January 20, 2017

Force of Evil

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Abraham Polonsky - 1948
Olive Films Region 1 DVD

An overdue promise I finally kept to myself after about ten years was to revisit Force of Evil. For myself, Abraham Polonsky's film will be linked with Robert Aldrich's Hustle. Aldrich was the Assistant Director on Force of Evil, but more importantly, Aldrich's film serves as a reworking of some of the same themes, most explicitly in the scene when cop Burt Reynolds declares to Ben Johnson, the father of a young woman who died of a drug overdose, that America is now a banana republic, "with color television". Force of Evil is as much a crime drama as is Hustle, which is to say what both films are really about is people caught up in inescapable webs of corruption. (And strangely enough, both films opened on Christmas day of their respective years, 1948 and 1975.)

John Garfield plays the lawyer Joe Morse, working on behalf of a gangster, Tucker, who runs the numbers racket. With so many people choosing the same number, 776, on July 4, the goal is to deliberately bankrupt the smaller "banks", allowing Tucker to consolidate the small-time operators into his fold, with Morse working on making this kind of gambling legal. One of those small banks belongs to Joe's brother, Leo, who would rather operate independently than sell out for a larger payroll. Everyone in this film is touched by corruption, even Leo's secretary, Doris, whom both Leo and Joe try to protect. Doris eventually follows Joe to his most literal descent to the bottom.

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It would seem that almost seventy years later, there is more ease, more openness about selling out, no matter the relationships, or who gets hurt in the process. It doesn't take much to turn the story of a monopoly of the numbers racket into a story of corporate mergers or leveraged buy outs. The brothers attempt to make their questionable livelihoods more respectable, with Joe stating that he is in a "fiduciary relationship" with Tucker, while Leo makes claims of being an "honest businessman". I don't feel it necessary to name anyone in recent history who put their personal ambition ahead at the expense of another family member.

Joe Morse's anticipation of his million dollar payday is almost a parody of those who play the numbers, presented here as anonymous working people of modest means. As impassioned as Polonsky was politically, Force of Evil is remembered because of what Polonsky did as a filmmaker. Several others have discussed the use of language, liking the screenplay to blank verse. I thought of song lyrics, with the repetition of small phrases, as when Doris repeats, "I'll never forget . . ." when resigning from Leo's bank.

David Thomson discusses the use of language, and also the use of staircases. Three key moments take place with Joe descending staircases, and all three directly involve decisions that affect Leo. In two of those scenes, the camera is overhead, while in the final scene, the camera tilts up at Joe as he races down to the base of the George Washington bridge. Polonsky allows for visual beauty in shots of Joe, seen in the distance, dwarfed by the buildings around Wall Street and an unusually empty New York City.

I haven't read the source novel, Tucker's People, by Ira Wolfert, but from the available descriptions, Polonsky and Wolfert, who share the screenplay credit, significantly reshaped the story, as well as the characters. What neither probably anticipated is that their examination of the perverse forces of capitalism, and a world of moral flexibility, would still reverberate, in some ways, more so, almost seventy years later.

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January 17, 2017

Train to Busan

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Busanhaeng
Yeon Sang-ho - 2016
Well Go USA BD Region A

The train travels between Seoul and Busan. In terms of genre, this Train travels somewhere in the middle, combining violence and horror a bit more explicit than to be found in a Val Lewton production, while using a lighter touch following George Romero's use of zombie films as social commentary. While Train to Busan was a big hit in its native South Korea, it will be interesting if it gets embraced, teetering as it does between the demands and expectations of fans of zombie movies, and that smaller audience that has no fear of subtitles, but view genre films with a certain amount of suspicion.

What is certain is the skills Yeon Sang-ho developed as an animator are on display in his live action directorial debut. If Hollywood wanted to make a comic book movie that looked like its source material, Yeon's your guy. Between the dynamic camera work, and the placing of characters within the frame, there are many moments when Train to Busan looks like a live comic book. Yeon emphasizes the limitations of space within a train, that one can mostly move forwards or towards the back within that enclosed space. Again, harking back to Val Lewton and the adage that what you don't see is more scary than what you do see, Yeon plays with the dread of what is outside of the what can be seen by the viewer. One of the more violent moments is seen as shadows against a clouded window, smeared with a few streaks of blood.

Shamed by inattention to his young daughter, Su-an, stockbroker Seok-woo tries to make amends by escorting her on the hour long train trip to Busan to see her mother, his ex-wife. A panicked, infected woman sneaks on the train, attacks a couple of train attendants, biting into them, resulting in an enclosed train full of ravenous zombies. It's up to the dwindling number of uninfected passengers to fight off the zombies as well as find a safe place within South Korea. If the zombies on the train weren't enough, there is the possibility that the rest of the country is infected. As might be expected, the main characters present a small cross-section of South Korean society. Seok-woo's connection to the zombie apocalypse is referred to indirectly with his comment on his employees as lemmings, while the zombies act as a an unthinking group, responding only to what they can see or hear. Upon learning of his occupation, the working class lug Sang-hwa calls Seok-woo a bloodsucker.

The while these are running zombies, most of the time, they are not very smart, as demonstrated when the windows of a glass door are covered with newspaper, hiding the would-be victims. Often they move like spastic marionettes. The film itself moves something like a train, slowly building up steam before moving ahead with little pause.

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January 15, 2017

The Monkey King 2

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Xi you ji zhi: Sun Wukong san da Baidu Jing
Cheang Pou-soi - 2016
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

For those who are more casual observers of Chinese cinema, this is not to be confused with the Stephen Chow-Derek Kwok series titled Journey to the West. Cheang's three part series is based on the same story of the Monkey King, something that has proven not to be an obstacle for the home audience, with both series doing quite well at the box office. What may be somewhat baffling is that Cheang's second film has a different Monkey King, with Aaron Kwok replacing Donnie Yen, who starred as the title character a couple years back.

Kwok is burlier and hairier, but like Yen, not quickly recognizable with all that make-up. Sammo Hung has stepped in for action choreography, replacing Yen's martial arts and athleticism with Kwok standing his ground with a golden staff. Even though Cheang's films were intended as a trilogy, one could pretty much enjoy this second entry without seeing the first, dispensing with the distraction of a change of stars, plus the added confusion of Kwok starring as the evil demon in that earlier film.

The journey is from China to India, with the Monkey King, imprisoned for causing havoc in Heaven, accidentally freed from under a mountain, and directed to accompany a young monk who is to retrieve some Buddhist scriptures. For the Monkey King, it is a challenge to keep his impulsiveness under control, especially the urge to kill his enemies. While the first film emphasized the playfulness of the Monkey King, this second film is more philosophically serious, which is to say, there is just enough gravitas amidst the elaborate make-up, costumes and special effects.

The best special effect here is Gong Li. Maybe there was a bit of digital work done here in addition to the occasional furry eye brows that appear from time to time, but as the White Bone Demon, Gong Li is totally gorgeous. If she needs to drink to stay young looking, or eat the flesh of a devout monk to remain an immortal demon, she's got my sympathy.

The adaptation of the story is loose enough to allow for Kwok to have a sword fight with White Bone Demon's army of skeletons. And while special effects have come quite a ways from Jason and the Argonauts, the obvious inspiration here, the scene also unintentionally, for those who've seen both films, show why computer generated special effects aren't so special for some of us. The older, hand-crafted stop-motion animation of the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts represents the challenge of imagination against the limitations of the technology available at the time, allowing the viewer to actively collaborate with the filmmakers in the suspension of disbelief. Computer generated special effects essentially emphasize the passivity of the viewer.

While Cheang Pou-soi may be enjoying some rewards with bigger budget films with battles in the heavens, I hope it's not too long before he returns to more earthbound stories. While there is some thematic similarity with stories of violent, antagonistic loners who unexpectedly find redemption, Cheang's best work is to be found in the streets of Accident and Dog Eat Dog.

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January 12, 2017

2016: Answered Prayers and Unexpected Gifts

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Beat Girl

This piece was intended to be posted earlier. My hard-drive crashed a couple of days after Christmas. Between repairing my computer, and recovering a forgotten password, I'm a bit behind. This site will be a bit busy in the next few days as I catch up.

For those looking for the usual "Best of" or "Top Ten" list, it's not going to be here. I've not strained myself to create a "Top Ten" list in the past eleven years that I've been posting. Also, most of my viewing and reviewing has been home video based, and my access to the year end Oscar hopefuls is based on the whims of the distributors who may, or may not, be sending me screeners or watchable online links. What was significant for me was that a handful of films that I thought I would either never see, or at least not see in close to the way that the filmmaker may have intended, became available on home video this year.

Around the time that he was filming the erotic insert for Who's that Knocking on My Door in Amsterdam, Martin Scorsese was tapped by Dutch filmmaker Pim De La Parra to polish the English language script for Obsessions. The film is obviously Hitchcock inspired, and there are a couple of smart aleck gags that I'm certain were contributed by Scorsese. Bernard Herrmann contributed a soundtrack made up of unused music from other projects. On the verge of getting a gray market version, I found that the German company, Koch, issued a blu-ray version last June. For whatever reasons, Obsessions never got a US theatrical release, although it was a big hit in the Netherlands. For those whose home viewing is region restricted, fellow Dutchman, Nico B. of Cult Epics, is working on US home video release.

There was the amazing triple of three released from the British Film Institute's Flipside label devoted to some of the edgier British films of the past. I first read about Beat Girl (1960) in Rolling Stone magazine in 1969, in an article about rock movies. That article stayed with me, as well as the reference to the film also known as Wild for Kicks. The film was available much later, by about thirty years, on VHS. This was a ragged version of the US release, with the strip club scenes cut out with gardening shears. A DVD version I came across later was even worse. Still, nothing kept me from finding this to be a very entertaining film, with young Oliver Reed glowering his way from a supporting role with no name to a stint in several Hammer films in the early Sixties. Not only could the original British version of Beat Girl be seen in its blu-ray glory, but BFI also included two other versions as well, with plenty of extras.

It seems more than coincidental that BFI's Beat Girl would be release simultaneously with Expresso Bongo from 1959. Previously, only the 1962 version, shortened from the original release version, has been available. Again, we finally have the original film restored as a blu-ray, with a couple of songs from the original stage production as part of the film. Val Guest's film, a hit at the time, has an obvious influence on Beat Girl with strippers and rockers converging in London's Soho, as well as an influence on the film version of Absolute Beginners. No coincidence there as the novel took place in London, 1958. The blu-ray also includes a short made in 1957 by Michael Winner that remained shelved until Winner's death, also worth checking out.

At the same time as the two British rock films were released, BFI also had their recovered and restored version of Symptoms from 1974, a horror film from Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz. I first became aware of this film from Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs' indispensable book, Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Films 1956 - 1984. What may be most shocking about this rural thriller is that it was considered lost until 2014, when the BFI was informed that the negative was still in storage. Taking a chance on a film read about, but never seen, has proven rewarding.

Finally, since as a member of the Online Film Critics Society, I've had access to more films than I have time to see for year-end award consideration. Every year is a little bit different, as some studios will want me to see a couple of films they believe are award worthy, while others will send screeners one year but not another. The smaller companies whose films are usually on the art and independent film circuit usually are the most generous. I had no idea what Girl Asleep was about, but if Oscilloscope was going to send me a screener, that was fine by me. I got an online link instead. Still, this little Australian film about a fourteen year old girl trying to resist turning fifteen, with overbearing parents, an equally young male friend who is a little to ingratiating, a late Seventies' disco party, and a nightmare featuring familiar looking characters, proved much more memorable than some of the more highly touted films of the season. This is the directorial debut of Rosemary Myers, who also directed the play. Forget the pull quotes, especially those comparing Girl Asleep to Napoleon Dynamite. It's not just that Myers' film is so much better, but that even with all the other films that I've seen and written about, I could still come across a movie I could fall in love with.

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Girl Asleep

December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas!

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Cary Grant in The Bishop's Wife (Henry Koster - 1947)

December 20, 2016

The Devil Lives Here

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O Diabo Mora Aqui
Rodrigo Gasparini and Dante Vescio - 2015
Artsploitation Films Region 1 DVD

While my knowledge of Brazilian culture and history is minimal, my reaction to The Devil Lives Here is that there is more to this film than simply the dramatic recreation of an urban legend. In the early Seventies, I was able to see a few films by young Brazilian filmmakers, peers to the various filmmakers around the globe at that time whose cinema was considered new. In this case, it was known as "Cinema Novo". The most significant filmmaker of that movement was Glauber Rocha, whose films mixed history, politics and some of the mystic folk beliefs of Brazil. One of Rocha's most famous films is titled, Black God, White Devil.

I thought of Rocha's film because there is a racial dynamic established immediately in this new film. The narrative shifts between a quartet of white kids, a pair of mestizo young men, both taken place in the present, with the third narrative strand being the confrontation between a wealthy white landowner and a mestizo beekeeper in the unspecified past. The beekeeper is murdered and the bee hives burned down by the white landowner. There is a curse, that results in forces of the dead to be revived, seriously by the mestizo youths, and as an elaborate prank by one of the white young men. Most of the writing about The Devil Lives Here compares that film to Candyman, Bernard Rose's film inspired by an urban legend of a murderous ghost brought back to life.

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And perhaps I am reading more into this film than was ever intended, but I would assume that there are elements to this film that would be understood by a Brazilian audience, but overlooked by many viewers in North America. Aside from the historical aspects, such as when Brazil was a slave-holding country, there are matters of cultural colonialism and appropriation. The young white artist, Apolo, has taken the basement where real horror took place, and painted a large pentagram, with candles planted at various points. Whatever he thought he was doing, he liberates forces he really doesn't know or can control. Even the young mestizo who thinks he knows what he's doing in trying to control the situation finds himself over his head. What follows are the more familiar tropes of violent death and demonic possession.

The Devil Lives Here is the feature debut of Gasparini and Vescio. Previously, they had made their mark with the short, "M is for Mailbox", part of The ABCs of Death, Part 2. Much of the horror is by suggestion, with the use of light, shadow and elliptical editing. This is the kind of film that can be enjoyed simply on a visceral level, yet suggests that that there is much more to be appreciated and understood.

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December 19, 2016

Zsa Zsa Gabor: 1917 - 2016

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From what news was posted, the last years of Zsa Zsa Gabor's life were a hell that I would not wish for anyone else. That said, let us set aside the snark and cheap shots for a fond farewell to the real Queen of Outer Space.