Friday, July 25, 2008

Branded to Kill

A COLT IS MY PASSPORT / Koruto wa ore no pasupoto
(Takashi Nomura, Japan, 1967, 35mm, 84 mins.)

I think it's stupid for us to fight in a narrow little country like this.
It's better to have large dreams.

-- Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio)

***** ***** *****

The opening credits for A Colt Is My Passport unspool to the strains of flamenco guitar, harmonica, whistling, and percussive gunshots (Harumi Ibe composed the Morricone-like score). Right away, you know Takashi Nomura has seen a few Sergio Leone and James Bond pictures in his time. And if those sonic cues don't put you in the mood, this philosophically-minded crime drama might not be for you. Nomura delivers genre goods rather than something the world has never seen before.

That said, the world has never seen an actor quite like Jo Shishido before. Best known for Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill (1967), he's an offbeat hard-ass, which doesn't mean he lacks authority. On the contrary, Shishido's dark eyes inspire confidence, but those soft cheeks set him apart from other cinematic gunslingers.

While most action stars would surely prefer Clint Eastwood-esque cheekbones, Shishido had his enhanced in the 1950s, because he was tired of playing "Naïve young boy roles." As he explained to Midnight Eye in 2005, "I had plastic surgery
to fatten up my cheeks. I then got a lot of work playing gangsters and heavies."

In A Colt Is My Passport, Shishido plays Kamimura, a hit man hired to take out
dirty businessman Shimazu before he leaves Japan the next day. Bulletproof glass shields Shimazu's car and office, and he always travels with a bodyguard, so Kam-
imura has to catch him at his most defenseless. From a high-rise apartment buil-
ding, he plugs Shimazu and his guard at a tea ceremony. Normally, that would
mark the last act, but these shootings take place early in the film, suggesting that
the remainder will revolve around the consequences of Kamimura's actions.

Billed as a noir, the film feels more like a thriller with Left Bank overtones, i.e. more Albert Camus than Jean-Luc Godard. About Shimazu's murder, Kamimura states, "Nothing special. It's always the same." Though Nomura eschews backstory, Kam-
imura's apparent non-reaction indicates that he's seen a lot of death in his time.

Despite Kamimura's success, his handler is pissed that he shot Shimazu while
the latter was meeting with their gang leader, so he pays his fee and orders him
to split. Further, Shimazu's men have identified Kamimura as the guilty party, and they prevent him and his partner-in-crime, Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio), from fleeing to France, so the two hide out by the Yokohama shore, where lonely hotel worker Mina (Chitose Kobayashi) looks after the pair until they can board an outgoing ship.

Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More

When Shimazu's men bribe Kamimura's handler to eliminate his hire, the
rotund gangster chooses money over "moral duty." As in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann, then, Kamimura--and, by extension, Shiozaki--is just
an employee going about his business. Not only is he too single-minded to question
the destruction he leaves in his wake, but nor are any of his good (or at least well planned) deeds likely to go unpunished. Consequently, one plan after another
goes up in flames, and friends prove just as unreliable as foes.

By the conclusion, Kamimura isn't simply a freelancer following orders. As he
plots his revenge against the two sides that took advantage of him, he's no longer an unfeeling drone, but a Ronin, or masterless Samurai. Whether he lives or dies, he intends to let his abusers know exactly what he thinks about their duplicity. He has a code, and they don't. Even if his plot fails, the moral victory will be his.

If the movie's somewhat leisurely center plays like Melville in Japan--and some might view 1967's Le Samourai as the French version of a Nikkatsu actioner--the
dust-swept climax returns to its Leone beginnings, or more specifically, to its
Leone's For a Few Dollars More by way of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo beginnings.

In other words, the final shoot-out plays like a cross between a war film and
a western. Based on the novel by Shinji Fujiwara (Shohei Imamura's Intentions
of Murder
, Kinji Fukasaku's Blackmail Is My Life), the perfectly titled A Colt Is My Passport may not be as iconic as those reference points or as flat-out freaky
as Branded to Kill, but Shishido's Kamimura is an anti-hero for the ages.

Not available on video, A Colt Is My Passport plays the Northwest Film Forum
7/27-28, Sun. at 9pm and Mon. at 7pm. No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema runs from 7/25-27. The other films include Velvet Hustler, The Warped Ones, and Glass Johnny, which also features Shishido (Colt plays with Hustler). Outcast Cinema's Marc Walkow will provide live soft titling of the series, i.e. he'll be hand-projecting the subtitles onto the screen. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the BFI, and Cinema Strikes Back (click the link for David Austin's excellent review).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

I Have Always Been Here Before

LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD / L'Annee derni/(R)re /* Marienbad
(Alain Resnais, France, 1961, 94 mins.)


[A]n elaborate joke on the world's corniest pickup line.
-- J. Hoberman (he liked it)

The snow job in the ice palace.
-- Pauline Kael (she didn't)

***** ***** *****

The entire thing plays out in a grand old Bavarian hotel. In his narration, X (Giorgio Albertazzi) describes it as baroque, and cinematographer Sacha Vierny (Belle de Jour) luxuriates in the ornate detailing. For all its aesthetic appeal, the structure is as silent as the grave and as spooky as hell. Meanwhile, Francis Seyrig's organ
score recalls gothic reveries, like The Phantom of the Opera and La Belle et la B/(TM)te.

These elements combine to suggest something similar, except the horror Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) conjures up is of the more Existential kind. As with Jack Nicholson's caretaker in The Shining, X makes it sound as if he's always been here, as if he never left. Though he despises the hotel as much as he admires it,
he can't pull himself away. The hotel doesn't represent the past, it is the past.

Vierny follows the other elegantly-dressed guests around. Their conversations
have no beginnings or endings, only enigmatic centers. "You confine me in a sil-
ence worse than death," a tall man tells his fashionable female companion. She doesn't put up much of a protest; just stands there, posing in her pale finery.
The DP also takes in a play, a card game, and an eerie target practice: on the hotel's second floor, the men, including X, stand in a row, turn around, shoot, then face the camera again. (Vierny captures this bizarre scenario from a low angle).
All the while, X insists that he and the Chanel-clad A (Delphine Seyrig, the com-
poser's sister) met the year before. He remembers every detail. She doesn't.
Resnais then presents their meeting largely as X describes it. Since he's the
narrator, we see it from his point of view...whether it actually happened or not.
He notices A outside the hotel, leaning against the railing that overlooks the im-
maculately-manicured grounds. Her diaphanous white dress floats in the breeze.
A Grecian-style statue of a man, a woman, and a dog looms over the couple.
As the reminiscence ends, the wanderings continue. X and A are slightly more animated than their companions, who often stand about like statuary themselves.
Through her actions, rather than her words, A gives the impression that she's rep-
ressed the summer she spent with X, possibly because it ended badly. Or because she's a ghost or a figment of his imagination. The more he talks, the more she seems to remember, though her denials continue until she gives in...or does she?
Marienbad's detractors, of which there are many, claim that nothing happens in the film. They couldn't be more wrong. Something is always happening (or repeating itself), and Vierny's camera doesn't miss a trick. The cinematographer moves like a phantom or an insect along the ceilings, the windows, the walls, and the staircases.
Fast-paced action may be in short supply, i.e. there is none, but the work of Vierny and editor Jasmine Chasney, both Hiroshima vets, anticipates the swoops and glides of Stanley Kubrick's Steadicam era (particularly 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut), Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, Alexander Sokurov's one-shot Russian Ark-and Calvin Klein's fragrance ads.
If that makes it sound as if the actors are secondary to their foreboding surroundings, so be it. The ambiguity of the performances serves the am-
biguity of Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet's Oscar-nominated script. Wheth-
er it's great acting or not, there's more to it than simply hitting marks.
Albertazzi may be somewhat wooden and Sacha Pito/'ff, as A's sepulchral
husband figure, may be mostly menacing, but Seyrig's inscrutability is strange-
ly compelling. With her silent-movie make-up and feathered gowns, she comes
on like a post-modern gloss on Dietrich or Garbo at the height of their glam-
our. One false or over-played move and the entire edifice would collapse.
Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Last Year at Marienbad falls into the dreaded and/or hallowed not-for-everyone category, along with such film
school staples as The Seventh Seal, 8 1/2, and L'Avventura. All are open-ended, beautifully-photographed, ripe-for-parody masterpieces. And it's impossible not to react to them in some way, even if that reaction is unadulterated hate. But if you care at all about film, you should see Marienbad at least once-ideally several times.
Last Year at Marienbad, in a new 35mm print, plays SIFF Cinema through 7/24 (8pm daily; 2 and 8pm on Sat. and Sun.). The theater is located at 321 Mercer Street at the Seattle Center's Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. For more information, please click here (you can also purchase tickets through the site) or call 206-633-7151.
According to Adam Sekuler at the Northwest Film Forum, "[During] the first
two weekends in September, we'll be screening the first four films Robbe-Gril-
let directed. All new 35mm prints, and most not seen in the US: The Immortal
, The Man Who Lies, Eden and After, and Trans-Europ Express." This Art For-
piece offers a critical look at the unusual career of the late novelist/screen-
writer/director. Images from DVD Beaver, Roger Ebert, and SIFF Cinema.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

For the Price of One: A Chat with Mark and Jay Duplass

After the second SIFF screening of Baghead, Prost Amerika's Steve Clare and I interviewed writer/directors Mark and Jay Duplass at the Egyptian Theater. Born in Louisiana and based in Texas for several years, the brothers now call LA home.

Having seen their first film, 2006's The Puffy Chair, and read a few interviews with
the pair, I expected them to be open and friendly. They lived up to their reputa-
tion, and Steve and I enjoyed speaking with the fast-talking, down-to-earth duo.

Though they look different, Mark and Jay sound so similar on tape that I can't guarantee the accuracy of the identifications below (some words also got lost in the noise surrounding us). As they note, however, mis-attribution happens all the time.

A unique horror/comedy hybrid, Baghead opens at The Varsity on Friday, 8/8.

The filmmakers and their cast at this year's Sundance

Mark: Just so you know, if you happen to misquote us, we really don't care.

Steve: Thanks for that.

Kathy: That's one of the nicest things I've ever had anyone say. One of the funniest interviews I conducted was with the Brothers Quay, on the phone. How do you tell the difference? They look alike, and they sound alike. I decided not to worry about it.

Jay: We actually don't look anything alike, but we have...

Mark: The same voice.


Steve: It's not the theme of the film, but it's a bit that I like. When Matt
[Ross Partridge] and Chad [Steve Zissis] are talking, [Chad says] 'Dude, you've
got game. You've got all the girls, give me a chance.' Now despite my looks, I've been there. I've been in both positions, so you know I've got to ask: Have you
been in either position, and was the other one to blame, by any chance?

Mark: That's interesting. It's weird that that moment... Although a lot of stuff in
our movies comes from us, that wasn't really something I ever experienced.

Jay: I've definitely experienced it. [laughs]

Kathy: What about Steve?

[Steve's character harbors a crush on Greta Gerwig's Michelle.]

Jay: Steve has definitely experienced that, but you know, Steve understands
his size and where he's at in his life. He's incredibly self-aware, and he's just
a funny guy. Steve is actually amazing with women, because of the way he...

Kathy: He's so charming.

Jay: He's so charming, and he's a pretty charismatic guy. That
actually came at that moment, and it came from them knowing
what the situation was, but that specific dialogue came from them.

Kathy: Speaking of Greta. Was that her idea, putting barrettes in Steve's hair?

Mark: That was her idea. We didn't even talk about it; she just did it.

Kathy: I like his facial expression in that scene. Even the audience was
making cringing noises. I think they were coming more from the men.

Steve: The two men seem to have more of a bond than the two women. Now,
we're not told that they're greater friends in real life, so we wouldn't assume that.
I'm wondering if you picked up on the idea that men just get on better with guys than women do together, because they're more competitive, and they don't
like to talk about being competitive, whether it's unwritten or not.

Mark: The idea was that Matt and Chad were close friends in their past, but
we liked the idea that Catherine [Elise Muller] was the older version of Michelle,
that she was Michelle...years ago, so it's in the nature of their relationship.

Jay: It isn't a commentary on friends. In general, we base our characters on people we know and things we've seen them go through, and we steal and pick things from here and there. Those were just two dynamics we thought were particularly enjoyable.

Steve: Catherine is very Texan, isn't she?

Jay: She's amazing.

Mark: She isn't from Texas, but she's definitely got some brutality to her. [laughs]

Steve: I recognized her character as a very Texan female. Lastly, on
the subject of girlfriends; here's the problem with a girl that adores him,
but wants to be his friend. Have you ever experienced that, someone
who wants to see you as a sex object, but just likes you too much?

Jay: Constantly. [laughs]

Click here for part two

Click here for my review of Baghead, here for Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs with Gerwig and Mark Duplass, and here for David Jeffers' take on The Puffy Chair. Recently, I also filed a report from the set of Lynn Shelton's Humpday, which feat-
ures Duplass. Images from First Showing and indieWIRE (photo by Brian Brooks).

Friday, July 4, 2008

An Evening with the Bobcat

Goldthwait at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival

"When cornered about it, I usually cite Ed Wood
as my biggest inspiration as a filmmaker."
-- Bobcat Goldthwait to indieWIRE (2006)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Though I caught a screening of Hal Asby's 1970 debut, The Landlord, last
November, when I found out that actor/director Bobcat Goldthwait (Jimmy
Kimmel Live
) would be introducing it at the Northwest Film Forum on Tues-
day, 7/1, I knew I had to go. (At the time, I wrote, "Ashby's first film proves
he was a natural" and that "it's painfully, almost surrealistically funny.")

The NWFF brought the movie back as opener to their Ashby retrospective, Commingling Seventies. And if you missed it, you're out of luck. The Landlord
remains unavailable on DVD, and that's a shame, as it's among Ashby's best.

"My fine alcoholic clown movie."
So, how did the NWFF snag Goldthwait's services? First of all, he's in town
directing his third film, World's Greatest Dad, with Robin Williams. Since the
latter cameos in Goldthwait's debut, Shakes the Clown, I suspect they've been
friends for awhile (apparently, one "Marty Fromage" played Mime Jerry).
Before the 9:30pm screening, executive director Michael Seiwerath noted that
his cinematheque has screened the 1992 cult comedy three or four times now.
(And it's worth noting that Blammo! The Surly, Drunken Clown introduced at least
one of those screenings.) Why is the film such an enduring NWFF favorite? As Seiwerath deadpanned, "It's so damned good and so damned funny."
At the Grey Gallery reception beforehand, I asked Goldthwait, resplendent in
jeans and captain's hat, about his connection to The Landlord. To my surprise, he confessed that he had never seen it. Apparently, his line producer, Jennifer Roth (Bad Lieutenant, The Squid and the Whale), heard him compare World's Greatest Dad
to Harold and Maude (in terms of the darkly comedic tone rather than the plotline).
Roth, also president of the NWFF board, asked her client if he'd like to introduce
an Ashby film. He agreed, and a benefit was born. (Fifty dollars purchased two drinks, conversation with Goldthwait, a film ticket, and reserved seating).
Since the comedian hadn't seen The Landlord, I told him I was curious to hear what
he had to say about it. "Me, too!" he laughed. However, he confirmed an affection for the late director, adding that he has a certain fondness for 1981's rarely-screen-
ed Second-Hand Hearts with Robert Blake and Barbara Harris, and that he admires some of Blake's other independent-minded work, like 1973's Electra Glide in Blue.
Another Blake classic: "We've met before, haven't we?"
At the screening, Goldthwait explained that we wouldn't be getting a diatribe from "some pretentious film jackass-fortunately for you, I've never seen The Landlord."
(That got a laugh from the crowd.) But he did talk about Ashby, saying that he related to the filmmaker's empathy for "outsiders that are put upon by this world."
He also talked about his current project, describing it as "a movie where a kid dies during auto-erotic asphixiation." The boy's father (Williams) doesn't want the world to know how his son died, so he writes a note and passes off the death as a suicide.
The note becomes such a hit that he decides to pass off more of his own writings
as the work of his son. In the process the boy becomes popular in a way he never was in life. As Goldthwait summarized, "It's Cyrano de Bergerac...with a dead kid."
Hmmm, that kid sounds like an "outsider" who was "put upon by this world," so Goldthwait's seemingly tenuous tie to this event makes a strange kind of sense.
Incidentally, the cocktail party attracted the following filmmaking entities,
making for an especially lively evening: journalist/screenwriter Charles Mud-
ede (Police Beat, Zoo), critic/script supervisor Andy Spletzer (Police Beat, Brand
Upon the Brain!
), director David Russo (The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle), producer Peggy Case (Zoo, Little Dizzle), screenwriter Steven Schardt, and actor/
entertainment attorney Lance Rosen (Walking to Werner, Brand Upon the Brain!).
Bud Cort in Harold and Maude
Hal Asby's Commingling Seventies continues at the Northwest Film Forum
through 8/20. Harold and Maude (1971) screens next, 7/8-9 at 7:30 and 9:30pm. Author Darryl Ponicsan (The Last Detail) introduces the 7:30pm screening of Ashby's 1973 adaptation on 7/15. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from indieWIRE, MSN Movies, the NWFF, and Wikipedia.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Summer Movie Musts: James Bond + The Gits

Sean Connery hitting a woman?? Who knew.

If you're looking to escape the blistering heat that's on the way this weekend (What? 70s IS blistering after months of rain and temps in the 50s,AeP), I'd recommend hitting up SIFF Cinema for its "Bond,AePand Beyond" series, starting with a double feature of From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty's Secret Service - AKA the Bond no one ever talks about, but it's great! - on Saturday, and continuing on with some really hot chicks in tight costumes (Michael Caine is excluded from this category, but only just barely). Check out Screening times and buy tickets online here.

Or, if something a little more "realistic" seems appealing, I HAVE to push the documentary The Gits on you, which starts its run at the NW Film Forum July 4th. It's a highly emotional ride that takes you through the history of this amazing riot grrl punk band, and the shocking murder (and continuing case) of sultry-voiced lead singer Mia Zapata. I remember when this happened, but it only registered peripherally - a friend of a friend was close with Mia and the crew, so I heard 3rd hand about the devastation. Years later, I was lucky enough to see it screen at SIFF (2005), and the weight of what that person must have been feeling really hit me. This documentary is beautiful, heartbreaking, and just plain worth seeing. GO! See it - then run out and buy everything you can get your hands on by The Gits ASAP. You can buy tickets online here.