Sunday, 24 May 2009

Fires On The Plain

Kon Ichikawa's anti-war masterpiece Fires On The Plain is set during the final devastating days of the Imperial Japanese Army's campaign in the Philippines and follows Private Tamura, exiled from his unit (for having TB) and left to wander through a bleak and dangerous landscape. Along the way he encounters peril from American forces and more deadly still, his own comrades who due to starvation and desperation have resorted to murder and cannibalism. All the while throughout his journey he passes the mysterious fires on the plain, which may be a sign of benevolent farmers or death-traps set by guerillas...

50 years after it was made Fires on the Plain remains a powerful experience. With a searing honesty it begs the question of how it was received by Japanese audiences in 1959, with its depiction of soldiers murdering their comrades to feast on their flesh. Certainly the scenes where the wasting Japanese soldiers debate surrendering to the Americans in the hope of being fed is a departure from other contemporary war films like Toho's 1960 epic Storm Over the Pacific (aka I Bombed Pearl Harbor), which portrayed the Japanese as men of great courage and sacrifice. However Kon Ichikawa who saw first hand the destruction of Hiroshima in 1945 has no time for ideology - his message is clear: war is a sheer hellish miasma. War debases all men, on all sides.


Before production began on Fires on the Plain, Daiei the studio financing the picture wanted Kon Ichikawa to shoot the film in color as was standard of Daiei films of that era. Kon Ichikawa insisted he make the film in black and white and won. His decision was correct - Fires on the Plain looks extraordinary. The black and white cinematography by Setsuo Kobayashi (who also lensed Kon Ichikawa's brilliant color film An Actor's Revenge in 1962) lend the film an incredible documentary like texture. It's a visually arresting film too - one scene has Tamura wander through a field of fallen soldiers, while in an early part of the film Tamura stumbles upon crows feasting on a mound of dead soldiers. Needless to say its an infernal vision, but its not without its moments of humor - look out for a scene where a soldier casts off his broken booths only to be picked up by another soldier to replace his own. Sterling performances too from the cast - the film is unusually underplayed for a Japanese film of the period, and adds much weight to the grim story.

Criterion's DVD of Fires on the Plain is addition to their line of classic Japanese Cinema. The complex visual scene (all dense jungle and rain) is transferred faithfully to DVD and overall the 2:35 transfer is mostly excellent. Supplements include an introduction by Japanese Film scholar Donald Richie and an excellent 20min interview with Kon Ichikawa and actor Mickey Curtis.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Shock Waves

Shock Waves, Ken Wiederhorn's debut film from 1977 is a fast paced energetic zombie film about a group of tourists who find themselves marooned on an island and stalked by living dead Nazi soldiers. While the post-Night of the Living Dead set-up of a group of characters stuck in a isolated place sounds familiar, Shock Waves comes as something of a surprise, swapping the flesh-eating carnage of Romero's iconic film for a more old-fashioned, moody vibe closer to say Hammer's Plague of the Zombies.


If the opening act seems eerie - with scenes of the cruise boat sailing through a weird atmospheric disturbance, and colliding with a dilapidated shipwreck, the second half of the film when the action moves to the island is positively scary. That the film manages to sustain its tone in the second half is something of an achievement for director Wiederhorn, who shot all the scenes in stark daylight, and never resorts to cheap gags. Look out too for some very expressive underwater photography as the camera drifts through the remains of the shipwrecked SS boat. Of course the star of the show here are the zombie shock troops, with their white waterlogged flesh and black goggles (to keep out the destructive glare of day it seems). The scenes where they rise from the watery depths are some of the best of their kind in zombie Cinema. The zombies themselves were designed by Alan Ormsby, of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and Deranged fame). The film is strengthened also by a fine cast headed by the always great Brooke Adams, and two short but memorable cameos by John Carradine as the salty captain of the cruise boat, and Peter Cushing who explains the back-story behind the SS and how they met their end at the bottom of the ocean. Finally, not to forget one of film's major assets - Richard Einhorn's brilliant creepy electronic score this adds considerable power to Shock Waves' visuals.


Interestingly, the living dead would occupy the bodies of SS for a few more cinematic outings - namely Jess Franco's Oasis of the Zombies, Jean Rollin's waterlogged Zombie Lake, and Bloodsucking Freaks director Joel M. Reed's unremarkable Night of the Zombies, all of which fall well short of the ingenuity of Shock Waves. The film would in fact make for a great late night double-bill with Death Ship, a 1980 chiller about a haunted Nazi ship...

Shock Waves has been around on DVD for quite awhile now. Its first incarnation was a dire VIPCO effort which was hardly a step up from VHS. Avoid. Thankfully Shock Waves would resurface as a Blue Underground disc and despite the film looking rather grainy (taken from the best surviving print), the film looks better than ever. The disc is rounded out with a lively entertaining commentary track by director Ken Wiederhorn, Make-Up Designer Alan Ormsby and schlock filmmaker Fred Olen Ray.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Offence

One of Sidney Lumet's most overlooked films, The Offence, his 1972 film is an intense pyschological drama about a cop's brutal treatment of a man suspected of being a serial child rapist. The cop so convinced of the man's guilt carries out an illegal interrogation and ends up killing him.

The film, an adaptation of a stage play, This Story Of Yours is less concerned with the question of the whodunnit, but the dynamic between Sean Connory's cop and Ian Bannen's suspect (both extraordinary). Rather than extract a confession out of the suspect, the cop betrays his own inner demons to his prisoner - his petty jealousies, his frustrations over a stalled career and a loveless marriage, and most damaging, his inability to subdue the horrors he's witnessed throughout his career (a sexualized murder of a woman is briefly seen in recurring flashbacks). When the suspect makes the cop face his demons head on, the cop short circuits and beats him to death.

Director Sidney Lumet brilliantly loosens the drama from its stagey origins by investing the film with a subtle experimental edge. The narrative refuses to conform to a conventional structure - the interrogation itself is saved for the last act of the film, after the audience has discovered the cop has murdered the suspect; while visually, the film, which begins outdoors among residential areas, turns inward with the action becoming increasingly confined to offices and rooms. There’s a kind of intentional visual blandness at work here, with the modern soulless architecture of the outdoor locations and the seemingly half-finished decor of the police station. All this lends the film a powerful alienating effect. In addition to the two leads and Lumet, special mention also for Vivien Merchant as the cop's exhausted wife, and a cameo by Trevor Howard as an internal affairs investigator.


The Offence was made fast and cheap, and apparently funded by UA as part of a deal for Connory's return to play Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. The film was something of a reunion for Lumet and the two leads. All three had worked previously on The Hill in 1965, and for Connory, The Offence would be his third of five films with Lumet (they being The Hill, The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Family Business (1989)

The Offence is available from Optimum (and an OOP MGM) as a bare bones R2 DVD, the image is nothing stunning but a serviceable enough 1:66 non-anamorphic transfer. (Note! the OOP MGM disc is anamorphic!). The sound quality is fine and makes for a good representation for Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Zinovieff's brilliant experimental score. Highly recommended.

Dodes'Ka-Den

Just finished watching the latest of Criterion's excellent run of Akira Kurosawa films. Dodes'Ka-Den, Kurosawa's 1970 comeback film after his humiliating sacking from Tora, Tora, Tora! remains one of my favourite Kurosawa films, and to replace my 10-year old taped-from-Channel 4 VHS copy is a joy. The film, set amongst a community living on the edge of a sprawling Tokyo rubbish dump is not exactly new - Kurosawa mined similar territory with The Lower Depths in 1957, but Dodes'Ka-Den has the significance of being Kurosawa's first colour film, and goes flat out with a dazzling and often surreal use of colour - think of a cross between Red Desert and Kwaidan. For newcomers to Kurosawa, Dodes'Ka-Den is hardly a good entry point to dive into his filmography - it's two & a half hours of heavy, heavy drama, but for fans of eclectic World Cinema, the film is highly recommended. The title of the film by the way is a literal spelling of the sound of a train in motion, which one of the characters mimics. A sort of Japanese version of clickity clack...


Criterion's disc is their usual top shelf production - the color scheme has been transferred to DVD with great care (with the colours neither faded or burning off the screen) and for extras we another segment of the long-running Akira Kurosawa series, It's Wonderful to Create, a 36min episode, focusing on Kurosawa's trials and tribulations in the 60's - the abandoned project Runaway Train (which was eventually directed by Andrei Konchalovsky in the 80's), his ill-fated involvement with Fox and Tora, Tora, Tora!, and the filming of Dodes'Ka-Den. That the film was a critical and commercial flop and Kurosawa attempted suicide in its wake goes unmentioned but its well documented in the Kurosawa biogs that are out there.