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April 29, 2006

Seven Swords

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Chat Gim
Tsui Hark - 2005
Deltamac Company Region 0 DVD

While I was initially pleased by the commercial success of Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon, it now seems that several Chinese language filmmakers are intent on topping Ang Lee for diminishing rewards. Tsui's newest film is even more of a disappointment because he had previously set the bar for Hong Kong filmmakers in the 90s. Previously counted on to be both commercial and idiosyncratic, alternating between epic story telling and screwball comedy, sometimes in the same film. Tsui's most recent films have become less interesting perhaps as a result of the greater commercial demands placed on them. Even Tsui's best film since his misadventures in English with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Time and Tide was the work of a director in search of direction, sythesizing the "bullet ballet" of John Woo with some of the abstact imagery of Wong Kar-Wai. The madcap drinking contest and general antagonism between Nicholas Tse and Candy Lo leading to an uneasy relationship were the few reminders of Tsui's earlier work. One could almost describe Seven Swords as resembling Once Upon a Time in China with digital effects added, minus the heart.

In terms of the martial arts sequences, Tsui hasn't really changed that much in the fifteen years since he began that Jet Li trilogy. That's not necessarily a bad thing as wire work and characters held in mid-air suspension have become the current cliches of action films. But what Tsui seems to have forgotten is the intimacy and interaction of the characters is what makes his films worth seeing, and indeed seeing again. The strength of the first two Once Upon in China films is in the delicate relationship between Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan. Likewise, the unrestrained buffoonery between Leslie Cheung and Anita Yuen sets the stage for The Chinese Feast.

Tsui has been quoted as saying that he wants Seven Swords to be his equivalent to the Lord of the Rings films. The story of six swordsmen and one woman travelling through China, fighting for the Chinese and Koreans enslaved by the Manchurians, has the hallmarks of a national, and nationalistic, epic. The problem is that Tsui has devoted more energy towards the technical side at the expense of characters who are unaffecting and barely distinguishable from each other. It is the bad guys, dressed to look like a deadly version of the KISS army that are identifiable by their make-up and names like Hell-Sting and Mud-Trot. It is the actress who plays the sadistic Kuolo, seen above, who could have stolen the film had she not been killed off about midway into the story.

Some of the actors in Seven Swords are familiar faces both in Hong Kong film and previous Tsui films, like Leon Lai and Donnie Yen. The women seem cast at least partially for their resemblance to actresses associated with Tsui. With the exception of the actress identified as Chen Jiajia as Kuolo who takes on a part that would have been played by Brigitte Lin twenty years ago, the other actresses recede in the memory of such Tsui team players as Maggie Cheung, Sally Yeh and Rosamund Kwan. Only Korean actress Kim So-yeon comes close to making an impression as the conflicted former slave to the war chief, Fire-wind.

It may be telling of the state of Chinese language films in the U.S. that Seven Swords has not been picked up for release here. Time and Tide was Tsui's last film to get theatrical distribution here, failing to attract much of an audience even by foreign film standards. Zu Warriors was bought and shelved by Miramax. The English language Black Mask 2 a film even sillier than Tsui's work with Van Damme, went straight to video. Tsui's pursuit of being the making films that represent the state of the art in technology has again forgotten that a compelling story is the greatest special effect.

Posted by peter at 12:50 PM

April 28, 2006

United 93

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Paul Greengrass - 2006
Universal Pictures 35mm film

About thirty years ago, in one of my film classes at NYU, we saw Alain Resnais' Night and Fog. Shots following the train tracks to Auschwitz alternate between World War II era black and white and contemporary color footage. Added to the footage of the train tracks is documentary footage of concentration camps unified by Jean Cayrol's narration. As soon as the film was over, the teacher immediately dove into a discussion on the formal qualities of Night and Fog until a student brought up the point that the subject matter was too overwhelming to ignore.

For much the same reason, I am not certain if one can intelligently discuss the filmic qualities of United 93 academically. As expected, Paul Greengrass has made a film stylistically similar to Bloody Sunday. Although the documentary styling appears to let the characters speak for themselves, both films indicate a distrust of governmental figureheads. The older film is critical of Queen Elizabeth II for her actions, while George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are conspicous in their absence in United 93.
And while Greengrass does not employ dramatic motifs to underline the presence of good guys or bad guys, I found myself unable to be emotionally uninvolved during the hijacking scenes. While the more intellectual side of me can see that the terrorists were presented as involved in what they sincerely thought was a faith based mission, I was still glad to see them overwhelmed and injured by the passengers (an incident that may have been created for dramatic purposes). All of this raises the questions that whatever one writes about United 93 will in some ways be inescapably a personal response towards the events of September 11, 2001 and the people involved in those events.

One of the more interesting choices made by Greengrass was to have some of the real life players recreate their lives on that day. Ben Sliney, FAA operations manager, appears as himself as seen in the above still. If Sliney is not quite the unsung hero of September 11, he seems to have been the person who tried to connect the dots, coordinate various agencies, and finally took action where he could. NORAD is shown as hampered by commanders not knowing the rules of engagement, and being blocked by protocol that relied on communications with either the President or Vice-President, neither of whom could be reached in a timely manner. Ultimately, United 93 is about the willingness to make decisions for the greater good, under extreme circumstances and immediate need.

I am baffled by those who have stated that it is too soon to make dramatic recreations of the events of September 11. The film 11' 09'' 01 created soon after the actual events as receded from memory. There was a made for cable movie, Flight 93 that was broadcast on the Arts and Entertainment channel last January. The events also provoked discussion concerning the relationship between life and art both serious and humorously. How United 93 will be judged if and when more facts are known is of course yet to be seen. My feeling is that the film's greatest value will be if it is a catalyst in discussion regarding the reality of how one would act and react under unthinkable circumstances.

Posted by peter at 02:53 PM | Comments (1)

April 27, 2006

Ladyhawke

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Richard Donner - 1985
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Today's entry is part of Nathaniel R's Michelle Pfeiffer Blog-a-thon. Other links are to be found at his site Film Experience. And on behalf of The Self-Styled Siren who is busy moving herself and her family from Toronto to NYC, another reminder that June 29 has been marked for the blog-a-thon date with another blonde icon, Lana Turner.

Ladyhawke is significant to Michelle Pfeiffer's filmography almost in spite of the film. Pfeiffer has the title role, and her face dominated the posters. Even though one usually thinks of Pfeiffer first among the stars of Ladyhawke, she actually has less screen time than Matthew Broderick or Rutger Hauer. More than Into the Night, released the same year, Ladyhawke marked Pfeiffer's transition to top line movie star.

This medieval fantasy is of two lovers separated by a curse. Isabeau is a woman at night, but a hawk during the day. Navarre is a wolf at night. Acting as an intermediary between the hawk and the wolf, is a young pickpocket, Phillipe, known as Mouse. The most memorable and poignant scene is of Isabeau and Navarre together right before sunrise, he still as a wolf while she is in human form. As the sun rises the two undergo their metamorphoses, he to human, she to hawk. For a brief moment they are able to see each other as humans and just barely can touch each other's fingers. While the scene ends with Hauer screaming in anguish, it also recalls an earlier scene where Mouse first meets Isabeau. He asks is she is flesh or spirit. Isabeau replies that she is sorrow.

The film could have been Richard Donner's masterpiece. Certainly their was no problem with the casting. Donner has been ably assisted by Vittorio Storaro's cinematography although there is sometimes a bit too much reliance on gradient tinting. With three credited writers, the script is occassionally witty and seems truer in spirit to 13th Century Europe than some films that try to graft in contemporary anachronisms for the sake pandering to the presumed audience. Even the pre-CGI special effects work for the most part because little time is spent with them. Where Ladyhawke shows its age is in Alan Parson's bass heavy progressive rock score. It is unfortunate that no one could persuade Donner to use different music. An interesting comparison in music scores can be made with Bertrand Tavernier's medieval Beatricemade two years later, with a score by jazz musician Ron Carter.

As for Michelle Pfeiffer, I am one of the many who "discovered" her in Grease II. It is interesting that three of her roles were of her either literally or symbolically playing predatory animals, in the films Ladyhawke, Batman Returns and Wolf. All three of these films explore the idea of love being limited by an identity that hides ones humanity. The ending of Wolf could be considered the reverse of Ladyhawke with the lovers accepting animal identities in order to fully realize their relationship, while Batman Returns concludes with the would-be lovers in an uneasy truce between animal and human. It is a tribute to Michelle Pfeiffer that no matter who she plays, whether hawk, cat or wolf, there is never a reason not to fall in love with her.

Posted by peter at 07:00 PM | Comments (3)

April 26, 2006

L'Atalante

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Jean Vigo - 1934
New Yorker Films Region 1 DVD

What better way to celebrate Jean Vigo's 101th birthday than to see one of his films? The obvious answer is to see all of his films, the two shorts and two features. As it was, I saw L'Atalante for the first time in over thirty years. One benefit is that the DVD release is closer to the version of the film Jean Vigo had in mind, rather than the edited version I had seen previously.

I was struck by how most of the shots in the film use either high or low angles. Only briefly is the camera positioned facing straight ahead. At times the shots appear as if the viewer were huddling with Dita Parlo, Jean Daste or Michel Simon. Vigo also employs ground level shots with the characters running from or to the camera. To describe the visual quality of L'Atalante in this way to those who have yet to see this film suggests that the film is disorienting to watch. Instead L'Atalante is not only quite watchable, but visually cohesive even three different cinematographers. As Jacques Rivette wrote about Vigo: "He suggests an incessant improvisation of the universe, a perpetual and calm and self-assured creation of the world."

At the time I had first seen L'Atalante, Vigo was experiencing renewed popularity both with this film, but more so with Zero for Conduct. Linday Anderson's If . . . was acknowledged as being influenced by Vigo's first feature, and at the end of the Sixties, any film about children in revolt could not be timelier. I had first seen Zero in a double feature with Duck Soup in the summer of 1969 at Wayne State University in Detroit, with the films under the banner of "Revolution '33". I use to have a copy of the first major study of Vigo, published in 1971, written by P.E. Salles Gomes. At the time, Vigo was something like the James Dean of French Cinema. There was an assumption that Vigo's death at twenty-nine deprived the world of a great film artist. Considering how difficult it was for Vigo to get financing, and with Zero for Conduct banned for being "anti-French" and L'Atalante a box office disaster, one has to question what would have happened had Vigo survived his tuberculosis. Even Jean Renoir struggled throughout most of his career to get financing. On the other hand, had Vigo made more films, would the Cahiers du Cinema crowd dismiss him as they had Marcel Carne and Rene Clair?

Setting aside questions about Vigo's reputation, L'Atalante should be enjoyed for its various pleasures. Michel Simon's Pere Jules shares some of the boisterousness of his performance as Boudu. Vigo's sense of humor includes shots of Simon working on the barge with a kitten holding on for its life on Simon's shoulders, and a scene where Simon thinks he is able to make a record play with his finger on the disc. Quite beautiful are the shots of Jean Daste swimming under water looking for Dita Parlo in spirit as seen in the above still, the work of Boris Kaufman. Francois Truffaut and Julien Temple have both discussed having their eyes openned by Vigo. L'Atalante is "poetic realism" at its dreamiest.

Posted by peter at 02:33 PM

April 25, 2006

Owner of a Lonely Heart

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Close Your Eyes and Hold Me/Me wo tojite daite
Itsumichi Isomura - 1996
Asia Pulp Cinema Region 1 DVD

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Transfixed/Mauvais Genres
Francis Girod - 2001
Picture This! Entertainment Region 1 DVD

My significant other, who as a matter of course is very opinionated on all sorts of matters, refuses to see Transamerica because she feels that having a biological woman portray a transgendered woman is dishonest. I can see her point in that one can argue that as good as Felicity Huffman may be, and I am certainly a fan of hers, it's similar to having white actresses in biracial roles such as in Pinky or Imitation of Life (1959). For my S.O., the right thing would have been to given the starring role to Calpernia Addams. Short of having a transgendered person portraying a transgendered person, my S. O. thought one of the bravest performances was that of Steven Mackintosh in Different for Girls. I still plan on seeing Transamerica and Breakfast on Pluto eventually, but in the meantime I caught up with two films I had previously read about.

What Close Your Eyes and Hold Me and Transfixed have in common is that both are about transgendered women who perform in nightclubs and are unhappy in love. With it's empty, industrial settings and sense of alienation of Antonioni and constant play of sexual and gender dynamics resembling Fassbinder, Close Your Eyes and Hold Me teeters between art film and exploitation. Young professional, Amane, accidentally hits Hanabusa with his car. Seeking her out to maker sure she has recovered from an injury, Amane begins an obsessive relationship which challenges his sense of self. Juri, a receptionist in love with the obvlivious Amane, seeks out Hanabusa only to get involved with her as well. The elegiac music suggests that love is doomed, though the ending hints at a resolution based on mutual needs.

Hanabusa is portrayed by Kumiko Takeda. As gorgeous as she is, I had to wonder if there was another actor such as Shinnosuke Ikehata, or if such casting would commercially limit the film as had happened with Funeral Parade of Roses. The film's story is by Shungiku Uchida, whose writing is getting wider recognition.

One literal translation of the French title for Transfixed is "Bad Family". Francis Girod's film is about the poisoned relationships between fathers and sons. Robinson Stevenin won a Cesar award for portraying a troubled transexual accused of the murder of several prostitutes, some also transgendered. While there is an obvious nod to Rear Window, Transfixed also has similarities to DePalma beyond Dressed to Kill, as well as the tales of murderous families of Claude Chabrol. One bright spot in this otherwise bleak story is seeing Stevenin taking on Francoise Dorleac while his stage partner channels Catherine Denueve. Girod tries to explain and simplify using psychological short cut for simple cause and effect. While it also has its flaws, what Close Your Eyes and Hold Me understands better than Transfixed is that affairs of the heart are never simple.

Posted by peter at 07:44 AM

April 22, 2006

Alida Valli 1921-2006

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When people whose lives revolve around film talk about actresses, the name of Alida Valli usually does not come up. If she is remembered at all by Anglo-American film lovers, it is for her association with David O. Selznick who had hoped to create a new international star as he had done with Ingrid Bergman. Of the films produced or co-produced by Selznick, The Paradine Case is considered one of Alfred Hitchcock's lesser films, while The Third Man is almost thoroughly dominated by Orson Welles' mysterious character of Harry Lime.

Valli's filmography is a reminder of an actress who had roles in more good and great films with some of the great filmmakers. Valli was also in a good number of films from lesser directors, but that's the price of maintaining a constant career. Still, not too many actors have films by Visconti, Antonioni, Pontecorvo, Pasolini, Clement, Franju, Bertolucci, Argento, Bava and Chabrol on one resume.

In reviewing the Valli's filmography, I discovered that the first film I saw with her theatrically, is one of her more obscure films, The Castillian. A Spanish feature with English language stars Cesar Romero, Frankie Avalon and Broderick Crawford, this was a low-budget attempt at riding the coattails of the very successful El Cid. It's been over forty years since The Castillian came and went, so my memories of this film are vague. Rather than sticking out, Alida Valli's career could be seen as that of an actress who would more often immerse herself in a role and integrate herself as part of the ensemble. At the very least, Alida Valli provided a continuous link for almost seventy years of Italian cinema.

Posted by peter at 06:22 PM | Comments (2)

April 21, 2006

Movies by the Book

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What is this foolishness that inspires people to create lists? Even more questionable are those lists that make claims to some kind of objectivity. The latest entry to be scrutinized is a list from The Guardian of the fifty best film adaptations. Don't these people know any better? There are two immediate reasons to wonder about this particular list. The list is made of English language movies from English language books, with the exceptions being Dr. Zhivago and Les Liasons Dangereuses. There is no clarification concerning the film version being cited as several of the titles have been filmed at least twice.

In the comments posted at the Guardian site, one person mentioned Visconti's film version of The Leopard. I'm probably in a very small minority, but I always liked Visconti's version of The Stranger, even if there are aspects of Camus that can not easily be conveyed in film. The English language bias means no French filmmakers which is unfortunate considering both the tradition of French films from French novels, but also the interaction between the French film and literary worlds. This means no films by Claude Autant-Lara based on Stendahl or Radiguet, nor Francois Truffaut, particularly for his films from Henri-Pierre Roche. Even though it is not a literal film version of the book, Louis Malle does create a cinematic landscape equivalent to Raymond Queneau in Zazie dans le Metro. None of the films based on novels by Junichiro Tanizaki gets a nod, making room for Jaws.

So which version of 1984 is listed? The 1956 version directed by Michael Anderson with Edmond O'Brien as Winston Smith, or the version that actually was released in 1984 by Michael Radford? Is Alice in Wonderland the 1933 version directed by Norman Z. McLeod with a screenplay by Joe Mankiewicz, or the 1949 British version that Disney effectively kept shelved to make room for his 1951 animated film? It's not elementary to me which version of Hound of the Baskervilles is listed here. Both Sherlock Holmes, Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone, have their partisans. Les Liasons Dangereuses? I liked the Milos Forman version titled Valmont better, the Stephen Frears and Roger Vadim have both used the original title in their respective films. While I'm fairly certain that of several films based on Oliver Twist, the film the Guardian writers had in mind was David Lean's adaptation, I have no doubts that The Maltese Falcon means the third film version as done by John Huston. Likewise, Lord of the Flies is thought of in terms of Peter Brook's film.

I also have to question the inclusion of Breakfast at Tiffany's. There was an episode of "Seinfeld" that featured George trying to bluff his way in a book club by seeing Blake Edwards' film which is beloved more for Audrey Hepburn's presence than anything resembling Truman Capote's story. At least Blake Edwards has apologized for casting Mickey Rooney as the Japanese neighbor. With all the remakes in the works, one would think there might be interest in a more faithful film version of Capote's novella.

As for film versions of Lolita, I'm preserved on video tape unsuccessfully defending Stanley Kubrick against Adrian Lyne on the Mountain States episode of The Ultimate Film Fanatic. The debate portion of the show is very subjectively evaluated, based on the whims of the judges. Of course it should be mentioned that one of the judges is best known for being in some ways the personification of Nabokov's creation.

Posted by peter at 07:26 PM

April 20, 2006

A Plateful of Spaghetti Westerns

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Shoot First . . . Ask Questions Later/Il Bianco, il Giallo, il Nero
Sergio Corbucci - 1975
DVD Storm Region 0 DVD

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Have a Good Funeral, My Friend . . . Sartana will Pay/Buon Funerale, Amigos!... paga Sartana
Anthony Ascott (Giuliano Carnimeo) - 1970
X Rated Kult Region 2 DVD

Sometimes there are gems to be found when exploring Italian westerns not made by Sergio Leone. Sometimes the films turn out to be less than promised. The two films I saw today attest to Leone's inescapable influence. At the very least the existence of these films on DVD allows for a greater sense of a genre that received spotty distribution and often indifferent critical reception in the United States.

Shoot First is the last Western by Sergio Corbucci. At the time of release, the Italian western genre was primarily comprised of comic spoofs. The best of these was the Leone produced My Name is Nobody. The Italian title translates as the colors white, yellow and black. The colors refer to the colors of three locks on a trunk full of money, as well as to the three main characters. The white is a conman known as "Swiss" in the English language version, but also as Blanc de Blanc, European audiences being more familiar with Mont Blanc. The yellow is a would be samurai portrayed by the Cuban Tomas Milian, more Jerry Lewis than Toshiro Mifune. The black is Eli Wallach's sheriff, known as Black Jack. The orginal Italian title recalls Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, reinforced with the casting of Wallach from the earlier film. Corbucci's film is also something of a takeoff on Red Sun, a film more popular in Europe than the U.S.

Corbucci's film starts on a promising note, literally, with a folk-country theme by the De Angelis brothers, a shift from the imitation Ennio Morricone scores one often expects. Perhaps Corbucci and company try too hard, as Shoot First gets dragged down by too much heavy-handed humor, whether it's Wallach calling his wife "My darling Clementine", or Milian closely examing the back end of a horse. It could also be that Corbucci is more suited to the more serious subversiveness of Companeros, The Big Silence and even Navaho Joe.

Coincidentally, the Sartana film also features an Asian character. In this case George Wang portrays the Chinese owner of a local gambling hall. Not so coincidentally, bankers are the chief villains of both films. Funeral is the third of the Sartana series, and the first that I've seen. Sartana is a well-dressed gambler who travels around playing cards. In this installment he's seeking the murderers of an old prospector. Compared to Clint Eastwood's man with no name character, Sartana is a regular chatterbox. Sartana is clever with cards, whether gambling, or using them as in more creative ways such as snuffing out candles. Giuliano Carnimeo stages a variety of unusual gunfights and keeps things moving in little more than an hour and a half. Having seen three films by Carnimeo working in three different genres, I can say that he's not a bad filmmaker. But no matter which genre, there's always someone better.

Posted by peter at 04:54 PM

April 19, 2006

Sam Whiskey

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Arnold Laven - 1969
MGM Region 1 DVD

Today's entry is part of an Angie Dickinson blog-a-thon. Other links are to be found at Flickhead and Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

While Sam Whiskey is primarily a vehicle for then-rising star Burt Reynolds, it is also significant in terms of Angie Dickinson's career. The screenplay is by William Norton. Five years later, Norton wrote the cult favorite Big Bad Mama, one of the few films featuring Dickinson as the title character. The film is also the first to take advantage of the new ratings code, allowing Angie Dickinson's fans to see what they could only previously imagine.

Like most of the films she was in, Angie Dickinson's role here is small, but pivotal. She portrays the widow of a man who stole gold bars from the Denver Mint sometime around the period of the Civil War. Reynolds, along with Ossie Davis and Clint Walker, have taken the job of retrieving the gold bars and sneaking them back into the mint in place of the gold painted lead bars. It's a preposterous plot, but a relatively entertaining hour and a half. As someone who has lived in Denver for most of my life, I didn't mind too much that the nothing in the film resembled Colorado or the pictures I've seen of early Denver, and I've walked by the Denver Mint many times.

Part of what makes Sam Whiskey an amiable diversion is the direction of Arnold Laven. While most of his work has been in television, Laven has made some stylish, economically shot films. In addition to the wonderfully titled Monster that Challenged the World, the minor classic Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is most in need of a DVD release. Laven has also collaborated with Sam Peckinpah, both on the beloved television series, The Rifleman and the Peckinpah scripted The Glory Guys. Laven and company also were responsible for Geronimo, infamous for jokes about Native Americans jumping out of airplanes, shouting "Chuck Connors".

Laven is artistically ambitious, using framing devices like bed frames and branches in many of the shots. The break-in isn't quite Rififfi but Reynolds and company are seen trying to operate silently, avoiding noisy disaster.

Burt and Angie had a cinematic reunion with a film called The Maddening in 1995, but I'm sure they would prefer you saw them when they were young and pretty.

Posted by peter at 12:01 AM | Comments (3)

April 18, 2006

Two by Emilio P. Miraglia

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The Night Evelyn came out of the Grave/La Notte che Evelyn uscì dalla Tomba
Emilio P. Miraglia - 1971
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

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The Red Queen Kills Seven Times/La Dama rossa uccide Sette Volte
Emilio P. Miraglia - 1972
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

Those wild and crazy folks at NoShame have come up with an interesting marketing tool for selling their newest release. If you click on the link, you can see the action figure, one of 7000, which is part of the Emilio Miraglia Killer Queen Box Set. Even without a "Red Queen" of your very own, the films are worth checking out. A previous DVD release of Evelyn looks like it was done from a 16mm print found in somebody's dumpster. Not only is the new DVD done with the correct aspect ratio, but also from a pristine source from a complete print. Red Queen is also a beautiful transfer that includes a deleted prologue among the extras.

What is interesting is seeing the two films together because of narrative elements shared between them. Both titles are misleading in that they both refer to characters who seemingly come back from the dead to seek revenge for their untimely deaths. Red Queen's murderous ghost is the similarly named Eveline. Characters are often not who or what they appear to be, and everyone is motivated by greed. While Red Queen also has a greater variety of locations, family castles and mental institutions are featured in both films. Both films also have their head-scratching moments where logic seems besides the point.

Evelyn is about a wealthy man, Alan Cunningham, who has gauzy hallucinations about his dead wife, Evelyn. Most of his flashbacks involve seeing Evelyn running through the woods in a sheer nightgown that falls easily off her body. Not helping matters is Alan's habit of hiring similar looking prostitutes for unrestrained sado-masochism topped by his imagining Evelyn as the victim of his whip. A clueless psychiatrist convinces Alan to marry again, so Alan hooks up with the first blonde he meets. Various members of the household die mysteriously, with clues leading to the supposedly dead Evelyn. There is a tip of the hat to the literary inspiration for Evelyn with a character named Aunt Agatha. The high point is a combination strip-tease go-go dance done by Erika Blanc emerging from a coffin, part of a night club routine.

Red Queen is even better with more gratuitous sex and violence and nudity, plus more imaginative photography and set design. The story is about a family legend involving internecine sisters who are seen in a 17th century portrait. Murders are attributed to Eveline, whose recent death at the hand of her sister Kitty has been hidden from the police. One fantastic set piece involves Barbara Bouchet having a nightmare, with a tracking shot of her in bed shot from a long hallway, actually a set created in Rome's National Library. Red Queen also features Sybil Danning making the most of her supporting role. The film shows the influence of Dario Argento both in the narrative and visually, but is also the more satisfying of the two films here even though the "hero" looks and dresses like Monty Hall.

It should be noted that while the IMDb filmography for Emilio Miraglia is not complete. The NoShame booklet adds a bit more information. A previous film that actually received a major release in the U.S., The Vatican Affair features the unlikely pairing of Walter Pidgeon and Klaus Kinski. It would seem that there might be more of interest should other films by Miraglia be unburied from their studio vaults.

Posted by peter at 12:21 PM

April 16, 2006

Maggie's Form

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Days of Being Wild/A Fei jing juen
Wong Kar-Wai - 1991
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

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Dragon Inn/Xin long men ke zhan
Raymond Lee - 1992
Mei Ah Entertainment Region 0 DVD

I read parts of the New York Times on-line on an irregular basis. By chance, after reading a news story, I checked out the Arts section. There is an article today about Maggie Cheung, primarily in relationship to her ex-husband, filmmaker Olivier Assayas, and their most recent collaboration, Clean which is finally getting a U.S. theatrical run in N.Y.C. The article is somewhat informative, but Assayas made a questionable statement. From the article by Charles Taylor: Mr. Assayas believes that so little was asked of Ms. Cheung in many of the genre films she made in Hong Kong that "she has really learned to be on her own and to struggle for her character and to recreate in her own way the emotions of the character. And at a very late stage in her career she started understanding that everything she learned in making those movies could be put to use in more ambitious films, like the films of Stanley Kwan, the films of Wong Kar-wai."

I'm not sure what Assayas means by "a very late stage in her career". Based on the IMDb filmography, Maggie Cheung began her screen acting career in 1984 at the age of 19. Her first film with Wong, As Tears Go By was made in 1988, four years and eighteen features after her debut. Chueng's first film with Stanley Kwan, Full Moon in New York was just one year later. Centre Stage, the Kwan film that firmly established Cheung as a major star as well as award winning actress, was made in 1992. By the time Maggie Cheung made her first film with Olivier Assayas, Irma Vep, she was was thirty-one years old with almost seventy films to her credit. Cheung as slowed down considerably after the fifteen month shoot for In the Mood for Love, with only three films since winning both the Golden Horse Award and Hong Kong Film Award for best actress in 2000.

It took a while for Maggie Cheung to make a deep impression on me. I had seen her in two Jacky Chan vehicles that played theatrically, Supercop and Twin Dragons, but at the time I had little idea who the actors besides Chan were. Cheung was also in The Heroic Trio, a film I caught at a midnight screening. It's a fun film starring three of the top Hong Kong actresses of the time, with Cheung sharing the screen with Michelle Yeoh and the late, great and frequently hilarious Anita Mui. When I saw In the Mood for Love, I was convinced that one of the reasons why cinema was invented was to film Maggie Cheung from behind, wearing a form-fitting Cheongsam dress. A few months after seeing In the Mood for Love, I bought my first DVD player and began catching up on Hong Kong cinema.

Days of Being Wild looks somewhat like a sketch for Wong Kar-Wai's subsequent films. Two violent scenes indicate the influence of Martin Scorsese which permeated As Tears Go By. The themes of time and memory, love and loss, are explored here with lots of shots featuring clocks or watches. One of the dates in the film is April 16, 1960. Several of Wong's titles indicate some kind of chronology, most literally Ashes of Time. The film takes place in 1960 and 1961. Several of the characters are each given individual moments to provide first person narration. Leslie Chueng meets Maggie Chueng at a food stand, similar to the set up of Chungking Express. Latin dance and Hawaiian (?) guitar music suggest foreign destinations. In Days two men are in the Phillipines, in Happy Together two men are in Buenos Aires. Wong's characters find that travel is usually not an escape from unhappiness. Maggie Cheung portrays Su Li-zhen, a character she would repeat in In the Mood for Love and 2046. Days also marks the first collaboration of Wong with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Providing confusion for those unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema, Days of Being Wild also stars Jacky Cheung, who like Leslie Cheung is no relation to Maggie Cheung. Jacky Cheung did however star in the similarly titled but differently plotted Days of Being Dumb.

Dragon Inn is the Tsui Hark produced remake of a film by King Hu. It was Hu's film that was on the theater screen in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. The film is about two warring factions in Ming era China. A group led by Brigitte Lin who is initially disguised as a man are protecting two royal children from a powerful eunuch. Cheung portrays Jade, the owner of the Dragon Inn, a hotel in the middle of a vast desert. It's not enough for Cheung to sell her loyalties to the highest bidder, in her restaurant she serves "spicy meat buns" with a recipe from the Sweeney Todd cookbook. This is a film where there is little difference between foreplay and hand-to-hand combat. Whether throwing sharp objects at each other, or simply exchanging verbal barbs, the sparks between Lin and Cheung are palpable. There are two action set pieces involving elaborate sword play and gymnastics, as well as scenes with grisly humor. With Lin, an actress famed for several gender bending performances, the best scenes are with Cheung, where the boys aren't.

Posted by peter at 05:29 PM

April 15, 2006

It Happened to Jane

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Wonderwall
Joe Massot - 1968
Rhino Video Region 1 DVD

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Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye/La Morte Negli occhi del Gatto
Antonio Margheriti (Anthony M. Dawson) - 1973
Blue Underground Region 1 DVD

One time when I didn't have any DVDs demanding to be viewed, I stumbled upon a documentary about Jane Birkin. At the time, I was unaware of how extensive her singing and acting career really had been, or had knowledge about her political activities. Even though I had seen her in more films than I recalled, Birkin's most memorable performance is one of her earliest, as one of the two teenage girls photographed by David Hemmings in Blow Up. My knowledge of Birkin's musical career was limited to her infamous duet with husband Serge Gainsbourg.

My curiousity concerning Wonderwall preceeded knowledge of Birkin's involvement. The film is most famous for having a soundtrack composed by George Harrison. More people have heard the music than actually saw the film, which was very briefly released in the United States in 1969. The slight story by Gerard Brach concerns an absent-minded scientist who becomes obsessed with the hippie chick/model he discovers is living in the apartment next door. The title refers to the brick wall dividing the two apartments. Jack MacGowran, the scientist, is first seen observing life under a microscope. He observes Jane Birkin in somewhat similar fashion through accidentally discovered holes in the wall. What little the film has to say is about the difference between being a participant or an observer of life. If I saw Wonderwall back when it was originally made, I probably would have said it was one of the best movies I had seen that year.

It's probably unavoidable that the hipness that oozes all over Wonderwall now looks like a quaint muddle. Birkin's apartment is a combination of Peter Max design and color with posters of Valentino, Harlow, Mae West and Garbo. Harrison's score is a mixed bag of inauthentic raga, bluegrass and jazz, with some unmemorable rock. Comic ideas include subtitles to indicate what MacGowran is trying to say over the din of a vacuum cleaner, and a shot of MacGowran filmed in black and white when a colleague tells him that he "looks off-color". The director, Joe Massot, later earned the wrath of three members of Led Zeppelin after making The Song Remains the Same, a film marked by an abundance of shots with the camera gazing up on Robert Plant's crotch. Wonderwall should also be noted as the first of several films with a character named Penny Lane. It may have been obtuse product placement, but Jack MacGowran has several scenes involving apples.

Seven Deaths in a Cat's Eye is based on a story by Peter Bryan, the British screenwriter. The film is firmly similar to other earlier Margheriti films with its haunted castle setting, murderous relatives, lesbians, vampires and nods to Edgar Allen Poe. Instead of a walled in black cat, the title animal is fat and yellow. Seven Deaths also features a gorilla as fake as was seen in Konga a few months back. Berkin portrays a young woman who returns to the family estate only to find that her mother died under mysterious circumstances. Serge Gainsbourg briefly appears as a police inspector. More so than previous Margheriti haunted house films, this one is punctuated by violent slashings, signified by splashes of blood that resembles red paint. There is one particularly disturbing image of a corpse in the basement that serves as a feast for a nest of rats. In one of the several plot points that's glossed over, no one ever bothers to chase the rats out and remove the body. It may be significant that Seven Deaths, a hybrid of gothic horror and giallo, was Margheriti's last film in either genre. The rotting corpse could well symbolize a part of Italian cinema that by 1973 was reduced to the remains of earlier, livelier films.

Posted by peter at 04:10 PM

April 14, 2006

Blog-a-thon Date with Angie Dickinson

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I'll be watching a couple of films starring Angie Dickinson this weekend in preparation for April 19th. The films are stacking up while I help my significant other move to cooler climes. In the meantime, here is a "killer" image of Angie from 1964.

Posted by peter at 01:55 PM | Comments (2)

April 13, 2006

Two Voyages with Richard Fleischer

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The Vikings
Richard Fleischer - 1958
MGM Home Video Region 1 DVD

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Fantastic Voyage
Richard Fleischer - 1966
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

In looking over Richard Fleischer's filmography at the time of his death a last March 25, I realized that I had only seen a handful of his films. Several of the films I had seen were in no way as Fleischer intended, full screen, edited, and on black and white television. One of those films seen that way was The Vikings.

This is old school Hollywood doing what it does best - a big costume epic with real movie stars. In the DVD supplement, Fleischer discusses the efforts made to be accurate with the sets and costumes, and I'll take him at his word. The accuracy stopped with the casting as 41 year old Ernest Borgnine plays father to the one year older Kirk Douglas. And while Tony Curtis will probably always be known for his youthful spirit, he hardly looks like the 21 year old man that the script calls for. Janet Leigh is totally gorgeous as an English princess. A director less trusting of his material like Rob Marshall would fret about the fact that no effort is made to disguise actors' natural speaking voices, or that the Vikings and the English characters all speak English to each other. Fleischer, like some of his characters, just dives in for the sake of adventure and spectacle.

The DVD of The Vikings may be worth studying on how to direct an action set piece. Fleischer explains how the swordfight between Douglas and Curtis was created using shots of no more than three sword strokes. The cinematography is by Jack Cardiff who used creative angles is shooting the final duel, as well as creating the luminous shots of Janet Leigh. The commercial success of The Vikings may have contributed to Cardiff making his own Viking film, The Long Ships. Screenplay writer Calder Willingham worked previously for Douglas as one of the screenwriters for Paths of Glory as well as contributing to Spartacus. Screen story writer Dale Wasserman's most famous association with Douglas came with the play version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Between the action and some sly humor, what's best about The Vikings is that it is a reminder that one could make a big costume epic without being bogged down with too many pretensions of self-importance.

Briefly in Fantastic Voyage, rival brain surgeons Arthur Kennedy and Donald Pleasance briefly debate evolution versus intelligent design. The debate effectively ends when the micoscopic sized Pleasance is consumed by a while corpuscle. The discussion is a small portion of the film that may have been no more than a thought provoking blip forty years ago, yet unintentionally acts as a reminder of more recent events. The story of a group of doctors shrunk so small that they take a voyage in a man's bloodstream to do brain surgery is silly. The shrinkage can only last for sixty minutes. Even within the logic of the basic premise, my significant other and I wondered why the tiny medical team wasn't injected into the ear or brain in the first place instead of taking the long way to their destination. It was probably written that way, but the film is crafty enough to have the sixty minutes of shrink time last exactly that long in screen time. The best moments of Fantastic Voyage are pre-CGI special effects of blood, tissue, bacteria and other microscopic matter that in their own way anticipate some of the psychedelic wonder seen two years later with 2001.

Posted by peter at 12:01 AM | Comments (3)

April 12, 2006

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

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Irwin Allen - 1961
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

Based on the premise, I thought Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea would be kind of like The Day After Tomorrow, only about global warming rather than a new ice age. Allen's film is hardly prescient, but instead uses an unexplored explanation that the Van Allen Belt has caught fire. If the Van Allen Belt can be seen as the MacGuffin of Allen's film, it should be no surprise that the screenplay was co-written by Charles Bennett, a writer most famous for his work for Alfred Hitchcock. Allen's film seems primarily made to prove that after making dinosaurs walk the earth in The Lost World, he could create a contemporary Jules Verne style adventure that could equal Walt Disney in the special effects.

There is some psuedo-science going on concerning whether the Van Allen Belt will burn itself out, or if the only solution is to blow it into space with a nuclear missile. Most of the film plays like variation of The Caine Mutiny with various people questioning the sanity of Admiral Walter Pidgeon, and the voyage interrupted by accidents or sabotage. It's probably a good thing I missed this movie as a kid, I don't think I could sleep knowing the fate of the world was in the hands of Pidgeon and Peter Lorre.

Peter Lorre, one of the stars of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is perhaps cast for that Disney connection. Looking back after forty-five years, it seems like science fiction to recall a time when Walter Pidgeon could be the top billed star, or that the name of Robert Sterling would mean anything except to those of us who watched re-runs of the "Topper" television series. Joan Fontaine probably deserved better than to fall into a pool, an unintended dinner for Lorre's pet shark. Of course, Barbara Eden looks cute with that stylish beret. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is untimately a boy's adventure film, featuring a former starlet who knew how to keep boys watching for the rest of her lengthy career.

Posted by peter at 08:25 AM | Comments (1)

April 11, 2006

All the Wrong Clues

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Gui ma zhi duo xing
Tsui Hark - 1981
Deltamac All Region DVD

I'm certain that most people who saw All the Wrong Clues would never believe that twenty-five years later Tsui Hark would be a major force in Hong Kong cinema. Although compared to Steven Spielberg for bringing in higher quality special effects to his film, Tsui is some ways closer to Luc Besson with his writing and producing films directed by proxy, in addition to his own formidable output as a director. All the Wrong Clues was Tsui's fourth film as director, and first commercial success.

What distinguishes this film is how Tsui stretches his limited resources, as well as how All the Wrong Clues anticipates some of Tsui's future work in content and style. The film is a screwball and slapstick detective story, closer to the Three Stooges than Nick and Nora Charles. Tsui begins with a very funny visual joke: what appears to the audience as one man walking through a shadowy alley is revealed to be three men, one closely behind the other, each man markedly taller than the man in front. Visual gags include a conversation conducted with a skeleton sitting between two characters, a barroom brawl that becomes a dance scene with a change of music, and a detective discovering several different women hiding in different rooms, including the bathtub, in his apartment. Tsui demonstrates a fondness for the ridiculous that would be honed to better effect in Peking Opera Blues and The Chinese Feast.

The action scenes are created by clever editing, creating the illusion of movement and otherwise unaffordable stunt work. Like the "B" directors of earlier eras, Tsui also shoots close-ups and disguises minimal sets. Tsui also plays with silhouettes at different times, an effect he would revisit with a beautiful shot of Jet Li appearing to kiss Rosamund Kwan in Once Upon a Time in China. The main reason to see All the Wrong Clues is for Tsui's anything for a laugh approach to comedy which includes naming a character Ah Capone, having one of the women dress like Lana Turner with a white turban, and including a couple of nuns in a car chase. All the Wrong Clues may also have the distinction of being possibly the only Chinese language film where you'll hear "Hava Nagila".

Posted by peter at 07:30 AM

April 08, 2006

The Write Stuff

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I finally had a chance to examine the Writers Guild of America's list of 101 Greatest Screenplays. While it's not quite as misguided as the lists of films presented by the American Film Institute or Entertainment Weekly for example, there are still plenty of opportunities for serious film scholars to go "Huh?". It's probably no surprise that the list is slanted towards more recent film, older films that have higher profiles, and that foreign language films get short shrift.

That Casablanca gets named as the top film is amazing considering the oft-told stories about the making of the film. Would we even be watching the film today if the stars were other than Bogart and Bergman as has been rumored? Would some of the humor of the dialogue, especially in the line, "Round up the usual suspects", still sifted through the film had the director been someone more fluent in English than Michael Curtiz? This does not even account for the fact that the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch are the credited names for a screenplay that was never finished before shooting began. Based on available information, Casablanca truly is a film that works in spite of all the elements that should have worked against it.

Another film that should never have worked was # 17 - Tootsie. I have no idea if any of the five credited writers had ever been in the same room together prior to shooting. At least the original author, Don McGuire, had a last laugh being honored at the end of his career.

David Webb Peoples had to wait fifteen years for #30 - Unforgiven to be filmed. I recall reading somewhere that as successful as Unforgiven was, Peoples was stiffed by Clint Eastwood who claimed to have originally received the screenplay as a writing sample.

While George Lucas received sole credit for #68 - Star Wars, it has been noted by Peter Biskind that the screenplay was actually written in collaboration with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. My own feeling is that the best screenplay Lucas had a hand in was American Graffiti, Lucas' best realization of the themes of different social groups and their coded languages.

The title most likely to have people asking WTF is probably #78 - Rocky. Especially absurd is that it is one notch above Mel Brooks' The Producers.

The only foreign language films are #85 - Grand Illusion and #87 - Eight and a Half. Nevermind that Fellini shot his film without sound and doesn't always know what his characters will say until he gets around to dubbing. Among the screenwriters not making this list are Truffaut, Shinobu Hashimoto, Jacques Prevert and Marguerite Duras.

In terms of classic films, only one citation for Ben Hecht, none for Samson Raphaelson or any of the scribes who worked on behalf of Ernst Lubitsch, no citing of Preston Sturges for The Power and the Glory, a film that influenced the structure of Citizen Kane, and no love shown for Donald Ogden Stewart. And while there are those who love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I would have rather seen that space taken by Dudley Nichols for Stagecoach.

I also have to laugh at seeing #99 - The Wild Bunch on the list. Keep in mind that I love this film and have seen it three times theatrically. I also remember an article written in "Esquire" magazine in the early Seventies by Dominick Dunne. Dunne wrote about reading two screenplays, one he thought well-written, the other screenplay had little to recommend it. The better screenplay was for The Great Gatsby. The screenplay that read poorly was The Wild Bunch. Even Dunne had to admit that when it comes to making movies, it is more often the director who truly gets the final word.

Posted by peter at 03:07 PM | Comments (1)

April 07, 2006

City of Angles

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Crash
Paul Haggis - 2005
Lions Gate Entertainment Region 1 DVD

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Higher Learning
John Singleton - 1995
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

I hearby call a moritorium on films based in Los Angeles that attempt to impart life lessons for the rest of us, especially with stories concerning racial diversity. Don Cheadle, I know your heart was in the right place as it almost always seems to be, but you should have known better. I'm speaking as one, who like Mr. Cheadle, is a graduate of East High School in Denver, Colorado. East High School was integrated even before it was mandatory throughout Denver high schools, and was considered such a nationally acclaimed school that children from Denver's wealthiest families made it a family tradition that their children went there. I might as well add What's Cooking by Gurinder Chadha while I'm at it. I'm suppose to believe that none of the four families at one intersection knew each other at all? I guess my question should be: have I lived an exceptional life or is there something about Los Angeles that perpetuates a sense of isolation from other people and the concept of other realities?

My biggest problem with Crash is how schematic it is. One could almost describe Crash as being like a Robert Altman film without any sense of humor. Showing how different people are connected with each other isn't new, Altman wrote the book as it were with Nashville. Guy Ritchie's films are essentially variations of Altman in the guise of crime capers. With Crash though, it is a little too neat and clean to have Matt Dillon grope Thandie Newton one day and save her the day after. Similarly having Ryan Phillippe encounter Terrence Howard two days in a row is just too coincidental. My other problem with Crash is that Paul Haggis seems to be perpetuating stereotypes even while he asks the audience to look beyond them. My memory of 2005 includes a film that had had a racially diverse cast, a smart script, dynamic cinematography, and attempted to ask some big questions, particularly what it truly means to be human. That film was Land of the Dead.

Higher Learning has its moments of unbelievability. I cannot believe that a neo-Nazi student who trashes his room-mate's section of the dorm and flashes a gun would not have been arrested or at least barred from returning to the campus. John Singleton's film is about a group diverse students who cross each others paths. The diversity in question is racial, financial and sexual. It is also a much more ambitious film than Crash. Singleton wants his Los Angles college campus to stand in for the United States and constantly uses visual motifs of the American flag, statues and paintings of Chistopher Columbus and the founding fathers, as a way of illustrating the gap between the ideal and the reality of the United States. Singleton also visually quotes Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia. Lapses of logic aside, Higher Learning may be the best photographed and edited film by John Singleton. I hope that he will make another film that fulfills his early promise.

Posted by peter at 05:28 PM

April 06, 2006

Three Extremes

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Saam gaang yi
Takashi Miike, Fruit Chan and Park Chan-Wook
Mega Star Region 0 DVD

Anthology films can be a bit of a challenge to evaluate because sometimes one or two parts are better than the whole. Also, they are assembled so that the best sequence is usually the last one. Many times, just knowing who the director is can be enough of a clue as to the quality of the segment. Even though the episodes filmed in The Twilight Zone were probably familiar to those who grew up watching the television series, there should have been no surprise that George Miller outdid the other contributors for sheer panache. Spirits of the Dead not only proves that no one can top Federico Fellini, but that there was really no other reason to see Vadim or even Malle's contributions.

My reaction to Three Extremes is a bit different. The three directors are different in style from each other, but I don't feel that one has necessarily topped the others. I may be a bit hobbled in adequately judging the film in that while I am fairly familiar with Takashi Miike, my only only exposure to Park Chan-Wook has been Oldboy. I have not seen anything by Fruit Chan. I will not extensively analyze the trilogy, but a few words are in order.

Miike's episode, "Box", is unlike the other films I have seen. Unlike previous films with their manic energy and transgressive activities, "Box" is extemely formal and austere. Most scenes have no more than three people in environments that seem removed from the rest of the world. The film follows the dream, or perhaps it is a dream within a dream, of a young woman haunted by memories of her sister. More so than Audition, this is the quietest film I've seen by Miike with shots of Kyoko Hasegawa running through snow covered fields, or simply standing in a sparsely decorated office. A shortcut description would be to imagine a J-horror film directed by Robert Bresson with a twist ending courtesy of Brian De Palma. For those interested in Miike, he has a translated blog in Japan Film News.

Dumplings is my first exposure to Fruit Chan. While the film has allegorical underpinnings, one can also enjoy it as a warning that sometimes it's better not to know all the details about the food one eats. The story originated from a novella by Lilian Lee, a prolific Hong Kong author best known for Farewell My Concubine. "Dumplings" also features a credible performance by Bai Ling which won her Best Supporting Actress from the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards. Christopher Doyle's cinematography features loving close-ups of boiling water, translucent dumplings, and eyes and lips.

Park Chan-Wook's "Cut" is about a filmmaker trapped in a real life nightmare on a movie set. Park plays with the notion of cinematic reality so that in a couple of occassions, what appears to be real within its context, turns out to be action on a film set. The title refers to both the director's command when shooting a film, as well as the action with a knife or ax. Park refers to Korean filmmaking as well as having scenes acting both as figurative and literal mirror images, both as straight reflections and as fun house images twisted around. Based on Park's discussion of future projects, "Cut" might be considered a preview of things to come.

Posted by peter at 12:15 AM

April 05, 2006

Roger and Me

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Today is Roger Corman's 80th birthday. I've been watching Roger Corman films since 1962 which is about four fifths of my life and over half of Corman's. I was originally going to write about a specific favorite film but decided instead to discuss how Corman and his films have been a major part of my life. As those who have followed my blog for a while know, I have already written about Corman films a couple of times, most recently in discussing how the man who made Edgar Allan Poe cool for high school and junior high kids also did the first screen adaptation of Philip Roth. I will leave the critical evaluation of Roger Corman to others. What follows are my own memories of Roger Corman and some of his films.

The first Corman film I saw in a theater was Attack of the Crab Monsters. This was in June of 1962 when I was ten years old. I saw the film with some friends at a "kiddie matinee" in Hackensack, New Jersey. This was when you could see a couple of features, at least half a dozen cartoons, and several trailers for the grand sum of fifty cents. I saw Crab Monsters in a double feature with the now forgotten Biblical epic Herod the Great, and previews for The Leech Woman and Brides of Dracula. I was at the age when I was reading Famous Monsters of Filmland on occassion and was beginning to grasp how films were made. Still I was impressed by the giant crab terrorizing the cast.

My viewing of Corman films was sporadic during the years I was in Junior High and High School. I saw The Haunted Palace, X- the Man with the X-Ray Eyes and The Wild Angels theatrically. This was augmented with television viewings of other Corman films. I felt a bit uneasy about my compulsion to see films that lacked the lofty aspirations of Stanley Kramer or Fred Zinnemann. I was a child of highbrow parents seeking lowbrow entertainment.

Coming to study film at NYU was liberating because I was freed from guilt about my filmic interests. In December of my Freshman year, the film students occupied school facilities to protest some unfair policies at NYU. Part of the night was spent watching movies. Following a screening of Little Shop of Horrors many of up were chirpping "Feed Me" in our best imitations of the man-eating plant, Audrey, Jr.

Almost a year later, I had the opportunity to interview Corman in conjunction with a retrospective that was held at the Kips Bay Theater. I no longer have a copy of the interview. What little I recall is Corman relating how Vincent Price was baffled by the lines "The house lives . . . the house breathes" when filming Fall of the House of Usher. My contact at American International was generous in allowing me a pass to virtually all of the retrospective. I was not only able to see Corman's evolution as a director beginning with his westerns, but note in the Poe series how the same shot of lightning was used in every film, and how Corman's art director Daniel Haller would build upon the sets used in previous films.

While I ended up concentrating on film criticism and history, some of the people I knew in my first two years at NYU ended up working for Corman at the early part of their careers.

I continue to watch Corman films, especially vintage Corman films when available on DVD. When I went to Los Angeles to appear on "Ultimate Film Fanatic", it made perfect sense that I would stay at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn. Corman and Garland made five films together and one could get mini posters of It Conquered the World at the hotel gift shop.

Since I am trying to keep my DVD collection manageable, I currently have just Pit and the Pendulum and Tomb of Ligeia. Of the handful of Corman directed films I have yet to see, the ones highest on that list are Carnival Rock, Rock All Night, I, Mobster and Machine Gun Kelly. Corman has remade several of his films, and while Not of the Earth with Traci Lords is actually pretty good, most pale in spite of bigger budgets and more professional crews. My dream is to see a remake of X - the Man with the X-Ray Eyes directed by Darren Aronofsky. All of Aronofsky's themes from previous films are there: drug addiction, quasi-religious obsession and the search for an unknowable truth. A new version of X could take advantage of of the special effects that didn't exist forty years ago.

I'll conclude by wishing Mr. Corman a happy Eightieth birthday. And Roger, don't cheap out on that birthday cake. We know how little you spent shooting The Terror!.

Posted by peter at 12:01 AM | Comments (3)

April 04, 2006

The Promise

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Wu Ji
Chen Kaige - 2005
Deltamac Region 0 DVD

Considering the history concerning The Promise being promised to North American viewers, I decided that catching the film on DVD would guarantee that I would see a version of the film closest to Chen Kaige's vision. To make matters somewhat more confusing, the Internet Movie Database lists running times of 128 minutes and 102 minutes for The Promise. The DVD version released in Hong Kong is 121 minutes long. From what I understand, Warner Brothers will be releasing the shorter version of the film.

The Promise is another epic following on the template established by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou, Chen has made a Chinese film geared towards an international audience who may unfamiliar with older, modestly budgeted films made for the local market. A tale of ghosts, revenge and misdirected love, The Promise made me think of Ronny Yu's The Bride with White Hair as reimagined by Michael Bay. Peter Pau's camera never seems to stay still, and there is much reliance on computer generated special effects. Appearing after Hero and House of Flying Daggers, one cannot avoid seeing a formula at work that increased budgets and beautiful cinematography cannot disguise. Of course it is no coincidence that cinematographer Peter Pau shot both Crouching Tiger and Bride.

The pan-Asian cast features Cecila Cheung stepping into what were previously Zhang Ziyi's slippers. Cheung portrays a princess who makes the promise of the title. As a very young orphan, she accepts a life of wealth in exchange for having no love in her life, an offer made to her by a goddess. As a young woman, Cheung is the object of love for several rivals, including Nicholas Tse, Jang Dong-Kun and Sanada Hiroyuki. If the cast is relatively unfamiliar for American audiences, the story appears to similar to preceding Chinese epics. Battles are fought, hearts are broken, gravity is defied.

Aside from the sumptuous look of the film, The Promise has a couple of intriguing set pieces that probably benefit from being seen on a large movie screen. One scene involves a battle featuring a bull stampede. A sword fight takes place in an oversized, circular cage. Almost every visual aspect of The Promise, the sets, the exteriors, the fights, is oversized. One significant difference is that Chen's film features characters who are not platonic, with scenes involving partial nudity and sex with explitness more common to Hong Kong and Korean films. While nothing is as graphic as Chen's maligned Killing Me Softly, the inclusion of sexual dynamics has been part of several of Chen's previous films, particularly Farewell, My Concubine.

For me, Chen's best film is still Emperor and the Assassin. Big in scope and ambition, with a literal cast of thousands, the film's heart is in the relationship between the main characters. With The Promise, Chen occassionally loses his characters and the story to the pile-up of special effects. For all of its surface pleasure, one hopes Chen's next film depends less on artifice and more on honest story-telling.

Posted by peter at 12:28 PM

April 03, 2006

I See a Dark Stranger

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Frank Launder - 1946
Home Vision Region 1 DVD

Frank Launder is associated with one nearly perfect film. That film is The Lady Vanishes. Of three films directed by Carol Reed, I have only seen Kipps, but I suspect the other two films are at least as watchable. I See a Dark Stranger was one of several films that Launder made with filmmaking partner Sidney Gilliat that attempts to show that they could make a Hitchcock style film without Hitchcock. Not surprisingly, they couldn't. Stranger is nowhere near as bad as Gilliat's Endless Night, but it is a film that could have been better. There is even a scene involving an old woman met at a train by two authority figures that is clearly reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, indicating how badly Gilliat and Launder were hoping to make lightning strike twice.

The premise was certainly interesting: Taking place in 1944, a young Irish woman, raised on the legend of the Irish Republican Army's fight against British rule, attempts to join the IRA soon after her 21st birthday. In her anti-English zeal, ignoring Ireland's official neutrality, Bridie Quilty (Deborah Kerr) allows herself to work on behalf of a German spy. Bridie is subsequently pursued by a British intelligence office (Trevor Howard). Where Gilliat and Launder blunder twice is in motivation. While Bridie's anti-English sentiments are clear, her reasoning for working on behalf of a German spy and her change of mind are tenuous at best. Worse, is the heavy-handed humor that includes close-ups of eyes rolling as a reaction to dull conversation, a funeral procession that is revealed to be a disguise for a smuggling operation, a den of spies defeated by slapstick pratfalls and jokes concerning Oliver Cromwell. Where Hitchcock moves quickly leaping over gaps of logic, and never lets a joke get in the way of narrative momentum, Launder loses his way. If Hitchcock is elegant penmanship, Launder is the guy who writes with big letters, underlined three times for emphasis.

One bit of business that meanders from the narrative is actually funny. The scene involves two supremely incompetent British officers with their leggy secretary. It's the kind of scene that anticipates one of Launder and Gilliat's better films, The Belles of St. Trinian's.

The main reason to see Stranger is for Deborah Kerr. This is only one of two films available on DVD to showcase Kerr before she was signed by MGM, although it should be noted that Love on the Dole is available in PAL format. As nicely as Kerr is photographed, as above, by Wilkie Cooper, Kerr is one of those few actors who looks better photographed in color. Kerr's screen presence is such that it demands playing opposite someone like Cary Grant or Robert Mitchum. Trevor Howard, never a likely leading man, looks even more foolish as an action hero, fist-fighting Nazi spies. As prolific as they were, Gilliat and Launder, with their oddly named company, Individual Pictures, would never hit the target as well as rivals Powell and Pressburger, also known as The Archers. Both teams of filmmakers made films starring Kerr in succession, with Black Narcissus following I See a Dark Stranger. The Gilliat-Launder film may not have the classic status given to Powell and Pressburger's film, but it worth a glimpse of the actress who briefly ruled over British cinema.

Posted by peter at 12:31 PM | Comments (1)

April 01, 2006

The Girl Can't Help It

girlcanthelpit.jpg

Frank Tashlin - 1956
Second Sight PAL Region 0 DVD

April 1, also known as April Fool's Day seems like a good time to celebrate a comedy.

I'm an unapologetic fan of Frank Tashlin. This is a filmmaker who needs to have his films seen in their theatrical aspect ratios to be fully appreciated. Tashlin not only made a point of trying to utilize the widescreen as much as possible, but also created visual jokes. The opening of The Girl Can't Help it begins with Tom Ewell filmed in black and white, with the "Academy" screen ratio, with the screen stretching to full CinemaScope with color fading in. This is the kind of imagery I would have loved to have seen on a huge theater screen.

At least part of the storyline is attributed to Garson Kanin's novella which was made into a Broadway musical four years later. Tashlin and co-screenwriter Herbert Baker took Kanin's story as a starting point, changing the names of characters and focusing more on the developing youth culture of the mid-Fifties. While the film is a comic version of the "overnight success" of early rock musicians, what makes The Girl Can't Help It continue to be watchable is that Tashlin allows the music to speak for itself.

What I mean by that is that the film isn't saddled with a story about a misunderstood kid and well-meaning parents. There is no authority figure explaining to the audience that rock and roll is just good, clean fun. Unlike other filmmakers at the time, Tashlin ignored most of the template established by Sam Katzman. While The Girl Can't Help It benefits from solid Hollywood production values, Tashlin both celebrates and parodies popular culture, particularly when Edmond O'Brien, nobody's idea of a hipster, takes the stage.

Perhaps the best testament to Tashlin's artistry is in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. There is a scene where the characters watch The Girl Can't Help It in a theater. The scene is doubly nostalgic for having characters in 1968 watch a movie made in 1956. Tashlin cuts from shots of The Platters singing to shots of the audience swaying to the music. Bertolucci in turn filmed his audience swaying along with the film within the film. The song, You'll Never Know serves as a commentary for Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield's feelings towards each other. For Bertolucci the song and Tashlin's film provide contrast between the past as represented by Tashlin and the Bertolucci's characters acting out a temporary nostalgia for that imagined past. If The Girl Can't Help It represents romance and innocence, The Dreamers is pointedly about sex replacing romance and the loss of innocence.

One of the more famous scenes in The Girl Can't Help It is of Tom Ewell imagining lost love Julie London. London is heard singing "Cry Me a River". Ewell can not escape her voice or image, with London appearing in different rooms with different outfits. Even when she is not seen or heard, London, playing herself, haunts Ewell's character, the entertainment agent, Tom. The night after I saw The Girl Can't Help It, I saw V for Vendetta, a film with the title character declaring that there are no coincidences. Well maybe it wasn't a coincidence but for the second night in a row I watched a film that included "Cry Me a River" as part of the soundtrack. And I was really hoping that when Natalie Portman was peaking into the different rooms that the ghost of Julie London would make a cameo appearance. The difference between the Wachowski Brothers and Frank Tashlin is that while the Wachowski's enshrine popular art, Tashlin isn't afraid to be totally immersed in both its absurdity and glory.

Posted by peter at 12:13 AM | Comments (2)