Discovering Kurosawa: High and Low

highandlowKurosawa was better known for his period pieces, so I’ve unconsciously gravitated to those first as I delve into his work. But he made plenty of contemporary films, and High and Low is considered one of the finest. It’s both a domestic drama and a crime thriller, and almost literally a splicing of the two: the first hour is confined to a family home before the case moves outside to the sweltering streets of Yokohama in summer.

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Ash vs Evil Dead Prep: Army of Darkness

army-of-darknessWe began with disappointment, continued with excitement, but sadly end with more disappointment.

I expected to have a ball with Army of Darkness, that it would build on the dazzling formalism of Evil Dead 2 with the added spark of fantasy and a medieval setting. But just as the first film has too much gore, this one has too much slapstick. The seedy, sexist overtones aren’t pleasant to watch either, whether or not they’re mocking action movie machismo. The trilogy functions as its own tonal spectrum: the first film is too gory and dark and the third too silly and overblown, with the second striking just the right balance between the two.

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Ash vs Evil Dead Prep: The Evil Dead

evildeadAsh vs Evil Dead, the TV series sequel to the original Evil Dead films starts on October 31. As is becoming increasingly common thanks to the rise of streaming services in Australia, I’ll be able to watch it fast-tracked without subscribing to Foxtel or forking out for an iTunes season pass, and in HD and without ads to boot. Stan is streaming it a few hours before its US broadcast.

Given the cult status of the original films and this unusual TV series continuation with the original star (Bruce Campbell) and director (Sam Raimi), I’m going to check it out. But I’d also like to be able to appreciate how the story is finally resuming and how the passage of time has changed how the material is handled, so I’m going to watch the original trilogy in the lead-up to the premiere. Raimi and Campbell have wanted to make an Evil Dead 4 for years, and for some reason it’s finally been greenlit despite the recent remake. Not as a film, however, but as a 30-minute TV series on Starz.

Coming soon after Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, which reunited the creators and all the original cast on the small screen despite their huge careers, Ash vs Evil Dead continues a trend where moving to TV is no longer a comedown for a film series. Both shows are on prestige venues rather than some basic cable backwater.

I saw bits and pieces of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness over a decade ago, and recall enjoying their exuberant, demented sense of humour. Raimi’s trademark manic camerawork and Campbell’s frenzied mugging were exhilarating to watch, and I was impressed by how intensely energetic they were for horror comedies. For some reason I never got around to watching the entire trilogy, although because the original was reportedly more of a straight horror film – and a very gory one at that – I probably procrastinated.

But no, there’s a TV continuation to prepare for, dammit, so I bit the bullet. And the first trailer for the series was so entertaining that I expected the films would be worth it.

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Early(ish) Cronenberg: Scanners

scannersBoy, this was disappointing. Released only two years before the tight and assured Videodrome, Scanners is nonetheless limp and flabby, a far more embyronic film than might be expected at this point in David Cronenberg’s career. He’d previously made six small features and Scanners was his breakout success, but its frequent monotony would suggest a filmmaker still learning his craft if we didn’t know otherwise.

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Discovering Kurosawa: Yojimbo and Sanjuro

yojimboA smaller film than Seven Samurai, Yojimbo still managed to be a huge influence on not only samurai movies but action-adventure cinema around the world. It’s not hard to see why. Yojimbo’s plot and characterisation feel archetypal and yet haven’t withered from being so emulated. Kurosawa also harmonises so many discordant tones that, despite being ‘simpler’ than Seven Samurai, the film remains a true accomplishment in its seeming effortlessness.

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Early(ish) Cronenberg: Videodrome (1983)

videodromeThe last Cronenberg I looked at was his 1986 remake of The Fly which, being a studio film, embedded his body horror motifs and subversive critiques in a more conventional narrative with a clear trajectory. His 1983 film Videodrome, however, was not a studio picture and demands far more of the viewer hoping to grasp Cronenberg’s vision. Reality and hallucination bleed together, the sexual grotesque is more pronounced, and meaning is more elusive.

But despite needing to decode some of the film’s less explicable ideas, I still found Videodrome to be – like the best obfuscatory or surrealist films – an intuitively powerful and satisfying experience. Its exploration of the transformative effect of the media and technology on the self still feels relevant today, even if the mediums have changed. It’s hard not to see the domineering effect of the internet on our thinking and lifestyles in how television and video inexorably consume James Woods in this film.
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Early(ish) Cronenberg: The Fly (1986)

the-flyI’ve seen a number of David Cronenberg’s recent and less bizarre films, including A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and liked them a lot. But I’ve been curious about the earlier work that brought him fame: the phase from the start of his career through to the early 1990s characterised by body horror and transgression, although he continued to make strange films like Crash and eXistenZ. Cronenberg has been lauded for his sophisticated and sociologically conscious use of the grotesque, which I can believe judging by the sensitivity of his later work.

So I intend to take a look at a number of his films from this period, in no particular order due to availability. And my first experience – his 1986 remake of The Fly – did not disappoint.

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Discovering Kurosawa: Seven Samurai

seven-samuraiThis is the start of a new series where I document my first experience of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography. I saw Rashomon and Ran several years ago and admired them, but in Ran’s case in particular I suspected its achievements would be best understood in the context of Kurosawa’s earlier work. My growing love of Japanese cinema also demands a proper engagement with Kurosawa and I’m excited by the prospect. This won’t be in strict chronological order due to film availability, but where better to start anyway than the towering Seven Samurai.

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is considered foundational to both the action-adventure movie and the wider appreciation of foreign cinema in the West. Such films don’t necessarily have the same impact on the viewer decades later due to the imitators and beneficiaries that came in their wake, so I was prepared for the possibility that Seven Samurai is a film to admire rather than adore.

I did not need to be. Not only is it a tremendously engaging and thoroughly skilled film in its own right, Seven Samurai has deepened my appreciation for Kurosawa and mid-20th century Japanese cinema in general. I’m now hungry to devour more of his work, more samurai films, and as many Japanese films as I can muster.

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Putting a face to the name: the Quatermass serials

quatermassFor genre TV fans of my generation, Quatermass is a primal word. Even for those who have never seen it, the name has a grandeur and importance independent of the work itself. Its earthy sound reinforces that Quatermass was the foundation for science fiction, fantasy, and horror on British television, on which Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Gerry Anderson shows, and so many more were built.

But Quatermass is one of those pioneering shows that has become ephemeral, still in circulation but better known as an influence than as a text. Even its exact nature is unclear: multiple serials, film adaptations of those serials, and other texts in a variety of media bear the Quatermass name. So what is Quatermass and does it stand up to modern scrutiny?

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Fury Road Prep, Part 1: Mad Max

mad-maxLast month’s blistering Mad Max: Fury Road trailer brought the series back into the public consciousness in a big way, compelling me to finally watch the original trilogy. The Comicon trailer was packed with such astounding imagery and electrifying action that George Miller instantly became a director I couldn’t wait to explore further.

I’d gathered that Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) was widely considered to be better than the first and the reason the series isn’t just a milestone in Australian cinema, but adored around the world. That certainly seemed likely as I watched Mad Max: there’s definitely room for improvement.

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The unexpected silence of The Exorcist

Scene From 'The Exorcist'A benchmark of 1970s Hollywood and horror cinema, The Exorcist looms large in film and pop culture. If you haven’t seen it, you wonder if it will be as horrifying as its reputation suggests or a curiosity weakened by decades of escalating cinematic trauma. For me, it’s been near the top of my list of essential films that have somehow escaped me until now. But enough was enough: William Friedkin’s film had taunted me for too long.

After all that anticipation, The Exorcist turned out to be neither horrifying nor dull. It didn’t scare me, but that didn’t neutralise the impact of its true nature: an absorbing and precisely calibrated horror movie concerned more with reaction than action. The possession scenes are such a part of pop culture that we’ve probably seen most of them in clips over the years on TV and in documentaries (just a couple of weeks ago, the pea soup scene turned up on The Daily Show). But it turns out they’re only a small part of the film.

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Creating fiction with reality: Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool

medium_coolUntil Criterion released it last year, I’d never heard of Haskell Wexler’s 1969 film Medium Cool. Reading that it was a political film about a news cameraman set against the backdrop of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, I got excited about a juicy media thriller that anticipated the paranoia thrillers of 70s Hollywood. But if it was such a trailblazer, why was it left out of most conversations about the major films of the decade?

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