An Actor’s Revenge (1963)

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“This woman’s suspicious.”

“That’s not a woman.”

It takes a great performer to pull off a movie like An Actor’s Revenge. Kazuo Hasegawa seems as capable as any, with the film marking his 300th completed movie amidst after a career of acclaim. Hasegawa also played the same leading role 30 years prior. The part, of course, is Yukinojo: an actor-samurai out for bloody revenge. In this part, Hasegawa displays powerful showmanship, deep sensitivity, and a satisfying zeal for blood that drives a beautifully crafted film.

We open on an intense scene of kabuki theatre. Yukinojo graces the stage playing a leading female role. Like many great actors of his day, Yukinojo projects femininity on and off the stage. Through his wardrobe and mannerisms, Yukinojo creates the constant illusion of a timid woman. But behind closed doors, Yukinojo is plotting the death of three corrupt noblemen responsible for the death of his parents. Stopping at nothing to exact his vengeance, Yukinojo wins the heart of the beautiful young Namiji (Ayako Wakao) to get closer to his targets and claim his revenge.

The film examines gender roles as if it were a work of Shakespeare. Characters drift in and out of their chosen gendered disguise both literally and figuratively. Yukinojo wears the veil of a sensitive female to disarm his enemies, harnessing his masculinity to deliver the killing blow. Other characters revel in gender fluidity, such as the master thief Ohatsu whom other characters view as maculine for her deception and swordsmanship. Some characters, such as the ingenue Namiji or the stocky noblemen, seem firmly planted in their gender, and this lack of fluidity costs them greatly. An Actor’s Revenge offers a world where survival mandates a mastery of disguise and the ability to perceive the disguises of others.

More generally, the idea of performance is woven into every piece of the narrative. Yukinojo uses scripted theatre to charm others and gain influence, then performs the role of polite and harmless to build interpersonal relationships. When Namiji fails to see through this disguise and falls in love with the fake Yukinojo, we sympathize with her passion and are forced to weigh the cost of deception as a means to vengeance. We also see other characters performing. The thieves of the night are obsessed with their legacy, performing for passersby seeking reputation among the town. The film is littered with fakery, often with direct asides to the audience in the form of narration, a further nod to the Shakespearean nature of the film.

Director Kon Ichikawa shoots the film in a way to highlight these themes. The widescreen format was new to Ichikawa midway through his career, and although he was originally skeptical, the film shows a mastery of the proscenium-like aspect ratio. The film is melodramatic and intentionally “meta” to imitate the artifice of theatre. Characters are often filmed straight-on, especially in more theatrical scenes (lying, courting, and trickery). For more intimate scenes, however, the movie feels more like a movie. Dim lighting accompanies Yukinojo as he strikes down his victims. Scenes at nighttime seem more personal, breaking down the characters and revealing their pathos. By day, the movie is a melodrama. By night, it is a tragedy.

An Actor’s Revenge is a clever reflection of the stage. It is presentational, procedural, and often familiar. But under the surface lies a deeply emotional quest for vengeance. Hasegawa brings incredible depth to the leading role, and it makes for an entrancing, layered piece of cinema.

Films Left to Watch: 823

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L.A. Confidential (1997)

Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential (1997)

“Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven’t got any wings.”

Good crime movies are a well-oiled machine. The complexity lies in the screenplay, a careful puppet show where strings are pulled left and right and every character wants one thing badly. L.A. Confidential feels like a movie that should be studied for how well it works the formula. It’s a film that juggles an ensemble of players, situations, and themes, and it packs hard-hitting surprises. Backed with a knockout cast of actors, the film is perfect. I think there are plenty of better crime movies, but aside from the obligatory misogyny, there isn’t much room to complain. It’s a well-oiled criminal epic that chugs along perfectly.

The top L.A. crime boss has been brought down, and now it’s anyone’s game. Someone new is planning a rise to the top, and a multiple homicide at a diner may be the key to it all. The burden falls on three cops (Kevin Spacey, Russell Brand, and Guy Pearce), and their methods differ wildly. In a wild thrill ride of betrayal, sex, and ambition, each man chases what he desires while a ruthless villain hides in plain sight.

The direction by Curtis Hanson adds a fun tone to the film. An opening narration by Danny DeVito is cheesy, but it lifts the tension that the beginning of a movie must always overcome. The early scenes ease the viewer into a world where comic violence is just part of the job, and then it drops moral ambiguity and complicated decision-making into the mix. It makes for a fast, fun movie that surprises you with how invested you’ve become by the halfway point.

The characters are well-written and driven by objectives that define them. Guy Pearce is a standout as the less glamorous but integral role of Ed Exley, the straight-laced detective who finds more opposition in his own police force than from any criminal on the streets. It’s a part reminiscent of Ethan Hawke in Training Day, with a similar degree of tension. Kevin Spacey gives his standard performance as a sleazy sell-out cop connected with local tabloids, and Russell Brand is the run-away star as a muscle man striving for something greater if he could only be “smart enough.” The film’s women are also complex characters who drive the plot in a meaningful, progressive way. Just kidding, they’re written as sex objects.

There isn’t a lot of new ground to cover with L.A. Confidential. It’s a film that covers old ground, but it does so really well. The script is layered and surprising, hitting the genre beats with enough fun details and sharp twists that you never feel too sure about its direction. I’m not the biggest fan of cop movies, but L.A. Confidential is pretty great for a cop movie.

Films Left to Watch: 824

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Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock is in a world of its own. It seems to exist outside the plane of regular cinema. Not better or worse, but different. It seems to share a world with its sister film The Virgin Suicides, another film about death and femininity. These films are lulling, sexually charged death traps shrouded in beauty. Whatever planet these movies come from, I wouldn’t plan on visiting any time soon, for it seems so easy to get lost in it all and lose your head.

A strict girls school takes a field trip to the geological wonder of Hanging Rock for a picnic. Once there, something compels a small group of the girls to take a walk into the woods from which they do not return. We learn about the young women that stayed behind, the women who run the school, and very little about the women who went missing among the rocks and deadly creatures of the forest.

My clearest observation was how director Peter Weir masters world-building in this puzzling film. He supposedly placed a piece of bridal veil in front of the camera to create the mystical shots of the picnic. Perhaps the bridal veil was symbolically, perhaps it was practical, but it’s a great story. It fits with the broader themes of femininity. Men are placed strategically throughout the film to complement the depiction of the female experience. Sex is a driving factor, though not often named, as the film takes a subtler, visual approach to its storytelling. To the chagrin of early audiences, Picnic at Hanging Rock is more about what’s currently on the screen than what anyone says or does. It feels almost like a gallery of paintings, telling a loose story that you can’t quite articulate but feels complete nonetheless.

The performances are strange in a way that works to the film’s favor. Many of the women, particularly smaller roles, were dubbed over. There’s something not quite right about the viewing experience, and it’s little details like this that enhance the uncertainty of the ensemble. It feels like the camera is doing the heavy lifting, and the women work to lull and disorient the viewer with their charms, anxieties, and tragedy.

I love movies that I can’t understand. The plot is deliberately unsatisfying, but the construction of the movie is similar. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery in just about every way, and it buzzes in my mind like a fly that you just can’t seem to swat. There’s no box in which to file away this movie. The film is slow and challenging, but I see myself returning to its mysteries again one day. It leaves an aching feeling that you and the film have unfinished business, and that’s rare and awesome.

Films Left to Watch: 825

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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“I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.”

Again, it seems like every Western I see becomes my new favorite. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a step back from genre to take a look at masculinity. The elevator pitch: “John Wayne meets Jimmy Stewart”, and sure enough, it delivers.

In the frontier town of Shinbone, the intelligent Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) is robbed by outlaw Liberty Valance while passing through. The town offers no help, only a bumbling sheriff who fears Valance more than anyone. Stoddard is soon integrated into the town, teaching literacy to the townsfolk and building a strange friendship with Doniphon, a familiar John Wayne character who stands up for Stoddard and teaches him that things are different out west. Stoddard grapples with the notion that his books might not have all the answers, and eventually, someone shoots Liberty Valance.

The core tension of the film is that of East vs. West. The law vs. law and order. Pistol vs. paperback. It’s a wonderful exploration of what a lawless West actually means for someone who lives in the comfort of rules. While a simple Western would put John Wayne against Liberty Valance, this film substitutes Mr. Smith on his way to Washington. Jimmy Stewart is a delight in this performance, certainly one of his best, and it’s satisfying to see one of my favorite actors of the time dropped into a different world that I also adore.

The film handles literacy with great care. The town benefits from Stoddard’s teachings, and the classroom scenes are some of the strongest. Ford uses the film to comment on the progress of the nation with nods to the advancement of African Americans and the work of Lincoln. In the almost comically fake Hollywood soundstage, where most of the movie takes place indoors, Ford works mise-en-scène masterfully to make visual suggestions about equality and progress without forcing them into the script too heavily.

I couldn’t recommend The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance more highly. It’s a mature film, clearly one of the later Westerns. It handles masculinity and the changing American West as well as any film could, and it punches hard. This is one hell of a film, and I’d call it essential viewing for the genre.

Films Left to Watch: 826

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My Darling Clementine (1946)

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“I should think that if nothing else, you’d at least be flattered to have a girl chase you.”

I’ve seen two Westerns lately that I need to write about, both by John Ford. It took me a while to get past some biases about Westerns (familiar shoot-em-up/romances playing in technicolor on my grandfather’s boxy television), but I’ve really come to adore them. No two are alike, and they give me a deep sense of satisfaction that only comes when I see a movie that really feels like it’s about people. And Westerns typically feel that way for me.

The film follows lawman Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) in the lawless town of Tombstone, covering the events leading up to the famous OK Corral shootout. Earp takes up the open position of town marshal to avenge the recent death of his brother at the hands of a group of local outlaws. While in town, Earp develops a complicated rivalry with local gunman Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and takes interest in Holliday’s ex-lover, a woman named Clementine (Cathy Downs).

I love how genuine this movie feels. Ken Jennings describes the film by saying, “John Ford redeems himself from having created John Wayne by giving us the real ideal of American masculine cool.” This notion, along with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, has me fascinated. Masculinity in the American Western is somewhat deconstructed in the film, and Earp is presented a pseudo-“John Wayne” performance. There’s a calmness, sometimes discomfort, to Henry Fonda’s performance this is contrasted with Holliday’s hot temper, and there is great on-screen chemistry between the two.

The romance of the film is also interesting. Earp is an awkward suitor, in contrast to the suave perfection of a typical John Wayne performance. Clementine is smart and confident, compared to Chihuahua, who feels like commentary on the shallow writing of women in Westerns. There’s a Shakespearean duality of Earp/Clementine and Holliday/Chihuahua to contrast romantic maturity and make commentary on Hollywood romance. The ending is also surprising and honest, leaving me with a smile on my face.

I’m adoring the Westerns I’ve been watching lately, and I can only hope the trend continue. It’s a beautiful, versatile form that lends itself to wonderful stories. My Darling Clementine is a grounded story of love and revenge that never loses its cool. I’d highly recommend.

Films Left to Watch: 827

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Nosferatu (1922)


“Blood is life.”

Nosferatu is one of the scariest vampires committed to celluloid. His long, slow-moving fingers and eyes like dark portals make for, arguably, the most sinister movie monsters. He’s more creature than man, more lust than logic. He wants flesh, and that’s all there is to it. It’s so simple, it’s scary.

The film is loosely based on Stoker’s Dracula novel, which got Nosferatu into a lot of trouble, forcing most original prints to be destroyed. Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his employer to a remote Transylvania castle where he meets the chilling Count Orlok (Max Schreck), a heartless vampire who hungers for Hutter’s flesh, along with the flesh of his beautiful wife Ellen (Greta Schröder).

I admire the economy of the film, how it moulds Stoker’s complex story into a simpler, more expressionist symphony. Characters are only used as necessary, and the screenplay is cleverly structured around the most interesting character, Nosferatu and no one else. Ellen is arguably the tragic hero, not Hutter whom we’re lead to believe will be our hero, and this makes for a surprising finale that weighs on the audience and ends the film on a strange, somber triumph.

Scenes are constructed expertly, with a careful restraint given to exposition, comedy, and other detractors from the central terror. The film is paced like a nightmare, cutting between events with dream-like fluidity. Hutter, his wife, and the rest of the townspeople, are made to suffer, and the film balances these scenes well. I also enjoyed how Nosferatu wasn’t afraid to travel around, breaking conventional notions of the secluded, manor-bound vampire. (There’s a scene where Nosferatu is a pirate, and I think that’s awesome.)

Nosferatu is short, sweet, and it delivers. It’s a film that puts all its eggs in one basket: in this case, its villain. And it works. Schreck gives one of the most powerful performances you’ll ever see, as if there’s something rat-like and inhuman about the actor himself. It’s a perfect slice of horror from which modern filmmakers could learn quite a bit.

Films Left to Watch: 828

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Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

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“Within a budding grove, the girls think but of love. Hear the radio, drinking tea and to hell with being free. They’ve no idea the bourgeoisie has never hesitated to kill its children.”

I thought it would be a while before I watched Salò. It’s generally considered the most disgusting movie on Criterion and also on the 1001 List, and ironically recommending Salò is one of the hottest “arthouse cinema” memes right now. I remember being afraid of it for a long time. Roger Ebert famously owned the film on Laserdisc but never watched it due to its reputation. Yet, curiosity got the better of me, so here we are.

I’ve read that while the movie is transgressive and horrifying, it’s one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see (unironically). I’ve never seen a Pasolini film, and some people say that Salò really isn’t as shocking as its reputation makes it out to be. Strangely enough, at the Barnes & Noble Criterion shelf during last month’s sale, it was the first movie that caught my eye. I felt the case in my hands and decided I needed to see it.

The setting is 1944 Fascist-occupied Italy: a beautiful landscape nestling a strange but ornate castle. Inside is a disgusting shitshow as a series of socialites and men of power kidnap and rape a group of young men and women. The film is broken into different “circles” reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, and their sexual torture only grows worse as each level deepens. It’s a dismal “story” without the faintest hint of hope, and it will likely exhaust and sadden you until you can’t take any more. Then it gets worse.

The shock value is a prominent aspect of the film, but I think the most harrowing thing is that you hardly get the perspective of the victims at all. There are one or two shots of rebellion where children whisper about how they’re scared, or they defy the rules set in place for them, but these rebels are immediately shut down and punished harshly. Most of the time, we merely see them as cattle: a bulk of naked bodies being paraded and used for the enjoyment of the elite. It is in through these villains, rather than the victims, that we get the perspective of the film. We watch as they choose which children to take, how to control and abuse them, and ultimately how to pick them off. The closest thing to backstory or character development is only for the villains (and the eerie “storyteller” woman that serves as inspiration for the horrors of the castle). Through this limited, dark perspective, Pasolini builds a world where you never start to believe the children will be freed. And spoiler alert, they aren’t.

The movie is beautiful in a twisted cinephile sort of way. Pasolini knows how to wield a camera, and shots are so imaginative that they seem to be the only solace from the horrors of the plot. He relies on Wes Anderson levels of symmetry while also finding fascinating shapes and colors in his offbeat torture-porn setting. In his commentary on the horrors of fascism, we also get a cinematic experiment in beautiful composition of ugly, sadistic subjects, and that certainly makes the movie worth adding to the 1001 List in my opinion.

Is Salò as hard to watch as everyone claims? Yes and no. I think it could easily be the most disgusting movie of its type, but there are lots of types of movies. Raw has the advantage of another forty years of cinematic technique and refined technology to aid its unclean, modern realism. Pink Flamingos is an even dirtier form of realism where the glorification of trash gives the movie its power. I think both of those are harder to watch than Salò for their own reasons, but Salò probably still takes the cake in terms of the last one I’d want to watch again. It’s not just shocking, but dismal and desensitizing. I don’t plan to watch it again soon, but there’s something cinematically comforting (and humanely disgusting) in knowing that I could.

Films Left to Watch: 829

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