Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2018 - Raymond Creamer ""

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - Raymond Creamer

Raymond Creamer is a Los Angeles based filmmaker who has produced two features and countless pictures of his dog. He is currently prepping his directorial debut and you can find him @creamatoria on Twitter, Instagram and LetterBoxd.

1. Eclipse Series 13: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women
This past December I pulled a stack of 60-some Japanese titles from my collection to work through during the month. Of those 60, I was able to watch 45 before the new year and 11 of those were directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Plenty of other folks have covered his films far more eloquently than I could ever hope to so I’ll steer clear of the major works here but, if you’re interested in watching or reading about two of his most celebrated masterpieces, you should definitely check out the Criterion editions of Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu. They both feature beautifully illustrated, novella-size booklets on their respective productions and I can’t recommend them highly enough. That said, if I had to choose one Mizoguchi title to highlight, it would be 1948’s Women of the Night. You can find it alongside three other films in this eclipse box set which is a great starting point for would-be Mizoguchi fans as it features two of his earlier pictures (1936’s Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion) as well as his final film (Street of Shame from 1956) but it’s Women of the Night that really stood out for me. Set against the ruins of post-war Osaka, the film is surprisingly modern in its frank depiction of sex work and the harsh realities afforded by it. Most surprising though is the modern touch Mizoguchi brings to his approach behind the camera. Much of the action is covered in long tracking shots that cast the street walkers’ constant power jockeying as something akin to a war film. One particularly striking sequence features a woman being pursued and peeled by a gang of sex workers, the camera tracking parallel to the action as they carry out the assault, stripping her of the dignity that has been denied to them. By the end of the film, as I watched the women of the night crawling over each other in the shadow of a bombed out church, I knew I had experienced an audacious and unsung masterpiece in Mizoguchi’s filmography. Of all my discoveries last month, this one has undoubtedly earned the top spot on my list.

2. Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku
Criterion’s stated goal with their Eclipse series is to provide film school in a box and I generally get a lot more excited about exploring these sets than their blu-ray releases because you never know what’s going to be hiding in them. This was a bit of a mixed bag but that variety makes it worth the recommendation. There’s a cheesy Godzilla knockoff called “The X From Outer Space” which is probably the weakest entry in the set but still has some predictably charming rubber suited mayhem. “The Living Skeleton” is a super stylish sea set ghost story that crams way too much plot into its 80 minutes but it has atmosphere to spare and some incredible black and white imagery that sticks in your brain even if the story gets a little muddy. Pair it with The Fog for a weird, ocean adjacent double feature next time you’re feeling adventurous. The two standouts from the set are “Genocide”, a psychedelic cautionary tale of nature rising up to save itself from the threat of nuclear holocaust, and “Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell” in which an extraterrestrial life form inhabits the body of a plane crash survivor to prey on the remaining passengers. As the world of Goke expands, it becomes clear that the aliens are here for more than just a few survivors and the story takes an apocalyptic turn that would make it a great pairing with one of my later entries on this list. But it’s “Genocide” that boasts my favorite sequence of any movie in the set when our hero volunteers to be bitten by a deadly insect so he can psychically commune with the swarm. The venom trip finds him drenched in sweat, screaming in agony beneath psychedelic double exposures as the insects take over his voice to remind his friends that Earth doesn’t belong to human beings alone.
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3. Lone Wolf and Cub
I know I’m late to the party on these but oh my god, you guys, this series fucking whips. Framed for treason by the Yagyū clan, Ogami Ittō and his son Daigoro walk “The Demon Path in Hell” serving as assassins for hire and leaving countless Yagyū bodies in their wake. The two are basically superheroes but the stakes always feel real because they’re so resigned to their fate. In the second film, my favorite of the series, Daigoro is kidnapped and suspended over a well. The kidnappers tell Ittō that, if he attacks, they’ll drop his son to a watery grave. Ice in his veins, Ittō tells the kidnappers, who clearly haven’t seen the first movie, that he and his son walk the demon path in hell, are basically dead already and that he’s going to absolutely fucking melt them regardless of what happens to Daigoro. I’m paraphrasing a bit there but Ittō’s commitment to do his best and await his fate is the burning heart at this series’ center and that scene perfectly underscores how narrow the demon path can be. Despite the body count that our boys rack up, some of the most memorable scenes are their rare displays of humanity like when Daigoro troubleshoots the problem of getting water to his battle-weary father despite having nothing to carry it in. He eventually settles on scooping it into his own mouth so he can carry it back and spit it into his ailing father’s lips. Beautifully constructed moments like that are peppered throughout the series, showing that, while these two are driven by their love for vengeance, their love for each other is a damn close second.
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4. Massacre Gun
Arrow US had a pair of Yasuharu Hasebe releases early on and, while Retaliation is a nice indication of the style he would unleash in the Stray Cat Rock series a couple years later, it’s the yakuza story Massacre Gun that stands out from the six of his films that I watched last month. Fresh off an apprenticeship with Seijun Suzuki, Hasebe brings a slick sense of control to his black and white compositions. His frames are beautifully composed and his confidence behind the camera compliments that of the men onscreen. Even as their worlds unwind, these characters radiate cool, slurping soba and swapping smirks before loading out to trade pain with other gangsters. The film’s last sequence, a breathtaking firefight on an unfinished stretch of freeway, left me wondering how the man behind the camera could make it look so damn easy so early in his career and how the men in front of the camera could make bleeding look like a fucking fashion statement.
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5. Cure
My cinematographer has been singing Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s praises for the last few years so I had absolutely no excuse to leave him out of a month full of Japanese movies. We paired his DVD copy of Cure with the Arrow release of Pulse for what might be the bleakest double feature I’ve ever watched. Cure builds slowly, confronting questions of free will, dependency and culpability early on as we follow a detective who is investigating a string of murders. All of the victims are killed in the same way but by different, seemingly disconnected perpetrators. As dark as it may get, Kurosawa leads us to believe that there is at least someone pulling the strings, that, despite how cruel this universe is, there are rules guiding it or solutions to be found if we only know where to look. I alluded to the apocalyptic nature of Kurosawa’s films in my write up of Goke, which has a lot more in common with Pulse but Cure’s last beat is far more unsettling for its subtlety. Kurosawa spends nearly two hours establishing and building on the rules of his universe and, as soon as we think the loop has closed, a new wrinkle is introduced, planting a seed in the viewer’s mind that is almost as insidious as the suggestions the film’s antagonist impresses on his victims. This film’s final beat has haunted me for the past month because it underlines an ugly truth that we all have to confront; some sicknesses just have no cure.
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6. Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection
I watched a LOT of Meiko Kaji movies last month and, while Criterion has a great blu-ray of the Lady Snowblood films, I want to highlight her work that’s been released by Arrow. They’ve gone all in on Kaji with their stateside releases, launching their book line with an appreciation of her films, releasing the Stray Cat Rock series on limited edition blu and making Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse one of their first titles back in 2015 but it’s their Female Prisoner Scorpion box set that really takes the cake. The first three films in the series are directed by Shunya Ito and together they make up one of my favorite cinematic trilogies. The series starts in a women’s prison where, at the behest of her crooked cop ex-lover, the guards do their damnedest to break Matsu the Scorpion (Kaji) but she has the power of righteousness on her side and she silently bides her time, waiting to sting her transgressors. The second film breaks the formula by sending Matsu on the road in an escape plot that adds a few people to her shit list while bringing her closer to the names at the top. The third and best film “Beast Stable” kicks off with a wild subway sequence in which Matsu shows the extent of her survival instinct when a Detective makes the mistake of handcuffing himself to the escapee. Eluding capture, she becomes a guardian angel, detouring from her own path of vengeance to mete out retribution on behalf of other victimized women. Ito’s camera settles down after the first two films and the frames he finds in Beast Stable are consistently unique, uniformly exceptional and occasionally transcendent. At one point, a delirious Matsu is hiding in the sewer system and wakes up to the sight of orange sparks raining from the ceiling of the dank blue corridor. That single image serves as a microcosm of this entire month of discoveries, underlining what interesting bedfellows grandeur and grime can make.
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