Episode 4: Youth of the Beast and Sonatine

This week, to mark the on-going Seijun Suzuki retrospective at the Grand Illusion and the Northwest Film Forum, we discuss the idiosyncratic Japanese director’s career and one of his more famous and influential gangster films, 1963’s Youth of the Beast. We also talk about the Yakuza film in general, and all the crazy things Suzuki did to it, and take a look at actor/director Takeshi Kitano’s own take on the yakuza film in his 1993 film Sonatine. All that plus more goings on around town, including an upcoming tribute to a great director at the Film Forum and the novelty of the Cinema showing something on film.

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Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)

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Horse Money opens this week at the Grand Illusion. The following is a slightly modified version of my capsule review from the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Pedro Costa’s Horse Money is possibly the richest and most-baffling film of the entire festival. A trip through the underworld, or purgatory at least, as one man, Ventura, relieves his past through the black and brown industrial landscapes of Lisbon’s Fontainhas district. A haunted, ghostly presence, Ventura slips in and out of memories and hospitals, wandering through impossible black spaces, both above and below the industrial ruins that pass as living spaces for much of the world’s forgotten classes and talking to acquaintances and friends, obliquely recounting crimes committed, mistakes made and losses witnessed. Dominated by shadow, splitting the screen, creating ancient irises, forming a primal void from which yellow apartment lights float like islands of life in a universe of emptiness, with vertical lines relentlessly drawing our eye upwards and out of the archaic 1.33 frame. It’s an astonishing film, unique and yet deeply cinephilic, forging connections across a century of cinema, not just The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Here is a partial list of the movies I thought of while watching Horse Money: The Phantom Carriage, Goodbye Dragon Inn, It’s a Wonderful Life, Pedicab Driver, The Thin Man, A Matter of Life and Death, Apocalypse Now, Ikiru, The Phantom of the Opera, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and well, just DW Griffith in general. After watching it, I was overwhelmed, but sure that this would be a one-time experience, so draining and difficult was it to watch at times. After a couple of days though, all I really wanted to do was see Horse Money again.

Horse Money opens Friday, September 18 at the Grand Illusion Cinema.

Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, 2014)

tumblr_nb2n1hY6ET1qcoaf4o1_500Abel Ferrara’s adaptation of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story comes to the Grand Illusion in its controversial American release version. Gérard Depardieu is the massive presence in the center (a performance that rivals only Timothy Spall’s in Mr. Turner as the gruntiest of 2014). He’s M. Deveraux, head of an international banking organization and potential future president of France with a prodigious appetite for sex. After an evening of debauchery, which Ferrara shows us in clinical, resolutely unsexy detail for the first 20 minutes or so of the film, Deveraux sexually assaults a hotel maid. He’s caught at the airport and just as exacting detail we follow the process of his arrest, booking and arraignment. The second half of the film, following Deveraux’s release on bail, is almost lyrical, as he and his wife (Jacqueline Bisset) argue over the fallout of what he’s done and what it means for their past and their future. Deveraux, a leftist economist, despite devoting his life to helping the less fortunate, is exposed as no less a Randian egotist than the worst right-wing cartoon: his utterly unshakeable belief in the inviolability of his own self-interest the only guiding principle of his existence. I had expected the film, when I first heard about it, to concern itself with the mystery of the crime itself. A did-he or didn’t-he exploration of the legal system and our attitudes toward powerful men who commit crimes against women. Ferrara, though, ditches all of that. We know he’s guilty right from the beginning, and the film becomes even more darkly political as a result. There’s no balance, no epistemology, no other side of the story: there’s the insular, protected, heedlessly destructive world of the super-rich and powerful (right and left) and everything else is the margin.

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The Time to Live, The Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1985)

title-timeAfter his turn toward more personal filmmaking with 1983’s The Boys from Fengkuei, which was based on incidents from his own life transplanted onto a story of contemporary youth, and the following year’s A Summer at Grandpa’s, based on the recollections of Chu Tien-wen, an author whom Hou had met and begun a lifelong collaboration (she will write or co-write all of Hou’s features from Fengkuei on), Hou tells his own autobiographical story in 1985’s The Time to Live, the Time to Die, which remains one of his most-acclaimed films and is generally considered one of the greatest Chinese-language films of all-time (it placed third on the Golden Horse Film Festival’s Top 100 list in 2010 – Hou had two other films  in the top ten: Dust in the Wind was seventh and A City of Sadness was #1 overall).

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The Seattle Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective

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My pick as one of the Top Three Greatest Living Motion Picture Directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien, gets the retrospective treatment over the next ten days at a trio of terrific venues across Seattle. It’s a truncated version of the complete retrospective organized by Richard I. Suchenski (Director, Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College), in collaboration with the Taipei Cultural Center, the Taiwan Film Institute, and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of China (Taiwan), that has been traveling the world for the past six months. The Grand Illusion and the Northwest Film Forum have joined forces to present five of Hou’s very best films on 35mm (each movie plays one night at each theatre), while Scarecrow Video supplements the series with five additional movies, presented on video free of charge in its Screening Lounge. I’ll even be there introducing movies at each venue, covering six movies in total over the next nine days.

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Buzzard (Joel Potrykus, 2014)

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Marty Jackitansky works as a temp at a mortgage company. He takes three-hour breaks, reads comic books at his desk, and orders office supplies so he can flip them for a cash refund. His life is an endless parade of desperate scams that net him $20 here, $30 there, the effort of which is clearly not worth the payoff. But Marty keeps doing it anyway because he believes he’s sticking it to the Man. And because he’s a total moron. Marty is like an adult Butt-head who grew up without a Beavis by his side. He listens to metal, eats terrible microwaveable food, and makes stupid decision after stupid decision.

Marty also happens to be the subject of writer-director Joel Potrykus’s new film, Buzzard. The film begins with a lingering shot of star Joshua Burge’s face. Rarely does the camera leave it for the next ninety minutes. Burge’s excessive features give Marty an alien look, well-suited for his character’s isolation. His bulging eyeballs are frequently deployed to convey Marty’s relentless desperation.

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Samuel Fuller at the Grand Illusion Cinema

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Playing at the Grand Illusion this week is Samantha Fuller’s 2013 documentary about her father, A Fuller Life. Aside from a short introduction explaining the concept, her movie consists entirely of excerpts from Fuller’s memoir, as read by a variety of his friends, co-workers and fans (generally shot in the kind of propulsive close-ups so recognizable from Fuller’s films). The images we see are a combination of archival footage, clips from Fuller’s movies and never-before-seen 16mm home movies shot by Sam over the decades. It’s a loving account of a remarkable American, one of the unique and definitive personalities of the 20th Century. Beginning his professional life as a newspaper boy in 1920s Manhattan, he quickly worked his way up to teenaged crime reporter. During the Depression he set out across the country, making his living as a freelance journalist and pulp novelist, chronicling the darkest corners of a turbulent decade (an anecdote he relates about a KKK woman is especially vivid). At the end of the 30s, he settled down in Hollywood, making a living as a screenwriter for hire.

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R100 (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2013)

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Takafumi Katayama likes it kinky. He works all day in a furniture store and comes home to an adorable son who proudly proclaims he is now the third shortest kid in his class. In between this life of domestic drudgery, Takafumi enjoys getting the snot kicked out of him by dominatrixes dipped in leather. When he discovers that a club provides subscription-service public humiliations, he is nothing but eager to register. But soon the beatings begin encroaching on his normal life and he wants to cancel. Sorry, Takafumi, no refunds.

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James Stewart Movies at the Grand Illusion Cinema

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After failing to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (he lost to Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which is a very good performance in a fine film, but come on), James Stewart was rewarded by the Academy the very next year for The Philadelphia Story, in which he plays third lead to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in George Cukor’s monumental screwball. He might better have won for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, released earlier that same year, in which he co-starred with Margaret Sullavan as a pair of feuding store clerks who don’t know they’re pen pals in love. Both films are playing this week at the Grand Illusion, on 35mm (the GI continues to be the last great bastion of repertory-on-film in the Seattle area).

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