Category: Movies

An Actor’s Revenge (1963)

I was supposed to go on a trip (my first!) to Canada to visit friends and attend TIFF a couple weeks ago, but instead I got you-know-what. I’m fine now. But I had been looking up things about Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose film The Woman King (2022) debuted in Toronto, and who I knew as the director the wonderful Love & Basketball (2000); in this way I came to watch her enjoyable Criterion Closet Picks video, and saw comments there noting that the last movie she picked, at random, was one of director Ichikawa Kon’s best. I’d never heard of it, but as long as I was on youtube anyway, I decided to type the title into the search bar and found this lovely video from a cool and new-to-me channel called Pitching Room.

That made me sure I wanted to watch the movie, so last night Kat and I did, and I loved it. Here is a list of my current top ten favorite movies, as of today, in no particular order except for the first one:

  • Hackers (1995)
  • Brick (2005)
  • Magic Mike XXL (2015)
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
  • Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
  • The Matrix (1999)
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
  • Spirited Away (2001)
  • Out of Sight (1998)
  • Toy Story 3 (2010)
  • Tampopo (1985)
  • Rumble in the Bronx (1995)
  • Your Name. (2016)
  • Alien (1979)
  • Moonlight (2016)

There’s a separate shortlist of movies that might get promoted when I watch them a second time, which I should really do, and An Actor’s Revenge (1963) immediately joined them. One thing I think the above entries mostly have in common is that they have genre devices they use for stunts, literal or figurative; one I think they all have in common is that they put up a strong conceptual framing and fucking commit to it, without backpedaling or compromising. Even the places where Tampopo (1985) explicitly winks at the audience are a device to prod the viewer deeper into the movie’s world, not an apology or excuse.

In its first fifteen minutes, An Actor’s Revenge (1963) establishes itself as gorgeously stylized, theatrical, liminal, serious about its stakes, and brazenly queer. It throws grand plots, competing thieves with cool sobriquets, hidden weapons, stage-lighting scene transitions, night fights, soliloquies, a jazz-meets-kabuki score, and secret scrolls from martial arts masters at you right from the start. But the most impressive thing to me was its central performance, and the way that performance was framed. The protagonist, Yukinojō, is an onnagata, a stage actor who uses masculine pronouns but whose presentation is consistently high-feminine, in or out of the theater (and indeed, Kat reminded me, even during internal monologue). Hasegawa Kazuo, who played the same character in the original 1935 version of the movie, was in his 50s by the time this one was shot; there are not a lot of movies I have seen where a middle-aged person of what can be fairly described as mincing affect is portrayed as a total badass, eminently desirable and desired, heroic, and internally tormented—but never tormented over gender presentation or sexuality. Even though Hasegawa also plays another character in the story—a fact I didn’t realize until Kat pointed it out—the film never makes that contrast into a joke, or anything else about Yukinojō either. It’s busy doing so many other cool things!

In 2022, even with filmmaking technology and distribution more nimble and fluid than they ever have been, it seems like the people making movies still have to pad their queer stories with explanatory commas and self-conscious asides. An Actor’s Revenge (1963) was shot, as you may gather, sixty years ago, and it never bothers with any of that. As of today, it’s available on the Criterion Channel, and if you like the same things I like—with the content note that it includes a brief depiction of suicide—then I bet you’ll enjoy it a lot.

“A lot of (now-forgotten) mainstream plays and novels were as experimental in shifting point-of-view and juggling time frames as any we find today. For example, we celebrate backwards stories as typical of the demands of modern storytelling. The play and film Betrayal and the films Memento and Shimmer Lake are among many recent media products presenting the scenes in 3-2-1 order. But this possibility was discussed by a prominent critic in 1914, and soon a major woman actor wrote a play that used reverse chronology.

Some will argue that innovations of popular narrative are dumbed-down borrowings from modernist or avant-garde trends. I try to show this process as a two-way dynamic: modernism borrowing from popular forms, mainstream storytellers making modernist techniques more accessible. But we also find that popular storytelling has its own intrinsic sources of innovation, as with the reverse-chronology tale.”

“For some years I’ve been arguing that the martial arts cinema of East Asia constitutes as distinctive a contribution to film artistry as did more widely recognized ‘schools and movements’ of European cinema like Soviet Montage and Italian Neorealism.”

I used to read the AV Club every day and now I don’t read it at all and it’s probably not hard to gather why

But Caroline Siede’s retrospective analysis of romantic comedy as a film genre just wrapped up, after a hundred reviews, and I think they are all worth reading if you can manage three quarters of your browser being occluded by ads. Even when I have drawn different conclusions from Siede I have found her work exemplary, and have in fact used her work as an example when thinking about how to structure longer writing about movies. I can recommend in particular her highlighting of gems like Saving Face (2004), The Big Sick (2017), Brown Sugar (2002), and of course, the movie that guaranteed I would one day fall for a Chicago brunette.

“This, to me, is the definition of a desert island film: a foundational text, a perennial source of comfort, a go-to reference that lives, in the parlance of today’s youth and the adults who want to be like them, rent-free in one’s brain.”

Let’s see how many movies I watched in the last four (!) (wtf) months I can give one-sentence reviews before I get tired and stop typing. Asterisk means it was a rewatch

  • The Sword of Doom (1966) Starring NFD favorite Tatsuya Nakadai—who I actually haven’t named here, how have I not done that?! he’s awesome—as an extremely dead-eyed murder samurai, this movie has homophobia and a sexual assault in it, but all the other parts of it rule hard as hell.
  • Hackers (1995)*: On its 25th anniversary with live cast commentary!!!
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)*: Everybody wants to make magical-kid movies like Miyazaki, nobody wants to make meandering unmarketable gentle conflict-free movies like Miyazaki.
  • The Sweatbox (2002): I hope you made time to watch this after I linked to it back in September, because it got taken down again, but I will link it if it pops back up, because it is a fucking fascinating portrait of years-long, slow-motion institutional failure.
  • Shaolin vs. Lama (1983)*: I don’t know if I noticed the first time (when I saw it at the Hollywood Theater) that Crouching Tiger (2000) referenced this movie’s “stealing the secret book” sequence very directly for its opening set piece.
  • A Silent Voice (2016): Bittersweet anime with bittersweet anime club about bullying a deaf person and the consequences thereof; spent all its budget on beautiful sign-language animation and not enough on bringing actual deaf people into the creative process.
  • Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner ( 2001): This movie deserves more than one sentence!
  • Kwaidan (1954): Japanese folk-tale horror anthology with artificial-but-gorgeous sets and matte paintings, which I wish I’d actually written about in October, because it’s perfect for a spooky mood!
  • Jennifer’s Body (2009): Karyn Kusama seems to have a gift for getting a fantastic central performance from an actress (Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight [2000], Megan Fox here), but I think the technical fundaments–sound mixing, shot composition, editing and story structure–hold up less well.
  • The Princess Switch: Switched Again (2020): The Netflix Christmasatic Universe posits a Europe with 43 tiny English-speaking-but-somehow-Catholic absolute monarchies and zero security personnel of any kind.
  • Happiest Season (2020): There’s this meme image where Superman is exerting tremendous energy to stop a train from running over a child, and in this case the child is me, and Aubrey Plaza is Superman, and the train wreck is this napkin sketch of a movie.
  • Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999): I didn’t know if I’d like this because I didn’t like the only other Jim Jarmusch movie I have seen (Only Lovers Left Alive [2013]), but, however, it rules hard as hell.
  • Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020): So many animators, musicians,
    artists, performers and designers worked so hard on… this… attempt to lionize a Victor von Frankenstein figure (???), which displays zero trust in its audience, its own conceits, or its animators, musicians, artists, performers and designers.

  • What’s Your Number? (2011): It’s a three out of ten.
  • First Cow (2019): A beautiful movie about love and foreboding in which, I can promise you, no violence happens on screen, including to any animals, and especially to the cow.