Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia sticks in my mind the way few movies do, if only because it is so sad and single-minded. I saw it years ago, in a rather butchered version on late-night TV, but even in a truncated form it was still powerful enough to stay with me across nearly two decades. On coming back to it now, I find it even better than I remembered, and meaning far more to me at the age of thirty-three than it did to me when I was nineteen.
Peckinpah is of course the same director who gave us The Wild Bunch, and while the two movies aren’t remotely alike on the surface, it’s hard to see anyone else making a movie this grit-smeared and getting away with it. So far it’s remained a footnote to Peckinpah’s career, but it deserves better: it was one of the best he ever made, and certainly one of the most honest and uncompromising. After having the studios butcher several of his other movies, he made this one his way, and it shows.Read more
When they ask him what his name is, he’s not even sure at first. It’s been so long since it mattered, he’s simply forgotten. He glances out the open window, sees a mulberry field undulating in the wind, and says, “Sanjuro Kuwabatake.” Kuwabatake means mulberry field, and sanjuro means thirty years old. It’s as good a name as any, he figures. Everyone here is so preoccupied with their own problems that for them to call him anything other than yojimbo — “bodyguard” — would be too much like work. Fine by him.
That was the whole reason he came here, you see: to find work if anyone was paying. He was just wandering along one day when he came to a fork in the road, tossed a stick up in the air to see which path to take, and ended up here, where two equally bloody-minded gangs are tussling over what little there is to take hold of. The first thing he saw when he came into town was some mangy cur trotting by with someone’s hacked-off arm in its mouth. Never a good sign. The only person in town who’s prospering is the cooper, from his sales of coffins. It didn’t take Sanjuro long to figure out that neither side is really better than the other here. And since he’s out for himself anyway, maybe the best thing to do is to play the middle as artfully as he can. If they rip each other to pieces, it saves him the trouble of having to do it, right?Read more
I’ve written elsewhere that one of the hallmarks of a truly great filmmaker is that even his “worst” movies are better than most people’s best efforts. This is especially true of Akira Kurosawa; there isn’t a movie of his that I’ve seen that wasn’t in some way worth the time spent watching it. The Sea is Watching is definitely lesser Kurosawa, but the fact that it’s Kurosawa’s work in some way automatically made it interesting for me. It’s not a great movie, but it is a decent one, and those who are already enthusiastic about Japanese cinema in general will at least get to see what the “Emperor” was up to in the last few years of his life.
Set in classical Japan, the film deals with the girls who work in a house of prostitution not far from the ocean. Two of them are seen in particular: the younger and somewhat starry-eyed O-Shin (Nagiko Tono) and Kikuno (Misa Shimizu of Warm Water under a Red Bridge), who is more experienced, more cynical, but also that much wiser about life. Their job is not seen with a great deal of glamour: poverty, boredom, bone-chilling cold, baking heat, and scummy customers are all part of the territory. The other girls regard O-Shin’s optimism as naïveté, but she doesn’t see herself as being naïve, just holding out for something better. Read more
Almost any director of note has one Contractual Obligation movie, a film which they did so that they could go and do better things. In Shinya (Tetsuo) Tsukamoto’s case, his Contractual Obligation project was a film he did right after Tetsuo, ostensibly to show that he could command a professional film crew on a big budget. That film was Hiruko the Goblin, one of Tsukamoto’s less sung earlier works, and for a good reason: it’s fun and silly and essentially a painless way to blow 89 minutes without too much looking back. This should not be your first Tsukamoto film after Tetsuo, though; come back to it only after you’ve seen A Snake of June, Vital, Gemini, Bullet Ballet, and Tokyo Fist. (Heck, even Tsukamoto’s pre-Tetsuo short Denchu Kozo is a fair amount better than this.)
I’m discovering that a surprising number of Japanese horror and fantasy films are in fact adaptations of existing material, be they manga or novels not yet translated into English. The logic is sound: If you keep the budget tight, you can guarantee a return on your investment thanks to the built-in audience for the material. Hiruko was derived from a comic by Daijiro Moroboshi, a manga author who draws heavily on ancient Japanese and Chinese legends for thriller/horror plots, and the movie is essentially a condensed version of a chapter from the annals of one of his recurring characters.Read more
The first half or so of Nid de guêpes has maybe twenty lines of dialogue, total, but that’s only because the movie does such a good job of showing its story that talking about it would be redundant. The remainder is only marginally more wordy, but it follows through on its promise of being one of the tightest, smartest and most enjoyable action movies I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s remarkably overlooked, probably because it only received a direct-to-video release in the Americas (from Lions Gate), and it seems action movies not in English can’t get a theatrical audience unless they star someone named Chan or Chow.
Nid de guêpes, or The Nest as it’s been branded in English-speaking territories, does several things that go against action-movie conventions, but in good ways. First, it sets up its story almost entirely through visuals: instead of people standing around explaining what’s going to happen, we just see it, period. Second, it does away with a good deal of the “I’m the hero, therefore I’m immortal” nonsense that plagues most action films — this isn’t about one hero, but several teams of fighters, many of whom are scared, tired, wounded, or just plain not up to the job. And finally, it’s a French production — not a country most people would think of as being a source of kick-butt action cinema, but here we are. (Actually, France has produced more than a few such movies — Dobermann, for instance, although I wasn’t fond of the way that one disintegrated into noisy, pointless chaos.) Read more
When the Last Sword is Drawn tells a worthy story that is more than capable of holding our attention, but tells it at such length that its final third borders on redundancy. The first two-thirds of the film are excellent, and then we’re treated to an ending so drawn-out and exhaustive (and exhausting) that it robs the rest of the movie of a good deal of its narrative power. I see this kind of thing so often, I’m wondering if it is endemic. Maybe the filmmakers were worried that one ending wouldn’t do the trick, so they stacked as many of them as they could back-to-back.
It’s a shame because what’s good in the movie is very good indeed. Sword deals with the twilight years of Japan’s Shogunate in the mid-1800s, when sympathies were divided between the old feudal system and the possibilities of creating a new, more modern Japan. The Shogunate’s Shinsengumi, an elite guard of sorts, came into being to protect the old order from all enemies, foreign or domestic, but few people imagined the Shinsengumi would eventually become one of its own worst enemies as loyalties grew divided and their power waned. Other movies have also examined the Shinsengumi’s rise and fall — Gohatto, for one, or the as-yet-untranslated The Men Who Assassinated Ryoma. Sword is actually closest in spirit to Twilight Samurai, though, another movie about men who are faced with the grim prospect of becoming historical irrelevancies.Read more