Kuroneko (1968, Shindo Kanetô)

I thought I was going to start this post with a witty remark regarding the film’s use of repetitiveness to excellent overall effect, but then the movie ended and, by that time, much of the excellence had drained. Kuroneko is a gorgeous film–Shindo uses theatrical lighting effects for ghostly emphasis, which really works–and for a while it seemed like the writing was going to catch up. The film starts incredibly slow and doesn’t encourage much interest for the first forty minutes because of all that repetition. The scenes are different, but the same… They’re meant to show the passage of time in purely expositional narrative. In some ways, it’s a neat trick for adapting a short story (and I’m surprised Kuroneko doesn’t have that base), but it tries the viewer’s patience. Shindo is asking for advance with every repeat and then, at the end, when he comes up short, it hurts the film. It’s amazing too how he’ll come so close and he won’t make it. Instead of giving a solid narrative, he wants a haunting ending to the film. He could have had a haunting ending too… but he ended the film about thirty seconds early. In some cases, it’d be frustrating, but with something like Kuroneko, which constantly takes the “unbelievable character response” fork in the road, I no longer had my hopes up.

The other major issue with Kuroneko, and it’s probably my issue, is the lack of scariness. It’s a horror movie. Regardless of setting, Shindo’s fine composition, camera moves, and lighting techniques, his script follows many horror movie conventions. Lousy unresolved endings being the predominant feature of horror films. I’m just wondering whether or not a Japanese horror film, set in the pre-urban era, is something I could find frightening. It’s not my culture, it’s not a place where the uncanny would make it different because it’s already different. I kept waiting for Kuroneko to work, but I found I couldn’t traverse the historical, foreign barrier into the film. It might not be me, though. When Kuroneko‘s characters are acting ludicrously to milk another fifteen minutes in running time, their being in this samurai era Japan is essential for the viewer to remember, because as people–with real emotions–their actions don’t work. Only if one takes their culture into account, can disbelief at the littlest things be suspended. Unfortunately, a lot of Kuroneko ends up hinging on special effects and makeup. The special effects are good. The makeup’s overboard. It’s literal instead of discreet… even when it’s trying to be discreet.

The performances are fine. Otowa Nobuko is particularly excellent, since her character gets to emote the most. Nakamura Kichiemon is all right–his scenes with Taichi Kiwako are great–but his character flops around is much, it’s not like his performance was going to be anything more. They all manage to keep a straight-face, which is impressive, given just how theatrical some of the lighting gets. It’s usually pushing at the “too much” line.

I guess it’s a disappointment, not because of the long first act (thirty-five minutes of ninety-four), but because of the promising second. I really don’t like being able to chop a film up with acts so easily, but Kuroneko practically has title cards to signal them. Really good sound design. Forgot about the sound design… excellent sound design.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Shindo Kanetô; director of photography, Kuroda Kiyomi; edited by Enoki Hisao; music by Hayashi Hikaru; produced by Shinsha Nichiei; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Nakamura Kichiemon (Gintoki), Otowa Nobuko (Yone), Taichi Kiwako (Shige), Sato Kei (Raiko), Tonoyama Taiji (a farmer), Toura Rokko (a samurai) and Kanze Hideo (Mikado).


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The Woman in White (1948, Peter Godfrey)

I’m not sure what’s more impressive in The Woman in White: Max Steiner’s exceptional score or Sidney Greenstreet’s performance. Both are phenomenal–it’s probably Steiner’s finest score. Greenstreet’s performance of the film’s cogent, ruthless villain is not just one of his finest performances, but one of the finest villains in film history. I’ve seem the film before, but somehow Greenstreet’s endless supply of sinisterness made me frequently question the ending I remembered.

Almost everything else about The Woman in White is excellent–not on the level of those two particulars–but, overall, excellent. Peter Godfrey knows how to construct a shot–and especially how to move a camera–and there’s some great comic moments in the film, which is not, overall, comical at all. John Abbott is great as a wacky recluse, John Emery is great as Greenstreet’s sidekick. Great’s a word I’d use a lot to describe aspects of The Woman in White… like Agnes Moorehead, she’s great in a difficult role. (No surprise). However–I was just going to say the editing isn’t great, but it isn’t just the editing–The Woman in White has some drastic changes in its narrative and they hamstring the film.

The first half of The Woman in White, with Gig Young starting a new job as a drawing instructor for wealthy Eleanor Parker who comes across a strange girl, recently escaped from an asylum (also Parker), is fantastic. Absolutely wonderful. Here’s the best direction in the film, the best part of Young’s performance and two good roles for Parker. Alexis Smith is good as the friend who’s got the crush on Young, even though Young and Parker (as the wealthy heiress, not the escaped mental patient) are getting romantic. Young and Parker have great chemistry, regardless of the role Parker’s playing. Young’s new to the estate, just like the viewer, and the film draws them both in at the same time. It’s masterful.

Then it skips ahead some months and now it’s Smith the film’s following, except not really, because Greenstreet eventually locks her in a room and then it follows Greenstreet for a long time. Parker’s wealthy heiress is poisoned so that role is made inessential and the mental patient role doesn’t have quite enough for her to do (though there are some nice special effects of the two of them in the same frame). Young and Smith have no chemistry as their romance takes off and the film drags on and on. Greenstreet’s great in this part, best in this part, and his scenes with Smith do a lot for the picture. Young’s almost useless, a long fall from the beginning, when he’s absolutely fantastic.

Overall, The Woman in White‘s best parts–with the exception of Greenstreet and Steiner–don’t make it to the end. Parker’s performance as the cursed mental patient is wonderful, but the romantic stuff with her and Young in the first half–which goes away–is just as good. By the end, it’s hard to believe Young started out so strong and even Steiner’s score, for the last bit, isn’t as good as it had been. So, disappointing as a whole, but its pieces are stellar.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Godfrey; screenplay by Stephen Morehouse Avery, based on the novel by Wilkie Collins; director of photography, Carl E. Guthrie; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Max Steiner; produced by Henry Blanke; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Alexis Smith (Marian Halcombe), Eleanor Parker (Laura Fairlie/Ann Catherick), Sydney Greenstreet (Count Alessandro Fosco), Gig Young (Walter Hartright), Agnes Moorehead (Countess Fosco), John Abbott (Frederick Fairlie), John Emery (Sir Percival Glyde) and Curt Bois (Louis).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 1: DREAM FACTORY.

Sky High (2003, Kitamura Ryuhei)

Sky High has got to be one of the stupider movies I’ve ever seen. There are other factors contributing to it being bad, as stupidity doesn’t necessarily undo a film, but it’s real stupid. Shockingly, the screenwriter worked on Kitamura’s perfectly fine Azumi. Sky High‘s a prequel to a TV series, which is an adaptation of a manga. I imagine the terrible, stupid story starts in the manga, though it’s possible this filmic adaptation is at complete fault. Kitamura, as director, is solely responsible for this garbage… in fact, as I started watching the film and it appeared to be poor (not unspeakably dumb as it turned out), I consoled myself with the knowledge, eventually Kitamura would get around to a really good fight.

Guess what?

There are no really good fight scenes in Sky High. At the end, it seems like there finally might be one, but no… it’s just a mediocre sequence with promise, as opposed to the rest of the film, where mediocre would be a sterling achievement. I suppose Kitamura’s composition is all right throughout, but not really anything special. There are some good muted special effects but they’re overshadowed by the scenes in the afterlife, at the gate to hell, heaven, and Monster Island, where much of the film takes place. This set appears a deserted warehouse and the set decorator only seems to have spent a half hour getting it set up. The big scary door looks like something out of a Roger Corman direct-to-video from the 1990s. It’s embarrassing and painful to watch.

The performances range from mediocre (and borderline acceptable) to terrible. Kikuchi Yumi is terrible. Her performance is the worst thing I can remember seeing. She’s constantly acting poorly, whether through dialogue or expression. Oh, and her sword fight scene (it rips a lot of the choreography from Azumi) is lame. I never thought I’d see a lame Kitamura sword fight. The bad guy is played by Osawa Takao, who’s not a bad actor… except in this film. It’s so stupid I’m sure he had nothing to work with. As the good guys, Shaku Yumiko and Tanihara Shosuke are both fine. They actually have a wonderful scene at the beginning, when I thought this film was going to be an action-packed remake of Seven, not a demonic possession slash big dumb, stupid, bad cop movie, but not really a cop movie. It’s a remake of Ghost. Someone thought taking a bunch of Ghost and putting it in Japan–oh, and when Kitamura tries to reference Versus, it’s desperate and sad–I don’t know who had that terrible idea, but I imagine they also had a hand in writing this terrible film.

I mean, I kept watching it because I figured there had to be a good fight scene….

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Kitamura Ryuhei; screenplay by Kiriyama Isao, based on a manga by Takahasi Tsutomo; director of photography, Furuya Takumi; edited by Kakesu Shuichi; music by Morino Nobuhiko and Yano Daisuko; produced by Endo Hitoshi, Deme Hiroshi and Yokochi Ikuei; released by Toei Company.

Starring Shaku Yumiko (Mina), Tanihara Shosuke (Kohei), Osawa Takao (Kudo), Uotani Kanae (Rei), Taguchi Hiromasa (Kishi), Toda Naho (Aoyama), Kikuchi Yumi (Kamiina) and Shiina Eihi (Izuko).


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Willie and Phil (1980, Paul Mazursky)

I think I made a mistake before watching Willie and Phil. I went looking for its running time and, in addition to that information, I also found some mention of the film satirizing the 1970s, referencing all sorts of little details in dialogue and such. They were really distracting–not just in dialogue, but also in how Mazursky fits his scenes around the references. They go looking for a car and there’s a whole thing about the Volkswagen bug. It’s annoying and distracting, some fluff to disguise the film’s lack of actual content. There’s some content–of a certain kind–the content of Willie and Phil is Paul Mazursky remaking Jules and Jim, only in New York and having the 1970s as the backdrop. Obviously the stories aren’t the same, but Mazursky’s filling ten years of events into two hours. He’s constantly jumping ahead six months, a year, making it real difficult to connect to the characters.

Well, not quite.

It’s not hard to connect to Ray Sharkey’s Phil. It’s not hard to connect with Margot Kidder’s woman who gets between the two friends–though the Kentucky accent, the whole idea of Kidder’s character being from Kentucky, is a mistake. It’s also difficult to understand her after her first scene, because the character makes a drastic change to fit the story requirements. Anyway, the problem with connecting to the characters is Michael Ontkean. He’s terrible. The character’s poorly written too, but Ontkean can’t handle any of the scenes. There’s this scene with him and Larry Fishburne–three minute scene–and Fishburne doesn’t just run circles around him… I felt embarrassed for Ontkean in the scene. One was acting in millimeters, one was acting in decameters.

Then there’s Mazursky’s narration. He’s very satisfied with his narration. Thinks it’s witty to have the narration say lines of dialogue, then have the characters say them too. The narration is essential, however, because it not only charts the passage of time, it explains to the viewer what characters are feeling. Big, life changing issues are resolved in the narration as opposed to in action. The description of emotions, I’m actually not sure where I am on that usage. Ontkean couldn’t get anything reasonable across, so maybe it is necessary to make the film intelligible.

I wish I could better remember Jules and Jim so I have a nice closing comparison, but instead, I’m going to steal from a friend… oh… the years are wrong. Maybe Billy Joel did steal the idea of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from Willie and Phil, as opposed to vice versa….

The “We Didn’t Start the Fire” music video, of course, does have a better narrative.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul Mazursky; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Donn Cambern; music by Claude Bolling; produced by Mazursky and Tony Ray; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Ontkean (Willie), Margot Kidder (Jeannette), Ray Sharkey (Phil), Jan Miner (Mrs. Kaufman), Tom Brennan (Mr. Kaufman), Julie Bovasso (Mrs. D’Amico), Louis Guss (Mr. D’Amico), Kathleen Maguire (Mrs. Sutherland), Kaki Hunter (Patti), Kristine DeBell (Rena), Alison Cass Shurpin (Zelda No. 4) and Christine Varnai (Zelda No. 3).


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