This weekend was a great one for themes. There were two films from 1999 in the mix, three Japanese Criterion films, two ghost movies (technically, one of those two had a lot more than just ghosts), and two films that dug deep into the psyche of the business of sports. For good measure, Elijah Wood made an appearance in a gimmicky Hitchcockian thriller involving a piano. This is the movie weekend that was.
Grand Piano (2014)
A world-renowned concert pianist (played by Elijah Wood) makes his return from a hiatus, only to discover early in his performance that there’s a gun pointed at his wife. If he plays a wrong note, she’ll die. If you’re one of those people who can’t suspend disbelief, this is absolutely not the movie for you. The film is riddled with implausibility. That said, even given the wacky concept, I found it incredibly easy to roll with the implausibilities. And that’s because it’s a very well-made thriller. The editing, pacing, and cinematography all work in perfect harmony to keep the action taut. It’s available on video on-demand now and hits theaters soon, so keep an eye out. It’s Hitchcockian to the core and the gimmick works as long as you let it work.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
North Dallas Forty (1979)
This late-70s look at the life and times of a professional football player’s life over the course of a week has not aged well. The villains- the greedy businessmen involved with the team and the high-strung coaches- come off cartoonish, often in ways that make absolutely no sense. The action is awfully hokey and dated, as well. I’m almost positive that most of it was filmed on a high school football field. At times, it feels like a film trying to stand in relation to sports the way MASH (1970) stands in relation to war, but it fails miserably. It does attempt to shed light on some weightier subtext- the brutish culture of the game and the blatant disregard for player health- but it’s not nearly enough to elevate the film.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Time permitting, I’ll do a full Re-watchterpiece Theater article on this later this week. For now, I’ll tell you:
Rating: a very complicated 4 out of 5 stars
A college student’s life spins out of control, and a world full of sins drag his friends and family down to hell with him. There, they must pay for their litany of sins. Jigoku‘s vision of hell is extraordinarily gruesome for 1960. At one point, all of the various sinners are parched and thirsty. But their only option is to drink from a river made out of the pus and excrement of their earthbound corpses. The entire hell sequence is peppered with flayed and/or dismembered bodies and brutal torment. It’s quite impressive. It’s also visually striking, using black and white saturation mixed with red and blue filters to create a negative effect that borders on the surreal. Jigoku is yet another in an army of examples illustrating that the Criterion Collection and Japanese cinema will never lead you astray.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I Will Buy You (1956)
Jigoku inspired me to check out the full list of films from Japan in the Criterion Collection, and that’s where I discovered this film. I Will Buy You examines a Japanese college baseball player’s scouting process. Lest the idea that it’s a baseball movie scare you off, I assure you- it’s not much of a baseball movie. The game itself only exists in the periphery. In fact, it’s far more about the business of the game, as competing scouts vie for the player’s signature. It’s ultimately about the inherent greed of the process and the way players are viewed as commodities. By the time it’s all done, no character is left unscathed, each bargaining with bits of their soul to prop up the business. If you’re familiar with the book “Dollar Sign on the Muscle”, you might think of this film as an extremely cynical version of that book. In many ways, it’s actually what North Dallas Forty was trying to accomplish, but I Will Buy You was so much more successful.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Living Skeleton (1968)
Since I was on a roll with Japanese Criterion films, I went for the trifecta with The Living Skeleton, a film that features ghosts, vengeful skeletons, mad doctors, disfigured faces, murderers, and evil bats. Oh, and it also wraps itself in a pop-infused shell. In other words, director Hiroshi Matsuno threw everything and the kitchen sink into this movie. At times, it feels like a Japanese ghost movie, Val Lewton, occasionally a spaghetti western, and classic American horror. There’s even just a tinge of Japanese sci-fi to it. It’s a unique brew. While I wasn’t exactly blown away by The Living Skeleton, it was a perfectly satisfying horror.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Stir of Echoes (1999)
I’m sure you all know the song and dance by now. “I had seen bits and pieces of this,” I’ve written many times, “but never the whole thing.” What I found surprising about Stir of Echoes is how much of it was one the forefront of what we now see as cliché. Little kids talking to ghosts, the shaky headed ghost, even a ghost kid in a TV (Ring-style)… To varying degrees, those were hallmarks of horror circa 2002ish through today. I’m not sure if it started with Stir of Echoes, necessarily, but it does deserve credit for being one of the first. All in all, it’s a fine ghost story.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars