Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rivers to the ocean: The Complete Jean Vigo

I keep thinking of that most cherished scene from L’Atalante (1934)—one of the most beautiful movies ever made—the one that forms a bridge between the middle and last parts. The young lovers have separated; the man is miserable. He recalls something the woman told him just after they were wed, that in her village they say that if you dunk your head underwater you will see the face of your beloved. So the man climbs up on the deck of the barge of which he’s skipper and plunges headlong into the wintry-cold canal. And there, below the water’s surface, the villagers’ promise manifests in visions of the woman, all in white, dancing, smiling, a luminous pearl in the liquescent gloom. And it strikes me that this scene invokes the promise of the movies: we submerge ourselves in the dark, hoping to find something like consolation, or excitement, or enlightenment, in the apparitions hovering before us.

A romantic analogy, obviously, but such notions creep up on you when you immerse yourself in the work of Jean Vigo, who died at 29 after having only completed four films, who received scant love while alive but whose posthumous acclaim has found him heralded as the French cinema’s patron saint, a genuine martyr, having literally been killed by filmmaking, his fragile health unable to withstand the bone-chilling location work necessary to complete his masterpiece. I first saw L’Atalante on my birthday, at the Anthology Film Archives, during my first visit to New York. It put me in some kind of a trace. I seemed to be walking on sea legs afterwards, and much of what had just passed before my eyes lingered only as a spectral blur. Thankfully, Criterion has now released The Complete Jean Vigo, and I’m now able to think a little more lucidly about L’Atalante’s singular lyricism, and its echoes in everything else Vigo managed to make during his too-short career.

One of the first examples of what would later be called the essay film, Vigo and co-director Boris Kaufman’s 23-minute À propos de Nice (1930)—the city where Vigo had spent time recovering from tuberculosis, and where he met his wife—is restlessly inventive and irreverent, as much under the spell of Un chien andalou (1929) as it was the fashion for “city films.” It features sail boats, wandering crowds and people lazing in the sun (their clothing changing or suddenly, delightfully, vanishing), car races and can-can dancers (Vigo himself among them), edited in a manner that’s both elegant and mischievous, enthralled by Nice and critical of Nice. It also features gorgeous arial photography, foreshadowing the distinctive gaze from above that would return in each subsequent Vigo.

‘Taris’ (1931), a commissioned, nine-minute documentary on swimming champion Jean Taris, is surprisingly charming and extraordinarily sensual, with images of Taris’ torso twisting below the water’s surface. A final sequence finds him diving in reverse before suddenly appearing in a suit and walking (via superimposition) back into the waves.

A major influence on numerous celebrated films, among them The 400 Blows (1959), Zéro de conduite (1933) is a 44-minute narrative film about the increasingly exhilarating bouts of trouble that a group of boys get into at a provincial boarding school. This ode to childhood disobedience—laying the groundwork for the adult anarchism Vigo ascribed to—makes a cine-poetry of spasms of rebellion, building to an unforgettable climax in which the students declare war on their masters, arming themselves with pillows and converting their dormitory into a battleground strewn with feathers.

Finally, L’Atalante, sadly, Vigo’s sole feature-length work, tells the story of a woman who weds the skipper of a barge. She’s never been outside her village, and though marriage promises to show her the world, she soon realizes that it will mostly be seen only in passing. For the man, this marriage seems to represent a compromise between domesticity and freedom. Vigo conveys their troubled yet passionate romance through a delicate mise-en-scène, flowing with languorous lateral movement, haunting images of water and fog, displays of bizarre objects gathered from around the world, scenes of remarkable, touching intimacy of the sort still rare in movies, and abundant earthy humour in the form of Le père Jules (the great Michel Simon, of Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning), the bumbling old sea dog who often steals the show with his rants, accordion playing, and one-man wrestling matches.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Closed circuit: You Are Here

A lecturer (R.D. Reid) stands before a projected image of rolling waves. He should like to instruct us in serenity and solitude. He warns us against the perils of allowing our eyes to follow the red dot darting across the screen, emanating from his laser pointer. The threat of the red dot isn’t specified, but the lecturer’s warning, stated at the very start of You Are Here, Toronto video artist Daniel Cockburn’s feature debut, serves as a reminder that there may still be something dangerous about taking instruction, submitting to direction, or simply watching a movie.

Such deliberately vague portent clings to every new realm of activity introduced in You Are Here: the discovery made by a bunch of people named Alan (not a typo) of a door where there should not be a door; the control centre where dispatchers give directions to individuals walking the city streets, emissaries whose trajectories are without apparent purpose save the avoidance of convergence; the prisoner (Anand Rajaram) who has pages of Chinese script shoved under the door and must then consult a voluminous text entitled What To Do If They Shove Chinese Writing Under The Door; the abandoned things appropriated by a self-appointed archivist (Tracy Wright), each containing recorded information, in varying formats, that may or may not add up to anything yet compel her to provide them with a home.

Each realm of activity, or thought experiment, constitutes a plastic component of You Are Here’s ornate circuitry—which is itself the film’s protagonist. At times this circuitry hints at a critique of technology’s promise to track and organize every last item in the world for posterity; at others it alludes to forms of interconnectivity that can only be understood once the individual (ie: one of those emissaries told not to interact with the other emissaries) rebels agains the dominant hegemony. Which is to say that You Are Here is playful, enigmatic and very cerebral. If the larger meaning strikes you as elusive, then you’ve just about got the point.

Press materials and clippings about the film keep invoking Jorge Luis Borges (though, given the film’s interest in found things and urban geography, I think Paul Auster is a more apt literary allusion) and Charlie Kaufman (though, given the film’s preoccupation with interlocking structures, I think Christopher Nolan is a more apt cinematic allusion), but such comparisons should come with one major caveat: each of these artists are storytellers (yes, Borges included), as engaged with narrative and character, with form and meaning, as they are with metaphor. You Are Here is fun, smart, inventive, and enjoyably puzzling—to be sure, I recommend it—it’s also pretty cold, and satisfies itself above all through the realization and careful arrangement of its concepts.

You Are Here is now playing at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox. It opens at Edmonton's Metro Cinema next Monday.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Best-made plans: Criterion does The Killing

The title of The Killing (1956) describes what, in one sense of the word, its characters hope to make, yet, in the more literal sense, it’s what they wind up unexpectedly doing a whole lot of once the machinery of their elegantly planned heist goes awry. This was Stanley Kubrick’s third feature, made when he was just 28. It should be seen as his proper arrival, the first film so charged with the particular brand of irony and almost singular rendering of architectural space that would come to define the director’s signature. Though hardly indicative of the towering and exacting displays of ambition to come—see Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001 (1968), Barry Lyndon (1975), et al—The Killing is also nimble and fleet and yielding of cinematic pleasure in a way that Kubrick would never quite replicate. It features camerawork from the great Lucien Ballard and dialogue from hard-boiled author Jim Thompson—the source material is Lionel White’s Clean Break—and a dream cast of actors that read like a film noir rogue’s gallery: Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr., Vince Edwards, Coleen Gray, and the unmistakable Timothy Carey. The Killing is now available on a great-looking DVD and blu-ray from Criterion.

Career criminal Johnny Clay (Hayden) has already done a five-year stretch, so he figures if he’s going to risk getting caught again it better be for a whopping payday. Two million, split between a small crew, about fits the bill, so Clay assembles a team consisting of a sniper (Carey), a betting window teller (Cook), a cop (Ted de Corsica), a bartender (Joe Sawyer) and—best of all—a wrestler (Kola Kwariani), who at one point actually has his shirt ripped off before he starts to kick ass, to rob a busy race track. Part of what’s meant to make the plan so effective is that no one player in the operation is able to fully see the whole, but this reduction of a larger machine to its individual parts is also part of what causes it to malfunction. The teller’s younger wife (Windsor) tells her boyfriend (Edwards) about the plan and the boyfriend figures to get in on the take; the sniper loses his patience with a parking lot attendant and fellow veteran (James Edwards), lets fire a racist slur, and is eventually fired at himself.

Moving back and forth chronologically—tellingly, the film was an inspiration for the young Quentin Tarantino—we see parts of the plan play out from different perspective; narrated by an anonymous voice who sounds a little too much like he’s narrating a trailer, it’s as though we’re medical students tracking the paths of a cancer. The cynical masterstroke in all this can be traced to the manner in which Kubrick manipulates the viewer’s emotional connections: by The Killing’s brilliantly staged finale, we’re confronted with the fact that we’re far more invested in the fate of a suitcase full of cash than we are in the lives of several characters. Everything, finally, is grist for the mill. As Clay memorably puts it, inadvertently foreshadowing the general shrugging attitude toward human endeavour in so much later Kurbick, “What’s the difference?”

The supplements on Criterion’s release are terrific, especially the interview with Robert Polito, author of the excellent Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, concerning Thompson’s relationship with Kubrick. (Among Polito’s most interesting insights are the connections he draws between Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and Nabokov’s Lolita, which Kubrick would soon adapt.) But the obvious supplementary highlight on The Killing is Kubrick’s preceding feature, Killer’s Kiss (1955), also a strong, moody noir about a not very good boxer and a girl in trouble, which memorably features scenes of casual voyeurism, lusty television viewing, underwear fondling, more bad voice-over, and a long, messy, dirty fight involving an axe, a spear, and about a hundred mannequins in various states of assembly. It was also shot by Kubrick, who had by then wound down his career as a photographer for Look, and his memorable, seemingly spontaneous street imagery conveys a curiosity about the world that would rarely resurface in his later work.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Conan the Barbarian: bludgeoning the classics

Steel versus sorcery, self-reliance versus hegemony, cold brutality versus hot sadism: there’s plenty of dramatic conflict inherent in Robert E. Howard’s oft-revived and re-tooled Conan tales, yet the only discernible conflict in director Marcus Nispel’s new Conan the Barbarian concerns the battle between the forces of inspiration and those of crass cynicism. The latter triumphs utterly.

Neither spectacularly awful not awfully spectacular, this new Conan makes good on none of its promises nor builds any momentum. A protracted prologue (with narration from Morgan Freeman!), which follows our titular barbarian from the womb (I mean this literally) through to childhood trauma, attempts to infuse the story with some psychology yet fails to produce a Conan half as compelling as Schwarzenegger’s far more single-minded embodiment. Once adult Conan (Jason Momoa, sneering with conviction and plenty buff, though he’d surely look more at home jumping off the top rope than fencing with sand demons) sets upon on his quest to avenge his father’s gruesome death, the film shifts into a steady and mind-numbing series of fight sequences, none of which are very imaginative nor support a coherent set of rules regarding the magical powers of its baddies.

John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian was an economical fantasy that thoughtfully embraced the savagery of its milieu and made its hero an emblem for its director’s anti-authoritarian, neo-anarchist beliefs and its singularly self-adoring star’s superman self-image. It also featured a wonderfully seductive villain in wigged James Earl Jones, was extremely entertaining and well-structured (the script came from Milius and Oliver Stone), and functioned as an interesting foil to Apocalypse Now (which was scripted by Milius and features a similar trajectory and virtually identical climax).

With its somewhat different narrative thrust (“arc” is too dynamic a term... come to think of it so is “thrust”), the new Conan can’t exactly be called a remake (despite echoes of the earlier film in the score and some of the choreography), but neither can anyone familiar with Milius’ film help but compare the two. The only things to recommend it are supporting performances from Ron Perlman and Conan’s martyred dad and Rose McGowan as the goth sorceress daughter of Conan’s adversary. Her inevitable demise during one of the film’s umpteen endings is almost a disappointment, but hardly enough to invoke “the lamentations of the women.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Waiting for Katelbach: Criterion in a Cul-de-sac

Cul-de-sac (1966) opens with the stark image of a road bisecting a flat landscape and a car’s slow approach. Slow because it’s not being driven but rather pushed by Dickie (Lionel Stander), a loud, shirtless, ogre-like, middle-aged gangster with one arm shoved into a sling. Dickie’s Hitler-moustached, comparatively diminutive cohort, Albie (Jack McGowran), sits up front, quietly nursing a gut wound. They’ve somehow wound up at what looks like the very ends of the earth, following the telephone wires under the assumption that they must surely lead someplace worth going to. Echoing the dynamics of some of the director’s early short films (‘Two Men and a Wardrobe,’ ‘The Fat and the Lean’), the pair resembles some variation on Beckett’s tramps; indeed, they are waiting, not for Godot, but for the mysterious and equally elusive Mr. Katelbach to come and rescue them from perdition.

As the tide rises and threatens to swallow the car, Dickie finally discovers a looming sign of salvation straight out of myth: an 11th-century castle, the one, it turns out where Rob Roy was written, inhabited only by the nervous, pedantic, bald-headed George (Donald Pleasance) and the much younger, very attractive and frequently naked Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), the two of them married less than ten months and living out here with many chickens, a well-stocked wine cellar, a room full of George’s bad paintings of Teresa, and a fridge containing about 900 eggs. Dickie invades the castle, devours many eggs and bottles of wine with the table manners of a grizzly bear, and immediately asserts himself as a sort of paternal authority figure; George and Teresa comply with his demands, even when he poses no immediate threat (though one of the film’s most entertaining sequences finds Teresa responding to a surprise visit from friends by suddenly ordering Dickie around like he’s their butler; she calls him “James”). A very weird sort of improvised family unit falls into place, prompting a surprising intimacy between the two men, who get stinko and touchy-feely with each other, and discuss life and women. At one point George even shaves Dickie.

This essentially sums up Cul-de-sac’s premise: one odd couple meets another in a cold, vast, isolated setting. What unfolds is a film that snakes seamlessly between comedy, thriller, siege drama, horror, and social critique, all of it truly inspired and amounting to what is probably the most sui generis project of Roman Polanski’s career. Yet, scripted by Polanski and his long-time collaborator Gérard Brach, the film never feels indulgent or aimless. Every scene pulls us deeper into something. Everything moves toward its end.

I first saw Cul-de-sac when I was maybe 16, and it somehow came to emblematize something very seductive about the European 1960s for me. So, like a lot of people, I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time, and Criterion’s DVD/blu-ray release rewards patience. The film, shot in black and white (and countless shades of grey) by Gilbert Taylor, is riddled with haunting images, alternating between hot sunlight and gloom, and Criterion’s transfer is suitably gorgeous. The disc also features a terrific documentary about the film’s arduous production and a vintage British television program featuring a fascinating and comprehensive interview with Polanski just as he was enjoying his first taste of global renown.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In a Better World: Oh, the humane-ity

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor working at a Sudanese refugee camp where he treats the victims of a sadistic warlord. Kids like him; they always chase after his truck when he drives away at the end of the day. But one day the warlord comes by for treatment and Anton lets him in the camp and the kids stop cheerfully chasing his truck. Should Anton treat patients without regard for their diabolical actions, or should he let the locals take their revenge on the ugly prick, who anyway just looks really, really evil?

Anton’s estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) is a doctor too, but she works and lives in an idyllic Danish town with their kids, one of whom, Elias (Markus Rygaard), gets bullied a lot. But Elias makes pals with new kid Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), who’s determined to retaliate against all bullies, big and small, with some serious ass-whoopin’. Christian’s mom is dead and dad largely absent, and you know what that means. Kid’s got a bad attitude. It’s just a matter of time before that ass-whoopin’ turns potentially deadly, and an innocent jogger and her jogging daughter get caught in the crossfire and nearly blown up. Revenge, it turns out, is problematic.

I have always imagined Susanne Bier as a very nice person, someone who probably pays careful attention to current events and shops at farmers markets. But artists overwhelmingly driven by social consciousness and concern for their fellow human are tricky animals. They tend to forget that the stories that touch us are formed in the guts and sooner or later wiggle free of strategies; that believable characters don’t conform to the dictates of careful dramaturgy; that didactisism and tidy moral equations tend to have the opposite of their desired effect. (Though they sure can scoop up Oscars!) Working once more with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, Bier’s latest is a pretty shameless piece of white-Euro-hand-wringing in which nothing escapes the author’s determination to say Something Important About the World and still make nice in the end, however improbably. Bier, whose previous films include After the Wedding and Brothers, has obvious craft and talent; she can sometimes create marvelous moments with her actors; but in this case, she’s forcing everything so much your teeth will ache.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Future is Now!: So think positive!

Who is the Man of Today? Someone “pessemistic and practical,” says he. A “libertarian,” says another. Someone who just needs a few days wholly devoted to rediscovering the sense of wonder that stubbornly continues to exist in our troubled world, says the Woman of Tomorrow, who then promptly sets about fascilatating that rediscovery, through poetry readings, drinks with anarchists and helicopter tours of the Chrystler Building and the Great Wall of China, followed by meetings with several renowned optimists in North America and Europe. Man of Today met Woman of Tomorrow while the latter was doing a video street survey, asking strangers what their biggest fears are. (My favourite answer was “mystery moisture,” that phenomenon that occurs when you’re just walking along and you get hit by a drop of liquid of no apparent origin.) Woman is impressed by Man’s resolute I-do-no-harm, nor-do-I-give-a-shit-about-others attitutde. Man is impressed by Woman’s perky attractiveness. The adventure begins.

Alain de Botton

This fateful encounter between Woman and Man forms the foudnation of Gary Burns and Jim Brown’s The Future is Now!, a sort of fantasy date-a-thon that takes its cues from Nicole Védrès 1949 film La vie commence demain, in which two people with similarly conflicting sensibilities meet and swap ideas with French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Daniel Agache, Jean Rostand, Le Corbusier, Pablo Picasso and André Gide. Burns and Brown’s cast of big-brained conversationalists are a little less famous but also a little more diverse in background, they include Toronto poet Christian Bök, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, artist Marlene Dumas, philosopher Alain de Botton and novelist Rivka Galchen (whose Atmospheric Distrubances was one of the best debuts of the last decade). Oh, and the ghost of Jean-Paul Sartre. The tone and format feels somewhat akin to Richard Linklater’s talkier films (Waking Life espeically) and, to a lesser extent, Mindwalk, that slightly goofy movie where Liv Ullman, John Heard and Sam Waterston just walk around and talk about ultruism.

Burns and Brown previousy collaborated on the terrific Radiant City, which took a similarly irreverent approach to the documentary format in its exploraiton of Calgary’s apocalytic urban sprawl. The Future is Now! is also somehow a very Calgarian movie, in that it feels like the work of artists who are enormously frustrated with their hometown’s rabid conservatism yet come to terms with it not through attacking it but rather through giving certain dominant conservative attitudes a plausible, intelligent voice. Man of Today isn’t one to easily buy into liberal idealism, and thus makes a nice foil to Woman of Tomorrow’s incessant cheerfulness (she’s played by Liane Balaban). Man is played by bald-headed Quebecois Paul Ahmarani, who is nothing if not persistent. The film is full of reaction shots that find him doing this “I’m dubious” face, which made me laugh out loud nearly every time. I found myself occasionally wishing Burns and Brown had allowed their Man character to have a little more, well, character, but the truth is that both Man and Woman’s cipher-like personas fit neatly into the film’s conciet, which essentially takes the premise for a children’s movie and grafts it onto a film for grown-ups. I think it’s a lot of fun. But maybe I’m a natural optimist.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Meek's Cutoff: Looking for a place to settle down

Our orientation is stitched into the canvas that appears in place of a traditional title card: Oregon, 1845. A small wagon train carrying three families and their hirsute, tasseled dandy of a guide traverses a landscape that undulates off in every which direction with little to recommend one route over the other. Crossing rivers and moving down hills is arduous and slow. In a memorable, inexplicably moving early scene, a pregnant woman chases her errant bonnet, hooked by the wind, as it snakes across the cracked earth. Daily chores, such as cooking, washing clothes, scrubbing dishes, and repairing cartwheels, are most often undertaken in silence. One image of travel gives way to the next in a dissolve so slow it’s like time has fallen asleep. The first word expressed by any of the characters isn’t spoken aloud (it daren’t be; not yet) but carved into a dead tree: LOST.

Which is about the best one-word summation one could find to characterize the films of Kelly Reichardt, one of the finest, most distinctive, most resourceful contemporary American filmmakers. A sense of having lost one’s way presses up against the margins of her earlier features, River of Grass, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Here, in Meek’s Cutoff, her most elaborate and ambitious production, her most dramatic narrative, her first period piece, and a western of sorts, one seen mainly through the eyes of women who have little say in their destinies, that sense of being lost drives the entire film, in so much as you can call the film “driven.” Sparely scripted, like Reichardt’s previous two features, by Oregon author Jonathan Raymond, its momentum is quiet, its tensions simmer a long while, its dangers are clearly mortal but most often latent, waiting. There’s much at stake, but its desperation is conveyed judiciously. It’s a gorgeously coloured, immersive film, pierced through with the sort of historical detail rarely highlighted, and with political undercurrents that imbue it with a timelessness.

The hopeful settlers are moving through the Oregon High Desert. As the film begins the group already suspects that their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) may not know where he’s going. Meek, with his Father Christmas beard, his little pipe and buckskin outfit, likes to hold court with tales of adventure and his intimate connection to the land, but not everyone is convinced, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) perhaps least of all. Gender roles are clearly defined, but at night Emily whispers with her older, level-headed husband Soloman (Will Patton) about their plight. Their water supply is dwindling, and what food they can prepare is low on nourishment, particularly for the pregnant Glory White (Shirley Henderson).

Their unease is exacerbated with the appearance of a lone, half-naked Indian (Rod Rondeaux) with an oddly handsome face and a scar on his shoulder, who the men capture. There is debate about whether to kill him immediately or keep him around in the hope that he might lead them to water. The group is genuinely afraid--“They don’t think the way we do,” says one of the women, “it’s a documented fact”--but pragmatism wins out. Some of the film’s most interesting passages find Emily negotiating with the nameless Indian with whom no one shares a language. These scenes aren’t intended to render Emily as some sort of preternatural angel of tolerance; her motives are perfectly selfish, but her nonetheless courageous actions hold the promise of some deeper understanding of this feared Other.

Williams gives an even richer performance here than she did in Wendy and Lucy. A sequence filmed in long shot, in which Emily sees the Indian, drops her armload of kindling, and walks back to camp to fire an alarm shot from her cumbersome rifle, buzzes with a protracted, transfixing struggle between panic and clear-headedness. Greenwood, Patton, Henderson, Rondeaux also give nuanced performances peppered with thoughtful distinctions, though two of the younger actors, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, become annoying; they seem to be working too hard to generate drama, while Reichardt’s approach often hangs back from the actors, rewarding subtlety and the ability to maintain tension over long takes.

Reichardt filmed Meek’s Cutoff in the now-rarely used 1.33 aspect ratio, which mirrors the square-framed point-of-view granted to the women through their bonnets, or any of the group while they gaze at the passing landscape through the upside-down U of the wagons. Great pains have been taken to convey this story with as much fidelity to the real experience as possible; even Jeff Grace’s score feels like an extension of breath, the wind in the grass, and the soft clang of things dangling from the wagons. Such touches may seem slight on their own, but taken as a whole they form the ingredients for a rare work that transports us fully into not only a place but a mood, culminating in what is easily one of the best films you’ll see this year.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fortune and sons: High and Low

The English title given to Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 epic yet bracing kidnapping thriller and corporate critique is not accurate--he original translates as Heaven and Hell--but it’s better, or in any case appropriate on so many levels as to excuse its liberties. The film’s brilliantly rendered settings, from a shoe manufacturing executive’s deluxe, air-conditioned, ultra-Westernized mansion that looks down on Yokohama, to the industrial city’s dank, smoggy bed of low-lying refuse; from the cramped toilet of a bullet train speeding across a bridge to the anonymous grassy knoll far below to which briefcases of ransom money are tossed, High and Low shifts vertiginously between altitudes and class. Kurosawa himself was straddling “high” and “low” culture; he had previously adapted Shakespeare, Gorky and Dostoyevsky, was now working with considerably less elevated literary material: King’s Ransom, one of American author Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series of thrillers. And not one of the better ones.

Dramatic dichotomies abound in High and Low, right down to its stunning black and white (with one audacious exception) photography. Kurosawa was now three years into working with his own production company and was coming off a string of some of his finest and most enduringly popular middle-period films (Yojimbo among them); working hard to utilize the widescreen aspect ratio in as imaginative and fluent a manner possible, he had begun to forge what would become the signature camera style of the remainder of his career. He was at the top of his game, and could make such bold transitions with complete confidence. High and Low is one of his very best modern-dress films, and is now available on a gorgeous-looking, well-supplemented new blu-ray and DVD reissue from the Criterion Collection.

High and Low hits the ground running, with high tensions and thorny moral conundrums unfurling in its first scenes. Just as Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, moustached, still terse and bullying, but with his characteristic bluster largely tucked into designer suits) is about to stake everything he owns--and he owns a lot--into clandestinely buying up shares so he can stage a take-over of the shoe company he works for, he gets a phone call that draws everything to a halt. His son has been kidnapped, and the ransom is very high. (Say goodbye to that corporate coup.) But soon his son enters the room--they kidnapped his chauffer’s kid by accident! Does Gondo still pay the enormous sum, even for a child that’s not his own? Is it worth throwing away his chance at advancement--perhaps throwing away everything? The immediate drama that unfolds, involving negotiations, elaborate arrangements and police involvement, is engrossing. And only about half of the movie. High and Low just keeps careening into different directions, and all the while it comments on Japan’s adoption of ruthless capitalism and peculiar ambivalence toward foreign influence.