May 03, 2016

Arabian Nights

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Miguel Gomes - 2015
Kino Lorber BD Region A

As I've written before, sometimes it's a challenge to be articulate about a film that defies easy descriptions or explanations. Even reading what others have written about Arabian Nights doesn't make my work any easier. It's a sprawling collection of stories that Miguel Gomes claims were inspired by the structure of the classic tales, about life in Portugal during the government imposed austerity program between August 2013 and July 2014. Yet Gomes contradicts himself as there are moments when ancient Baghdad appears in a contemporary Mediterranean setting.

No distinctions of genre are here as Gomes floats between documentary and fantasy, past and present, political engagement and sex farce. Scheherazade told her tales over one-thousand and one nights. Gomes made a leisurely paced trio of films that runs about six and a half hours altogether. The films do need to be seen together, or at least in the proper sequence, as there are some moments that connect to previous tales. A further instance of Gomes' penchant for self-contradiction is that the second film, The Desolate One uses excerpts from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" suite.

It's the song, "Perfidia" that is repeated in several versions throughout the film. You've probably heard the song, even if you don't know the title, as it has been used in several other films, and recorded by a number of musicians. The lyrics are from the point of view of a betrayed lover, about the folly of romantic love. I can only guess that the song was chosen as the expression of citizen who loves his country, but feels spurned by a government that suppose to work on behalf of the least among them.

A Portuguese acquaintance expressed surprise that Arabian Nights has been getting international attention due to the specificity of most of the narratives. Gomes' stories, or story fragments, are of the working class, the ones most severely affected by the austerity programs. A factory town known for ship building sees closure of its industry, with nothing to take its place. Evictions take place at an apartment complex on such a regular basis that residents help those being evicted with sorting out their property. With nothing else to do, men in a suburb of Lisbon trap finches, and have competitions based on the birds' singing. At a trial between a landlord and tenants, multiple stories are relayed, how different people have been made desperate by the effects of the austerity measures, and the unintended cause and effect relationships that link a community.

Gomes made the interesting choice to have Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for this film. Sayombhu has been associated with Apichatpong Weerasethakul. There is some similarity between the two filmmakers as they both make allegorical films about their respective countries, real life stories are used as a starting off point, and fantasy intermingles with reality.

The Blu-ray includes a booklet with some production notes by Gomes and an essay by critic Dennis Lim. There is also Gomes discussing the first part of Arabian Nights following the screening at the New York Film Festival, and a short made mostly of documentary footage and imagined first person narratives of several European leaders, Redemption.

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Miguel Gomes

May 01, 2016

Coffee Break

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Dick Van Patten in Violent Midnight (Richard Hilliard - 1963)

April 28, 2016

Mojin: The Lost Legend

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Wuershan - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

I'm not sure what a non-Chinese audience will make of Mojin. The basic story of a trio of tomb raiders seeking a lost treasure, in a film laden with special effects, can't help but make an audience think of Steven Spielberg and the Indiana Jones series. With special effects being computer generated, there is nothing special about the effects, as anything imagined can now be rendered with enough sense of realism that any sense of magic is lost.

There is an unexpected aspect to Mojin that raises questions about content and context, based on what is allowed in a film made primarily for a mainland Chinese audience. The film initial takes place in 1988, with a flashback to 1968. The two male lead characters, Hu and Wang, are lured into returning to Mongolia to seek out the Equinox Flower. The reason these two men are sought is because they encountered the Equinox Flower as Red Guard youths. The flashback involves the two, part of a truckload of youths traveling in Mongolia, singing the praises of Chairman Mao. The truck is stuck. The youth see people in the dark that turn out to be statues. There is a debate regarding whether the statues should be left alone as they represent the proletariat of the past, or if they should be destroyed as symbols of feudalism. A young woman, Ding, indicates knowledge of the site as being spiritually significant. The majority of the kids decide to knock over one of the statues, which opens up a pathway to a cave.

Here's where the cultural aspects go into overdrive. There are more statues in the cave, and as far as these young believers in the "Little Red Book" are concerned, more artifacts of the past to be destroyed. The cave also is revealed to have held an underground bunker for Japanese soldiers from World War II. The bones of the soldiers are lying around. Disturbing the statues awakens dead spirits, and the Red Guard youth discover that real battle with zombies is a greater threat than imagined imperialists.

The idea of presenting anything considered supernatural has been, if not banned, at least extremely limited in mainland Chinese films, to be found in those works that take place in a mythical past. Maybe it has to do with three major Chinese production companies banding together here, or a possible acquiescence to popular tastes by the censors, but we have Japanese zombies and other apparitions taking place in a not so distant past. That this key scene takes place during the height of the Cultural Revolution is not simply a gimmick. A summery of the Cultural Revolution includes the concept of "sweeping away monsters and demons", symbolically those representatives of Confucianism or anyone else considered anti-revolutionary. Not only are there monsters and demons found in the underground cave, but it should not be considered a stretch to think that the filmmakers are also setting out to exorcise the monsters and demons from a notorious era of fifty years ago in China.

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April 24, 2016

Coffee Break

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Laura Soveral in Tabu (Miguel Gomes - 2012)

April 21, 2016

Los Punks: We are All We Have

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Angela Boatwright - 2015
Vans Off the Wall, Fusion, AOP Production

Taking a brief turn away from my usual beat.

My interest piqued here mostly because of my own interest interest in punk rock, living in New York City, and seeing a few shows at CBGBs in 1975 and 1976. I moved back to Denver in early 1977 where the people I knew thought this music was weird. I went to a very small club where the Ramones played in Denver. Ray Manzarek, keyboard player of the Doors, sat next to me during the Ramones first set. He was there with his band, Nite City. I'd like to think that Manzarek saw the light during that set as he later produced the first four albums of the Los Angeles punk band X. My introduction to X was Penelope Spheeris' documentary on the L.A. punk rock scene of 1980, The Decline of Western Civilization, which introduced me to another band, Black Flag.

All this is a roundabout way of acknowledging that every band in Los Punks sounds like a variation of Black Flag. That is to say that you have fast, heavy beats, thrashing guitar, and words shouted out to the audience. I'm not sure why that is because historically punk rock has embraced a certain amount of variety. Maybe there's an orthodoxy I'm unaware of in the Los Angeles music scene.

What is intriguing about Los Punks is listening to the stories of the musicians and the music promoters. Concerts are set up in back yards or in the few venues available, set up by enterprising teenagers or younger adults in their Twenties. These are concerts by and for Hispanic youth in the poorer parts of metro Los Angeles. For the musicians and most of their audience, it's a way of expressing their anger, their frustration with a life that offers limited options.

Looking beyond the exaggerated mohawk hair cuts, pierced noses and tattoos, the participants in this documentary articulate why they are attracted to the music, and what it has meant for their respective lives. One of the brightest, Gary Alvarez, is taking time between graduating college and going to law school, performing with his band, Rhythmic Asylum. If there is a star, that would be Nacho, a beefy young man who promotes shows with his older sister, Natalie, and performs with his band, Corrupted Youth. As a promoter, Nacho has to also mediate between concert goers who get into fights, as well as keeping the peace within the neighborhood when the police are called in on occasion.

The documentary takes place in the minority neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The musicians here are motivated by the opportunity to express themselves, a form of artistic expression, or at the very least, a constructive vent for anger. Even if the music played is of limited appeal, the film is worth checking out for the portraits of the musicians, promoters and fans. As one twenty year old punk put it back in 1965, "the kids are alright".

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April 19, 2016

File of the Golden Goose

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Sam Wanamaker - 1969
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The attempt was made to update T-Men, Anthony Mann's 1947 film to a (then) contemporary setting. The classic film noir filmed in and around the dark streets of Los Angeles was transposed primarily to "swinging" London. What the two films share is the same producer, with File of the Golden Goose as the second to last film from Edward Small. Seeing the two films back to back, it is the older film that remains entertaining, while the newer film looks painfully dated.

The story of two U.S. treasury agents going undercover to infiltrate a counterfeit ring now has Yul Brynner as a U.S. agent joining with an undercover detective from Scotland Yard, working to get the goods on a British gang known as The Golden Goose. Starting in New York City, Brynner's character is introduced as a prig who is too upright to spend the night with his very young looking girlfriend. It's a date night that ends badly when a car with some gunmen shoot the girlfriend and miss Brynner. Then it's off to London, based on some clues, where Brynner is teamed up with the still relatively unknown Edward Woodward, as his partner from Scotland Yard. A side trip to Liverpool directs the pair to a character known as "the Owl", played by future Bond villain Charles Gray. The Owl is described as a "queer queer", yet the only thing we see that some might find objectionable is that he hosts very loud parties attended by this film's idea of hippies.

The new version repeats the use of off-screen narration from the original, and some of the bridging footage between scenes has a vague cinema verite feel. Longtime Edward Small collaborator, Robert Kent, credited here with his pseudonym of James B. Gordon, gets screenplay credit with John Higgins, who wrote the screenplay for T-Men. Those who have seen both films will recognize the variations on the original film. Considering the new screen freedom allowed when the new version was made, very little is taken advantage of considering how much of the first version takes place in bath houses. The one element that works in the new film is the character of a hired killer, played by Graham Crowden, tall, with red hair sticking out from under his bowler hat.

File of the Golden Goose was the first of four theatrical films as a director for hire by Sam Wanamaker. The Globe Theater was Wanamaker's passion project, and the directorial gigs were a way to secure funding. I've seen Wanamaker's other films, and while none of his films are visually distinguished, he did improve his handling of action. Yul Brynner must have been pleased with Wanamaker as a director as the two worked together on the western, Catlow, two years later. The professional relationship between Wanamaker and Brynner dates back at least seven years earlier, when Wanamaker played a significant supporting role in Taras Bulba, starring Brynner.

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April 17, 2016

Coffee Break

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Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie - 2012)