Saturday, April 24, 2010
Where does one begin in reviewing and discussing Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 cult film House? It is, without a doubt, one of the most unique films you will ever experience. I was fortunate enough to see it on the big screen, in all its bizarre glory. Being the type of person who rarely watches trailers, and previews, I had little to no knowledge of what I was in for. I thought I was going to see what I heard was a Japanese cult horror movie. It was definitely Japanese, it’s definitely a film deserving of a cult status, but I’m not sure what genre this film fits into. Horror? Thriller? Comedy? Experimental? All of the above?
Obayashi was clearly aiming to create a subversive and out of this world mash up of styles and genres with a touch of 1970s camp a la Pam Grier-type blaxploitation films. With its prolific use of music typical of films of that genre, in addition to a score that features classical piano pieces, it succeeds heavily in creating a multi-layered piece of art. It’s abilities to shock and fright were unmistakable, but the attempts at slapstick humor felt slightly out of place.
The film surrounds a group of female classmates who go on vacation to the residence of one of the girls aunts. The aunt turns out to be a psychotic killer who eats one of the girls, and who’s household objects, a piano, and a lampshade among them, eats the other girls alive as well. It is an insane experience to say the least. It mocks films of other genres (an especially hilarious scene makes fun of the “prince riding in to save the princess on a white horse”), while mocking itself as well.
You never really know what to expect from House, known as Hausu in its native Japan. Sometimes is very thought provoking and scary, mixing beautifully artificial set designs with imaginative cinematography, and tricky editing techniques. Other times, it is oddly humorous, and features sequences that feel like something out of an old Three Stooges routine. What the director was aiming for with this odd arrangement of styles is beyond me. Perhaps he was going out of his way to make something really crazy and different from everything else at the time, even if it hurt the film in the end.
The director did succeed in his goal-he made a film that makes you feel like you’re trapped inside a kaleidoscope or a nightmare you cannot awake from. To sum it up, the movie is incredibly weird and wonderful and eccentric and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. If you’re looking for something really different to watch, try House.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
Paul Schrader is probably best known for his work on the film Taxi Driver. The movie that elevated Marty Scorsese to the top of the directing food chain, and made Robert De Niro an acting God, it was a disturbing and riveting piece of cinema. The script, written by Schrader is considered one of the all time greatest to come from the turbulent and innovative 1970s decade of film. Schrader would go on to write or co-write several other screenplays for Scorsese including 1980’s Raging Bull, 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ and 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead, which Scorsese once referred to as “Taxi Driver with an ambulance, instead of a cab”.
After the success of Taxi Driver, Schrader turned to directing, and in 1978, directed Richard Pryor in Blue Collar. He followed the film up with 1979’s Hardcore, starring George C. Scott. Schrader would later also direct the 1980 classic American Gigolo and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters in 1985. It is Hardcore, however, that has attracted my attention the most. A gritty L.A. set drama centering around a father searching for his teenage runaway daughter in the sleazy back alleys of a city known for its sleaziness and culture built primarily on sex.
Scott, in one of his last theatrical roles, stars as a middle-class mid-western single father, whose daughter goes off on a church-related trip to California. Days later, he gets a phone call saying she’s disappeared. After hiring a private detective, played by brilliant character-actor Peter Boyle, Scott’s character learns of a 8mm film his daughter performed in-a snuff film. Apparently, she’s now part of a disturbing group of adult actors and filmmakers and pimps. Scott decides to search the streets for himself. His performance shows the troubling transformation from a regular, middle-class citizen, into a cold-hearted animal sifting through the seedy parts of L.A. and San Francisco to find his daughter.
It is exactly the kind of film Schrader mastered over his long career. Taxi Driver, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Bringing Out the Dead, Auto Focus, among others, all center on troubled individuals, and societies that are obsessed. These obsessions transcend our basic understanding of this world. He chronicles the people from small cities, and the people from big cities who eat them alive. Schrader, who came from a very conservative family experienced a very repressed childhood, and reportedly, only saw his first film at age 18. It is a result of his repression that Schrader grew into a filmmaker primarily known for making very dark and disturbing films, about the underbelly of society.
Though he will probably be remembered mostly for Taxi Driver and his collaborations with Scorsese, his talents as a director cannot and should not be disregarded. And Hardcore is one of the best examples of his talents.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is Sydney Pollack’s breakthrough 1969 film about a dance marathon contest taking place in 1932. The film stars the incomparable Jane Fonda, as well as Gig Young who won an oscar for his role and Bruce Dern, who would later co-star as Fonda’s husband in Coming Home, another forgotten classic made about a decade later.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? might not sound like it, but it is an incredibly insane story about a group of incredibly insane characters. It takes place during the depression, when people have lost hop altogether, and attempt to escape the misery by going to the movies, or, in this case, escaping to see an arena where dozens of couples dance. Continuously. Non-stop. For days and weeks, and months.
Fonda gave several memorable performances in her career, winning two academy awards, one for Klute, and one for the aforementioned Coming Home. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is amongst her best work as well. It is a fast-paced, exhilarating, and disturbing portrait of various people who are desperate for different things. Some look for fame. Some look for money. Some look for escapism. Some look to entertain. Some look to be entertained.
Pollack went on to have a glorious directorial career. He directed Robert Redford in the paranoid 1975 classic, Three Days of the Condor. He also went on to director Dustin Hoffman in 1982’s Tootsie, and he hit his career peak in 1985, re-teaming with Redford and Meryl Streep in the Best Picture winning epic, Out of Africa.
However, it is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? that I think is one of Pollack’s most unique films. It centers on Fonda who enters into a contest to see which male/female couple can dance the longest time. Young stars as the host of the contest, a sleazy, selfish showman whose only prerogative is to entertain the audience, no matter what the cost is.
Fonda triumphs, as does Susannah York who stars as an aspiring actress paired up with her boyfriend. The script is masterfully written, filled with witty dialogue that is not curbed considering the time period its set in. The film is something that only the late 1960s could produce, an original and scary piece of cinema. Also, a bit of trivia: it is the film with the most Academy Award nominations without a nod for Best Picture as well, with 9 total nominations. It won only one, for Young’s performance.