July 21, 2016

Deadline - U.S.A.

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Richard Brook - 1952
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I absolutely recommend seeing Deadline - U.S.A. with Eddie Muller's commentary track for younger viewers unfamiliar with a time before USA Today, the series of mergers and buyouts that have decimated the number of major city newspapers, before journalism devolved into corporate mouthpieces. Richard Brooks' film is his love letter to the profession that gave him his start as a writer. It shares something of the same spirit as that of another journalist turned filmmaker, Samuel Fuller and Park Row. Muller's commentary is entertaining, of course, but it speaks of a time when newspapers were the main source of information, and had a much greater influence of public opinion.

Humphrey Bogart is still in crime fighting mode, this time as the big city newspaper editor trying to nail an organized crime boss. The clock is ticking with the newspaper, The Day, just a couple days away from being sold to its tabloid competition. Inspiration for the story would come from the sale of the paper, the New York World, edited by Benjamin Day, in 1931, as well as the then contemporary investigation of organized crime. The newspaper is being sold by the family led by dowager Ethel Barrymore, at the urging of her two daughters, recasting the Pulitzer family heirs. Brooks makes fleeting acknowledgment of television network news, then still relatively new, broadcasting the hearings between congress and accused organized crime figures.

Even though Brooks could have chosen to make the film more documentary style, this is a classic narrative film. There is some location shooting done at the printing press of the New York Daily News. Much of the film takes place within an overly crowded newsroom, a replica of the newsroom of the Daily News. As Muller points out, it's not quite an accurate representation as there are different reporters from different departments within that one space, but it's dramatic license to get most of the main characters within the same space as needed. Brooks follows his characters with a series of tracking shots within that newsroom, and the viewer will be focused on Bogart and company. A second viewing indicates just how much movement is taking place in the background with characters moving in and out of frame, or simply carrying on very lively conversations. One doesn't discuss Richard Brooks very much in terms of being a visual artist, but that first newsroom scene is a marvel for detail.

Brooks' humor, when it appears, is usually wry. There are some genuine chuckles when Bogart, too drunk to realize what he's doing, appears at the apartment of ex-wife Kim Hunter out of habit. Without giving the joke away, Brooks finds a way of making the situation humorous while getting around the production code.

A trio of hit men, dressed as cops, escort of mob informer from the newsroom to the adjacent printing press room. The informer is shot in an attempt to escape. The dead informer falls on the printing press. The overhead image of the dead informer on top of the printing press later appears as part of the front page story. There's no subtlety here, and it's one of those moments where the sensibilities of Brooks and Sam Fuller would be similar, along with their admiration of journalism as social activism. The studio imposed music including "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" adds unnecessary underlining. Brooks knew well enough to not need any emphasis in the film's warmest scene, with Bogart flirting with Ethel Barrymore. The scene allows for two actors to express the mutual admiration that also existed off-screen.

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July 19, 2016

Kill Zone 2

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SPL 2: A Time for Consequences / Saat po long 2
Soi Cheang - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

Without providing spoilers, the supplements to Kill Zone 2 offer a couple of key bits that would be missed if you only see the film by itself. First, an explanation of the title - Wilson Yip, director of the first Kill Zone film, serving as director here, plans a series that is connected thematically but not with connected story lines. Second, a deleted scene explains the how the little girl we see drowning is the sister of the character played by Wu Jing (the actor also known as Jacky Wu).

The action shifts between Hong Kong and Thailand, with part of the film alternating events in those two countries taking place at the same time. There's a Hong Kong gangster who runs an illegal business kidnapping people for their organs, an undercover cop whose cover has been blown - trapped in a Thai prison, and the prison guard who is unaware that the prisoner who can't speak a word of Thai is the potential bone marrow donor who can save the life of the guard's little girl. Everything gets tied together, with bringing together the various plot strands. The only thing not explained is how a Chinese guy is the warden of a Thai prison.

Tony Jaa is the top billed star, but the best display of martial arts moves belongs to Zhang Jin. During a prison riot, Zhang, as the prison warden, surveys the action. Impeccably dressed in a black suit, he comes out fighting, briefly grabbing cell bars while moving sideways. Prisoners are on the receiving end of punches and high kicks. Zhang walks away without a bruise, his suit neither torn nor wrinkled. Zhang is so nattily dressed that he's like the Cary Grant of Hong Kong martial arts movies.

That prison riot provides one of the big set pieces of the film. Part of the actin takes place in the main cell block with an extended long take. The camera swoops from the upper level to the ground floor with reportedly two hundred men fighting, prisoners taking on the guards or simply doing what they can to tear up the joint. The camera darts around picking up the moves of the lead actors. Cheang later cuts to a couple of overhead shots, not quite Busby Berkeley.

This is a Hong Kong action film, and as such, keeps Tony Jaa earthbound. Not Jaa should needlessly put himself at risk, but his gravity defying abilities aren't on display here, which is a disappointment. Surely it can't only be Thai action choreographers who know how to make the most of Jaa's fancy footwork, even if at age 40, he might not be able to make the kind of moves as in Ong-Bak or Tom-Yum-Goong.

With the emphasis on fight scenes, Kill Zone 2 harkens back to Cheang's earlier films, Shamo and Dog Bite Dog. Bringing up Cheang's more recent association with Johnny To, frequent To star Simon Yam appears here, while Cheang also uses To's editor, David Richardson.

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July 17, 2016

Coffee Break

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Andrea Riseborough in Welcome to the Punch (Eran Creevy - 2013)

July 14, 2016

Obsessions

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Bezeten - Het gat in de muur / Besessen - Das Loch in der Wand
Pim de la Parra - 1969
Koch Media BD Region B

It's been so long that I can no longer remember when I was first aware of Obsessions. But I admit to being obsessed about wanting to see what was seemingly a "lost" film. This is not to be confused with the similarly titled Obsession, the Paul Schrader penned film directed by Brian De Palma made about six years later. Aside from sharing some similar inspirations, both have scores by Bernard Herrmann. The original Dutch title translates as "Obsessed - The hole in the wall". I'm going with the official English language title. The German title is included here as that is the title on the German home video version, the only home video version of a film virtually unseen since its initial release in 1969. While I've seen the English language poster, I have no idea if Obsessions was even released in any English language markets. Certainly, during the time I lived in New York City, no entrepreneur attempted to capitalize on Martin Scorsese's name which is prominently listed on the blu-ray jacket. The blu-ray includes the English language film with the English language title.

The film was co-written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Pim de la Parra, who briefly discusses how Scorsese and Herrman came on board for this film. This article, from the Dutch EYE Film Institute offers the best information available on Scorsese's involvement. Obsessions is not a masterpiece, lost or otherwise, but it is fairly entertaining. The film can now boast of two future Oscar winners, with Scorsese joined by filmmaker Fons Rademakers, the first Dutch winner for Best Foreign Language Film,who appears here in a small role. Four years later, Rademakers would direct Obsessions star Alexandra Stewart in Because of the Cats. Acclaimed cinematographer Jan De Bont filmed second unit work here

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This is imitation Hitchcock, primarily inspired by Rear Window with a medical student discovering the shenanigans involving sex and drugs of his next door neighbor, through a hole in the wall. The hole is so big, you have to wonder why the neighbor didn't notice. In the meantime, the student has a girlfriend, a journalist, who's investigating a murder. Keep in mind that this is Pim de la Parra's film, and at least with this debut feature, he's no Hitchcock, or even William Castle. Aside from making the dialogue sound authentic, there are a couple of touches that I sure Scorsese added to the film. The first is the appearance of a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh, with a safety razor by his ear. Aside from the "sick" humor, this could be a self-referential bit as Scorsese had won the Prix de l'Age d'Or from Royal Cinematheque of Belgium for his short, The Big Shave, which is how the Dutch filmmakers would have been aware of him. During the film's opening credits, there is a dedication to Republic Pictures, obviously inspired by Godard and Breathless, with the dedication to Monogram.

Bernard Herrmann's score was reportedly unused music for a television program. As such, it may be second rate Bernard Herrmann, which is still better than much of the unmemorable and generic music that passes for film scores. Most of the music is adeptly used here, fitting in with the action, although one theme that bears some similarity to the romantic scores for Vertigo and Marnie seemed to be chosen at random.

The film is punctuated with so many fades to black between scenes, that I wondered if de la Parra was doing what he could to let broadcasters know when to program interruptions for commercial breaks. The DVD/Blu-ray cover describes, in German, the film using the words "sleaze-klassikers". I don't know much German but in this case, I don't think that's necessary. There's just enough kinky sex and nudity to have brought in an audience in 1969. Had Martin Scorsese kept a print for himself, we might be seeing a more pristine version of Obsessions. Then again, we might not have been able to see it at all. Either the best surviving print suffers from fading colors, or there's a lot of use of brown. The imperfections of the film work in its favor as the heart of Obsessions is more in the grind house rather than the art house.

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July 12, 2016

Mountains May Depart

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Shan he gu ren
Jia Zhangke - 2015
Kino Lorber BD Region A

Jia's newest film is in three parts, with each part filmed in a different aspect ratio. The screen gets progressively wider, from 1.33, to 1.85, and finally 2.35. The shift in screen shape is symbolic of the characters drifting further apart from each other. Simultaneous to the change in screen shapes is the time element of the narrative, starting at 1999, then 2014, and finally 2025.

The film opens with a group of young people dancing to the Pet Shop Boy's song, "Go West". Even though Jia has stated he used the song because he found it "catchy", it does encapsulate the choices of some of the characters, as well as what has happened in the newly capitalistic China. Three old friends, Tao, Jinsheng and Liangzi meet at a cafe. Jinsheng and Liangzi have let each other know of their romantic intentions towards Tao. The three, all twenty-five years old, grew up in a China where the cultural revolution has long past. Jinsheng likes to show off his material success with his new car, making his money with a successful gas station. Liangzi works at a mine, doling out helmets, in an industry that is hurt by the low cost of coal. Jinsheng buys the mine Liangzi works at, firing him for refusing to give up on Tao. Tao does choose to marry Jinsheng, This portion of the film takes place in Fenyang. Both men have jobs that are related to natural resources. As the narrative progresses, China, as presented by Jia, technology eventually supersedes industry. Jinsheng goes west, to Shanghai, and later, Melbourne, Australia. Linagzi goes west as a migrant miner.

Tao stays in Fenyang. A wealthy divorcee, Jinsheng has left while Liangji makes a brief return in her life. Tao's son grows up in Australia, forgetting how to speak Chinese, forgetting the name of his mother. What is at the heart here is an exploration of what it means to have a Chinese identity, both within and outside of China. Tao's favorite song is "Take Care" by Sally Yeh. What makes this a curious choice is that Yeh was born in Taiwan, and is best known for singing Cantonese pop songs, as well as starring in Hong Kong films. I wish that Kino Lorber has seen fit to provide subtitles for the song, which would have aided in placing it greater context. As it is, including Sally Yeh in the mix provides another look into what it means to be Chinese.

The conclusion is not particularly deep, with the idea that freedom is more of a state of mind than being in a different city or country. Still there is something sweet and satisfying in watching actress Zhao Tao perform a final, solo dance.

July 10, 2016

Coffee Break

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Judy Geeson and Ian Bannen (Peter Sasdy - 1972)

July 08, 2016

Yellow Sky

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William Wellman - 1948
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

My favorite single image from Yellow Sky is of Anne Baxter standing on a large rock, with a rifle. The camera is tilted upwards toward her. It's the kind of shot that William Wellman will use on his heroic characters in some of his other films. It is also the only shot of its kind in Yellow Sky.

The young woman played by Baxter is known by the nickname of Mike. No explanation is given. Baxter wears jeans through the entire film except at the very end when given a woman's hat by Gregory Peck. In his discussion of Baxter's performance in Yellow Sky, William Wellman, Jr. mentions the "Wellmanian woman". Wellman, Jr. describes this woman as being the equal to the male characters in terms of being people of action. Wellman, Jr. mentions a couple of actresses that fit this description, placing Baxter alongside Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck. For those of us who have been reading discussions about the "Hawksian woman", a term bandied about for at least forty years, I have to wonder if maybe a new kind of shorthand term needs to be invented, as the woman of action as described here is not exclusive to either Wellman or Howard Hawks. The terms "phallic woman" or "phallus girl" might be accurate to a point, but also suggest a kind of psychological weight unintended by the filmmakers.

Wellman, Jr. also mentions that Paulette Goddard had originally been considered for the role of Mike. Baxter was Wellman's choice. Jean Peters was considered too young by Wellman, although I think she could have been as good as Baxter. Peters in the lead role in Anne of the Indies gave her the chance to play an action heroine.

One other shot that I really liked here takes place before the final shoot out between Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark and John Russell. The three were part of Peck's gang of outlaws until a dispute came regarding division of a hidden fortune of gold dust. The camera travels on the floor inside a saloon, curving around the bar, finding Widmark hiding in the back. What is surprising is that the shot is not from the point of view of Peck, or any other character. Another reason why William Wellman is in need of greater reconsideration is that during several moments in Yellow Sky, he makes unexpected visual choices. One of the more significant choices is to not show the action, making use of sound and the imagination of the audience, as in the final gunfight, as well as the scene with Anne Baxter fighting off Gregory Peck, the two rolling and tumbling into a barn, heard but not seen, until the roll back out in front of the camera.

Wellman, Jr. points out that his father was unfamiliar with any similarities to Shakespeare's The Tempest, which might be found in the basic premise of Mike and her grandfather alone in the remote ghost town of Yellow Sky. I would assume the liberties with Shakespeare originated with author W. R. Burnett, and that producer-screenwriter Lamar Trotti may have been aware of the inspiration here. Shakespeare aside, one might argue that Yellow Sky, taking place just a couple of years after the American Civil War, in Arizona, is hardly a western. Setting aside the genre markers is a film about sexual tension, of a group of men literally hungering for female companionship, and a young woman who can not articulate her own sexual needs or identity. Although lighter in comparison to Duel in the Sun, with an even less gentlemanly Gregory Peck, or Pursued, Yellow Sky might be considered as part of the evolution toward the psychological westerns of the Fifties that would eventually include William Wellman's version of Track of the Cat.

While I disagree with his assessment of Yellow Sky, I recommend this essay on Wellman by French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier.

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