So Zatoichi is kinda like James Bond, except blind – Vol. 2

I’ve been watching… oh have I been watching… but I’ve long neglected the part of this project that documents thoughts and feelings. This is important. This is the catharsis.

As a creator of Cinema Shame, I feel obligated to be a role model. And even when I finish this second installment of Zatoichi Shame, I’ll still be delinquent on posts for The Commitments, The Gold Rush, and a handful of W.C. Fields films. As W.C. Fields would say… “Godfrey Daniel! Lets cut through the jibber jabber!” …which is a weird intro to Zatoichi, but roll with it.

Last we checked in with my Zatoichi journey I’d just finished the first four installments and noted a few interesting DNA matches with James Bond.

Zatoichi on the Road

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

After the series switched to color after The Tale of Zatoichi (Zat 2) Continues, the color films had failed to distinguish themselves visually. Zatoichi the Fugutive (Zat 4) told a ripping tale but looked like a B-production. Zatoichi on the Road marks a step forward in the franchise. Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda makes clear and distinct compositional choices. He allows his camera to linger and bask in the color and landscape. Yasuda also amplifies the action and fight choreography. In many ways Zatoichi on the Road circles closer to the Zat-ideal. It also loses some of the character development and meaningful subtext that breathed life into earlier Zatoichi films.

The narrative doesn’t stand out in my memory. (WELL IF YOU’D WRITTEN ABOUT THIS SOONER, MORON, MAYBE YOU’D REMEMBER.) In Zatoichi on the Road, our mythic hero has sworn to protect a young woman and finds himself (again) at odds against two rival gangs. Some of that moral complexity comes through in the young woman’s struggle against the male hierarchy of perpetual assholiness. She’s wanted for killing the man who tried to rape her.

It’s Zatoichi that feels stuck in a limbo throughout Zatoichi on the Road. Already, here in the fifth film it’s growing difficult to compare and contrast the films. Shintaro Katsu imbues the Zatoichi character with so much vitality and depth (gambler, drinker, spurned human and lover, slovenly eater, etc.) that when we reach a film that removes the focus from the depth of Zatoichi’s character, it’s easy to find the film wanting even though it excels in many aspects of pure, visual cinema and storytelling. Some rank this as a favorite Zat-pic, but my meager notes on the film seem to corroborate my latent sense that the film belongs in the second tier of Zatoichi.

zatoichi and the chest of gold

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

I’m going to again cite my notebook:

“The first of the Zatoichi films that feels B-grade in execution. Lesser film stock (?). More blood. Some gratuitous (!). But the story engages, unlike prior On the Road. More Zatoichi quirks and more of the worst of humanity on display.”

This is Zatoichi moonlighting in an exploitation sandbox. The casting of Tomisaburo Wakayama (who would later star in Lone Wolf and Cub) as the villain sets up certain expectations. Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold delivers on all of it.

A face-value uglier Zatoichi picture, Chest of Gold foreground stunts and action choreography. This is the type of Zatoichi picture that’ll take you by surprise now that you’re in the Zatoichi groove. The narrative concerns some missing tax money. Zatoichi, who happens to be in town to pay his respects to a dead man, of course, gets blamed. He’s an outsider, a blind man. As “the other” he’s certainly to blame. Money turns average men into monsters. At first, Zatoichi, the noble warrior, attempts to navigate the fracas with logic and reason. Soon the logic and reason gives way to bloodshed and violence because evil men get what they deserve.

An arterial geyser spray might shock you. It’s the first truly magnificent bloodshed in the series. It certainly took me by surprise. It also took my daughters (ages 7 and 4 at the time) by surprise as I’d been letting them tune in to my Zatoichi marathons because the bloodletting had been nonexistent and death scenes mere chest-clutching.

Make no mistake, daughters also find blood geysers to be great fun.

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, however, only serves as a ramp up to the next Zatoichi picture.

 

Film_Zatoichi07_original

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

Again, my notes:

“So that scene where Zatoichi leads his combatants into the river before dropping beneath the water and attacking like a killer m’f’ing sword-wielding shark.

AND THEN THAT SCENE IN THE DARK CORRIDOR. HOLY MOLY DID I LOVE THIS ONE.”

I had some other thoughts but they lack the all caps.

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword also from Chest of Gold director Kazuo Ikehiro takes everything I loved about the former picture and turns it up to 11. The film opens slowly. Some goofy and occasionally funny comedy at the expense of Zatoichi’s blindness dominates the first third. The casual cruelty stands as another blemish on humanity. Everyone, it seems, can’t help but demean our hero. The film indulges in a small dose of slapstick — a refreshing re-introduction after the grimmer Chest of Gold.

The narrative again pits two villages against each other in a local squabble over river-crossing fees. One guy charges too little. He believes river-crossing is a right! The other guy wants to create a monopoly and bleed the poor river-crossers dry! BWAHAHA! Between the long stretches of political machinations and goofy comedy, you’ll be wondering you’re ever going to see Zatoichi’s sword again, let alone a flashing sword.

And then the whole film shifts in a moment. Zatoichi flips his “Jules Winnfield path of the righteous man” switch and suddenly Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword becomes one of the most innovative and majestic swordplay bloodbaths in cinema history. THIS IS NOT HYPERBOLE. Well, maybe a little. BUT IT’S NOT.

Your ultimate opinion of the film rests on how strongly you value the action set-pieces contained in the final third of the film. The film lacks a consistent, driving purpose. Zatoichi again attempts to navigate politics without bloodshed, but power-hungry maniacs only respond to violence.

To give you a taste of the transcendent set pieces:

Zatoichi lures a handful of skilled combatants into the water and then drops into the murk where he systematically drops them one by one (see above shark comment).

Zatoichi massacres an entire army of swordsman while fireworks light his gnarled, angry face. A rare occurrence when Zatoichi’s placid exterior falls alway in the face of pure evil.

Lastly, there’s this brilliant moment of pure cinema when Zatoichi lures his attackers into a pitch-black house. Zatoichi runs through the house extinguishing the candles to eliminate their advantage. Shades of Barry Lyndon — as the entire scene was shot using only the ambient candlelight.. at least until the scene goes black except for the contrast of shadow versus complete blackness.

I still get giddy when I think about that last scene.

 

fight, zatoichi, fight

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

Ironically, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight features the least amount of fighting on any Zatoichi film.

Notes:

“An emotionally resonant entry in the Zatoichi series that punctuates our hero’s inability to trust or love. It’s not that he’s unwilling; it’s that he recognizes the consequences for anyone that loves or depends on him. He’s forced to give up a baby to which he’s promised his undying care. He abandons the woman who’s professed her love. He once again heads out, alone and heartbroken, into a world of moral turpitude.”

F, Z, F forces Zatoichi into the role of caregiver as he attempts to deliver an orphaned baby to its father. After the badassery of Flashing Sword, director Kenji Misumi tones down Zatoichi’s sword skills and brings back the emotional resonance missing from the last few films. In many ways, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a gut punch. The plight of the newly orphaned baby mirrors Zatoichi’s sense of homelessness. He doesn’t belong. Without family, without love, without a home, Zatoichi wanders this world looking for acceptance.

At one point, Zatoichi doesn’t have money or food. In order to sooth the hungry child he offers his own nipple for suckling, merely hoping the child will find a moment of peace.

Current Zatoichi rankings:

  1. Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (Z7)
  2. Tale of Zatoichi (Z1)
  3. Zatoichi the Fugitive (Z4)
  4. Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (Z8)
  5. Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (Z6)
  6. Tale of Zatoichi Continues (Z2)
  7. Zatoichi on the Road (Z5)
  8. A New Tale of Zatoichi (Z3)

8 down. 18 more to go. Zatoichi will return in So Zatoichi is kinda like James Bond, except blind – Vol. 3.

 

 

 

 

One Man Up (2001, Paolo Sorrentino)

Photo 29-01-2017, 22 39 37

I’ve been calling myself a fan of The Young Pope director Paolo Sorrentino for a while but I’d never seen his debut movie One Man Up. I reckon I’ve got a decent alibi for this Cinema Shame entry as the film didn’t get a UK cinema release only becoming available as part of a pricey (£60) Sorrentino box-set in 2011. It’s always interesting going back and looking at a director’s first film, especially if they have developed their own distinctive style. One Man Up is more understated than his later films but there a few hints of the visual flamboyance to come in films like The Great Beauty, notably an elaborate dream sequence featuring ballerinas.

Photo 14-04-2017, 21 07 01

Despite the title it’s a film about two men, one a footballer and the other an ageing rock star. Like the dual protagonists of The Double Life of Veronique (91, Krzysztof Kieslowski) they share the same name and seem to have some kind of otherworldly connection. However they are not mirror images of each other like Veronique/Veronika. Antonio Pisapia (Andrea Renzi) is a quiet man, a centre-half for a Seria A team who sports the classic mullet and moustache combination favoured by defenders in the 1980’s. Tony Pisapia (Toni Servilla) is a hedonistic pop singer who still dresses like it’s the 70s’ and performs his greatest hits to his loyal fanbase then drags his middle-aged entourage out to nightclubs when they’d rather be at home with their families.

Photo 14-04-2017, 21 02 02We first meet Antonio during the half-time break in a match they’re clearly losing. You can tell by the way the manager (Italo Celero) takes off his jacket, swings it over his head, then throws it across the room, before launching into a spectacular rant targeting each player individually for abuse but also telling them what they should be doing out there on the pitch. While his teammates are terrified and stare at the floor, Antonio calmly offers tactical advice to his disbelieving manager. When it’s rejected he storms out of the dressing room and out onto the pitch where he takes the acclaim of the crowd.

Both of these introductions hint at their downfall. Antonio’s separateness from his teammates is emphasised in a later scene where he refuses a bribe to throw a match. One of the players who wanted to take the money goes studs up in a 50/50 challenge in training and destroys Antonio’s leg. Tony’s decision to bed a young admirer he meets in the nightclub costs him dearly when his wife catches them together and points out the girl is clearly underage. The Pisapia’s find themselves in limbo. Their careers are over but they’re still recognisable everywhere they go. Tony is probably going to jail, but Antonio has planned for this moment. He has developed his own tactical system and wants to try out his new ideas as a coach but nobody’s willing to take a chance on an untried young manager. Even his former club fobs him off with an empty promise of a job at some point in the future.

Sorrentino films pretty much all tell a similar story about an isolated male protagonist (usually a creative) struggling to connect with those around him. They either come to terms with some past traumatic event or destroy themselves. In The Consequences of Love an exiled mafia accountant puts his life in danger when he falls in love with a barmaid at the hotel he’s hiding out in. The Family Friend subversively reworks Beauty and the Beast into a tale of a vicious loan shark being tricked out of his fortune by a young woman. Sean Penn’s Robert Smith inspired rock star leaves his reclusive Irish home to hunt down the Nazi war criminal who tortured his father in This Must Be the Place, while in The Great Beauty Jep Gambardella’s hack writer is shocked out of his hedonistic complacency by the death of an old lover. Both protagonists in One Man Up fall into this category of being creatives at a moment of crisis in their lives, though to be honest I was only interested in one of them.

Photo 29-01-2017, 22 39 03

Antonio is loosely based on ex-Roma captain Agostino Di Bartolomei who struggled with depression after retiring from the game and eventually took his own life at the age of 41. There are plenty of films about rock stars finding themselves (Sorrentino revisits this theme with This Must Be The Place) but One Man Up is the only film I can think of about a footballer coming to terms with ageing out of their profession. It’s a portrait of somebody slowly drifting away from their own life. The attempts to create some otherworldly connection between the two men feels like warmed over Kieslowski and just gets in the way of the more interesting story. Maybe the contrast is needed between the two leads though to appreciate Renzi’s quietly moving performance. Servillo is a commanding performer and would go on to become Sorrentino’s regular leading man, but it’s Renzi who is the heart of the film.

Photo 11-05-2017, 00 29 56

When accepting his Academy Award for The Great Beauty Sorrentino thanked Federico Fellini and Diego Maradona. It is clear he regards both men as being equals in terms of artistry. Maradona even appears as a character (though not sadly played by the real one) in Youth, while Cardinal Voiello in The Young Pope is an avid Napoli fan and relaxes by watching old clips of the Argentine legend on Youtube. It wouldn’t surprise me if once he’s finished with his HBO series Sorrentino follows it up with a biopic of Maradona.

RENT (2005)

No, I didn’t see the play. But there is a film. And here I was watching it, just a few hours ago. It wasn’t on my original list for this year, but today I wanted to just sit down and watch something. I clicked around Hulu, looking for some classics because I was in the mood for catching up on an old film. But there I saw the film version of Rent from 2005, directed by Christopher Columbus and featuring some familiar names.

I have never listened through the soundtrack all the way through, though I am familiar with a bunch of the major musicals.

Mostly I want to talk about the cinematography. I mean, mostly I want to talk about a lot of things about shooting cinematic takes on Manhattan. And mostly I want to write like the person I had envisioned myself becoming.

Beauty & The Beast

I never watched the Disney animated Beauty and the Beast. I was already a teenager when it arrived in theaters.

*****

Belle sits on a fountain, teaching the sheep. The story book she has just taken out of the town book collection. The moment that she meets Prince Charming. But she won’t realize it’s him til Chapter 3. 

She really is a funny girl, that Belle. 

*****

I think I am perhaps far too in character as Belle right now.

*****

I watched it–it’s true, I did. The new Beauty and the Beast. The live action one. I was excited about this for a number of reasons–not the least of which being that in it, Belle is played by Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger. And what we need from the filmiverse is exactly this double casting.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) – An Essay on Another Movie That Became Important Later

I briefly considered going Full Shame on this movie, watching the three sequels and the Chris Pratt remake, but who has that kind of time. Also, I realized that if I wanted to really go Full Shame, I’d also have to watch Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which the film is roughly based on. Again, I really don’t have that kind of time. Especially, if I want to complete my CinemaShame list and prepare for an upcoming CinemaShame podcast.

magnificent 1

The Magnificent Seven was an interesting pick, because I assumed it was a massive hit. A Western with Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen, that earned a remake last year with Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and approximately five other guys of varying fame and payscale. Turns out, it wasn’t. It was a box office flop in 1960, and only became popular after it was a big hit in Europe and many of the actors went on to become big stars – Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson all appeared in John Sturges’ next film The Great Escape, which was a much bigger success.

In my last essay on Bulworth, I referenced a book by Chuck Klosterman where he contemplates how things will be viewed differently in the future and how we perceive things now, may be very different. The Magnificent Seven is actually a perfect example of this. It flopped in the box office, only to gain status as a classic much later after success of it’s participants. I find two things about this interesting. First, it’s referred to as a classic and not a cult classic. Second, it received this title, despite it’s problems. That’s right, I went there.

At some point — I could look it up, but I still don’t have the time — the term “cult classic” was coined for movies that weren’t successful, but grew a fandom later. (Okay. I looked it up, the term “cult film” started in the 1970s, no date on “cult classic.”) I would argue The Magnificent Seven was the first, or one of the first “cult classics.” But eventually, it just became a classic, based largely on the merits of the cast and crew at a later date. I then after to wonder, at what point will our cult classics then become classics. I feel like I still hear Pulp Fiction referred to as a cult classic and not just a classic film. Perhaps not enough time has pasted, or perhaps classics will only ever refer to a specific time period. This all has less to do with the film, and more to do with film consumption culture.

magnificent 2

Now, the point where I say it may not deserve the praise. The introduction to the first two members of the seven is amazing and great story telling. The hearse scene shows the kind of men that Yul Brener’s and Steve McQueen’s characters are. They are men of honor and they do the right thing. They don’t know each other, but team together to drive a hearse – a comedically short distance – to a cemetery to bury a Native American where the locals don’t want him buried. They do it because it’s the right thing. After that, the rest of the Seven getting slightly less strong, but still well written introductions, minus Robert Vaughn’s character. This covers the first third of the film and it’s followed by a strong second act where they go to the village in Mexico that hired them for protection. After the initial confrontation, the last third of the film goes downhill.

I found a review from Variety that kind of nailed it for me: “The last third is downhill, a long and cluttered anti-climax in which The Magnificent Seven grow slightly too magnificent for comfort.”

magnificent 3

The last third of the film feels anti-climatic and it’s hard to really feel triumphant as the Seven, now kicked out of the village, go back to win again. A gunfight breaks out and within the fight, each character gets their moment to complete their story arc. It’s a mess though, partially because of the fact that the script never really clarified in which order the final deaths happened. The moments of each character are lost in the hustle on the first view and don’t give a resonance when Yul Brenner says his final line: “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”

magnificent 4

The Magnificent Seven is a great film, and probably does deserve the title of classic, but at the same time, I understand why it wasn’t a big success initially. It gives me hope though that Terminator Genisys will one day become a classic after its stars have gained more mainstream recognition.

magnificent 5

So I thought I’d seen The Godfather Part III

 

This has become a most unexpected slice of Shame. Having rewatched Godfather and Godfather Part II to brush up on my Corleone lore for the recently recorded Cinema Shame podcast, I kept right on rolling into Godfather Part III. Why not? The wife and I were invested, hip-deep, quoting the films and proffering our own community-theater Brando impersonations. Of course we would complete the cycle.

godfather-main

But a funny thing happened shortly after beginning the final Godfather installment. I discovered none of this felt familiar. The wife began probing me for clues about the film’s outcome. I knew the crucial deaths and a few choice quotations. But how we got there? Not a morsel of information.

It’s not uncommon to begun watching a movie and realize I’d actually seen it, but not once in my movie-watching history (at least to my recollection, which I’ve just called into question, so… grain of salt) had I convinced myself that I’d seen a film when I actually hadn’t.

It’s a strange sensation.

My Shame has taken on a completely new twist. I went into Godfather Part III expecting re-evaluation. Only I had no initial evaluation to reconsider. I suppose latent images and trace memory from my readings had convinced me I’d seen the film. Frequently, the Cinema Shame phenomenon occurs because popular culture has hammered home particular aspects of a film, causing us to feel like we’ve already experienced the story. We already feel like we’ve seen it through the eyes of popular culture. The phenomenon is real and perhaps too powerful. I’m living proof.

The-Godfather-Pt-3-LB-1

Let’s first put a few thoughts on the table before moving on. The Godfather Part III has a bad reputation. It’s considered a lesser film. Our frame of reference will dictate whether we consider it a lesser film or just a lesser Godfather film. The discrepancy is important. The critical mass has duly documented Sofia Coppola’s performance as legendarily bad. Movie-killing bad. As a direct result, this final installment just isn’t properly considered when discussing the Godfather saga.

I may only be merely one voice in a sea of film criticism, but I cannot abide this treatment any longer.

PDVD_002

The abandoned Corleone Lake Tahoe compound.

The abandoned and dilapidated Corleone Lake Tahoe compound opens the film, an affecting sequence of still images that sets the tone and propels our expectations. Before anyone sets food on screen, the audience has been primed for one ultimate outcome – the destruction of Michael Corleone and potentially the entire Corleone dynasty. The Godfather Part III offers no misdirection; this film, unlike the first two chapters, promises only tragedy, it promises the end of our anti-hero Michael Corleone and potentially the entire Corleone family. It comes as no surprise to learn that Francis Ford Coppola wanted to name the film “The Death of Michael Corleone.”

The Godfather Part III embraces darkness. Perhaps this river of bleakness offers one reason that audiences failed to embrace the film. It entertains notions of mortality and regret rather than a celebration of machismo and initiative. There’s no measure of hope or optimism for the future. The aging and now ill Michael Corleone attempts to make amends for his familiar failures and repent for his crimes, to scrub clean the Corleone family name. He wants to rekindle the old world familial bonds that he’s eschewed in favor of money and power. The Don has lost sight of the tenant that his father, Vito Corleone, held most dear. Family first. If Don Vito Corleone represents the American Dreamer, Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III represents a cultural disillusionment with our greatest institutions. Capitalism. Religion. The nuclear family.

PDVD_007

The loss of the Godfather’s pro-active anti-hero from Parts I and II shifts the tone dramatically. Michael manages his diabetes, weighs the value of his life and attempts to return his misplaced focus to the family. His inaction and hesitancy to call for immediate retribution in the face of an obvious assault on the Corleone name takes on an air of defeatism, a far cry from the Michael Corleone that assassinated Sollozzo and McCluskey and launched his career in the family business. He’s staring down a modern world stripped of its moral compass and opting out.

In Michael’s stead, Part III instead provides Andy Garcia’s Vincent (Sonny’s illegitimate son) as the Corleone representation in this new world order. Leather-clad, brash and hyper-reactive, Vincent accepts the bestowal of Godfather status from Michael – an unthinkable development in the Corleone business model. Vincent isn’t even a Corleone. Management of the family business has been outsourced. Plus he’s having sex with his cousin Mary, Michael’s daughter. The corruption of the family from within.

gf3

Vincent (Andy Garcia) striking back against a couple of low-level hitmen. 

Godfather Part III also benefits from Connie (Talia Shire) coming into her own as an invested and active member of the family rather than just a failed homemaker. She too represents a modern dynamic. The women were once relegated to a shadowed, maternal existence. Willingly naïve of the family business. Connie emerges as a strong central figure, giving orders during Michael’s incapacitation. One could write an entire book on Connie’s journey to investiture in the family business and how that represents the emergence of feminism in the Godfather narrative. She becomes perhaps the most interesting figure in the entire saga.

connie

Connie rise to power charts a fascinating course through the Godfather Trilogy.

The obvious criticism of Part III remains Sofia Coppola’s portrayal of Mary. It is unfair to judge the Godfather Part III on Sofia Coppola alone. Yes, she’s distracting. She’s an amateur acting alongside Diane Keaton, Al Pacino and Andy Garcia. She was destined for failure. Context is important, however. Winona Ryder dropped out of the production at the last minute. Coppola, fearing that Paramount would pull the plug on the whole film, asked his daughter to fill the role as an emergency measure to preserve the production. Without Sofia there might not have been a Godfather Part III at all. Just something to think about.

godfather09

Sofia Coppola is not an adequate scapegoat. This is no Christmas Jones, people.

There’s so much more to the film than Sofia Coppola’s performance that relying on that as criticism feels patently lazy. Intricately woven themes of redemption and mortality remain in play throughout the film. Part III offers a complex and multifaceted analysis of the ways in which power and money has corrupted not only Michael Corleones of the world but the greater institutions designed to protect us.

This sense of total corruption snowballs into a thirty-minute white-knuckle finale that rivals the baptismal conclusion of the first Godfather in terms of complex, layered cross-cutting. The opera assassination sequence features the most tense and thrilling moments in the trilogy. It is masterful filmmaking.

Godfather-3-Michael-Kay

George Hamilton photobomb at the opera.

Only a small bit of comic relief (supplied by Connie) breaks the persistent tension. And rightly so. This is the climax of the entire trilogy. The reckoning for past misdeeds coming to call on Michael in the form of a reaper-like assassin sent by his powerful enemies. The opera house becomes the gateway to the future of the Corleone family. The Corleone hopes and dreams, the plausibility of redemption all hang in the balance.

The film shocked me. I thought I’d merely forgotten, but aside from certain culturally accumulated catchphrases, I’d never really known it at all. The accepted and perceived order of the Godfather films clouded my judgment and distorted my conception of the film. I know now that many of these criticisms had merely been formed based on overly critical and small-minded comparisons.

Godfather-3

The Godfather Part III was not only worthy; in many ways it surpassed its supposedly greater elders. It’s not the cinematic perfection of its predecessors, but it tells a very human story, a very relatable story – and perhaps as a result it cuts too close and too deeply. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II allowed the viewer a measure escapist distance. The violence and human horror framed in otherness. As part of the mafia, as part of a narrow band of Italian immigrant experience. The Godfather Part III is the human condition – it is all of our stories.