Friday, February 28, 2014

Zatoichi (1989) (aka Zatoichi Darkness is his Ally)

It begins with an older , greying Zatoichi who is in prison being abused by having his food stolen and soup dumped on the floor. Ichi kneels down and sucks the soup off the ground. He then goes to eat and finds his rice has been stolen. Another poor man gives him some of his rice. The man  tells Ichi that he is being persecuted for trying to make things better.  This leads into a fight between the blind man and another prisoner in which the other man is literally broken apart- this is no longer you're fathers Zatoichi films and for Ichi perhaps the world has gotten a bit worse...

Coming 16 years after the film series ended and 10 years after the TV series the film feels very different than  what had gone before, despite hitting many familiar plot points.  This is very much the work of an older more mature filmmaker. While I don't know how the film relates to the TV series (I know it ignores the end of the series) you can feel how the production of the TV series influenced it with an economy of style and an intimacy that isn't always evident in the earlier films.

The plot of the film runs together several familiar plot threads with Ichi in trouble with gamblers for being too good, rival gangs battling it out,a noble ronin who befriends the blind man,  a man looking to change the world and of course revenge. Please forgive me for not going into detail but frankly in the time it took me to move from TV to computer the details of the plot were gone. What sticks with me is the small human moments the exchanges between Ichi and his friends, the young girl who says she looks like Ichi's mother, the little kids writing around the blind man resulting in flying ink...

And of course the violence. There  are severed limbs and heads not to mention gallons of blood. Ichi is constantly fighting roving gangs sent to kill him. A small army dies by his hand. Its kind of exciting but at the same time there is a sadness to it all. Why can't anyone just learn to leave the poor guy alone?

Shintaro Katsu's portrayal is stunning. Its clear he and the role are one. Every move, every gesture is organic. If you've seen other films in the series you can see just by body language that time has not been kind to Ichi. his movements have moved in on themselves as if he's afraid to move lest he get banged up.This is an older and sadder man.

I'm not sure what the story of the making of the film, but I know that this was one of the last films that Katsu made. It was the last that he directed and while I was watching it I was of the opinion that had the script been less all over the place this would have and could have been the best of the series. The moments, the small character moments are truly amazing and the film's tone and feel haunt me. In a weird way the film on an emotional level is one of the most powerful in the series, and possibly of any film I've seen with Katsu in .

In reading some reviews of the film several people said that when the film was done they were left wanting one more film. It felt to them, as it felt to me, like Katsu was trying to finish with the character and almost did it. This isn't to say that it's a bad film, oh hell no, only that it's almost a great film that seems to have been compromised by he need to give fans a little of everything.

However you feel about the film, if you like the character it behooves you to track down the film and see the final appearance of a screen legend.

Stalingrad (2013)

Russian poster for Stalingrad
When Stalingrad fires on all cylindaers its a violent gut punch of a film about the brutality of war. There are things in this film that blew my mind.  While the film suffers from modern day bookend sequences that belong in another film, the majority of the film is a solid war time drama with incredible action sequences

Stalingrad is the story of three days in November 1942. A large number of soldiers storm and seize a apartment building on the edge of the city that being used by German soldiers as spot to watch over some oil tanks. The building also over looks the way in to the city from the Volga and the Russian want it for that reason. Once they take the building the men are to hold it for three days until reinforcements arrive. Living in one of the apartments is a young girl who becomes friends with and is ultimately protected by many of the soldiers. At the same time the film tells the story of a German Captain who is haunted by a Russian girl who resembles his dead wife. Its a weird love hate relationship between the pair who really don't speak each others language, they hate what they do to each other and yet can't really live without each other. How the lives of all these people intersect over a few days is the film.

There is a great deal more going on but that should be enough to get you started

This is the first Russian film to be shot in IMAX 3D and director Feydor Bondarchuk has made one of the very few films that is actually enhanced by the 3D. No the film doesn't have things coming out at you, but the film's sense of space and place is greatly improved. We get a sense of being in a real place with real people. Yes the story would work with out the depth, but at the same time things are made more real.

To some extent the film is form over content with the battle sequences being more visceral triggers that reach into your gut and twist them up than carefully plotted and planned battles. The early sequences when the German lines are attacked by burning Soviet soldiers or the sacrifice before the battle are like nightmares out of Hieronymous Bosch. Actually all of the battle sequences are affecting even though they are never particularly graphic. At first it's because the filmmaking puts you into the battle, later, in the final sequences, its because we've become invested in the characters.

The film is an odd mix of realistic warfare, rah rah propaganda and old school (Hollywood) war films.  Its mix that doesn't always work, the gear shifts are never completely clean. From a story telling stand point it is kind of understandable since the film is a kind of memory film with the whole film being told by an older Russian man to a trapped girl in Japan. The story is not so much reality, but the story of his fathers (he says he has five) as told to him by his mother. The result  is a soapiness to some of the interactions  Since that is how his mother would have remembered it all.  From a filmmaking stand point I have the sense that some of  the non-battle scenes were constructed after watching some old WW2 films from Hollywood. Its not bad but it keeps a film with truly great sequences in it from being great all the way through since it doesn't fully mesh with the gritty action.

If you want the one glaring mistake or WTF thing in the whole film it's the framing device of the film. Why is the film framed as a story being told to someone in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011? There is no reason, especially since we never see the face of the person telling the story. For whatever reason, better or worse the device never manages to link past and present. Actually I don't think they ever make an effort to link the two with the result that when we shift back from 1942 to now film deflates.

Slight deflation aside this film is largely a kick ass war film. If the devil is in the details, then in this film the pleasure is in the war scenes. They are spectacular and I'm looking forward to seeing the film again on an IMAX screen just to see them.

One of the few times I'll say that a film is worth paying to see it in 3D

Treefort Film Festival announces the line up and so does The Music Festival

Steve here. 

Earlier today I got an email with a press release concerning the Treefort Fest that had links to the films, music and other goodies that are occurring at this years festival. I was to say the least excited, especially since one of the best films from last year Bending Steel is playing there.(Trust me it worth a trip to Boise to see it and demonstration that will follow)

I'm going to be very honest and tell you I have not gone through all the information, I was at the day job when I got the email, and I was out until late tonight so I'm giving you what I have without checking it out myself. Expect more posts with commentary and updates as they occur.

If you have questions do contact the people at the festival because based on my interaction with them they are wonderful kick ass bunch. (And apologies for putting the Film Fest first this is a film website)

And now the official press release:


Music fest schedule also announced

Treefort Music Fest - taking place March 20 - 23 in downtown Boise - is announcing details about some of it’s non-musical offerings.

Subject to capacity limitations, Treefort Music Fest pass holders will be granted entry to the these non-musical offerings. Hackfort and Treefort Film Fest passes can be purchased separately. Storyfort events are free and open to the public. For more details, or to purchase passes, visit


Treefort’s Film Fest will screen over fifteen feature films accompanied by short films, workshops, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers.

Feature films include:


Presented by Filmmaker Magazine

Live Q&A with Director Eddie Mullins after the screening

Rich Hill

Sundance 2014 Grand Jury Prize winner for documentary feature

Skype Q&A with filmmakers to follow

The Immortalists

This film will premiere at SXSW 2014. Treefort film fest attendees will be the second audience in the world to see it.

Bending Steel

The filmmakers, along with the star of the film, Chris Schoeck, will be in attendance. Schoeck will literally put on a steel bending performance after the screening.

View the full list of films and show times at


Treefort artist Dan Deacon will provide the keynote presentation during Hackfort, a technology conference. Deacon will discuss the app he developed that gives his audience members a chance to control the light shows of his concerts, via their smartphones.

Hackfort will feature a discussion and demonstration of “Watson” – the computer that trumped two Jeopardy grand champions -- with IBM employees Will Reilly and Jack Thornton.

Hackfort will also host a hardware and software workshop, allowing participants to either

creating their own musical instrument, or learn how to make an iOS app.

More Hackfort events are listed at


Storyfort, a series of literary events to take place during the festival, will host a publishing panel featuring local writers, presses and editors. Storyfort will also include presentations by novelists such as Jessica Anthony and Jeff Chu, as well as poets Emily Kendall Frey, Michael Earl Craig, among many others.

Tyler McMahon, author of How The Mistakes Were Made, a story of Nirvana-era Seattle band, “The Mistakes” will also present at Storyfort. Boise Rock School will also host a songwriting panel where attendees can polish their lyrical wordplay with local experts.

Additional Storyfort events are listed at

Treefort is also revealing its music schedule, which is available here.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oscar picks and a few notes

With the Oscars Sunday and things going all over the place  I thought I'd take a moment out to give my picks and to make a few notes about some up coming things. Normally I'd do it in the Sunday Nightcap but I have something planned for Sunday night and since the Oscars are Sunday I figured I'd do it here.

At this point I've seen all of the Oscar nominated Best Picture nominees and most of the other films as well. I've got a capsule piece in the works with brief bits on a good number of Oscar and recent films which I hope to get up soon, but for now I'll give you the choices of who I think should win. I'm not going to guess who will win since I don't have a clue as to how Oscar will go...

My choice for best picture based on the choices is Captain Philips. I loved it. It was tense and nail biting and has great performance by Tom Hanks. The next two would be Dallas Buyers Club and Philomena both of which are moving true stories.

Hands down is Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. While my early choice was the un-nominated Tom Hanks, McConaughey is just as good as Hanks and more than deserving of the award.

Judi Dench in Philomena. I don't see the others as being that great. Streep is much too flashy for most of her performance and never disappears into the character like Dench.

Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips is the hands down favorite. He's the only one who showed range. Jonah Hill is my second choice.

Jennifer Lawrence was so good in American Hustle I had no idea who she was for a good portion of the film.

Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity. Say what you will about the film its an amazingly well directed well directed it kind of is missing it's heart.

Ernest and Celestine because its one of the greatest animated films I've seen ever.

The Act of Killing is a punch in the face.

Broken Circle Breakdown breaks my heart still. The other choices are not in it's league at all.

I'm not going into the other categories since they don't interest me or because I can't make a proper choice.

A couple of quick notes:
Despite my best efforts our coverage  of Rendez-vous With French Cinema will be severely curtailed.  I ended up with a bad case of the flu, the worst I've had in decades and it laid me out for the four solid days. This effectively wiped me out of the press screenings (not to mention seeing Rocky on Broadway and dinner with friends). I have plans for some public screenings but they are still in flux and will result in considerably less than the 14 films I had planned. The upshot of this is that next weeks planned French Film Buffet has been replaced by the dark halls of English manor houses in a week largely made up of moody Edgar Wallace Thrillers.

I do have to mention that our SXSW coverage is all messed up as well.  Things have been sliding away, but there is still hope to get you something.

And Randi's Links:
 Brian Cox talks about acting
Which Marvel character belongs to which movie studio.
Bits on Martin Scorsese
History of Godzilla Part 1
Celluloid Heros:NY Cinema and it's Soundtracks
What Difference Does it Make?:A Film About Making Music

Zatoichi's Conspiracy (1973)

Final film in the original series is a return, largely, to the way the series was before the previous two entries with their trippy visuals and slightly disjointed story telling.While the film is a return to what made the series so good, it's also clear the series had lost it's way.

The plot has Ichi returning to his home town. While on the road he is escorted to an inn semi-forcibly. It seems a rich man has taken pity on him and paid for his stay at the inn. What the man doesn't know is that he knows the blind man from childhood, a fact he refuses to believe since it will complicate matters- he's trying to manipulate control of a local quarry. Not standing for the corruption Ichi stands against his old friend, and his yakuza swordsmen.

A solid entry in the series the film is a kind of coda to the series, though that really is the final film which was made some 16 years after this one (and echoes this one). Zatoichi goes home, and in someways so do we in the audience. As I said at the top this is a return to the top this is move back to straight forward filmmaking and away from the experimentation and a return to Zatoichi fighting corruption. He is not, for the first time in many entries a fugitive from the law hiding out.

However just as Zatoichi finds that all is not well at home, his "mother" has passed on, his friend is now corrupt, things are not as he remembered them, we in the audience have a similar reaction. there is a rote-ness to the story (we have been here before) and the tale has been tailored to fit "modern", ie 1973 audience tastes thanks to the introduction of some rebel rousing kids. While I could have forgiven the plot lines familiar story, the kids' story is intrusive (though I think largely to their dress and manner seeming out of place)

This is not to infer in any way that it's a bad film, it's not, it has some really good sequences including Ichi having to escape the mud that he was dumped in. this leads into his reappearance in the home of his enemy looking like a mummy of old. Truthfully the sense of dread and horror in some scenes and emotion in others is some of the best in in the whole series.

I would have loved to have see what the next film in the series would have been...but of course what followed this was the TV series.

Definitely worth tracking down.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Blindman (1971) or Zatoichi in the old spaghetti west

On Saturday Alec was talking about the idea of Zatoichi being a gunfighter. The thing is that back in 1971 Tony Anthony, a man probably best known in the US for starting the 3D craze of the 1980's (His western Comin At Ya was the first film of the cycle), starred in a full bore spaghetti western that was a riff on Zatoichi.

Anthony's blind man is a gunslinger who travels with the help of his horse.His rifle has a bayonet on the end so it's a direct connection to Ichi's cane sword. He is calm fellow who is suffers injustice only long enough to turn the tables. Where Ichi has a reluctance to kill Anthony will just kill you to get what he wants.

The plot of the film has the blind man getting screwed over by a guy named Skunk. Skunk was suppose to help get 50 women to a bunch of miners in Texas, but instead sent them to some bad guys in Mexico. After getting the location from Skunk he blows up the building he and his friends are in and heads off to get the women back, leaving a trail of dead in his wake.

Now to be honest I'm not going to do a real review of the film. the version of the film I saw, an 85 minute one of You Tube, is a tad choppy. IMDB says the film is suppose to run 105 minutes and based on what I've seen I can believe it. I will say that the film is pretty good and very violent with no one really having any qualm about killing someone dead.

Anthony's take on the character seems perfectly in keeping with the Spaghetti Western ideal of gritty violence. He's a weird melding of say Sabata or Sartana and Zatoichi. If you can imagine one of the legendary smart ass western heroes being blind, then you have Anthony's blind man. While he's more gunslinger than blind samurai, I think h's a valid take on the character simply because to be like Ichi in a gun society would result in him dying pretty damn quick.

Those looking for another reason to track this film down should consider that one of the stars is RIngo Starr as a  bandit named Candy. Its a much meatier role than he normally got, with only his role in That'll Be the Day coming close.

Definitely worth tracking down.

Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

It begins with Zatoichi meeting an old woman on a bridge. When the woman falls through a hole in the bridge Ichi feels obligated to bring the woman's shamisen to her daughter. Arriving in town she finds the woman works in a brothel

One of only two Zatoichi films directed by star Shintaro Katsu, this is a trippy bleak film filled with psychedelic imagery and sound manipulation, amped up colors and realistic violence. While similar  in many ways to the previous entry in the series (Zatoichi at Large) with some of the camera work and images taking precidence over story, this film works better in that its clear from the start that we are not in typical Zatoichi territory. This is a Zatoichi of the mind or of legend- watch the gambling scenes about a third of the way in and you'll see a film that's playing with the tropes of the series and telling a good story. In its way it's more a psychological riff, with director Katsu aiming more to create a mood. Its a kind of Euro-art house samurai movie.

Does it work? Largely it does. Granted it doesn't have a perfect story, but the film does have mood to burn. The film also has some wicked violence including several nasty turns by the villains who, among other things drive a pike through Ichi's hands so he can't hold a sword (Don't worry that doesn't stop him)

For me the real problem with this film, like several of these final films, is that there was some point where Ichi  became a kind of caricature of himself. For some reason he's become an outlaw always on the run. His abilities also became even more super human.I'm guessing that this was the result of the character becoming so hot that you had the Yojimbo and One Armed Swordsman cross overs. While not a bad film I completely understand why the series only lasted one more entry before shifting gears and ending up on television.

How would I rate it? Middle of the pack. While the story is just okay the flourishes that Katsu brings to the film make it worth seeing.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Bag Man (2014)

Two weeks since I saw it The Bag Man is still kicking around in my brain. I went in expecting a disposable film, instead I found a film that's is going to confound some, and thrill others with its mix of film noir and psychological fairy tale

Looking like a deranged studio exec, Robert DeNiro asks John Cusack to go and pick up a bag for him. If Cusack can get him the bag- and then deliver it to him, he'll be given a small fortune. The catch is, that no matter what he does, no one, especially Cusack is to look in the bag. Cusack gets the bag at the expense of his cellphone and some blood. He then high tails it to a seedy motel in the back woods where he is supposed to wait for DeNiro.  How long? Until he shows.

The trouble is Cusack is twitchy. Odd people keep crisscrossing the parking lot and banging on his door. There's a six foot hooker who looks like a cosplay Wonder Woman, her boss (who looks like a road show version of Samuel L Jackson's Nick Fury), a weird little person, the strange desk clerk and some well dressed guy looking for a cork screw. Things are just not right and his boss is nowhere to be found.

As the night goes on things become complicated even as they also become very violent.

Quick question how many of you know The Cat  by Marie-Louise Von Franz?  I'm guessing not many. I'm also guessing that you probably have  no idea who Von Franz was. For the record she was a psychologist who was a follower of Jung. The Cat isn't so much a story as her deconstruction of a Romanian fairy tale. She did it so that she could teach how stories could be deconstructed in therapy.

I mention this for two reasons: first because the story is splashed across the poster for the film as if it will mean something to the average Joe. To be honest I had to look up what the story was since I had no idea, and as is my norm I try not to look at the press notes before I see a film (I want to see a film as most people do without helpful pointers). The second reason is that if you know what the story is, or at least who Von Franz was, then you'll have an idea that this is a film that has a bit more on it's mind then just being a dark and darkly funny crime drama, a more apt description would be as a psychological philosophical film noir fairy tale

Taking the film on its own terms, we have a very good, occasionally quite nasty crime drama. The film plays very much like a modern day noir film but with a wicked sense of humor. As strange and ominous the supporting characters are, one can’t help but laugh at them. Crispin Glover’s desk clerk is just weird, as are everyone else who wanders through the film. Hell even the clerk at a liquor store seems slightly odd and all he does is stand there. The scene where DeNiro punches a woman in the face is both shocking in its suddenness and funny for the dialog around it.

The performances are for the most part uniformly excellent. I completely understand why everyone in the cast took their roles. Cusack gets to turn the man of action on its head and DeNiro creates one of the more frightening villains of his career with a character who is incredibly intelligent and terrifyingly violent. (For the record the worst performance is by the guy playing the attorney at the end who is so bad you have to wonder what he did to get the role)

For the most part I really like the film but at the same time I have a slight reservation about the film- I kind of knew where it was going. (A word of warning I may let slip with a couple of spoilers from here on so if you don’t want to know don’t read on)

I’m not too sure that giving the source of the film on the poster is really such a good idea. As I’ve explained I don’t think most people will know what it is, however if you do look up what it is you’ll find rather quickly that the film while very much a crime film is also very much a fairy tale or a fable. Actually if you know the tropes of fairy tales and fables you can see where it’s going pretty early on.

On its most basic level the film is a kind of knightly quest with the knight (Cusack) sent on a quest by his lord (DeNiro) in order to obtain some treasure. There are of course conditions (don’t look in the bag) a damsel to save from monsters (all the other people at the motel). Of course we end up with a battle between “father and son” for the right to have a place in the world. The nature of the tale is that after all of the dangers and perils our hero will overcome every obstacle and win the day and the lady. It’s the sort of story we’ve been telling each other for centuries, which for me is the problem, once I saw the fairy tale framework I knew how it was all going to play out.

One shouldn’t take that as any real knock on the film, it’s not, I mean this really is a wickedly violent film with some great smart ass lines. I love that the film is actually trying to do more than just be a down and dirty noir update. What I’m bothered by it that once I knew the forest we were operating in the edge dulled slightly. I knew who was going to be left standing.

Quibble aside this film impressed the hell out of me. I think the fact that I was expecting it to be just another destined for home video dump allowed it to sneak up and surprise me. It wasn’t until I started the film and the first scene between DeNiro and Cusack started playing out that I realized that there was something special here. A real find and a film to make an effort to see.

Zaotichi at Large (1972)

Possibly my least favorite of the whole Zatoichi series, the film is set in motion at the start when Zatoichi delivers a woman's baby in a field of wheat. She dies in childbirth so Ichi takes the baby and tries to find the baby's relatives. When he finds them he discovers that the family has problems of it's own (the baby's aunt is going to be forced into prostitution) Ichi of course gets involved.

For me the film doesn't really work on most levels. Yes the has some great performances but the direction and the craft of the filmmaking doesn't hold up.

The trouble starts at the top with a child birthing scene that should be frightening and instead plays like a raucous  comedy. There is something about Katsu waiving the baby doll around that is much too funny.

Thinks aren't helped by the score which seems to be the sort of serious Montavani or a less funky version of some of the sounds that came out of Philadelphia. While not truly bad the music sounds dated as if it was lifted from your parents record collection. Granted the opening Ballad of Zatoichi which mixes a classical recitation with the funky score is interesting but nothing I'd want to hear again.

The pacing of the film and the story progression doesn't work. While running a brief 88 minutes the film feels several times longer. Scenes seem to drag and the plot seems to flounder around in a way that most of the other Katsu produced films don't.

The real sin of the film is that so much of the film is in close up. We don't see scenes or locations but faces. We see parts of the action not the whole thing. While in 1972 this may have been daring and unique now it plays badly and seems dated. I hate the look of the film. Additionally several sequences seem to have been arranged with too much of an eye to looking good rather than telling the story- the fight that concludes the film for example is more silly than anything else.

Give the film points for trying something new but if you have to skip one Zatoichi film, this is the one to skip

Monday, February 24, 2014

Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman (1971)

Steve here- this is a tag team post. Its taken a large number of us here at Unseen to get this post done. It went through several hands before Hubert started to put it together,but circumstance required that I finish it. Actually the final draft is all mine, largely because I can't write to Hubert's level and i couldn't blend the words seamlessly.

A Hong Kong Japanese co production this film brings together Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi with a variation of Jimmy Wang Yu's  One Armed Swordsman. The One Armed Swordsman was a character that Wang Yu would play in one form or another for much of his career. The original character appeared in a two or three Shaw Brothers films before Wang Yu took it on the road. The character was in many ways similar to Zatoichi in popularity.

The collision of the two characters is set in motion when Wang Kang (Yu) meets a Chinese couple and their son. They offer to take Kang where he wants to go because they know the way and I assume speak Japanese which he doesn't. While on the road the group is forced to step off the road for a tribute train going by. When the boy gets up to chase his kite one of the swordsman in the front attempts to kill the boy, however his mother takes the blow. All hell breaks loose and Kang steps in to fight the samurai. Kang escapes and the remaining samurai kill all (most) of the witnesses.  Zatoichi finds the son mourning his father and takes him away.

What follows is a dance as Zatoichi and Wang Kang crisscross paths repeatedly with Wang on the run with the boy and Ichi trying to sort it all out- and ending up with a price on his head for his efforts.

The notes in the Criterion box set mention that until the film never received an official home video release anywhere in the world until after 2000. I'm guessing this is the reason that the film has so many legends and stories told about it. The best known tale is that there were two versions of the film one for Hong Kong and one for Japan. The notes say that the only version that exists is the one in the set, and I'm guessing that's probably true. Alternate versions of popular films such as this tend to show up somewhere like home video. I've never run across anyone who has ever said that they've actually seen it, which leads me to believe that IMDB and the stories about it are wrong about an alternate cut - I mean where would you put a second fight between Kang and the priest?. (If you've seen it let me know, more importantly if you know where I can get a copy let me know)

The talk of an alternate version reminds me of the talk that there was an alternate cut of King Kong vs Godzilla where Godzilla wins. While the ending is essentially the same in both versions, there are differences (beyond the American actors) with the order of events different, more time on  Kong island and a few other changes. I'm guessing that no one has undertaken a release of the Japanese version in the US is that the brown face portrayal of the native on Kong Island is kind of offensive in today's world.

For me the film is a mixed affair. While it's a solid entry in the series with lots of the Zatoichi riffs at work from an uneasy alliance that goes side ways, bad guys out to cover their asses causing more trouble, a child in need and of course a person one would think being above reproach turning out to be the bad guy. I like that a running line through the film is about the lack of communication between the two heroes who end up fighting each other needlessly because  they simply can't talk to each other.

The film gets into trouble when Japanese and Hong action styles collide. The trouble is that the wu xia wire work of Wang Kang feels completely out of place in the realistic world of Zatoichi. The leaping seems silly, or at least in the context of Zatoichi's world. He does these great leaps up and over people and it all feels wrong. Also seeming kind of wrong is the short sword he fights which kind of makes you feel that he should be getting his butt kicked.

What I do like is the final confrontation between the two stars. Its a neatly filmed little spaghetti western style shoot out done with swords instead of guns. (Which reminds me in the same  year as this film was made, over in Italy actor director producer Tony Anthony turned out his western riff on the character BLIND MAN-a review will run Wednesday)

As films go this is a solid but not particularly taxing entry in the series. Definitely worth seeing, especially if you don't mind the mashing up of film styles.

Flesh of My Flesh (2013) Film Comment Selects 2014

Director Denis Dercourt promises to talk about the film afterward if we haven't walked out

Denis Dercourt's head trip nightmare horror film has begins towards the end with Anna, played by Anna Juliana Jaenner locked up in a mental facility. The story then drifts back in time and we see the events that put her there. It seems her daughter has an eating disorder and in order to keep her going he mother has discovered that a steady diet of human flesh and blood is required.

A strange off kilter film that was shot over 6 months using digital cameras with the lens held in front of the camera body and manipulated the film looks like what you think a memory might be like if committed to film. Strange bits of the image are out of focus,and what we do see clearly isn't always what we think should be. Its a weird effect that takes a little while to get used to. Once it clicks we're no longer here but inside Anna's head and things are troubling.

Anna is a strange character who mostly stares, springing to life occasionally as if someone flipped a switch. She is one of the least connected characters I've ever run across in film and her performance is both of putting and fascinating. You could almost argue it's a non-performance but at the same time you can tell that something is going on behind the eyes.
Gavin Smith and Director Dercourt intro the film

During the Q&A that followed the film Dercourt said that the film was based on an actual case that happened in Berlin. He had been talking about a pair of guys who had been eating each other, when someone mentioned the case that became the film. Dercourt got some details but not a great many, preferring to be able to fill in the way he wanted.

How is the film?

Its good, but I'm not quite sure beyond that. The film is a decidedly unique film that takes a while to click with and then once you click with it it takes a while to sort out. The film simply doesn't do what we expect it should. I was talking to a couple of people Saturday night after the film and they didn't like it. The film wasn't what they expected, it didn't do what they thought it should. In a weird way it wasn't conventional enough (Which is weird considering that one of the people I see frequently at very unconventional films). The film is very much Anna's POV and if you can't click with that you'll be in trouble.

I like it, but I don't know if I can give it a completely fair shake since as Gavin Smith feared in his intro and at least person said to me after the film, it suffers being seen after the similar Cannibal. That said definitely worth a shot if you get the chance to see it.
Post film discussion

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

There's madness and manic energy all over Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, the 21st film in the series. There's blood, there's slapstick, there's pathos, there's partial female nudity and lots of male butts, and when the violence occurs, it's a frenzy. There's so much going, so much to consider; I enjoyed the movie immensely, but admittedly I may have to watch it again to think about where I'd rank it in this whole series. So much of the time watching Fire Festival, I laughed in joyous disbelief at how badass and how strange things got as the film progressed.

Fire Festival is packed with enough ideas for maybe three separate films, though they're jammed together into this single movie, with the three strands linked by a loose consideration of masculinity, whether through notions of moral duty or assertions of strength. Part of the plot involves Zatoichi dealing with a jealous husband who believes that our blind hero slept with his wife (played by the gorgeous Reiko Ohara). This nameless ronin who ominously wanders the shadows like some analog for Robert Mitchum is played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai, who you may recognize from Yojimbo, Harakiri, Ran, The Human Condition, and many other great Japanese films. His sword work is spectacular, with confident, forceful, arcing strikes, often with his katana glinting through bodies in the dark. And yet Fire Festival is not just a tale of misplaced jealousy, but also one of men treating women like chattel. Zatoichi saves the ronin's wife from a mistress auction. It's a particularly memorable scene in which a crowd of dirty old men pay good money to buy a woman and use her as they will. It's as seedy as it sounds, and of course Zatoichi, who's good at heart, saves the day (but apparently only for the fairest of them all).

There's also the matter of Umeji, an effeminate pimp and would-be gangster played by the androgynous Pîtâ aka Peter, who also appeared in Ran and (frighteningly) the sixth Guinea Pig film. The gender play and odd sexuality of Pîtâ was something I didn't really expect from a Zatoichi movie. It makes for a comic and surreal scene between Shintaro Katsu and Pîtâ later in the film, one that makes me wonder how it played in Japan in 1970. Watching the scenes with Umeji, I began to ponder various expectations of masculinity and how they're being subverted, especially in chambara films and especially given the context of would-be yakuza. There's a way of being classically masculine in this cinematic world (i.e., Katsu characters, Nakadai characters, Toshiro Mifune characters), but Pîtâ upends this idea, even just at the surface level: he's a pimp, but he looks as pretty as the women he's pimping.

There's also Lord Yamikubo to deal with, a cruel blind crime boss who serves as a kind of anti-Zatoichi. He's played by Masayuki Mori in semi-cataract contact lenses, though his blindness doesn't seem as debilitating or complete as Zatoichi's. (Mori's also appeared in Rashomon, Ugetsu, and The Bad Sleep Well.) Yamikubo's a good foil for Zatoichi, and more a mover of pieces than a fighter himself. He understands the longings in Zatoichi's soul, and he seduces Zatoichi with this sense of mutual understanding. He even suggests directly to our hero that Zatoichi's existential plight is his own. Of course, he's a hypocrite and a mirror opposite who seeks to negate Zatoichi by whatever means possible.

Fire Festival is the last of these films directed by Kenji Misumi, who has five others in franchise to his credit (The Tale of Zatoichi, Fight Zatoichi Fight, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, Zatoichi Challenged, and Samaritan Zatoichi). There are flashes of artifice, impressionism, and expressionism in this film that seem new to Misumi's bag of tricks, and which help pave the way for some of the bits in his Lone Wolf and Cub films. Each of Misumi's contributions to the series have seemed like essential viewing for the gestalt experience of Zatoichi as a character. (Overall, this is a series with no awful films, just some that are not as good as the others.)

While the penultimate battle of Fire Festival is inspired, the most memorable set piece in the entire movie, and one of the standouts of the Zatoichi series, has to be the battle in the bath house. What begins as a chance to unwind becomes an explosion of madness. Throngs of tattooed yakuza come at Zatoichi, with everyone fighting bare-ass naked. Think that fight scene in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises but multiply it by 10. The fighting itself would be remarkable since Katsu always moves well with a sword and the action is always staged with great in-frame movement, but what really makes the scene is Isao Tomita's score. Sheer god damn anarchy. It's like someone took the Batman '66 fight theme and married it to sneering guitar psychedelia and the most blaring work of Steroid Maximus. It's zany, it's dangerous, it's impossible to pin down, and it shouldn't work since the pieces are so tenuously joined and threaten to undo the whole, but it holds together precisely because audacity is a special kind of adhesive. So too is the state of this film.

Nightcap: Revisiting Ultimate Christian Wrestling and some words on Hitchcock's Elstree Calling

As you know I recently got a copy of Jae Ho Chang's Ultimate Christian Wrestling on DVD because I had contributed to the Kickstarter campaign to get the film really finished. We here at Unseen had connected to the film when in played the Korean American Film Festival New York in 2012. We ran multiple reviews (here and here ).and Mondocurry did an interview with the directors.

Watching the film again I was struck by how much better it played a second and third time. Say what you will this is a super little film that is even better than I first took it to be. To be perfectly honest when I saw the film the first time it had two things going against it, first it was as an on line screener which is not always the way to go since it meant I had to watch it on my laptop. That's not the best way to see the film. The other thing it had going against it is the notion going in that it's about wrestling or Christianity. I know the film  quickly shakes you of that feeling, but at the same time not being able to instantly click with the film, having to wait until about a half hour in before the so that's what this film is feeling kicked in lessened the enjoyment.

Seeing the film again, kind of for the first time I was delighted to see just how good it it. The film which is about a bunch of guys who try to wrestle as a means of spreading the word of God is amazing. This is a marvelous portrait of a bunch of guys who want to use their passion to do God's work. Actually it's just a great portrait of a really cool bunch of guys.

I don't want to re-review the film. Largely because I can't say much more than I did the first time other than to say it's better than I first thought. I did however want to take this time out and say that this is one to put on your track down lists. I've had some conversations with Jae-ho Chang and right now the film's only available to the Kickstarter supporters, but it will soon be available to everyone. Jae-ho has promised to let me know when that happens so that you can get copies when they become available.


Tuesday at the Film Forum they are running the rarely screened Elstree Calling. The film is one of those all singing all dancing all sound film reviews that studios cranked out to bring people in to the early sound films. Its more a curio than anything and for completeists.

I'm not a fan of the film and I never reviewed it here at Unseen however I did at IMDB. My IMDB review reads as follows:

Hitchcock's WTF movie. He's co-director of a static early sound film that is the British version of the all singing and all dancing review films that Hollywood do in the late 20's early 30's. Only it's less opulent and it has a real feeling of being a filmed stage play. It also suffers from weak music and dancing and unfunny comedy bits.

I know the surviving prints are shorter than then what it once was which is probably better that way. Since some of the bits seem to go on way too long.

You're either going to love this or hate it.

For me once was enough.


For those curious as to where Unseen is going over the next few weeks here’s the major marching orders:
-This week we end the Month of Zatoichi
-The first week in March is a look at nine titles playing at Rendezvous with French Cinema.
-This is followed by a week of films that played the first week end of the New York International Children’s Film Festival (even more reviews will be appearing all through the month)
- Then a long time in coming (ie. It’s been moved around numerous times since October) look at semi-recent animated films.
-This will be followed by three weeks of “random titles” some of which will hopefully get bumped for coverage of New Directors New Films.
-Mid April to the first week of May will be three weeks of Tribeca coverage.(with perhaps a stop by Subway Cinema’s Old School Kung Fu series Easter weekend)
-In May we step away from the modern day with a step back with three classic film series- Lash La Rue, Dr Kildare and Kirby Grant and Chinook. And we finish things out with some classic adventure films
-After that I’m lining up some random titles to see how they shake out- but look for reports on some Cinerama titles, Ghibli Shorts and horror films.- which takes us into mid-June and will put us on the cusp of the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts.

Of course expect reviews of new films -with a new DeNiro film called The Bag Man and the Russian 3D IMAX war film Stalingrad being reviewed this week- and more coverage of film festivals including more Film Comment Selects titles, some SXSW titles and who knows what else. I’m also talking with Randi about reviving her Secret Cinema as a regular weekend feature. So there is tons of stuff coming.

And now as we near the end , a look at some links ala Randi.
A reference to know to appreciate True Detective
Old Films that fall into Public Domain
50 works of video art (Including the Cremaster films)
The fate of one Godzilla suit
Illustrated battle of farts
Classic Movies in miniature style

And finally because I Bully asked what I did with the third birthday picture, I close with that.

Cannibal (2013) FIim Comment Selects 2014

A neatly dressed middle aged man named Carlos quietly goes threw his life in a small Spanish town as a tailor of great talent. He knows all the right people and is even working on making a replica of a ceremonial cloak for the church. However Carlos is what the title says and when a beautiful young woman moves into his building things get complicated.

Deeply disturbing matter of fact story produced groans through the audience of "Oh God No" at one point at the screening last night. The reaction was not because of what we saw but what we thought was going to happen. That's the power of this film, its all implied by either shot selection or by the wickedly fantastic sound design. Nothing is graphic, nothing is overt, the film shows us a few things and then lets us fill in the rest.

This is a film of silences. There isn't a lot of dialog, Carlos is a man of few words. Much of the dialog early on is simple pleasantries,later on, especially toward the end the words are carefully chosen. Because the words are so fleeting, ultimately the Carlos we see is a watcher not a doer, the performance by Antonio de la Torre had to be spot on to convey the world of emotions inside Carlos, and it is. de la Torre gives whatis probably one of the best performances you'll ever see but its so damn understated that you'll never notice just how great it is. Its Oscar worthy, but they'd never give him one because it looks like he isn't doing anything when he's doing everything.

The first ten minutes of this movie is a brilliant set piece. The opening titles play out as we watch a couple at a gas station from a distance. We think its a throw away and that we'll join the couple and go on our way, instead when the titles end as the car pulls away, things flip. A car window closes and we realize we've been watching the couple from inside a car the whole time. From there we watch as a car crash occurs, the woman is removed from the car and Carlos takes he to the cabin in the mountains. What follows is disturbing in its matter-of-factness and implication. Its also the point where we are hooked.

After the film there was a great deal of discussion by a group of film goers in the back of the theater, They loudly (and I do mean loudly I was sitting way down in front at the Walter Reade) arguing about the film and what it was about and why it didn't do certain things. They seemed not to be able to handle the fact  that this isn't a conventional horror story,but really a character study. They wanted more "drama" and less life.

In someways they may be right, but at the same time the fact that the film doesn't create complications, doesn't go through twists and turns and show gore,makes it more chilling, more frightening and infinitely more haunting. The final sequences are much more touching and much more of a gut punch in a sad way simply because Carlos is never made out to be anything more  than just a guy. The fact that he's never shown to be a classic monster, even though what he does is monstrous, is the disturbing part because this time out as we watch a horror movie, we realize, really realize that monster could be us.

One of the finds of 2014. Go see it when it plays Wednesday at Film Comment Selects.Details here

Legend of Sarila (formerly The Frozen Land) (2013) BAM Kids fest 2014

I returned to the BAM Kids Fest for the first time in two or three years and found it warm and friendly. The parents were cool, the kids well behaved and the atmosphere really cool. Of course it wasn't geared to a single grown up, but if I had a kid I'm sure they would have a good time.

The film I saw was THE LEGEND OF SARILA. Its about an Eskimo shaman (Christopher Plummer) who years before was heart broken when his sons were killed while hunting with another Eskimo. They had been struck by lightning but he still blamed the other hunter. He was so heart broken that he drove out his wife and has made every effort to kill the son of the now dead hunter. In an effort to get revenge he has contacted dark spirits so as a result the goddess who looks over the clan has caused the animals to stay away.  Three months on of no animals the shaman's ex-wife tells the tribe of Sarila, a land to the north where there is plenty of animals to hunt and other food is abundant. Figuring that no one will return from the journey the shaman sends the object of his hate, and unintentionally his two friends to find the lost land.

A really good story suffers from some okay animation. Perhaps its seeing what might otherwise be a direct to DVD film on the big screen, but the animation looks a tad anemic at times. Its serviceable and the animal designs are adorable. Actually once the trip is set in motion you won't care because by then you'll be hooked on the story and want to see how it comes out.

Additionally give the film bonus points for the spiriual nature of the take. There is a weight to it all that you don'tsee in kids films. Additionally give the film a hand for being scary and having people don't see that every day.

I recommend the film when it hits home video.

I do have to ask the people at BAM to do something about the woman who did the into to the film. I suspect it;s the same nincompoop who pissed me of the last time.  She came out and introed the film and spoke down to the kids,actually she spoke to the kids as if they were three years old. That would be fine, but most of the kids around me were around ten and they had looks on their faces as if they couldn't understand who this woman was. Several were laughing at her. I couldn't understand what she was doing since the film is supposed to be for 8 to 11 year olds and as I said  she treated them as if they were infants or stupid.

To be honest the last time I was really turned off by it and seeing it again left me puzzling over it. Why is this happening? I ask this in all seriousness since in two weeks the New York International Children's Film Festival starts and they never ever talk down to their audience. I've gone to I don't know how many NYICFF screenings over the years and never did anyone do what this woman seems to do at BAM. Get rid of her, kids don't deserve to be spoken to like they are stupid.

There ends the lecture.

And if you can forgive the twit, bring the kids and go to Kids Fest.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

The American remake of Zatoichi is a decade-spanning series about a blind gunman. His cane hides a gun of some kind, maybe a rifle or a shotgun. Probably a shotgun (maybe a sawed off one, this is close range after all).

Remakes of other samurai films might lead one to believe that this is a Western of some sort, but there are plenty of those already. I think it should be in the modern day, or maybe even in the near future.

Or maybe it would just be a Daredevil reboot.

While we’re thinking about near future, let’s look ahead to May 6, 2016. Around that day, I am going to be seated in a crowded movie theater, likely an IMAX theater. On the screen will be Batman vs. Superman, the big match up between two of the biggest named in superheroes. And as I sit in that theater watching Ben Affleck beat up Henry Caville or whatever it is that Zack Snyder’s got cooking up, I’m going to think back to today, February 22, 2014.

But then I’m going to think back even further, back to 1970, when Japanese movie goers were given the chance to see Zatoichi, gone for two years after a constant string of 19 films over 7. The masses must have craved the blind swordsman’s return. And when it came, he wasn’t alone. Beside him was Toshiro Mifune as the Yojimbo! Whoa. Imagine the hype that must have surrounded that release. Batman and Superman are cool or whatever, but Zatoichi, man. AND YOJIMBO! DUDE!

That’s where it’s at.

And that’s where I’ll be while Zack Snyder recreates 9/11 again in front of me.

It was sort of off-putting to see the Yojimbo in color. I’m so used to his black and white incarnation that I didn’t even recognize him at first. It just didn’t look right. But it was him, being a drunk. And it made me realize that it has been far too long since I’ve watched a Kurosawa film. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen one since I began writing for the internet. How ridiculous is that?


But the thing that’s strangest about Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo is just how far everything seems to have come in the in the last 5 years. As you may recall, this completes my personal trilogy: Revenge, Vengeance, Yojimbo. And in the time between Vengeance and Yojimbo, a whole lot has happened. Technically, both of the early Zatoichi movies were fine. Never super interesting, but competently made.
Yojimbo is interesting. It begins in the rain and blood flows freely (something oddly lacking from two films about getting even through swordplay). And Ichi wants to get out. He’s done. It’s been two years, and he wants to rest.

And I wondered again if I was missing something. He constantly talks about events from three years prior, last time he was at his hometown. In my personal trilogy, none of these events happen onscreen, and I can only guess that those who followed along from the start might know what he’s blabbering on about. But maybe they don’t.

But the events of three years prior don’t matter; what matters is the time in between. His hometown has been taken over by the yakuza, and also some other things happened. Then there’s mystery, murder, and intrigue, as talk of gold bars held secretly by one man drives everyone on all sides of the fight to search for the treasure.

(So it’s really Zatoichi Goes Looking for Gold, and maybe the American remake would actually be set in the Pirate era and star Johnny Depp.)

But without revenge to back him up, it was hard to follow Ichi’s motivations. He does things that seem contradictory, and while maybe it was all for the gold, there seems to be something beneath that. But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what. A discussion at the end of the film says that Zatoichi isn’t greedy. He’s not in it for the money; juxtaposed against Ichi’s attempt to take the found gold. But does that make him greedy? Not necessarily. Was the gold the driving force the whole time? It couldn’t have been, because if it were he would have just taken the gold and run. There was more to it. Perhaps it something from his childhood that no one could really understand.

(Maybe the remake takes place at Xanadu, and Charles Foster Kane was actually a blind gunman instead of a media mogul.)

With Yojimbo, Zatoichi’s series turns 20. It’s a crazy milestone, if you think about it: One character with twenty adventures (and he’s still not done). That’s television-length levels of commitment, but it’s not like a TV show. Each film is its own narrative, and there is no broader story. In none of the three films does Zatoichi actually have a final goal. He does a thing and then he’s just off to the next thing. I don’t see the endgame, and I don’t know that there is one. I tend to doubt that the last Zatoichi movie really finalizes the character in any meaningful way, because the films aren’t building to something. There’s no specter at the end of the line that haunts him.

So Zatoichi films could exist indefinitely.

He’s the James Bond of Japanese cinema. His stories continue until the people behind them get sick of working on him. But it’s 1970, and despite the hiatus, the character is alive and kicking. Kind of like James Bond. And with this most recent film, it’s as good as Zatoichi has ever looked. Just like James Bond.

So let’s imagine it: James Bond Meets Yojimbo.

That would be amazing.