Monday, June 23, 2008

Superheroes and Samurai

210. The French cartoonist, Jean Giraud, who goes by the pen name of Moebius, has one of the most distinctive drawing styles in the world. It's an elaboration on the "clean line" style of Herge, and even though many of Moebius's cartoons are mindbending (he frequently collaborates with Alejandro Jodorowsky, for example), they are both narratively and visually clean. His series of Westerns about Mike Blueberry are almost classical. Unfortunately, the makers of the film version of Blueberry (2004, directed by Jan Kounen) retain none of the great cartoonist's virtues. Instead, we have a film that's so muddied up with exotic "style" that it becomes narratively incoherent. The amount of mescaline consumed in this film suggests that the filmmakers are more influenced by El Topo than by Moebius's Blueberry. This movie is pretty much an eyesore, shot through with half-assed Native American mysticism. Even a late performance by Ernest Borgnine can't save this shit. Bad.

211. Speaking of French mud. I'm one of the few people, it seems, that prefers Ang Lee's 2003 version of The Hulk to the new version currently in theaters. The Incredible Hulk (2008, directed by Louis Leterrier) isn't without virtues--most of them provided by Ed Norton--but it's a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It's much uglier than its predecessor, featuring muddy production design and cinematography that occasionally loses track of its own internal geography, and it's narratively more conventional to the point of predictability; you know the drill: an action mini-climax at the end of every reel. I found this pace irritating. I much prefer Lee's classical rising action. But ultimately, the main complaint that many people have with Lee's film--that the CGI Hulk is unconvincing--seems more applicable to this film, and without an emotional weight to the story, the climax seems like a refugee from a video game. Bad.

212. and 213. I've written about both The Big Combo (1955, directed by Joseph Lewis) and The Scar (aka: Hollow Triumph, 1948, directed by Istevan Sekely) in the past. They remain great favorites. Cinematographer John Alton is the common thread between them, and these two films are among his best work, weaving nightmares out of thin air and darkness. Two of the best lines in film noir come from these films:

"First is first and second is nobody"--Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) in The Big Combo.

"It's a bitter little world full of sad surprises" --John Muller (Paul Henreid) in The Scar.

I love these movies.

214. I had forgotten just how striking the title frame from the first Lone Wolf and Cub movie is (it's Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, 1972, directed by Kenji Misumi, by the way). It's been a while. Anyway, it features our hero walking a path between fire and water, heaven and hell. And it's not the end of arresting images. The signature image features a headless man's blood rising in a high geysering jet from the stump of his neck, silhouetted against the rising sun. This leads me to theorize that the Japanese have more blood in smaller bodies than Caucasians, else how does one explain the extreme blood pressures exhibited in these movies.

215. A kinder and gentler Kenji Misumi directed Sleepy Eyes of Death: Sword of Adventure (1964), the second in that series. Its star, the ill-fated Raizô Ichikawa, is a far more charismatic actor than Lone Wolf's Tomisaburo Wakayama, and the sly smile he sometimes wears should be a warning to any who cross his path. This series got darker as it went (with the fourth installment providing a template for future chambara mayhem), but this early entry is a close cousin to the early Zatoichi movies, and about as good-natured. It finds our hero protecting the kindly finance minister from the machinations of the spoiled daughter of the Shogun, whose plots are ever more elaborate. Many duels ensue, culminating in a terrific battle in the woods. I wish AnimEigo would pick up the license for these films again so I can fill in my collection.

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