w. The blacks are very black on this DVD and since 80% of the film takes place at night, it means we can hardly see anything. The first fight scene comes 51 minutes in and we can only hear it because the image is pitch-black. I strongly doubt that this was what the theatrical print looked like.
Sept. 3, 2011
3. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD
(1940/England-U.S., 106 min., color, Arabian Nights fantasy/UA) VHS.
Directors: Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, Ludwig Berger. Prod.: Alexander Korda. Stars: Sabu, Conrad Veidt, June Duprez. Timeless Technicolor fantasy with an engaging Sabu, beautiful sets, locations and cinematography, imaginative effects and a lush, wall-to-wall score by Miklos Rozsa.
Sept. 4, 2011
4. I AM WAITING
(1957/Japan, 91 min., b&w, drama) DVD, part of the Nikkatsu Noir Eclipse set. In Japanese with English subs.
Dir.: Koreyoshi Kurehara. Stars: Yujiro Ishihara, Mie Kitahara. Ex-boxer takes up with nightclub singer who’s on the run from the mob. Well, not quite as exciting as that sounds, but it’s still very much a Japanese take on a typical film noir plot. And quite enjoyable in its own way.
5. EARLY SPRING
(1956/Japan, 145 min., b&w, drama) DVD, part of the Late Ozu Eclipse set. In Japanese with English subs.
Dir.: Yasujiro Ozu. Stars: Ryo Ikebe, Chikage Awashima. Marital drama from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. A married salaryman has a fling with a needy, if very cute, co-worker and then has to suffer his wife’s wrath. At least a dozen supporting characters pop up to put their two cents in, which is why the running time is so long for this kind of story. Despite the title, it takes place entirely in the summer.
Sept. 5, 2011
6. ZATOICHI CHALLENGED
(1967/Japan, 86 min., color, widescreen, samurai adventure)
DVD (#17 in the HVE Zatoichi series) In Japanese with English subtitles.
Dir.: Kenji Misumi. Star: Shintaro Katsu. Zatoichi has to take a small boy to find his absent father, who turns out to be an artist of “forbidden pictures” forced to work for a corrupt town boss. Beautifully shot and staged. I have something like 18 Zatoichi films in my collection and every time I see one, I want to get all the rest in the series.
Sept. 6, 2011
7. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
(1998/U.S., 118 min., color, psychedelic comedy) VHS
Dir.: Terry Gilliam. Stars: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro. Based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson.
I read the book years ago and found Thompson's drug-fueled antics with his attorney in Las Vegas fun to read about. Watching
a dramatization of these antics decades later is not so much fun. Why was this movie made during the Clinton Administration and not 25 years earlier when it would have been relevant? As movies about Thompson go, WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM (1980) was much, much better.
Sept. 7, 2011
8. I MARRIED A WITCH
(1942/U.S., 76 min., b&w, supernatural comedy) VHS.
Dir.: Rene Clair. Stars: Frederic March, Veronica Lake. Based on a book by Thorne Smith. I’ve always enjoyed this comedy, but seeing it now for the first time in two decades or so, I found Veronica Lake, as the title witch, more awesome than ever, but Frederic March was pretty tiresome. It definitely needed a younger, more exciting male lead. This was the inspiration for TV’s “Bewitched,” which came 22 years later.
Sept. 8, 2011
9. TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN
(1960/Japan, 79 min., b&w, crime drama) DVD, part of the Nikkatsu Noir Eclipse set. In Japanese with English subs.
Dir.: Seijun Suzuki. Star: Michitaro Mizushima. Suzuki’s unconventional approach to a routine crime story serves to distance me rather than engage me. I’ve seen three other Suzuki films, but the only one I found even moderately interesting was TOKYO DRIFTER. I’ll take Kinji Fukasaku anyday over Suzuki. Too bad no Fukasaku films are eligible for this challenge.
Sept. 10, 2011
10. RUSTY KNIFE
(1958/Japan, 90 min., b&w, crime drama) DVD, part of the Nikkatsu Noir Eclipse set. In Japanese with English subs.
Dir.: Toshio Masuda. Star: Yujiro Ishihara. Written by Shintaro Ishihara. Another noir-ish crime drama, like I AM WAITING, from the pen of the current Governor of Tokyo and starring his brother. An ex-con gets caught between the police and a local crime boss that the ex-con can testify against. Set in an industrial town called Udaka City. Contrived plotting and a slow pace keeps this from being a classic, but it very much recalls Hollywood noir of a decade earlier.
Sept. 11, 2011
11. NIGHT AND THE CITY
(1950/U.S., 95 min., b&w, film noir/drama, 20th Century Fox) VHS.
Dir.: Jules Dassin. Stars: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney. Overwrought melodrama about a small-time American grifter in London who tries to break into wrestling promotion and gets in over his head. For a character like this pathetic loser to engage me, there has to be some wit or charm in play, but Widmark’s too desperate and I lost interest pretty quickly. Couldn't wait for him to get what's coming to him, which made 95 minutes seem very long indeed.
Sept. 13, 2011
12. CRUEL GUN STORY
(1964/Japan, 87 min., b&w, crime drama, Nikkatsu) DVD, part of the Nikkatsu Noir Eclipse set. In Japanese with English subs.
Dir.: Takumi Furukawa. Star: Joe Shishido. Lean, mean, down and dirty, just the way I like them. Racetrack/armored car robbery: recruiting, planning, execution and aftermath—the whole shebang in one tidy package. Lots of action, too. This and I AM WAITING are the standouts in the Nikkatsu Noir set.
Sept. 15, 2011
13. THE KILLING
(1956/U.S., 83 min., b&w, crime drama, UA) VHS
Dir.: Stanley Kubrick. Star: Sterling Hayden. Dialogue by Jim Thompson. One of the best caper movies ever made. What really struck me this time were the scenes between Elisha Cook, as the cuckolded husband, and Marie Windsor as his two-timing, money-grubbing wife. They're so beautifully acted and played that they elevate the movie to a work of art, rather than just a well-crafted genre piece. They're the only characters given any extended characterization.
Sept. 16, 2011
14. F FOR FAKE
(1973/France-Germany, 88 min., color, documentary) VHS (Home Vision)
Dir.: Orson Welles. Wellesian fluff—but even fluff by Welles is enjoyable. I’ve read the book, “Fake,” by Clifford Irving, which is about art forger Elmyr de Hory, both of whom figure prominently in this film, so I went in prepared. And I’ve seen the film four times now. But I still don’t get its point. However, that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.
Sept. 17, 2011
15. KISS ME DEADLY
(1955/U.S., 105 min., b&w, crime drama, UA) VHS.
Dir.: Robert Aldrich. Star: Ralph Meeker. Based on the novel by Mickey Spillane. Aldrich completely subverts Spillane’s unabashedly sexist and racist Mike Hammer novel and turns it into an anti-McCarthyist critique of the Hammer machismo. The private eye, once the lone knight of the “mean streets,” has now been dwarfed by forces unleashed by the atomic age. Sharp, mesmerizing and brutal.
16. NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH
(1940/England, 93 min., b&w, spy thriller) VHS.
Dir.: Carol Reed. Stars: Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood. Harrison is an unlikely British agent who improbably impersonates a Nazi officer to get a Czech scientist and his daughter out of Germany. More humor than action and far less suspense than we need in a film like this. There’s a good finale, though, involving those mountain-traveling cable car/tram things that looks forward to WHERE EAGLES DARE. A pre-CASABLANCA Paul Henreid plays a Gestapo officer.
17. THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE
(1973/U.S., 102 min., color, crime drama, Paramount) VHS.
Dir.: Peter Yates. Star: Robert Mitchum. From the novel by George V. Higgins. Although there are two bank robberies, this isn’t a caper film or an action film. It’s a morality tale charting the intertwining maneuvers of assorted Boston career criminals and how the Feds manipulate them into various betrayals. While we feel some sympathy for Mitchum, as Eddie Coyle, he’s really not a good guy, nor is anybody else in the film. Spare and clipped, like the novel it’s based on, which I highly recommend also.
Sept. 18, 2011
18. LE PLAISIR
(1952/France, 97 min., b&w, drama) VHS (in French with English subtitles, with English narration)
Dir.: Max Ophuls. All-star French cast. Even though it’s in French with English subs., the U.S. release version included narration in English provided by Peter Ustinov—with a French accent! Even though the director was German, this film, based on three stories by Guy de Maupassant, is the Frenchest
film I’ve ever seen. The reason to watch any Ophuls film, though, is the movement of the camera, which goes through all doors, up floors, through room after room after room and sometimes out the window!
19. A COLT IS MY PASSPORT
(1967/Japan, 85 min., b&w, crime drama) ) DVD, part of the Nikkatsu Noir Eclipse set. In Japanese with English subs.
Dir.: Takashi Nomura. Star: Joe Shishido. A hitman kills a rival boss, but then his own boss makes peace with the rival’s son, launching a pursuit of the hitman that culminates first on the Yokohama waterfront and then on a sprawling desert-like landfill. The first 75 minutes are taut, suspenseful and plausible. But then it gets really contrived in the Spaghetti western-like shootout finale. I've now completed the five-film Nikkatsu Noir set.
Sept. 23, 2011
(1940/U.S., 130 min., b&w, gothic drama/Selznick-UA) VHS
Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock. Stars: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine. Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier. Sweeping gothic romance about a new bride living in the shadow of her husband’s late first wife is just a beautifully made drama with elements of suspense and it won Best Picture of 1940. It was Hitchcock’s first American film and the cast is virtually all British.
21. THE RAZOR: SWORD OF JUSTICE
(1972/Japan, 90 min., color, historical drama) VHS (in Japanese with English subtitles)
Dir.: Kenji Misumi. Star: Shintaro Katsu. Katsu (star of the Zatoichi series) plays a no-nonsense investigator in 19th-century Edo (Tokyo) who uses his “sword of justice” (hint, hint) on female suspects in sessions that give new meaning to the term, “enhanced interrogation.” Forgive me if I prefer the Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub films.
Sept. 24, 2011
22. MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS
(1985/U.S.-Japan, 120 min., color and b&w, drama-biopic/Warner Bros.) DVD (in Japanese with English subtitles)
Dir.: Paul Schrader. Star: Ken Ogata. Biopic of Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). I just started reading Mishima (finished one novel and am in the middle of another) and I find him to be a superb writer. He’s not a particularly compelling figure in the movie, though. Its stylized dramatizations of scenes from his novels just didn’t work for me. And the actor playing Mishima is all wrong. A huge disappointment.
Sept. 29, 2011
23. THE X FROM OUTER SPACE
(1967/Japan, 88 min., color, giant monster sci-fi/Shochiku) VHS (dubbed in English)
Dir: Kazui Nihonmatsu. Stars: Eiji Okada, Peggy Neal. Easily the worst Japanese kaiju
movie I’ve ever seen. Makes the worst Godzilla movie look like the best Godzilla movie. I couldn’t even begin to describe the plot. At least the second half has lots of (unconvincing) destruction of miniature sets by a guy in a rubber reptile chicken suit. How did this become a Criterion title?
Sept. 30, 2011
24. HOOP DREAMS
(1994/U.S., 171 min., color, documentary) DVD (Criterion Collection)
Dir.: Steve James. Epic documentary about two poor black high school students in Chicago with great promise as basketball players and it follows them through their high school years through various triumphs, failures and obstacles. Sad and depressing, but what a document of the pressures on these kids and the utter failure of the educational system. It really broke my heart.
25. THE MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER’S TAIL
(1945/Japan, 59 min., b&w, historical drama/Toho) DVD (Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa)
Dir.: Akira Kurosawa. Stars: Denjiro Ookouchi, Susumu Fujita, Kenichi Enomoto. An odd but still compelling piece made during the final days of the war about a famous 12th Century incident in which Lord Yoshitsune had to flee to a neutral province with six retainers disguised as monks. Shot mostly in the studio. Banned in Japan, because of a bureaucratic dispute, until 1952. I had to pick the shortest Kurosawa I could find to fit in at the very end of the challenge.