Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Yeehaw! Cinema roundup!

I figured that title was in keeping with the cowboy theme tonight. Anyway, thoughts on recently-watched movies, starting with one I saw earlier tonight:

CSA: The Confederate States of America (2006, directed by Kevin Willmott):

This one is a faux-documentary (or mockumentary, the more commonly-used term) that posits an alternate history in which the South won the American Civil War and took over the country. It's presented as a controversial (in the present-day CSA) film produced by the British Broadcasting Service and broadcast on a San Francisco TV station. This means the "movie" is periodically interrupted by commercials featuring...well, I'll get to their content later. Anyway, we learn the entire history of the CSA, from the end of the Civil War (or the War of Northern Agression, as it is referred to in the film) to the present day. It's interesting to see the events that the filmmakers posit might have happened if this had come about, such as Canada being a safe haven for slaves and abolitionists (a word that becomes equivalent to "communist" in the 1950's or "terrorist" today) and the country that the CSA wages its "cold war" against, the CSA's extension of the policy of Manifest Destiny to take over all of South America, or the alliance with Hitler that was made during World War II. Of course, the biggest difference, and the one the filmmakers emphasize the most, is the continued legality of slavery.

The presence of slavery is what makes the frequent commercial segments so interesting. They are darkly humorous, giving teasers for shows like an escaped-slave-chasing version of COPS called Runaways, or perscription drugs intended to makes your slaves happier and less prone to cause trouble or try to escape. Possibly most disarming are the ads for products like Darkie Toothpaste or Coon's Fried Chicken, which are based on actual products that were sold in the U.S. as late as the mid-20th century.

Of course, the filmmakers are trying to make a statement about current culture in the United States, but I don't know how successful they are, beyond making us remember that racism is still around and segregation was standard not too long ago. Otherwise, the movie is a very interesting look at a possible alternate history, but even that sort of goes awry as the timeline gets closer to the present and the filmmakers try to squeeze in more modern events like the assassination of J.F.K. or the rise of rock and roll. I understand that the intent is to show that this seemingly-unimaginable society is not too different from our own, but some of the events are too coincidental, like having the CSA enter World War II by bombing Japan on December 7, 1941.

That said, it's still an excellent film that will make you think quite a bit about issues like racism. It was produced independently, on a very low budget, using archival footage with a different context to great effect. It certainly seems like a real documentary, and if you stop paying attention, you might forget for a second that it's fake. That's a sign of good filmmaking, I think.
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Samurai Rebellion (Japan, 1967, directed by Masaki Kobayashi):

You gotta love Toshiro Mifune. That guy was so intense, he made whatever movie he was a part of. I love the convoluted feudal politics of this movie, so I'll try to explain it in a nutshell: Isaburo Sasahara (Mifune) is the head of a vassal family, and his lord (or daimyo) orders him to have his son Yogoro married to the lord's former mistress (concubine?). The mistress (her name is Ichi) had disgraced herself, and even though she bore a son to the lord, she had to be sent away. Mifune doesn't want Ichi, because he had to marry his own wife in a similar situation, and he's had an unhappy marriage. But he can't go against the lord's orders, so they are forced to accept Ichi. Luckily, her marriage to Yogoro turns out to be a happy one, and she ends up bearing a daughter, Tomi. But then the lord's elder son dies, and Ichi's son becomes the lord's heir. It wouldn't do to have the heir's mother be married to a vassal, so the lord orders Mifune's family to return her. They refuse, and the shit hits the fan. It takes a good hour and a half of these politics before Mifune pulls out his sword and starts defending his family against the wishes of the tyrannical daimyo, but the wait is worth it. He ends up heading off to Edo, the capital, to go over his lord's head, and he carries Tomi with him, almost turning the story into Lone Wolf and Cub. But that doesn't happen, of course, and he ends up doing one of his signature scenes: the stagger onward to kill more guys after being mortally wounded (see also: The Seven Samurai). Awesome. I love old samurai movies, and this is a good one.
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Graveyard of Honor (Japan, 1975, directed by Kinji Fukasaku):

I need to see more of Kinji Fukasaku's films; sadly, I think the only other one I've seen is Battle Royale (which I like quite a bit). This one is really incredibly made, with tons of energy. It's about a maniacally violent gangster in post-war Japan, and the story is decent enough, but the real appeal for me is the style and cinematography. Fukasaku periodically films scenes in a sepia-toned, monochromatic style, which makes it look very authentic. He also tilts the camera at crazy angles during scenes of violent confrontation, giving them a very disorienting feel. And some scenes in which groups of rival gangsters fight (or brawl) with each other seem to surround the camera; the bodies clash together in close-up, and you can't tell anybody apart. It's very visceral. The story is not too remarkable; I don't even remember many of the details, but I do remember the amazing style of the violent scenes Fukasaku shot. That's the kind of thing that seems to define Japanese cinema (or gangster pictures, at least) for me, up through present-day filmmakers like Takashi Miike or Takeshi Kitano. Really cool stuff, and it makes me want to search our more of Fukasaku's films.
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Okay, now that I got that out of my system, I should be able to get to more comics reviews tomorrow. Until then...