Silents Please!: ‘Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas’


Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas (Eclipse 42) (Criterion, DVD) is an apt companion piece to Criterion’s previous set of silent Yasujiro Ozu films on their Eclipse line. The artist called the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, famous for the quiet restraint and rigorous simplicity of his sound films, was a voracious film buff more interested in Hollywood movies than his own national cinema early in his career and he thrived in a great variety of genres. The previous Eclipse set collected a trio of family comedies. This one offers three gangster films: Ozu noir, so to speak, inspired by the late silent crime pictures by Josef von Sternberg and American pictures. These films are more intimate character pieces than the gangster romantic tragedies of their American cousins, but they are lively productions directed with a dynamic style he stripped away through the 1930s.

Walk Cheerfully (1930) mixes the gangster drama with character comedy in the story of a hood named Ken the Knife (Minoru Takada) who vows to go straight when he falls in love with a “good” girl. His old girlfriend, who sports a Louise Brooks bob, isn’t happy about being dumped and decides to get revenge on them both. In fact, there’s a lot of American influence in the film, from the storytelling to the camerawork (from tracking shots to oblique, dramatic camera angles) to fashions; these hoods are as sporty as their Hollywood counterparts with their flashy suits and fedoras and swaggering attitudes. This is a bright picture, as the title suggests. The mob isn’t happy that Ken and his partner (Hisao Yoshitani) have left the gang but for all the obstacles, this is on the more lighthearted side of the gangster genre.

More somber is That Night’s Wife (1930), which opens on the robbery of an office building by a lone gunman (Tokihiko Okada), a marvelous scene that is a model of crime movie direction, before revealing that the thief is no career criminal but a desperate father whose daughter is on the verge of death. The money is for the medicine that may save her life. Most of the film takes place in the one-room family home as the father and mother stand vigil over their young daughter, holding a cop hostage as they wait for her recovery. It’s a standoff with a poignant twist and Ozu orchestrates the situation beautifully with expressive camerawork and tight editing. This was shot and set in the depths of Japan’s depression. Ozu explored the plight of middle and working class families slipping into poverty and desperation in other films as well (see Tokyo Chorus in Silent Ozu: Three Comedies) but this is his most moving portrait.

'That Night's Wife'
‘That Night’s Wife’

Dragnet Girl (1933) is the most flamboyant of the three, a redemption tale not of the gangster (Joji Oka) but his moll Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who has a civilian job by day and plays in the criminal underworld by night. When her boyfriend is smitten by the good girl sister of a young boxer, she ends up befriending the girl and deciding to go straight herself. Except that he wants her to pull one last job. This was made after the explosion of Hollywood gangster movies in the early sound era and Ozu livens the story with fluid tracking shots, snappy editing, and striking compositions and editing. And he makes Tokiko a real tough cookie and a tough-love idealist, with a novel way of convincing her boyfriend to go straight.

Japanese intertitles with English subtitles. These are preserved rather than restored films, mastered from prints that are scuffed and damaged in places, but they are stable and well mastered from the existing element and feature fine piano scores by Neil Brand. As with all Eclipse releases, there are no supplements. Each film is in its own slimline case with an essay by house writer Michael Koresky.

More silent cinema on DVD at Cinephiled

Videophiled Cool and Classic: Ozu’s ‘Tokyo,’ Carpenter’s ‘Assault’ and Four ‘Vivien Leigh’ Classics

Tokyo Story (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is perhaps the definitive film by Yasujiro Ozu, the artist called the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors. Chishu Ryo (Ozu’s favorite performer) and Chieko Higashiyama star as an elderly couple in rural Japan who find a cold welcome waiting for them when they come to Tokyo to visit their two urbanized children, who too busy with work and their own lives to pay them any attention. Within this simple framework Ozu creates a quiet but profound drama of the changing face of Japanese culture and the loss of traditional values in modern society.

The familiar themes and formal elements are all here – the quiet, graceful formality of Ozu’s style, the “tatami mat position” of his camera (about 36 inches from the floor, as if viewed from the position of a person seated cross-legged on a floor mat), the themes of familial responsibility and sacrifice – executed with the sureness of a master at the peak of his powers. But it’s also a resolutely modern portrait of post-war Japan, where western fashion defines the business culture and traditional dress is reserved for home, and careers and success increasingly dominate the lives of the rising generation. The painterly images bring the past and present together and the still life compositions have a serenity contradicted by the collision of cultures. It is sublime and one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinema.

Previously available on DVD from Criterion, this new Blu-ray+DVD Combo is mastered from a new 4k film transfer and digital restoration, which upgrades the image significantly, and features commentary by Ozu scholar David Desser and three documentaries: the feature-length profile of the life and career of Ozu “I Lived, But” from 1983, the 40-minute tribute “Talking With Ozu” from 1993, and the 45-minute “Chishu Ryu and Shochiku’s Ofuna Studios” from 1988, all carried over from the previous DVD release. The accompanying booklet features an essay by critic David Bordwell (updated from the original version featured in the DVD release).

Assault on Precinct 13: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) isn’t John Carpenter’s first feature but it’s the first real John Carpenter film, with his themes and sensibility in rough but recognizable form. Ostensibly an urban crime thriller of street gangs gone wild, it plays like a cross between a Howard Hawks western and a zombie siege film that meets in a desolate Los Angeles no man’s land of a nearly abandoned neighborhood. A small group of people—cops, criminals, civilians and office workers—find themselves suddenly under siege by a nearly faceless gang in a nearly vacant police station.

Carpenter turns his dingy set into a claustrophobic cage and builds the tension as the gang takes out the besieged members one by one, forcing the survivors into the corner for a last stand. The acting is hardly Oscar material, but Carpenter fills his characters with real character and his smart, dramatically strong sense of visual design and tight pacing pulls the film together as it continues. For all the exposition dealt out in the opening half hour, it’s become an almost abstract act of violence by the end, motivations long forgotten by the attackers and survival the only thought on the minds of the dwindling survivors. And this is Carpenter’s first film shot in Panavision, his format of choice for the rest of his career.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

I Was Born, But… on TCM

Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… is the director’s most well-known silent feature and one of his most beloved films. The wry comedy plays on Sunday, January 9 on Turner Classic Movies as part of its Sunday Night Silents series. I wrote an essay for the screening.

I Was Born, But...

Japan had a vibrant national cinema and busy film industry during the silent era but sadly only a very small percentage of those films survive. Of the films that are available, Yasujiro Ozu’s 1932 I Was Born, But… is among the most famous and beloved and remains the best known of Ozu’s silent movies. This “picture book for grown-ups” (as the opening titles read) is a hilarious comedy of wills between the two wily young sons of salaryman Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito) as they move to a Tokyo suburb for the father’s new job and prepare to enter a new school. But underneath the comedy is a bittersweet family comedy that offers social satire through its view of the adult social order through the eyes of children.

Read the complete feature here. Also available on DVD as part of a box set from Criterion’s Eclipse imprint.

Tokyo Chorus on TCM

The films are Yasujiro Ozu are being featured this month for Silent Movie Sundays on Turner Classic Movies. Tokyo Chorus played last week (the night I got back from my much-needed vacation off the grid) and I didn’t get around to posting a link my feature article on TCM then, but better late than never.

Counting the bonus in "Tokyo Chorus"

For all the deft sight gags and comic situations–and there are plenty (including a comic symphony around the shenanigans of salarymen trying to count their bonus money away from prying eyes)–there is also an undercurrent of anxiety running through the film as Shinji struggles to find work in Japan’s depressed economy. The shadow of Japan’s hard times falls over Tokyo Chorus and the characters and Ozu isn’t shy about putting the depressed conditions on screen. Yet Ozu meets it with hope and humor and fills the film with tender and delicate moments in such seemingly simple scenes as a round-robin of patty-cake with the kids or group sing-song at the teacher’s banquet. And in contrast to the adults, the children remain impulsive, obstinate and at times destructive when they don’t get their way, especially Shinji’s young son, who defiantly pokes holes through the paper walls and methodically eats the scraps in a show of indignation. The father is forced to grow up but his son remains blissfully free of such responsibilities and Ozu celebrates his stubborn willfulness and bad behavior as a last moment of innocence as well as opportunities for comedy (his hilariously ingenious ploy for stealing a pill from his younger sister is worthy of Chaplin).

Read the complete feature here. And remember, you can get this film on DVD via a superb Criterion box set.

The Only Son / There Was a Father – DVD reviewed on TCM

I review the Criterion two-disc set The Only Son / There Was a Father: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu for the Turner Classic Movies website. It’s not my first coverage of these films (I wrote about them briefly for an Ozu retrospective in Seattle a few years ago and more in depth for another feature review of the set for this blog and for Parallax View, plus I  wrote  an essay on There Was a Father for a 2008 screening on Turner Classic Movies) but I tried to bring a slightly different approach to this feature, comparing the films and measuring the evolution of Ozu’s style from one to the other.

There was a father and a son

It’s a cliché by now to call Yasujiro Ozu the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, even if it is true to a point. The restrained style and quietly contemplative tone of his family dramas do reflect conservative Japanese ideals and mores but they are also utterly contemporary to their times. This double feature of pre-World War II Ozu is a beautiful match-set of dramas in duty and sacrifice, but the five years between 1936 and 1941 make all the difference in the world, for both Ozu the artist stretching himself into the sound era and Ozu the director doing his duty in the Japanese film industry.

The Only Son was his first sound film (he resisted making the transition longer many fellow directors) yet he makes the transition seamlessly and uses sound—and silence—effectively. In one scene, he even pokes fun at sound cinema by taking his mother to a “soundie,” a German musical that simply puts her to sleep. Like his best silent films, it has a quiet understatement and graceful formality, showing everyday life as a series of almost ritualistic greetings, conversations, and negotiations between peers, parents, and children. He shows collision of traditional culture and modern life as Ryosuke brings his mother into his cramped apartment and introduces her to the big city, he in his western-influenced suit, she in her traditional sari. And, of course, while the grown-ups suppress their personal desires under ceremony and social convention, Ryosuke’s son is a typical Ozu child: obstinate, cranky, and selfish, utterly unselfconscious and the opposite of the cultural ideal.

Read the complete feature at TCM here.

Duty and Sacrifice – Traditional Values, Modern Life and Ozu

The Only Son/There Was a Father: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu (Criterion)

It’s a cliché by now to call Yasujiro Ozu the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, even if it is true to a point. The restrained style and quietly contemplative tone of his family dramas are a distinct and deliberate break from the western conventions that informed the work of his contemporaries (and, for that matter, his own early films), a concerted effort to reflect conservative Japanese ideals and mores. But the cliché misses a defining component of his films, namely that they are utterly contemporary to their times.

The serenity of family

Where Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi found international recognition with historical adventures and elegant period dramas about samurai warriors, royal figures, and fallen heroes, Ozu exclusively made contemporary films. His quietly understated family dramas and comedies take place in the modest homes and workplaces of everyday citizens trying to make a life for themselves and their children. His films are a veritable survey of Japanese society from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, a society straddling an age-old culture of expectations and codes of conduct on the one hand, and the stresses and demands of the modern world and its international influences on the other. The homes of our characters are models of simplicity and austerity, but just outside their windows are the smokestacks of industrial factories, roofs decorated with TV aerials, and webs of power lines and telephone poles hanging across the sky. These are the elements most often featured in his famous “pillow shots,” glimpses of the world around his characters which “cushion” the space between scenes which are among the most beautiful still life moments seen in 20th century cinema.

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DVD of the Week – ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best Of Season Three’ – September 30, 2008

It’s hard to fathom just how controversial The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was in its day. Their brand of political satire, pointed barbs on topical events and political figures with a gentle delivery, was consistently censored by the network, which yanked the show (a ratings hit consistently in the top twenty) for its refusal to buckle under pressure. This four-disc set, which collects 11 stand-out episodes of its third and final season supplemented with new introductions by Tom and Dick Smothers and interviews with writers and performers, goes some way to reminding us of its audacity, especially as they call out the network and its censors in sketches and stage repartee.

The video quality is surprisingly good for this show, which (from what I can see) was shot on video rather than film and thus more prone to degradation with age, but video and audio quality aside, this is an amazing piece of social history. They open the third season with the song “We’re Still Here” that border on a taunt of CBS censors and are rewarded with part of that very episode – a Harry Belafonte performance set to footage of the Democratic Convention riots and campus protests – cut from the broadcast. The sequence has been restored for the DVD. Throughout the shows they make reference to censorship and takes jabs at political figures and discomforting issues, and were rewarded with more censorship (one entire episode was yanked – it’s in the set) and finally cancellation. “We weren’t canceled,” Dick Smothers corrects in one of the new interviews. “We were fired.” And so they were, taken off the air with the show in the top twenty. Apart from the great political satire, the shows feature great musical performances (The Ike and Tina Turner Revue spot is worth the set by itself, and Dion’s performance of “Abraham, Martin and John” is devastating) and comedy bits, including Pat Paulsen’s presidential campaign. The one-hour tongue-in-cheek 1968 TV special Pat Paulsen for President, narrated by Henry Fonda, is one of many supplements.

In his audio introduction to this collection, Tommy Smothers worries that the shows are too slow, the comedy too dated, the politics no longer relevant. He needn’t worry. 40 year later, the political satire of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” is still sharp and the humor as cheeky as ever, while their folk-song spots and trademark byplay underplays the edge of the material.

The review is featured in the TV section of my MSN DVD column.
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Ozu Masterpiece on TCM – ‘There Was A Father’

My article on Yasujiro Ozu’s There Was a Father went up on TCM many weeks ago and it simply slipped my attention in the flurry of SIFF and my recent move. It’s is one of the director’s masterpieces and has never been released on home video in the U.S. (the Japanese DVD is transferred from a poor print and barely adequate), but the recent showing of a restored print on TCM makes me hopeful for an eventual stateside released on DVD.

Yasujiro Ozu has been called the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors because of the restrained style and quietly contemplative tone of his family dramas. And while it is true that the films Ozu directed from the late thirties to the end of his career reflect traditional, conservative Japanese ideals and mores (“restraint, simplicity and near-Buddhist serenity” is how film historian Donald Richie described his cinematic aesthetic), this rather simplistic brand misses a ozu_there_was_a_father.jpgdefining component of his films, namely that they are utterly contemporary to their times. Where Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi found international recognition with historical adventures and elegant period dramas about samurai warriors, royal figures, and fallen heroes, Ozu exclusively made contemporary films and set his quietly understated family dramas and comedies in the modest homes and workplaces of everyday citizens trying to make a life for themselves and their children. His films are a veritable survey of Japanese society from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, a society straddling an age-old culture of expectations and codes of conduct on the one hand, and the stresses and demands of the modern world and its international influences on the other.

The story of his 1942 masterpiece There Was a Father is simplicity itself and the direction placid and restrained, but under the gentle rhythms and emotional suppression in the name of duty is a complex portrait of sacrifice and responsibility that is endured with obedience but little reward.

Read the entire piece here.

‘Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies’ – DVD reviewed on TCM

Three of Ozu’s most delightful silent films are collected in the three disc set from Eclipse, Criterion’s budget-minded, no-frills sister label. I review the films and survey a little of Ozu’s early career for Turner Classic Movies.

Tokyo Chorus (1931) opens with a scene of familiar college humor (students horsing around as a teacher eyes them and carefully marks out their demerits in his notepad) and segues into salaryman movie territory. Hapless college boy Shinji (played by Tokihiko Okada) is now a husband and father of three (including a very willful son) working for an insurance company and eagerly awaiting his bonus (the gags of adult men attempting to discreetly count their bonus money suggests they haven’t matured much since their college days). The father stands up to his boss over the unfair firing of an elder employee (Ozu regular Takeshi Sakamoto) and, after a childish game of tit-for-tat played with folded fans escalates into a comic scrap, joins the ranks of the unemployed (the “Tokyo Chorus” of the title).

Directing from a screenplay by Kogo Noda, who went on to write many of Ozu’s greatest films (including Tokyo Story, 1953, and Floating Weeds, 1959), Ozu fills the film with deft sight gags, many thanks to the antics of the son, yet there’s undercurrent of desperation to the comedy. As father struggles to find work to support his wife and children, and is forced to sell his wife’s kimonos to pay the doctor when their young daughter falls ill (the sick child is a classic dramatic crisis in Ozu’s silent films, invariably illustrated with the image of a bag of ice water suspended on the child’s forehead with a string). And when the wife sees Shinji marching the streets with an advertising banner, reduced to the lowest form of day labor, she’s first humiliated by his spectacle and then shamed by her attitude to his sacrifice for them. For all the comedy, the film is filled with tender and delicate moments in such seemingly simple scenes as a round-robin of patty-cake with the kids or sing-song at the teacher’s banquet. It’s still very traditional filmmaking compared to his later style, more Lubitsch than late Ozu, but you can see the director mastering his tools and finding his voice. In the words of Japanese film historian Donald Ritchie, “With this film, what Ozu called his “darker side” and what we would call his mature style began to emerge.”

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DVD of the Week – ‘Midnight’ – April 22

One of my favorite romantic comedies of all time finally comes to DVD:

the 1939 screwball Cinderella story “Midnight” stars Claudette Colbert as a street smart showgirl who pulls into Paris without a penny to her name and lands in the lap of luxury, thanks to a most unlikely fairy godfather (John Barrymore). She plays the part of the moneyed aristocrat in return for distracting a smooth high-society lothario (Francis Lederer) from Barrymore’s flighty young wife (a bubbly Mary Astor), but doesn’t count on persistent cabbie Don Ameche vying for her affections. One of the small gems scripted by Billy Wilder (with writing partner Charles Brackett) before he made the leap to directing, it’s polished up right by director Mitchell Leisen, Paramount’s master of light elegance.

It’s released as part of the “Universal Cinema Classics” imprint, even though the film was produced for Paramount – all those classic Paramounts are part of the Universal catalogue – and there are three other releases under that imprint coming out this week. Easy Living (1937) is a screwball delight set in the midst of the depression that sends Jean Arthur bouncing between the poles of poverty and wealth, thanks to a stray sable coat that falls from the heavens (in this case, a penthouse suite) and the assumptions that follow. Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay and Mitchell Leisen directs with his deft touch. The Major and the Minor (1942) marked the directorial debut of Billy Wilder and features a fabulous comic performance by Ginger Rogers. She Done Him Wrong (1933), written by and starring Mae West, doesn’t quite fit in the screwball genre of the rest of the films, but it’s a classic directed by the underrated Lowell Sherman and featuring a very young Car Grant.

Read the full review on my MSN DVD column here.

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