Story Of A Prostitute
(Criterion/MorningStar, 1965) D: Seijun Suzuki w/ Yumiko Nogawa, Tamio Kawaji. Rating: NNNN
Gate Of Flesh
(Criterion/Morningstar, 1964) D: Seijun Suzuki w/ Yumiko Nogawa, Jo Shishido. Rating NNNN
In the excellent interview that comes with Story Of A Prostitute, production designer and long-time Seijun Suzuki collaborator Takeo Kimura makes one of the best remarks I've ever heard about the nature of drama.
"There must always," he says (I'm paraphrasing), "be some moral imperative or system that the protagonists either struggle against or acquiesce to."
Bear this in mind next time you're watching some Hollywood angstfest that somehow doesn't cut it. Bear in mind also that "getting laid" and "being happy" are not moral imperatives.
Condemned to B movies, Suzuki and Kimura struggled against studio imperatives and together produced seven films that compare favourably to Fuller and Fassbinder at their genre-bending best.
Story Of A Prostitute takes a sentimental anti-war tale and turns it into an anguished power struggle and observation of the lunatic brutality of the military. In 1937, a heartbroken hooker goes to the front to service Japanese soldiers in the Sino-Japanese war. She loathes the cruel adjutant who commandeers her and vows to use his perfect-soldier aide to bring him down. A traditional telling of this tale, taken from a popular novel, would have fate or noble duty determine the outcome. Not here.
Gate Of Flesh, also from a novel, was meant to be soft erotica. A quartet of young streetwakers in bombed-out 1945 Tokyo band together for self-protection. But when they take in a tough young thief on the run, their solidarity shatters.
Suzuki and Kimura are no slaves to naturalism. Narrative jumps, odd acting choices and jagged cutting abound. Surrealist touches crop up, as when the adjutant is torn to pieces as if he were a piece of paper. Gate Of Flesh is shot almost entirely on one elaborate, very unrealistic theatrical set that nevertheless, from reports of the time, perfectly caught the feel of immediate post-war Tokyo.
They're not just being stylish. Suzuki's take on his characters' anguish demands this approach. As they explain in new interviews shot for each movie, they're trying to escape clichés and do a lot with little cash.
They succeed. Suzuki has mastered the B movie director's virtues of narrative drive, speed and visual power, and, despite the films' apparent nihilism, he wields them with joy.
EXTRAS Story Of A Prostitute: Suzuki and Kimura interviews, critical essay. Wide-screen. B&w. Gate Of Flesh: Suzuki and Kimura interviews, stills/sketches gallery, critical essay. Wide-screen. Colour. Both films Japanese soundtrack, English subtitles.
xXx: State Of The Union
(Sony, 2005) D: Lee Tamahori w/ Ice Cube, Willem Dafoe. Rating: NN
Much of the fun of the original xXx came from its being a clever James Bond ripoff, with James Bond, the thug as establishment lackey, replaced by Xander Cage, the thug as hip outsider. The rest of the fun came from Vin Diesel as Cage, the only actor ever to build a career on breathing through his mouth.
There's nothing fun, or James Bondish, about the sequel. The original's spectacular, inspired stunt sequences have mostly been replaced by CG imagery that in crucial moments - notably the climax - looks utterly fake. A couple of good fistfights and a boat jump are as good as it gets.
Makes one wonder what happened to director Lee Tamahori, who helmed Die Another Day, one of the better Bonds. Here, he's merely adequate, which is about how he is on the commentary track.
Ice Cube is less than adequate in the lead. He's more a screen absence than a presence; when he enters, it feels like somebody interesting just left. One of his co-stars sums it up in the extras: "He's not a rapper, he's not an actor, he's a franchise. A walking franchise." Yeah, right.
The rest of the cast does paint-by-numbers acting in a paint-by-numbers story: renegade secretary of defense plans a palace coup. Fine for veterans like Samuel L. Jackson and Willem Dafoe. But Nona Gaye and Sunny Mabrey, as good girl and bad girl respectively, are just embarrassing and together don't generate half the heat of Asia Argento in the original. No wonder xXx doesn't get laid.
EXTRAS Director and writer commentary, FX commentary, making-of/FX docs, deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks; English, French subtitles.
(Miramax, 2002) D: Vincenzo Natali, w/ Jeremy Northam, Lucy Liu. Rating: NNN
This low-budget science fiction mystery works thanks to a tight, baffling script, solid acting and good use of limited effects.
Vincenzo Natali honed his low-budget skills on 1997's Cube and a previous short, Elevated. Both picked up a number of awards. He's someone to watch.
Cypher is set in the near future in a chilly corporate atmosphere where people orate on the "crisis in processed cheese manufacturing," and industrial espionage is a booming business.
People seem interchangeable, so interesting questions of identity emerge when an agent is manipulated into believing his cover. The new life isn't much different than the old, so why not become someone else? Philip K. Dick fans and those who've seen Total Recall will recognize the theme, but Cypher takes it in a surprising direction.
Jeremy Northam is the latest recruit, a mild-mannered everyman. A first-rate actor who's worked for David Mamet (The Winslow Boy) and Robert Altman (Gosford Park), he carries this show, moving from placidity and near-puppydog eagerness to tiny rebellion to a sweaty, desperate courage.
Lucy Liu is appealing as the mystery agent who upsets the apple cart, and the rest of the cast is well fleshed out by appropriately sinister character actors. Nigel Bennett seems to have stepped straight from a 60s Cold War spy flick.
EXTRAS: Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
(Dimension, 2003) D: James Seale, w/ Louis Gossett Jr., Teri Hatcher. Rating: N
Teri Hatcher fans, beware - she isn't even nominally sexy here. If she hadn't landed Desperate Housewives, this TV movie would never have been released on DVD.
There's nothing much wrong with the premise: a top-secret government agency headed by Louis Gossett Jr. is trying to kill all the nation's telekinetics, who've banded under a charismatic leader and are planning either revolution or civil rights marches.
The flaws are in the execution: flat, talking-heads-style shooting, clichéd dialogue and an approach to acting that proudly proclaims "We're collecting a paycheque." The few thrills are on the level of The Littlest Hobo's.
EXTRAS: Wide-screen. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, August 9
Kung Fu Hustle
(Sony, 2004) Top-line kung fu comedy semi-tailored for Western sensibilities.
T. J. Hooker, First and Second Seasons
(Sony, 1982-83). For those who can't get enough of William Shatner.
Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte
(Fox, 1964) Classic 60s fright flick with top stars Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland.
The Stationmaster's Wife
(New Yorker, 1977) Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1977 melodrama. Looks like the 112-minute theatrical version, not the 201-minute TV version. Too bad.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb