The International Lens: Drunken Angel (dir by Akira Kurosawa)

The 1948 Japanese film, Drunken Angel, tells the story of two seemingly different men living in a burned-out neighborhood in postwar Tokyo.

Sanada (Takashi Shimura) is an aging and world-weary doctor.  Though he may drink too much and he is occasionally too quick to snap at his patients, he truly cares about the people who live near his clinic.  He worries about the spread of tuberculosis, which was a very real concern in postwar Japan and which remains a concern to this day.  He continually tells his patients that they need to stop drinking and take better care of themselves, even though he does not seem to be capable of taking his own advice.

Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is a young Japanese gangster, a member of the yakuza.  Matsunaga does everything with a swagger, one that he appears to have largely adapted from Hollywood gangster movies.  He not only dresses like an idealized version of an American gangster but he also smokes his cigarettes like one.  Everything about Matsunaga gives the impression that he’s desperate to prove that he’s something more than just a small-time hood living in a bombed-out neighborhood that’s centered around a poisonous bog.

One night, Matsunaga shows up at Sanada’s clinic.  He’s got a bloody hole in his hand.  Mastunaga claims that he walked into a door.  When Sanada responds with skepticism, Matsunaga adds that the door had a nail sticking out of it.  Sanada may not believe Matsunaga but he’s a doctor so he treats Matsunaga’s wound.  Sanada also diagnosis Matsunaga as suffering from tuberculosis and tells him that he has to stop drinking and womanizing.  Needless to say, Matsunaga is not pleased with this diagnosis.

Though they start out as antagonists, a weary friendship grows between the doctor and the gangster.  Matsunaga even starts to follow the doctor’s advice or, at least, he does until his boss, Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), is released from prison.  Under Okada’s influence, Matsunaga falls back into his own habits, drinking and going to nightclubs where the musicians perform Americanized music.  Okada is also the ex-boyfriend of Sanada’s nurse and, when he threatens to murder Sanada unless the doctor lead him to her, Matsunaga is finally forced to decide which of his two potential mentors will have his loyalty.

Taken on its own, Drunken Angel is an entertaining gangster film that features two memorable lead performances.  Takashi Shimura is likable as Sanada while Toshiro Mifune is dangerously charismatic as Matsunaga.  Director Akira Kurosawa originally planned for the film to focus solely on Sanada, with Matsunaga only playing a minor role.  Mifune, however, so impressed him that he ended up expanding Matsunaga’s role until Mifune was eventually the film’s co-lead.  (Following Drunken Angel, Kurosawa would go on to make 15 other films with Mifune.)  Kurosawa keeps the action moving at an exciting pace and he frames the story with haunting images of the dilapidated neighborhood that the two men call home.

However, Drunken Angel is even more fascinated with one consider that it was made at a time when Japan, having been defeated in World War II and still traumatized by the nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, was still occupied by American forces.  The film was made at a time when it was still very much an open question as to what role Japan would play in a postwar world.  Would Japan become dominated by American culture (which, in this film, is represented by gangsters like Okada) or would it remain true to itself?  When Sanada warns Matsunaga that he is surrounded by toxic germs that are making him ill and threatening his future, he could very well have been talking about what Kurosawa perceived as being the threat of Americans transforming Japan into a westernized playground.

In the end, it’s a film that works on many levels, as a gangster film, as a portrait of a friendship, and as a metaphor for a people and a culture trying to find their place in a new and imperfect world.  If you haven’t seen it yet, now is the perfect time to do so.

Cinemax Friday: Stranger By Night (1994, directed by Gregory Brown a.k.a. Gregory Hippolyte a.k.a. Gregory Dark)

Detective Bobby Corcoran (Steven Bauer!) is a cop with an anger problem.  Whenever he and his parter, Troy Rooney (William Katt!!), catch a criminal, Bobby just loses control.  Since, for some reason, they seem to catch a lot of criminals on rooftops, this often leads to Bobby threatening to throw someone over the edge.  Even when his boss, Detective Larson (Michael Parks!!!) tells Bobby to stop trying to kill all of the suspects, Bobby still struggles to control his rage.  He’s seeing a Dr. Anne Richmond (Jennifer Rubin!!!!), a psychiatrist, about his anger issues but since their sessions usually get interrupted by bouts of soft-core, saxophone-scored sex, it is debatable how much time they actually spend digging into the roots of Bobby’s problems.

Bobby also suffers from frequent blackouts.  While he’s unconscious, he’s haunted by black-and-white memories of his abusive father (J.J. Johnston) beating up his mother.  When he wakes up, he’s often in a different room from where he blacked out.  Anne says that Bobby must be sleep-walking.  Bobby says that he’s not sleep walking because he’s stubborn and doesn’t feel safe letting anyone into his mind.  Lately, whenever Bobby passes out, a prostitute ends up dead.  An unknown killer is stalking them and chopping off their ears.  Bobby, with his anger issues and his dislike of prostitutes, is an obvious suspect.  Is Bobby the killer or is he being framed?

Stranger By Night‘s credited director is Gregory Brown, who is better known as Gregory Dark.  Dark is one of the best-known of the directors who specialized in erotic thrillers in the 90s.  Dark was responsible for some of the classics of the genre but, unfortunately, Stranger By Night is not one of his better efforts.  The action frequently drags and, with the exception of Bobby’s black-and-white flashbacks, Stranger By Night has none of Dark’s usual visual style.  The film looks and feels flat and the plot is never feels as involving as it should.  The discovery of the killer’s identity inspires not shock but an indifferent shrug.

On the positive side, it’s got a cast of skilled genre vets and all of them do what they can to elevate the material.  William Katt is jittery and frequently funny while Jennifer Rubin, who deserved to have a much bigger career, is as sultry as ever.  (Rubin brought both intelligence and sex appeal to almost every role that she played and it made her one of the best genre actresses around.)  Steven Bauer, another actor who probably deserves a bigger career than he’s had, does a good job in the lead role.  Bobby isn’t always a likable character and Bauer doesn’t try to make him one.  On the other hand, it’s frustrating that Michael Parks does not get to do much, other than frown.  There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a film that doesn’t take full advantage of the casting of Michael Parks.

Stranger By Night does seem to have a serious subtext.  It tries to deal seriously with how Bobby’s abusive childhood has scarred him and there’s a lengthy scene where Bobby finally talks to his aged father.  The scene is played straight and it’s not the sort of thing that you’d normally expect to see in a direct-to-video erotic thriller.  (It’s a good example of what set Gregory Dark apart from some of the other directors churning out these type of films in the 90s.)  For the most part, though, Stranger By Night is a forgettable trip to the world of late night Cinemax.

4 Shots From 4 Lamberto Bava Films: Macabre, A Blade In The Dark, Demons 2, Delirium

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Happy birthday to Lamberto Bava!

4 Shots From 4 Lamberto Bava Films

Macabre (1980, dir by Lamberto Bava)

A Blade In the Dark (1983, dir by Lamberto Bava)

Demons 2 (1986, dir by Lamberto Bava)

Delirium (1987, dir by Lamberto Bava)

Scenes I Love: Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall in The Godfather

96 years ago today, Marlon Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska.

Unfortunately, Brando is one of those actors who, later in his life, became better known for his eccentricities than for his performances.  Though Brando never stopped being a good actor, it’s undeniable that some of his later performances reveal an actor who often did seem to be a bit bored with the films that he was making.  It’s sad to think that there’s people out there who might only know Brando because they stumbled across The Island of Dr. Moreau on Starz at like 3 in the morning.

Regardless of the reputation that he developed in his later years, Marlon Brando was one of the best actors of all time.  His early performances are still exciting to watch and, even when his work was becoming progressively more eccentric in the 70s and 80s, he still continued to give performances that could grab your attention and leave you surprised by their power.

Of course, my favorite Brando film remains The Godfather so it only makes sense to share a scene from that film on Brando’s birthday.  In this beautifully acted scene, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) informs Don Vito (Brando) that Sonny has been killed.  Of course, first, Tom has to have a drink.  This scene might not be as iconic as some of the other scenes in The Godfather but it’s wonderfully performed by both actors and it reminds us that The Godfather is powerful not because it’s a crime film but because it’s a film about family.


Music Video Of The Day: I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band) by The Moody Blues (1972, directed by ????)

Today’s music video of the day was written by John Lodge, the bassist and vocalist for The Moody Blues.  The song was inspired by Lodge’s feeling that his fans were expecting him to have all of the solutions for the world’s problems.  His reply, in this song, is that he doesn’t have the answers.  He’s just a singer in a rock and roll band.

The Moody Blues may not have been able to give any answers in this song but it was still one of their biggest hits in the U.S.  For whatever reason, it was significantly less popular in the UK.  In the US, it reached the 12th position on the charts.  In the UK, it could only make it to the 36th position.

After the release of this single, The Moody Blues went on a five year hiatus so that the members of the band could work on other projects.  They wouldn’t release another single until 1978, with Steppin’ In A Slide Zone.