July 23, 2014

Bethlehem

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Yuval Adler - 2013
Adopt Films Region 1 DVD

At this particular time, it would be impossible to watch Bethlehem without thinking about what is happening in Gaza. And while real life and what a movie may reflect as reality are not the same, I would like to think that Bethlehem offers some kind of reminder that there might be some nuances that are overlooked in much of the reportage.

Keeping in mind that this is an Israeli film, what is presented might well be questioned. The basic story is of an Israeli agent, Razi, who has cultivated a friendship with a Palestinian teen, Sanfur. Sanfur's brother is a known militant wanted by Israeli authorities. Razi has an awareness that Sanfur could well become a part of the Palestinian resistance movement in the near future, but uses his trust to track down the brother, Ibrahim, albeit indirectly.

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Where the film is of interest is in its depiction of the internecine rivalries among the Palestinians. Ibrahim is secretly funded by Hamas. Even within their association with Hamas, there are smaller "brigades" out to prove themselves as being the most truly radical. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority tries to keep a balance of asserting their role over the demands of Hamas, while keeping the peace with Israel. In one scene that plays out like a crime thriller, Ibrahim meets with the militant leader with close ties to the Palestinian Authority, suddenly pushing him back over a staircase railing, several floors up.

While how the Israeli army performs its role within the West Bank is questioned, there is a greater look at the quandary of Palestinian life. More cruel than the Israelis are the Palestinians who choose public executions for those branded as collaborators. Ibrahim's lieutenant, Badawi, isn't trusted by either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, being of Bedouin descent.

Beyond the political, Bethlehem might be viewed as an examination of how masculinity is defined. Sanfur and his friends are first seen playing with a loaded rifle. In a deadly game of chicken, one of them is to wear an old bullet proof jacket, and be able to take being shot. The ideals of trust and honor are continually shredded by self-serving lies. No one is allowed neutral ground. There are choices to be made, but all are equally bad. Women are in the periphery. It's if life is just one continual pissing contest, where the men are trying to outgun each other literally and figuratively. I would not think it coincidental that the film that takes place in a town of religious significance ends with an act that might remind some of Cain and Abel.

July 21, 2014

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

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Boksuneun naui geot
Park Chan-wook - 2002
Palisades Tartan Video Blu-ray Region A

Once upon a time, there was Tartan Video, famous for its "Asian Extreme" label. Tartan Video was bought out and became Palisades Tartan in 2008. Palisades Tartan is now revived in affiliation with Kino Lorber, but the movies that are identified most with the label are the one that were released under the watch of Tartan founder Hamish McAlpine. And yes, I have seen most of those releases, and was saddened when the original company went under, the victim of its own success with a couple of imitators, perhaps too many films marketed as "Asian Extreme" and critics and viewers who didn't bother with, or care about, any cultural context for many of the best films.

I think what makes the revival of the Tartan label worthwhile is that for many of us, it allows for an opportunity to see the films again with greater familiarity with the filmmakers and actors. In the case of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I have now seen the bulk of films by Park Chan-wook. Bae Doona, still in the early stages of her career, evolved to become a pan-Asian star, to a star in international productions. Korean film, once virtually unknown in the west, has emerged as an international powerhouse. Much has changed in the past decade.

This new home video release consolidates extras from previous releases - an audio commentary by Park with filmmaker Ryu Seong-wan who has a small role in this film, "Making of . . . " footage from the original Korean DVD release, and a brief overview of Park's career from a 2006 BBC presentation. This is one of those times when the commentary is worth listening to, as Park discusses the changes and choices made during the shooting of this film. Mentioned several times is that while Mr. Vengeance was a critical success, it was also a commercial failure, more striking in that it followed J.S.A., not only Park's biggest box office hit, but the biggest Korean film of 2000.

Park and Ryu joke about the green hair of Shin Ha-kyun, but it's the kind of comment that may prod the viewer to take notice of how green is used throughout the film, such as in a scene on an escalator, and in various rooms. There is also pink, seen on Bae Doona's t-shirt, and the radical leaflets she hands out. Helpful also is to learn that the portrait on Bae's t-shirt is of Korea's most famous anarchist. Removed from the "Asian Extreme" label that introduced Park and his earlier films to western audiences, Mr. Vengeance can now be seen for helping lay the groundwork for the visual and narrative themes Park Chan-wook would explore again in his more recent work.

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July 20, 2014

Coffee Break

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Randolph Scott and Ruth Donnelly in A Lawless Street (Joseph H. Lewis - 1955)

July 17, 2014

The Suspect

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Yonguija
Won Shin-yun - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

It isn't until the epilogue that the shots in The Suspect are held long enough to get a sense of the environment and the people within the shot. Up till then, the film is virtually like a two hour series of action paintings. Each shot is so fast, in some cases almost subliminal. Had The Suspect been made with film rather than produced digitally, it would have probably been even more of an editor's nightmare. Just as the film seems composed of many small shots with small hints of information, so it is with the story, that it takes a while to piece it together to make some kind of sense.

On the most basic narrative level, Ji, a former North Korean agent who defected to South Korea, is accused of murdering a businessman, him employer. The businessman is known to have dealings with North Korea, but the nature of his business is in question. The pursuit of Ji involves rival South Korean security agencies, with eventual involvement of what seems like every cop in Seoul. Ji is alternatively the pursued as well as the pursuer, chasing after the people who set him up. Ji's main pursuers, Min, had a run-in with Ji years earlier - that neither spy killed each other put a cast on both in their respective countries. As is eventually revealed, both are pawns used by others.

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The double dealings extend to both side. A flashback shows the punishment meted out to Ji by North Korean officers, leading to his defection. Those in power in South Korea prove themselves to be almost equally treacherous. Unlike Won's previous films, this one was written by Lim Sang-yoon, whose A Company Man was a notable film about a hit man considering getting out of "the business".

Won, a former stuntman, uses all of his past resources here. Hollywood filmmakers might want to take notice of a car chase scene where Ji races forwards, backwards and even sideways through the streets of Seoul. Cars crash, flip over and spin out of control. There is even, for the blink of an eye, the equivalent of Roger Ebert's favorite car chase cliche, the fruit cart, in this case, oranges flying across the screen. According to AsianWiki, The Suspect took nine months to shoot which makes sense considering how many quick shots were used for a film with a longer than average running time.

Not exactly an "in joke", but there is also a subplot with data held on a disc contained in a DVD case for Mr. Vengeance. Nothing here is as brutal as what's found in Park's trilogy, but most viewers should feel quite sympathetic about Ji's vengeance as the screen fades to black.

July 15, 2014

Five Dances

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Alan Brown - 2013
Wolfe Video Region 1 DVD

I might be exaggerating a bit here, but I think Alan Brown was very daring with Five Dances - he allows the camera to be still while filming parts of the dances, and even has shots of the four dancers in full frame. I know I've harped on this before, especially when some directors who have been former choreographers, think that the cuisinart style of fragmented editing makes the filmed dance look more cinematic. Actually, it just makes the dance look like an incomprehensible jumble of movement. There is something to be said about keeping things simple.

The first time we see the main character, Chip, he's doing a solo in the studio. When his dance ends, Brown ends with a close-up of actor Ryan Steele's face. There are a few beads of sweat. What a lot of films miss is the physical effort of performance dance, whether it's "Swan Lake" or something like Twyla Tharp's "Sinatra Suite".

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What hobbles this film is the bit of narrative that holds the dance scenes together. Chip, an eighteen year old, fresh from Kansas, is now dancing with a small company in New York City. He's suppose to have a scholarship, yet he's sleeping on the floor of the dance studio, not going to any kind of school, and describes what he's doing to his mother as his job. I don't mind some implausibilities in movies, but Brown, the director, should have let, Alan Brown, the screenplay writer, work with a collaborator to create a screenplay that made a little more sense in its setup. Also chafing is the portrayal of Chip's mother, only heard as a voice in telephone conversations, distraught at losing her home. There's a heavy Southern accent, and a strong hint of homophobia, the kind of stereotype of straight people from the landlocked parts of America, that is both unnecessary and offensive.

Brushing the narrative flaws aside, the film is, aside from dance, about loneliness and connection. Chip is invited by one of the dancers, Katie, to sleep on her couch. After tentatively rejecting the openly gay dancer, Theo, Chip gets hot and heavy and naked on the dance studio floor. Aside from providing a temporary home for Chip, the not to much older Katie becomes a surrogate mother when Chip asks her permission to be with Theo. Heterosexual couplings don't fare as well here: Chip's parents are divorced, Katie has broken up with her boyfriend of seven years, and the other female dancer, the married Cynthia, is having an affair with the choreographer, Alexander.

The dances of the title more or less coincide with Chip's evolution from a kid from Topeka trying to maneuver his way through New York City, to someone starting to get more comfortable with himself and his new environment. The film is at its best when Brown isn't trying to tell a story, but allows the camera to move back and let the dancers, through their performances, speak for themselves.

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July 13, 2014

Coffee Break

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Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman in Talk of the Town (George Stevens - 1942)

July 10, 2014

The Rise and Fall of "Legs" Diamond

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Budd Boetticher - 1060
Warner Archives DVD

It hasn't happened often, but I ran out of screeners. Part of it was deliberate, as there were some new DVD releases I just didn't care to see, so I passed on those invitations. On the plus side, it gives me the chance to see something that I bought a while back, that had been on the shelf (actually two shelves at two different addresses) for over a year.

I know I had seen "Legs" Diamond at least once, maybe twice on late night broadcast television. The time I do remember was some times in the very early Seventies, when I was starting to get acquainted with the films of Budd Boetticher, and Dyan Cannon, listed as Diane Cannon in this film, was at her peak at stardom. I also recall Cannon mentioning being in this film, her big screen debut, on the "Tonight Show" when Burt Reynolds was the substitute host, with Reynolds making a snarky comment about movies starring Ray Danton.

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Regardless of how one might feel about Ray Danton, this is still an entertaining film. Screenwriter Joseph Landon plays with some of the facts, no matter what the opening titles say, but that's hardly why I've enjoyed this film. Part of it is the zeitgeist, made at a time in the late Fifties and early Sixties when there were a slew of biographical films about Prohibition era gangsters. While contemporary audiences may watch the film for early performances by Cannon and especially Warren Oates, as Diamond's ill-fated younger brother, there is also the visual comfort food for those who grew up in an older era, where supporting players Jesse White, Sid Melton and Simon Oakland were familiar faces. For those primarily interested in "Legs" Diamond as part of Budd Boetticher's filmography, this also contains the last performance by frequent muse Karen Steele.

The story, possibly apocryphal, is that Jack Warner, or producer Milton Sperling, was upset with Boetticher and cinematographer Lucien Ballard for deliberately making the film look like it was shot in the Twenties. If that were really the case, than Boetticher and Ballard failed. That it was produced in black and white was not unusual, and would have been standard, in part to also make the incorporation of documentary footage easier. Without calling too much attention to itself, there are some nicely composed shots using frames within frames, often using car windows, as well as use of the dividing barrier when Steele's character of Alice visits an imprisoned Diamond. Boetticher's tenure as director of several westerns starring Randolph Scott comes to good use when Diamond is seen shooting down two rival gangsters, with pistols in both hands.

One can view "Legs" Diamond as thematically the reverse image of the films Boetticher made with Scott. The Scott westerns generally followed a similar template with Scott as a loner, both by choice and circumstance, who usually stops traveling and settles with either the woman he was always suppose to be with, or the woman who conveniently gets widowed during the course of the narrative. Diamond lets it be known that he's out for himself. Any relationships formed, whether with women, or with other gangsters, are primarily for his own advancement. Unlike Scott's characters, who would frequently go out of their way to help those most vulnerable, Diamond lets his brother die, viewing him as needless emotional and financial baggage.

And yes, the guy is cold-blooded, but there is also amusement in seeing Diamond, witnessing a bungled jewel story robbery, eye the surrounding area to figure out how to break in, or work his way into Arnold Rothstein's mob by racking up charges at various Miami Beach stores in Rothstein's name.

In what has been listed as his last interview, Boetticher discussed his own inspiration for making a film about "Legs Diamond": When I was doing research for that picture, I went out to Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, and I met all the hoods. They would meet me in restaurants, and they would say, "Mr. Boetticher," pronouncing my name correctly, "may we sit down?" always two guys, very well dressed, Brooks Brothers suits, and they would sit down and say,"we understand you're gonna make a picture about Jack Diamond." I said, "well, I'm gonna try." They said, "what kind of picture is it gonna be?" I responded, "well, the greatest picture I ever saw was made by a woman, Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will (1934), about `one of the most despicable men of all time, Adolf Hitler. So I want to make a picture about a miserable, no good son-of-a-bitch that when you walk out of the theater, you say, "God, wasn't he great!" And then you take two steps, and you say, "wait a minute, he was a miserable son-of-a-bitch!"

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