Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

80/100
Ken Okada in Mishima

A little more than halfway through Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a fragmented, multifaceted cinematic biography of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima expresses nostalgia for an afterlife that existed only in the distant past. “The average age for men in the Bronze Age was 18 and, in the Roman era, 22,” Mishima reckons aloud, in voiceover. “Heaven must have been beautiful then. Today it must look dreadful.” Like the rest of the film’s narration, the passage is quoted from Mishima’s published work, in this case an article he wrote in 1962, eight years before his death at the age of 45 by seppuku. “When a man reaches 40, he has no chance to die beautifully,” Mishima continues. “No matter how he tries, he will die of decay. He must compel himself to live.” In 1984, when he made this film, Paul Schrader was 38 years old. He had just come off the commercial misfire that was 1982’s Cat People, a straightforward studio assignment he tailored to address his signature concerns about sex and death, putting them in the context of a dark fairytale with intimations of incest and bestiality. It wasn’t a good experience. Coked out of his mind for much of the shoot, Schrader fell into a dead-end affair with Nastassja Kinski that he hoped was something more; she wanted nothing to do with him after the movie wrapped, and Cat People‘s disappointing box-office receipts closed the door on his Hollywood career. He thought of suicide. He scurried away from Hollywood, heading first to New York and then to Japan, in search of a life change. That’s where Mishima came in.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

74/100

I remember the summer of 1991, when Terminator 2: Judgment Day landed in movie theatres with all the fuck-you noise, power, and momentum of a Ford Freightliner crashing from an L.A. thoroughfare overpass into a concrete spillway below. It was the year of Operation Desert Storm and the ending of the Cold War, the year LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney King. With the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still a few months away, latter-day cock-rocker Axl Rose still led the most popular band in America. It had been a pretty good year for women in film, even if the material was grim — Jodie Foster helped open The Silence of the Lambs at #1 in February and Davis/Sarandon kick-started a thousand feminist (and anti-feminist) thinkpieces when Thelma & Louise arrived in May. But the main movie event of the summer was the testosterone-laden sequel to The Terminator. Serenaded by a hit single from Axl’s Guns N’ Roses, heralded as the most expensive movie ever made, and stuffed with apocalyptic imagery, T2 roared onto screens, smacked you upside the head, and stole your lunch money, then smirked about it as it strolled away.

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The Hurricane Heist

62/100

The Hurricane Heist gets down to business from the moment the opening credits appear on a dark screen and we hear the rumble of thunder on the soundtrack. It’s 1992, and Hurricane Andrew is slamming the fictional town of Gulfport, Alabama, making orphans of two young boys named (no kidding) Will and Breeze, who watch helplessly through the windows of a farmhouse as their papa is flattened by debris. As the storm clouds recede they clearly resolve the features of a demonic face, laughing at the children from the heavens. (I think I said this out loud in my living room: “Wow.”) Fast-forward to the present day, where a guilt-racked Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) is sleeping his way through days and nights as a handyman (and ladies’ man) while semi-estranged brother Will (Toby Kebbell) has earned himself a job as a synoptic meteorologist–that is, he drives around in a weather-nerd Batmobile, analyzing storm fronts and predicting their impact, determined that the skies will mock him no more. Bringing the high concept to this pity party is new-in-town treasury agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), who happens to be charged with protecting $600 million of U.S. currency earmarked for destruction at a government facility. Unfortunately for her, the paper shredder is temporarily offline and there are villains about who plan to use cover provided by an incoming hurricane to make off with the cash before it can be destroyed. It gets a little complicated–the money ends up locked in an impenetrable vault inside the compound and Casey ends up outside, tooling around with Will. Together, they need to foil the robbery and rescue the hapless Breeze, who is being held hostage inside as the winds grow stronger and stronger.

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Disobedience

58/100
Rachel Weisz (left) and Rachel McAdams in Disobedience

Traditions of faith, love and family are all on the table in Disobedience, in which New Yorker Ronnie Curtis, née Ronit Khruska (Rachel Weisz), returns after many years to her native London and an orthodox Jewish community that, frankly, doesn’t want her. The occasion is the passing of her father, an influential leader and Talmudic scholar — the Rav of the community — who drops dead, portentously, at the beginning of the film after delivering a tract on human beings and free will. Things don’t turn out especially well for Ronit, a struggling photographer who had hoped for an inheritance but finds that her father had written her out of his will. Barely allowed back into the family circle thanks mainly to the kindness of her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), she clashes, vocally, with the community’s elders; it’s as if she’s been itching, over all these years, just to give them another piece of her mind. And when she discovers that Esti (Rachel McAdams), her shy lover from many years ago, has joined the family as Ronit’s husband, it catches her by surprise, breaks her heart, and arouses some long-dormant feelings, all at once. Continue reading

All the Sins of Sodom

78/100

Sex and cinema have a complicated relationship, and sex-film director Joe Sarno understood this better than most. In the U.S., nudity and simulated sex are generally understood as appeals to prurience–and, often, commercially exploitative gestures–but they can be more than that. They have to be, if they are part of a serious film. A filmed sex scene may be arousing, sure, but it’s also a vehicle to express character. Depending on performance and visual approach, screen sex can demonstrate frustration and restlessness as easily as romantic contentment; an actor can convey self-loathing instead of, or in addition to, satisfaction. That dicey territory–the sex film that turns you on while treating the action as problematic–was Sarno’s turf.

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Vibrations

62/100

Sex and cinema have a complicated relationship, and sex-film director Joe Sarno understood this better than most. In the U.S., nudity and simulated sex are generally understood as appeals to prurience–and, often, commercially exploitative gestures–but they can be more than that. They have to be, if they are part of a serious film. A filmed sex scene may be arousing, sure, but it’s also a vehicle to express character. Depending on performance and visual approach, screen sex can demonstrate frustration and restlessness as easily as romantic contentment; an actor can convey self-loathing instead of, or in addition to, satisfaction. That dicey territory–the sex film that turns you on while treating the action as problematic–was Sarno’s turf.

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Dirty Pictures: Blood Feast and Scum of the Earth

One among very few genuinely terrible films that are also justly famous, Blood Feast is the oft-cited progenitor of a certain strain of American cinema: the slasher film — or, more specifically, the splatter movie. Conceived by the briefly prolific, ultra-low-budget director Herschell Gordon Lewis (who will be forever known as the Godfather of Gore) — along with producer David F. Friedman — as an alternative to the commercially competitive genre of cheap-and-easy nudie flicks, the splatter movie was at the time even more disreputable than the soft porn film, ramping up the T&A with a new women-in-peril component. Gory murder scenes combined fake human blood and real animal entrails to sickening effect. Blood Feast is venerated by gorehounds and has a “so bad it’s good” reputation among horror buffs, but what’s really breathtaking about it is its shameless demonstration that, in the grand cinematic scheme, artistic merit, cultural influence, and commercial success have precious little to do with each other. Continue reading

Personal Shopper

88/100

Director Olivier Assayas’s latest features the now-requisite fine Kristen Stewart performance, typically absorbing Assayas mise-en-scène, and a way more explicit representation of the supernatural than I had expected, even from early on. Of course it defies genre — it’s not primarily a horror movie or a suspense thriller but simply a character study, with the delicacy that term typically implies but also with a freakishness it doesn’t usually portend. I’ll cheerfully admit that the story is underwritten, particularly the half-baked police procedural that threatens to swamp the third act (Assayas backs away from it before it becomes too, too much) but the sleepy nightmarishness of it all appeals to me. Stewart, too, seems forever in a somnolent state of dressing and undressing, her vulnerability on display; she’s lost in the world, laden with sadness, weary beyond her years. She gets at something about grief, yes, but also mortality — the pale fragility of the human body and perhaps, though she is loath to concede it, the delicate impermanence of the soul. Spooky, for real.