Short Takes 

FIRES ON THE PLAIN In Kon Ichikawa’s scarifying 1959 war drama—the zombie movie as antiwar statement, and vice versa—walking death is the inevitable aftermath of the kill-or-be-killed crucible of battle.

FIRES ON THE PLAIN In Kon Ichikawa’s scarifying 1959 war drama—the zombie movie as antiwar statement, and vice versa—walking death is the inevitable aftermath of the kill-or-be-killed crucible of battle. Refused treatment and berated by a superior, a tubercular private (Eiji Funakoshi) in Japan’s Imperial Army wanders across a ravaged Philippine hellscape near the end of World War II, encountering lost troops and villagers even more desperate than he amid heaps of smoldering corpses. Only his diseased flesh saves him from being devoured by starving fellow soldiers, but longer life is more a sentence than a gift: humanity has been whittled down to its last scrap—the cockroach self-preservation instinct—which comes as a curse.

Stark and savagely beautiful, with flickers of bleak gallows humor (a gag involving soldiers discarding their boots is particularly memorable), Fires on the Plain seems decades ahead of its time in its hard-nosed lack of sentiment and brutal rejection of heroism. This is the first film to play Nashville in decades by the protean Ichikawa, a former cartoonist whose career of 80-plus features (and counting) has confounded critics with its diversity—everything from sports documentary (1965’s Tokyo Olympiad) to erotic satire (1959’s The Key). But its slow death march into oblivion sets it apart from everything else in theaters—even Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, which by comparison looks downright polite. In Japanese with English subtitles. —Jim Ridley (Belcourt, Jan. 28-30; part of the “50 Years of Janus Films” series)

GIMME SHELTER The Rolling Stones’ 1969 concert at the Altamont speedway has gone down in rock ‘n’ roll history as the anti-Woodstock. But this riveting 1970 documentary records it as the spiritual forebear of Woodstock ’99—the head-on collision of soft-skulled populism, venal money-grubbing, rock ’n’ roll’s incitement to fake rebellion, and an audience primed for the real thing. The movie follows the Stones and attorney Melvin Belli as they finagle the terms of the free outdoor concert: not only is the location switched at the last minute, the Hell’s Angels are hired to beef up security—and paid with beer. (At this point, the hippie-dippie crowd’s mantra should’ve been, “Oh, shit.”) As the concert drags on and the vibes get worse, the directors, Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, expertly build a sense of impending doom. Their crew (which includes a young cameraman named George Lucas) zeroes in on isolated incidents, and the tension between the crowd and the Angels becomes a steady throb. Not that the Stones are any help. Frontman Jagger, looking like Satan’s own pitchman, issues half-hearted admonishments to the crowd to cool down—then cues up a flagburner like “Sympathy for the Devil.”

But what did anybody expect from the Stones? Altamont just made their revolutionary sloganeering look credible for once—and the worse the threat, the harder the band spits fire. The movie cuts frequently to the Stones looking sorry after the fact, but there’s more truth in the shot of a smiling Jagger watching himself with undisguised pleasure on a moviola. At its worst, when the filmmakers gloat over the footage of a knifing victim, Meredith Hunter, going down under the blows of killer Angels, this is a snuff movie of ’60s idealism. But it’s never less than fascinating. The opening acts include Jefferson Airplane (a reason to riot if ever there was one) and Ike & Tina Turner, whose orgiastic rendition of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is the movie’s musical highlight. Songs include “Satisfaction,” “Under My Thumb,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and the playback of “Wild Horses” (with Memphis keyboardist Jim Dickinson listening along). —Jim Ridley (Belcourt, Jan. 29-31; part of the “50 Years of Janus Films” series)

HIGH AND LOW Akira Kurosawa’s smashing 1963 crime drama transposes Ed McBain’s police procedural King’s Ransom to Japan for a split-level dissection of class division, from high-rise skulduggery to cops enforcing the law at street level. High: a businessman (Toshiro Mifune) leverages his future to wrest control of a shoe company from his unscrupulous rivals, when he’s suddenly hit with a ransom demand from kidnappers. Except the thugs have taken not his son but the son of his chauffeur. Should he still pay? Low: detectives beat the bushes for the missing kid, as the movie prowls an underground of slums, shooting galleries and blaring rock ’n’ roll. The movie is organized along dramatic contrasts—wealth and poverty, bosses and workers, a static first half and runaway second, black and white with one well-chosen moment of color. Given Kurosawa’s dynamic direction and moral gravity, though, the title could equally refer to his bridging the gulf between art and pulp. With Tatsuya Nakadai and Takashi Shimura; in Japanese with English subtitles. —Jim Ridley (Belcourt, Jan. 31 & Feb. 2-4; part of the “50 Years of Janus Films” series)

THE HITCHER (2007) While the rest of Hollywood exhausts the world’s reserves of recyclable 1970s schlock—is that a poster in the megaplex lobby for the freakin’ Hills Have Eyes 2?—music-vid whiz Dave Meyers sets his way-back machine for dimly remembered 1986 and fetches a beat-for-beat remake of Robert Harmon’s sick, scary cult fave about a cross-country driver who picks up a hitch-hiking Terminator on a homicide spree. Sean Bean, stubbly and sinister but no match for Rutger Hauer’s archangel-of-death gravitas in the original, plays the unexplained psycho, who slaughters cops and civilians aplenty as he dares motorists Sophia Bush and Zachary Knighton to retire his opposable digits.

If the idea was to create a reactionary fable of unmitigated evil laughing in the face of dithering appeasement, mission accomplished. Alas, switching the hero from a lone driver to a couple spoils the original’s most intriguing idea: that the mass-murdering jackal may be the driver’s own escaped id. That leaves little to fill 83 expendable minutes, which barely register as a movie even with snazzy KNB gore effects, critic-baiting clips from The Birds, a splattery variation on the ’86 Hitcher’s most notorious scene and some out-of-place Bruckheimerisms on loan from producer Michael Bay. (Anybody with any feeling at all for this semi-slasher material should know the last thing it needs is a helicopter chase.) Meyers lays on the shallow focus with a dusting of the art-directed scuzz that passes for grindhouse revivalism nowadays, but to little avail—this Hitcher is all thumbs. 

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