Saturday, February 15, 2014

On Hayao Miyazaki's Lupin III and The Castle of Cagliostro

The first Lupin III TV series, based on the manga series by the oddly pseudonymed Monkey Punch, ran in 23 episodes from the fall of 1971 to the spring of 1972, when it was abruptly cancelled. About half the episodes were directed by Masaaki Osumi, the rest by the team of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who would go on to form Studio Ghibli 15 or so years later. The series follows the adventures of master thief Lupin III, the grandson of French literary icon Arsene Lupin (he's contemporary with and holds about the same cultural status as Sherlock Holmes). Alternating between sophisticated cool and wild bursts of gleeful anarchy, the animated version of Lupin III brings to mind the Monkey King as played by Alain Delon. Each episode follows a particular caper as he and his colleagues, Jigen Daisuke, a ice cool sharpshooter, and Goemon Ishikawa, an anachronistic samurai armed with a sword that can cut through anything, pursue a heist or mystery of some type, usually pitting them against an even worse gang of criminals. They occupy the gray area between the law and the truly villainous, what distinguishes them from evil is not just their sense of honor, but their sense of humor. Floating through the series is a mysterious woman named Fujiko Mine, always teasing and manipulating Lupin with her seductive red hair and mountainous bosom (her name literally means "mountain peaks of Fuji") as she competes with him for whatever loot serves as the episode's MacGuffin.

It's all a great deal of fun, and the early episodes in particular seem shockingly contemporary, with relatively shocking acts of violence and sexual suggestiveness. About halfway through the series though, things become a bit tamer. Rather than seducing the ladies, Lupin begins rescuing damsels in distress. Rather than a dark woman leading Lupin toward destruction, Fujiko becomes a side element, a nice girl who just wants to help out the team. Early in the series she is a Hawksian woman, independent-minded and as ruthlessly capable in every way, if not more so, than the men she uses. But later she becomes just another sidekick, the marginalized love interest. What had been radical gets domesticated as Lupin becomes a goofy scamp rather than the kind of cold-blooded thief who would sit in a jail cell for a year as part of a plan to punish the Inspector who caught him (and himself for allowing himself to be caught). Wikipedia, unsourced naturally, claims that Osumi was fired by the studio "for refusing to adapt the sophisticated series for a children's audience" which seems about right. It seems like Miyazaki and Takahata were called on to make the series more conventional, and while their version is still a highly entertaining adventure show, it lacks that cutting edge that made the early run of episodes so exciting.

After the show was cancelled, Miyazaki continued odd jobs in television throughout the 1970s. Lupin III was brought back for another, more successful series in 1977, which ran 155 episodes through 1980. A Lupin III feature film was made, followed by another. This second film was Miyazaki's first as a feature film director (he left Isao Takahata's production of an Anne of Green Gables TV series, which I very much want to see, to make the movie). I haven't seen any of this second Lupin III series, but Miyazaki's film, The Castle of Cagliostro, is consistent with the tamer, lighter tone of the latter half of the first series.

Lupin and Jigen find themselves on the trail of master counterfeiters in the small European country of Cagliostro, where they quite literally must rescue a princess who has been locked in a tower by an evil Count. Packed with intricate suspense sequences as Lupin breaks into the eponymous castle and uncovers its mysteries, the film is Miyazaki's most generic in construction, with only a few of his signature peaceful moments (as the master thief charms the childlike princess, the reveal of the Castle's final mystery) and a distinct lack of abstract philosophizing. Note though that as with pretty much every other Miyazaki feature, it is the overwhelming force of nature that powers the film's conclusion. Much to the film's detriment, Jigen and eventually Goemon get almost nothing to do. Fujiko shows up for awhile too, now a short haired blonde with no apparent skills or appeal aside from a large arsenal of weaponry and a hideous camouflage jumpsuit, and has very little role in the story, though she does take control of a TV camera in homage to one of the better episodes from late in the show's run, though she ends up looking dangerously like April O'Neil, girl reporter, from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.

Distinguishing Cagliostro from a mere extended TV episode though is the attention to detail in the depiction of the setting, inspired by old Arsene Lupin stories as well as an unfinished feature from 1952: beautiful moss-covered ruins, a vast dungeon filled with the remains of 400 years worth of curious adventurers, ancient aqueducts, trap doors and steeply-pitched roofs for our hero to improbably traverse. Compared with the lackluster animation in efforts put forth in the late 1960s and 70s by the Walt Disney company (the mud grey of The Rescuers or the sketchy, half-finished look of The Aristocats, for example), the film is a revelation. One of my favorite things about Japanese animation (I don't recall seeing it in earlier forms, but it was probably there) is the way character details change with their distance from the "camera", with figures becoming more and less abstract. With Lupin, his features become less cartoony as we get a closer look at him (in the TV show we repeatedly get to see how hairy the backs of his hands are as his sideburned face turns more monkey than man). Compare this to, say, the hero in Disney's Robin Hood: a cartoon fox who remains a cartoon fox regardless of angle or depth. The Japanese style had a subtle way of creating the illusion of depth in a two dimensional world (beyond the simple dedication Miyazaki would show to developing a truly detailed and realistic background setting) while Disney was locked in the flat, planar style they pioneered 40 years earlier, made cheap with xerography.

After the success of The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki worked on another TV series, the phenomenal-sounding Sherlock Hound. He also wrote a manga, which became the foundation of his next feature film, 1984's NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind. That second film, it seems to me, is the more foundational one to his later work. While occasionally he-ll return to the purer adventure style of Cagliostro (most notably in Porco Rosso), NausicaƤ's fusion of adventure with myth, fairy tale and contemplative eco-philosophy will recur in almost all his films.

Happy Birthday Tsui Hark

Director Tsui Hark turns 64 years old today. Over the last year, as I've been wandering through the last 50 years or so of Hong Kong film history, Tsui has been recurring again and again as a contemporary of Sammo Hung, a leading light of the Hong Kong New Wave and a collaborator of sorts early in the career of Johnnie To. I've written about several of his films, but really should do more. Maybe a They Shot Pictures episode or something sometime. Anyway, over on letterboxd I have a ranked list of the Tsui Hark-directed films I've seen for far and here is a list of the reviews I've written about some of his movies as director and/or producer, in order of production date. Long reviews here at The End are marked with a '*', the rest are letterboxd capsules. I'm going to keep updating this as I add more reviews.

*The Butterfly Murders (Tsui, 79) - May 31, 2013
We're Going to Eat You (Tsui, 80) - Jun 08, 2013
Dangerous Encounters - First Kind (Tsui, 80) - Jun 25, 2013
All the Wrong Clues for the Right Solution (Tsui, 81) - Nov 27, 2013
*Shanghai Blues (Tsui, 84) - Aug 27, 2014

Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street (Tsui, 84) - Dec 04, 2013
*Working Class (Tsui, 85) - Dec 07, 2013
*Peking Opera Blues (Tsui, 86) - Nov 22, 2013
*A Better Tomorrow II (Woo, 87) - Nov 21, 2013
*The Big Heat (To et al, 88) - Jan 09, 2015

*Swordsman and Swordsman 2 (Hu Ching, 90 and Ching, 92) - Sep 26, 2012
The Banquet (Tsui et al, 91) - Dec 13, 2013
Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui, 91) - Jun 13, 2013
Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui, 92) - Jun 14, 2013
Twin Dragons (Tsui & Lam, 92) - Apr 14, 2015

*New Dragon Gate Inn (Lee, 92) - Apr 24, 2014
*Green Snake (Tsui, 93) - Oct 25, 2013
The East is Red (Ching & Lee, 93) - Jun 22, 2015
*The Lovers (Tsui, 94) - Apr 04, 2014
*The Blade (Tsui, 95) - Mar 19, 2014

*Love in the Time of Twilight (Tsui, 95) - Apr 04, 2014
The Chinese Feast (Tsui, 95) - Jun 04, 2013
Double Team (Tsui, 97) - Apr 04, 2014
Knock Off (Tsui, 98) - Apr 07, 2014
Time and Tide (Tsui, 00) - Mar 25, 2014

*Zu Warriors (Tsui, 01) - May 29, 2013
*Seven Swords (Tsui, 05) - Mar 11, 2014
Triangle (Lam, Tsui & To, 07) - Mar 09, 2013
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui, 2010) - Apr 24, 2014
*The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui, 11) - Oct 29, 2014

*Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon (Tsui, 13) - Feb 27, 2014
*The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui, 14) - Jan 14, 2015

Thursday, February 13, 2014

This Week in Rankings

I've watched a few movies since the last rankings update, but I spent a lot more time caught up in the Super Bowl run of the Seattle Seahawks. My TV was tuned to the NFL network for two weeks and I watched the game itself three or four times, along with various NFL highlights productions. I'm still trying to decide if I can include these things on my Best of 2014 lists. And with the Winter Olympics on-going now, there's been a lot more sports-watching than movie-writing at here The End. I did write about Hellzapoppin' though, which is probably the best movie I've seen so far this year.

I have a new episode of They Shot Pictures that should be posted anytime now, on FW Murnau, and we're starting the research for my next one, on Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, which should come out sometime in early March. We've had two episodes of The George Sanders Show recently, on Her and The Doll and on The Train and Emperor of the North. We'll be recording our Oscar episode of George Sanders next weekend, and in conjunction with that I'll be posting my Endy Award nominees and winners for 2013.

These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings, with links to my comments at letterboxd.

The Doll (Ernst Lubitsch) - 2, 1919
Phantom (FW Murnau) - 10, 1922
Tartuffe (FW Murnau) - 4, 1925
Faust (FW Murnau) - 2, 1926
City Girl (FW Murnau) - 4, 1930

Hellzapoppin' (HC Potter) - 4, 1941
The Train (John Frankenheimer) - 11, 1964
Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich) - 13, 1973
The Longest Yard (Robert Aldrich) - 28, 1974
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki) - 14, 1984
Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki) - 17, 1986

Red Flag (Alex Karpovsky) - 52, 2012
Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie) - 62, 2012
Her (Spike Jonze) - 18, 2013
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski) - 34, 2013
American Hustle (David O. Russell) - 42, 2013

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On Hellzapoppin'

Sign me up for the "Hellzapoppin' is the Greatest Thing Ever" club.

I thought Busby Berkeley's 1943 The Gang's All Here was the glorious endpoint of the 1930s Hollywood/backstage musical form. But here Olsen & Johnson's deconstructo ad absurdum anticipates Berkeley's delirium by two years. While Berkeley plays it relatively straight, allowing the looney excess of his Technicolor musical sequences to finally overwhelm the bounds of their plot (and thus their apparent reason for existing), the zaniness of Carmen Miranda ultimately triumphing over the pale fragility of Alice Faye, Hellzapoppin' takes the musical apart piece by piece, mocking and discarding every constituent element of genre and film form itself, giving their own film (or rather, the plotline Universal actually insisted Olsen & Johnson include when adapting their stage show) the MST3K treatment ("Not another movie with a show in it" one of them sighs in regards to the show within the movie within the movie of their show) and leaving behind nothing but a smoking wreck of dancing girls and random surreality. It makes Gang's look like just another staid expression of a bankrupt corporate convention, like it starred Jeannette MacDonald or something.

This is the film I imagine many ex-vaudvillians wanted to make upon their arrival in Hollywood. Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson, though, don't merely serve as sideline agents of chaos as the neutered Marx Brothers do in their MGM films, instead they're the ringmasters, with the silly triteness of the imposed love story put in its proper place. Buster Keaton might have accomplished this in Free and Easy or Speak Easily but was too lazy, too powerless or too drunk (or some combination thereof) to make the destruction of pallid entertainment the centerpiece of his film, content to let the screenwriting Elisha Cook's of the world have their soul-crushing way with cinema. WC Fields might have come the closest, in moving his muttering asides to the center of his escalatingly bizarre stories, but I haven't seen enough of his work to say for sure.

I have never seen Olsen or Johnson in anything before, so I have no idea if this is typical for them. I've seen a couple of director HC Potter's other films, neither of which seem remotely like this one: while amiable, the Cary Grant vehicle Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse never reaches the absurd heights it seems destined for (instead settling for a drawn-out, much less fun variation on Keaton's One Week) and The Shopworn Angel is a very solid, undermentioned World War I melodrama with Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, most memorable for the performances of those two great actors. The supporting cast of Hellzapoppin' does include some familiar faces: Martha Raye (almost as volcanic as her performance in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux) as a man-hungry actress; Mischa Auer as her target, an apparent refugee from Lubitsch's continental comedies; and Shemp Howard as the greatest depiction of a movie theatre projectionist in the history of film (yes, even better than Sherlock Jr, which would make a great double feature with this, with Chuck Jones's Duck Amuck played in-between). There are some terrific musical sequences, including a water ballet that anticipates George Sidney's work with Esther Williams (as in the sublime weird Jupiter's Darling), another poolside number that brings to mind Jane Russell's celebration of the male body in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and a remarkable all-black Lindy Hop number that builds from an impromptu jam session to some of the most exuberant and physically exhausting group choreography I've ever seen on film.

Apparently due to copyright issues stemming from the stage production, the film is not in print on DVD in the US. Appropriately so, as something this subversive should only exist in a kind of samizdat form, something those on the margins sneak around on gray market DVDs, or pass from download to download in the more piratical corners of cinephilia. I, of course, rented it at Scarecrow Video, which has two copies available.