Pale Flower

Mariko Kaga and Ryo Ikebe in Pale Flower

Wow — here’s misery, violence, and cruel fate seen through a prism of yakuza assassinations, gambling addiction, and a sublimated tough-guy love affair. Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is a hit man fresh out of prison who falls for Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a mysterious, big-eyed beauty who hangs around in gambling parlors and asks Muraki to find her a game with bigger stakes.

Director Masahiro Shinoda lets the story’s yakuza intrigue play out around the margins — Muraki returns to a new world where the gang bosses he knew as arch-rivals have joined forces to close ranks against a threatening newcomer — but is more interested in Muraki’s frame of mind, which tends to nihilism. Muraki has never felt more alive than he did as an assassin; he and Saeko grow close but stop short of declaring their love either verbally or physically. A midnight race through the streets of Tokyo leaves Muraki in awe of Saeko’s thrill-seeking spirit, but a make-believe hand of cards played between the sheets in a borrowed hotel room is the closest they come to an erotic consummation. Muraki is preoccupied with Saeko, but he’s worried about Yo, a glassy-eyed killer from the younger generation of yakuza who he notices in the game rooms. As it turns out, Yo represents more than one kind of threat.

Pale Flower is the only Shinoda film I’ve seen (yes, I know, Double Suicide; I’ll get to it), but I was surprised to see it so skillfully working Seijun Suzuki territory in a somewhat less outré, more naturalistic way. That’s not to say it’s a naturalistic film. It’s at least more restrained than Suzuki’s pistol operas, but all the elements are potent, from avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu’s modernist score and the odd clack-clack of the hanafuda cards (they were replaced with tap-dancing sound FX, per Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years of Japanese Film) to the minimal set design, lithe montage, and expressionistic cinematography. And Mariko Kaga, of course, portraying a woman of leisure infiltrating a man’s world — she is tough, self-assured, but still very vulnerable.

Ryo Ikebe in Pale Flower

In its shadowy depictions of the city after dark it out-noirs some of the best films noirs ever made, and some of Shinoda’s shot compositions are just dynamite — like the one that has Muraki sitting in a chair in a small, sparsely furnished room in front of a wall that’s blank but for a jagged mark that curves up and around his body on the right, as though gouged by a samurai sword. There’s a great use of negative space throughout (which may be crucial to making good use of the widescreen frame) and repeated employment of camera angles that peer through windows and doorways and down hallways and alleyways, as though taking in the action voyeuristically.

Pale Flower

And there’s a moment at the film’s climax, as Muraki is commiting a swift but brutal murder, where Shinoda cuts to Saeko watching helplessly while the camera is still whip-panning to get her in frame — the camera jerks to a stop on her face, a now-common trick that gives the image an urgent, almost documentary edge. In fact, in an essay on the film included with the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release, critic Chuck Stephens says this scene is deliberately modeled on the 1960 assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, a socialist politician, on-stage during a political debate by a 17-year-old nationalist. After looking up the footage on YouTube, I certainly believe him, and the reference gives the film a political resonance that I’m not ready to attempt unpacking. (According to Wikipedia, the kid hung himself less than three weeks later, after writing, “Long live his Imperial Majesty, the Emperor!” in toothpaste on the wall of his prison cell. ) Anyway, it does not surprise me at all that writer Masaru Baba was appalled by what Shinoda did to his script — but the script isn’t what makes this great. Pale Flower grows in my estimation the more I look at it.




Oliver Stone’s mean little thriller about dope, guns, and fucking in the California sun is enough fun to watch that, for about half of its running time, I didn’t care that it has little else going for it. An Oliver Stone screenplay used to bring with it a wild-eyed bid for topicality — films like Salvador and Scarface stood not just as provocation but also as snapshots of their era. Savages nods briefly in the direction of politics, with a sidelong reference to the presumably inevitable three-years-hence legalization of the kind of hard-to-get, THC-rich substance that’s the speciality of sexed-up potheads Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who get rich quick on their killer weed by day, then kick polyamorous squeeze Ophelia (Blake Lively) back and forth between them like a hacky-sack by night. Shit gets real when a Mexican drug cartel takes an interest in their business acumen and offers them a partnership they’d love to refuse.

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The Maltese Falcon

This prototypical _film noir_, which saw rookie director John Huston adapting Dashiell Hammett’s only Sam Spade detective novel, was the last movie I watched in 2010. Warner Home Video’s recently released Blu-ray version had been calling to me from the depths of my to-watch stack, and anyway it’s always been one of my favorite movies — immaculately designed, evocatively photographed, and easy to watch but also spiky, morally complex, and ultimately unsettling. Humphrey Bogart is so beloved a figure in American film history that it always catches me a little off-guard to realize that the superficially charming character he’s portraying here isn’t the dedicated moral crusader that convention might lead one to suspect. Arguably, he’s rather a glad-handing sociopath.

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The Town

Rebecca Hall and Ben Affleck in <em>The Town</em>
The Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, a series of pre-title cards inform us, is a fundamentally miserable but also beloved place, a rough-and-tumble environment where bank robbery has become a cottage industry. The Town is the story of bank robbers, and of the dilemma experienced by the people — Townies, they’re called, affectionately and not-so — who dwell in a place they love, and from which they’re desperate to escape.

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Public Enemies


Simultaneously a tough guy and a sap, a realist and a romantic, director Michael Mann has for decades now been making movies about what it means to be a man. He chooses to tell these stories in familiar settings, setting his fairly measured character studies in the kind of testosterone-soaked milieu that has been favored by a century of manly filmmakers. Mann has made movies about cops and robbers. There’s one about a cab driver and an assassin, one about a whistleblower and another about a great athlete. He’s even made a supernatural horror movie set among Nazis. But he keeps returning to the subject of heroes and villains, about the role-playing that takes place when good guys go head-to-head with bad guys, and about what happens when the line between antagonist and protagonist gets blurred.

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Revanche begins, puzzlingly enough, as a tale of two cities. To the policeman Robert (Andreas Lust), the town of Gföhl is his workplace, the environment he’s charged with protecting. He lives just outside of town with his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss), on a secluded, picturesque property where it seems it would take the better part of the afternoon just to mow the grass. And to Alex (Johannes Krisch), newly released from prison, Vienna is a sleazy and dangerous environment where lovely young foreigners like his Ukrainian lover, Tamara (Irina Potapenko), are drafted into the sex trade by greasy bosses who are well-versed in sexual and psychological gamesmanship. The film’s second-saddest joke is the name of the brothel where both she and Alex work: Cinderella.

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Miami Vice


There’s a scene somewhere in the middle of Miami Vice where Crockett, feeling some oats, sensibly decides to sow them in the direction of Gong Li. They get on a speedboat and whiz off into the ocean blue. You can tell she’s sweet on him, and when she announces she’s taking him to her hang-outs in Havana — Havana! — for mojitos and dancing and maybe something more, suddenly this hard-boiled cop movie inflates with a sense of romantic wonder and possibility. To get on a boat in Miami, tear away from the shore and bounce across the waves, setting a course for Havana?

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B. Monkey

Asia Argento in B. Monkey

Miramax continues to clean out its vaults, sneaking this B-movie into theaters a couple of years after Il Postino director Michael Radford put it in the can. Mild-mannered schoolteacher Alan (Jared Harris) stumbles into an unlikely relationship with Italian bombshell Beatrice (Asia Argento), a street criminal known as B. Monkey who’s starting to think about settling down. Though she finds Alan charming and decides to build a life with him, her needy, unsavory friends threaten to pull her back in. Continue reading