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May 30, 2006

Shohei Imamura 1926 -2006

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Just a couple of days ago I saw Shohei Imamura's 1983 version of Ballad of Narayama. Imamura was one of those filmmakers that I began getting acquanted with late in his career. I have an uneven picture having seen six features and one short.

My first Imamura film was Black Rain. The theater had a small sign posted to alert people that this was not the Black Rain by Ridley Scott. A couple of patron didn't pay attention but walked out soon after the first horrifying images of Hiroshima's citizens after the bomb.

What I like about Imamura's films is his sense of humor: The final shot of the title character in The Pornographer literally left adrift, the small town eccentrics of The Eel and Warm Water under a Red Bridge, the optimism in spite of adversity in Doctor Akagi.

I am hoping that more of Imamura's earlier films become available on DVD. At the very least, at an age when many filmmakers have retired, Imamura at 71 made the first of three remarkable feature films in succession. That alone should be enough to honor a filmmaker whose constant goal was to use his art, even when the story was fantastic, to tell the truth.

Posted by peter at 08:50 AM | Comments (4)

May 29, 2006

Gemini

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Soseiji
Shinya Tsukamoto - 1999
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I wasn't looking to add another Japanese horror film to my list of films to see until I read that Gemini was based on a short story by Edogawa Rampo. Certainly the story of a twin or doppelganger has its direct inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe's William Wilson. Like other Japanese horror films, the emphasis is creepiness, on making the viewer unsettled with unexpected shifts of action.

The story is about a well-respected doctor with a new wife with a mysterious background. The doctor's life is disrupted by the appearance of an identical stranger who takes over his life. The doctor is forced to confront his condescending feelings towards the poor, as well as his sense of self. While the film takes place during the end of the 19th Century, the slum dwellers are anachronistically presented as proto-punks with dyed hair and phosphorescent colored rags.

The feeling of dislocation is first created by the soundtrack by Chu Ishikawa with distorted vocals and industrial percussion. Shinya Tsukamoto's first images are of maggots, followed by two rats feeding on a dead animal. What is presented is a discomforting world where everyone is reduced to an animal state, feeding off of each other. The actors, particularly Ryo as the new bride, Rin, appear other-worldly with their shaved eyebrows. The narrative serves as a critique of Japanese society during the Meiji Period. Historical concerns aside, Gemini is about the discovery that people are not always who or what you may believe them to be, even those closest to you.

Posted by peter at 02:48 PM | Comments (1)

May 28, 2006

Five "Inspiring" Films

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Run for your lives! The American Film Institute has posted yet another absurd and somewhat abitrary list of films. The linked list of 300 films includes some expected titles as well as titles that are truly puzzling. I have no problem with Lillies of the Field or Edison the Man. Since my birthday is on November 11, for a couple of years seeing Sergeant York on television was part of my way of celebrating. Seeing two versions of Ben Hur, King of Kings and Pollyanna is amusing. I am glad that John Ford's version of Stagecoach was considered sufficient. The inclusion of Go, Man, Go may be the most inspired choice of films on this list that is to be whittled down to 100 finalists.

Conversely, while Jesus is well represented, Buddhism gets the shaft. No Kundun, no Little Buddha, not even Seven Years in Tibet. Rollerball? Cop Land?
Ferris Bueller's Day Off? If I'm missing something here, please tell me, but some of these titles are not what I would think of given AFI's context of giving the audience a sense of hope and empowerment. I should confess that I was inspired after seeing The Longest Yard to grow a mustache like Burt Reynold's. As the AFI has allowed five write-in votes for films not list, below is my list of of five films overlooked " with characters of vision and conviction who face adversity and often make a personal sacrifice for the greater good."

1. America, America. In this time of debate over immigration, this is a film to see again. Many of us have had parents and grandparents who came to the U.S. for a better life. Elia Kazan recreated one man's struggle to come to this country, both personal and universal.

2. Give Us this Day. Before he renounced his former political convictions, Edward Dmytryk made one true masterpiece. In some ways this could be seen as a sort of companion piece to America, America, about the corruption of the American Dream for an immigrant and his family. The American title, Christ in Concrete is quite appropriate.

3. Hell to Eternity. About twenty years ago Phil Karlson's film was a cable staple. This is one of the handful of films that acknowledges the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. One of the most astounding scenes is of Jeffrey Hunter's anger when he learns that his patriotic brothers, who attempt to enlist immediately after Pearl Harbor, are refused due to their Japanese heritage.

4. A Man's Castle. Frank Borzage is poorly represented on video and DVD. Those of us who have seen a good number of his films may seem puzzling to those unfamiliar with this two time Oscar winning director in that some may argue that many of Borzage's films are "inspirational". This film about two people with dreams in spite of the Depression is my favorite.

5. Saint Joan. If there is room for only one film about Joan of Arc, I choose Jean Seberg over Ingrid Bergman. I also choose the wit of Preminger, Graham Greene and G.B. Shaw over the bombast of Victor Fleming and Maxwell Anderson. Nothing inspires me more than a film that is not afraid to be smart.

Posted by peter at 10:56 AM | Comments (1)

May 27, 2006

The Hidden Blade

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Kakushi-ken: oni no tsume
Yoji Yamada - 2004
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Seeing how inconsistent theatrical distribution is for foreign language films, especially here in Miami Beach, I chose to see The Hidden Blade on DVD. If you live in a major city where the film will be shown theatrically next month, it is worth seeing on the big screen. Yoji Yamada's film can be seen as a continuation of some of the themes of Twilight Samurai, but can also be appreciated by those who have not seen that earlier film.

Unlike a big budget American film that came out a couple of years ago, this is the real "Last Samurai". Taking place mostly in 1861, the film is a study on the destruction of samurai culture. The conflicts illustrated are how social protocols were maintained based on traditions, and how members of the warrior class had to face being anachronisms with guns replacing swords. One scene shows the frustrated teacher of gun warfare yelling at the samurai to stop the practice of bowing while trying to load a cannon.

The title refers to a sword-fighting technique of striking the opponent when one's back is turned towards him. The hidden blade is also a small knife used for murder and buried near the grave of a former samurai's wife. Yamada is more interested though in showing details of the mundane life of a samurai. The main character, Munezo, points out that while he has trained in swordfighting, he has actually never had to use his sword. Yamada also investigates how the class system was still in effect in Japan, keeping would-be lovers Munezo and Kie apart through enforced social positions.

The contemplative feeling of the film is set by the score of Isao Tomita, and a screen of changing solid colors. While Masatoshi Nagase carries the dramatic arc of the narrative as Munezo, Takako Matsu as Kie is the heart of Yamada's film. First heard off-screen, Yamada delights in photographing Takako in close-up, smiling and politely fighting the urge to burst out laughing. Yamada has made a truly romantic film about a chaste couple with impeccable manners.

Posted by peter at 04:09 PM

May 26, 2006

Overnight

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Tony Montana & Mark Brian Smith - 2003
ThinkFilm Region 1 DVD

I saw The Boondock Saints a couple of years ago, based on the recommendation of a co-worker. My own feeling was that it was not a bad film, nor particularly original with the exception of the casting of Billy Connolly's unexpected turn as a gangster known as "Il Duce". This was the kind of film that seemed to appear frequently following the success of Quentin Taratino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. I was prompted to see this documentary on the quick rise and fall of writer-director Troy Duffy based on the heavily promoted re-release of Boondock Saints on DVD.

The documentary about Duffy exists because of some strange serendipity. In 1997, Duffy, his brother Taylor, and two other friends had a band called "The Brood". Smith and Montana were initially hired to shoot videos of the band and act as management. During this same time, a screenplay Duffy wrote found its way to Harvey Weinstein, probably hoping to nab the next Taratino, through a contact Duffy had made while he was a bartender. Duffy received $300,000 for the screenplay and was to direct a $15 million dollar film. Miramax was also to buy the bar Duffy worked at as an additional bonus, with ownership going to the two brothers.

Smith and Montana filmed both the initial hoopla when Duffy seemed to be living a rags-to-riches fantasy, making his directorial debut and having "The Brood" signed to a record deal without anyone hearing the band. While there is no official declaration as to why Harvey Weinstein had buyer's remorse, once the screenplay is placed in "turnaround" and the production cancelled, everything else in Troy Duffy's career as a filmmaker and musician leaves him scrambling to regain traction.

The footage of Duffy's prodigious and nightly habit of getting drunk with his new Hollywood pals indicates what made Miramax concerned about how reliable Duffy would be on a film set. Even though Duffy boast of showing up at meetings following a nightly drinking binge, appearing in overalls would most likely be seen as being too casual, even by Hollywood standards. At the very least, Overnight is worthwhile for budding filmmakers in terms of understanding a bit more about the business of filmmaking, how contracts work, and the various pitfalls of independent productions. Even when things seem to go right for Duffy, success is extremely limited. Boondock Saints was produced for less than half of Miramax's announced budget, and went straight to video where it became a cult film, with Duffy shut out of profit participation. "The Brood" changes their name to "Boondock Saints", cuts an album for an Atlantic Records subsidiary, but only sells 690 CDs in six months, promptly getting dropped by Atlantic. It's a lesson that in show business there is a lot of show and a lot of business, but there are absolutely no guarantees.

Posted by peter at 03:52 PM

May 24, 2006

Padre Pio

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Carlo Carlei - 2000
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

Padre Pio is one of two Italian mini-series about saints to be made available in the U.S. by NoShame this month. The film is the first work by Carlo Carlei since Fluke came and went in 1995. I have not seen that film, but I have previously seen Flight of the Innocent, the film that established Carlei's reputation as a promising filmmaker.

Padre Pio is best in the scenes when Carlei is showing the lives of the poor farmers of rural Italy. Like in Flight of the Innocent, Carlei's visual strength is with pastoral lyricism, gravity defying crane shots sweeping over the countryside. There is a sweetness to the scenes with Sergio Castellitto, especially in the first half of the film, as a young, self-effacing friar, such as in the above still.

The structure of the film is challenging at almost three and a half hours. Castellitto, an old man near death in 1968, is interviewed by a priest portrayed by Jurgen Prochnow. The visiting priest, who has no name, also wants to disprove Padre Pio's miracles as well as the stigmata Pio previously manifested and has kept hidden. Pio's own reaction to having the same stigmata as Jesus is one of shame, forcing him to question himself. The film alternates between scenes of Castellitto and Prochnow, with long flashbacks of Pio's life from boyhood at the end of the 19th Century until the time his health ultimately fails. More problematic for myself was Pio's conflict with evil. While there are no horned devils, Carlei shows Pio fighting voices of temptation, spontaneous eruptions of flames, a seemingly possessed young woman and a some barely identifiable entity in the confession booth. While this is not quite as literal as in a film like The Exorcist, such scenes are dependent on the viewer having the same kind of sense of faith to be effective. While films about religion or persons are usually directed towards an audience that shares similar beliefs, the most interesting films usually are those that can convey some kind of universality that can be appreciated by a larger audience. For one who may not share specific theoligical beliefs, aspects concerning Padre Pio's sainthood may be of limited interest. Where Carlo Carlei succeeds is in conveying the humanity of Pio and the sense of joy in a sometimes hostile environment.

Posted by peter at 01:55 PM

May 23, 2006

Raoul Walsh: Each Man in his Time

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Each Man in his Time
Raoul Walsh -1974
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Gun Fury
Raoul Walsh - 1953
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

Near the end of Roaul Walsh's autobiography, he mentions the retrospective of his films at the Museum of Modern Art and the reception he received at the opening screening. I was there to see Walsh. I guess my memory of events almost thirty years ago isn't as good as Walsh recalling events seventy years past as I forgot that the film that night was Gentleman Jim. What I do recall, vaguely, is Walsh on-stage, nurse standing nearby, while this eighty-seven year old man tells funny stories, some with sexual double entendres. One such story ended with an indignant woman declaring that a group of barely dressed sailors should be hung, while her husband replies that most of them were. Walsh also told of the practical joke he played on Errol Flynn involving the recently deceased John Barrymore. I can't duplicate the hilarity of Walsh on stage, but can recommend you read the story as Walsh told it. What I also remember about the Walsh tribute that night is that I invited an NYU classmate to see Walsh with me. She accepted, and then asked if she bring her husband.

With school and competing movies, I didn't see everything at the Walsh retrospective, but I saw a fair number of films that I might not otherwise have seen. One of them was Revolt of Mamie Stover. What I remember most is a shot of Jane Russell looking defiantly down on Honolulu. There is something about the way she stands in the shot that made me think of her as the female counterpart to John Wayne. I bring this point up because while Tag Gallagher has brought up how Walsh photographs faces, I think another aspect of Walsh is how people stand. What I agree with Gallagher is how the way Walsh photographs his characters is reflective of his time with D.W. Griffith as well as his own acting career which was influence by 19th Century stage conventions. The shot above, of Maudie Prickett's joy watching Donna Reed plant a big wet one on Rock Hudson, could easily have appeared in a film shot thirty or forty years earlier.

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How the characters "stand their ground" is also indicated in the shot above of Lee Marvin intimidating Roberta Haynes, and below as Rock Hudson debates strategy with Leo Gordon. As seen as well in the poster for Mamie Stover, it is typical for a Walsh character to stand with a hand on the hip, or in a front pocket.

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Gun Fury was originally shot as a 3-D film. The fact that Walsh had only one eye proved to be no hinderance. There is a fair amount of emphasis on sense of space, especially outdoors, in this film shot near Sedona, Arizona. Among the devices used to remind the viewer that this was to have been seen in 3-D are shots of a stagecoach with the horses facing the camera and shots from the point of view of a stagecoach driver. Guns are shot, knives flung, tree branches hurled, all towards the audience. When Roberta Haynes tosses all sorts of bric-a-brac at Lee Marvin, the audience sees the flying objects from Marvin's point of view. Aside from the gimmicky shots, Gun Fury is notable for Walsh's emphasis on flying red sand and dust. Most of the action takes place outdoors, often at night, in a hostile environment.

One other trademark of Walsh is the use of raucous humor. While the screenplay is credited to Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins, some of the lines seem straight from Walsh, based on the humor of Walsh's autobiography. This is not a film that Walsh wrote about. Of three films that Walsh made with Hudson, there is only a brief anecdote about Sea Devils without a mention of the title. If not a classic Walsh in the vein of his work for Warner Brothers, especially with James Cagney, Gun Fury zips along in less than an hour and a half. The intrigue is watching the good guys unite while the bad guys start fighting amongst themselves, everyone motivated by their own personal agendas.

Posted by peter at 11:29 AM | Comments (2)

May 22, 2006

Freddie's Dead

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The recent death of Freddie Garrity probably meant a little bit more to me than most people who may have read the news. I actually saw Freddy and the Dreamers in concert. It was my 14th birthday. I went with my girlfriend and another couple as I could only double date at the time, at an afternoon concert at Denver's Auditorium Arena. This was my second major concert. What makes that day memorable was that after having a birthday dinner with my family, I was hit with pnuemonia and spent almost two weeks at home.

Based on the photo, Freddie and the Dreamers look more like a group of junior accountants than a rockers. When you're in Junior High, at least back in those years, one can be amused by a "dance" called "The Freddie" which consisted on raising the right arm and leg up sideways, followed by the left arm and leg in repetition. I'm not sure if anyone actually danced "The Freddie" besides Freddie Garrity. As far as the concert went, the band was sort of fun to watch. Freddie and the Dreamers had the top bill, but musically came off as less interesting following The McCoys, famous for "Hang on, Sloopy", and a band from San Francisco that looked like a British invasion band, The Beau Brummels. Little would I suspect that by the following year, San Francisco would become the center of the musical universe as far as I was concerned.

Like many of the other British bands of the time, Freddie and the Dreamers appeared in a couple of films. I haven't seen either film, but the one released as Summer Holiday in available on tape. At this time, the two compilations made from the mid-Sixties television series concert show, "Shindig" are no longer in print. While not the main draw, Freddie and the Dreamers preceded The Beatles in their film debut in 1963. Hopefully the films and concert tapes will find their way to DVD the way some of the more obscure Fifties rock films have been issued. The history of rock music isn't just about the people who sold millions of records, but the eccentric performers who appeared and disappeared along the way.

Posted by peter at 12:16 PM

May 20, 2006

Ten Reasons why 1958 was the best year for American Film

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The common wisdom among various film fans and scholars is that 1939 was the greatest year for American film. I like to call 1939, "Victor Fleming's lucky year". The guy gets full credit for two films other people started, plus an Academy Award. I will admit there are a lot of good films from that year, but the only films I really like revisiting are Stagecoach and Ninotchka. If 1939 was the peak of the pre-World War II film, my argument is that 1958 was the year that Hollywood figured out wide screen and color. Not all of the films listed are wide screen and color but they are a subjective list of films from one extraordinary year before the challenges of a new generation of filmmakers primarily in France, England and Italy.

1. Vertigo. Now it's considered a given that this is one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films, if not the best. The film was not a hit when originally released, in spite of respectful reviews. Always conscious of the bottom line, Hitchcock eyed the competition of that year which included a low-budget high profit thriller by William Castle and . . .

2. Touch of Evil. Bright Lights makes a good argument that there may not have been a Psycho, or at least the one we know and love, had Orson Welles not stranded Janet Leigh in a lonely motel, or left a dead Akim Tamiroff under a swinging light bulb. That opening shot is pretty good, too. Touch of Evil was produced by Albert Zugsmith who also produced . .

3. Tarnished Angels. Will anyone discuss the teaming of Douglas Sirk with Rock Hudson they way they discuss Scorsese and DeNiro, or Kurosawa and Mifune? Sirk must have enjoyed taking a break from the gloss of Ross Hunter in this film about itinerant barnstorming pilots in the Depression era South, based on a story by William Faulkner. Currently, the only way to enjoy the CinemaScope black and white cinematography is when the film shows up on TCM.

4. Bitter Victory. The image of dummies used for bayonet practice looks abstact as filmed by Nicholas Ray. Orginally twenty minutes short in its original release, the DVD is the complete film. Among the offbeat moments in this film about the futility of war is former scholar Richard Burton shrugging off interest in some ancient ruins by declaring that they are "too modern" for him.

5. Bonjour Tristesse. Otto Preminger introduced Jean Seberg as a very forward looking French girl in two films, Saint Joan and this film. Jean-Luc Godard cast Seberg as an American in Paris. What Godard knew before the rest of us was what a gift Preminger gave us that was never appreciated until it was too late.

6. Bell, Book and Candle. The other film to star Kim Novak and James Stewart. One of my favorite Christmas films also stars Ernie Kovaks and Jack Lemmon and a cat named Pyewacket. In these days of hysteria over "Harry Potter", could there be a film about a friendly witch who celebrates Christmas made today?

7. The Big Country. A big, long, sprawling western with Gregory Peck asserting himself against Charlton Heston when they're not fighting Burl Ives and Chuck Connors. The reputation of William Wyler's last western is rightfully on the rise, aided in no small part by the music of Jerome Moross.

8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If Richard Brooks didn't have to tamper with the play, this might have been the best film adaptation of Tennessee Williams. As it is, it may be one of the best cast. There have been challengers, but there is no question that Elizabeth Taylor is Maggie the Cat. Not to mention Burl Ives as "Big Daddy", Jack Carson as Gooper, and Paul Newman as Brick.

9. The Reluctant Debutante. Kay Kendall was gorgeous and funny. Vincente Minnelli finally won an Oscar for Gigi, released the same year. The Reluctante Debutante is the better of the two films. And damn it, I miss Kay Kendall.

10. Night of the Demon. Dana Andrews goes to England and meets the Devil and Peggy Cummins. If Jacques Tourneur had his way, the film would have been more like his work with Val Lewton, with fewer special effects shots of the titular demon. If you haven't seen it, reserve this for next Holloween. A spooky but not scary film about the battle between white and black magic is engrossing and above all, fun.

An alternate list can easily be made as other films from 1958 include John Ford's The Last Hurrah, Richard Fleischer's The Vikings, J. Lee Thompson's Ice Cold in Alex, Arthur Penn's The Left-handed Gun, Anthony Mann's Man of the West, Ronald Neame's The Horse's Mouth, Donald Siegel's The Line-Up, Budd Boetticher's Buchanan Rides Alone, and Frank Borzage's China Doll, plus other films by Sirk, Ray and a couple by Frank Tashlin that I haven't mentioned. Again, this list is subjective, but hopefully persuasive that there was some extraordinary filmmaking between the alleged "Golden Year" of 1939 and the so-called "Silver" era of the early 1970s.

Posted by peter at 05:09 PM | Comments (3)

May 19, 2006

The DaVinci Code

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Ron Howard - 2006
Columbia Pictures 35mm film

My signficant other, who was enthusiastic about Dan Brown's novel, encouraged me to read The DaVinci Code several months ago. Ron Howard's film is actually pretty close to what I had imagined. There has been some streamlining of characters and events, but most of the novel is transposed to film much the way Brown described the action. I could quibble about the casting, Brown's hero is to resemble Harrison Ford or Brown himself, while Ian McKellen is not the portly Sir Leigh Teabing of the novel, but these are minor deviances.

I have to wonder what the protest and calls for boycott are about. The novel and film raise a bunch of questions only to have the reader or viewer draw their own conclusions about what qualifies as the basis of faith. What puzzles me is that people can be relatively polite concerning a controversial book, yet if that book is made into a movie, there seems to be greater concern. From the sound of alarm, one would think the film should be titled "The Last Temptation of Opie". There's nothing in Ron Howard's film that isn't in the book, which happens to end on a very reverent note. I can neither confirm nor deny any historical or religious truths to The DaVinci Code. With its varied cultural references, the film is actually most similar to the wild-goose chase of National Treasure, a film based on the premise that the Declaration of Independence has a hidden map on the back, only not as fun.

What made me uncomfortable about The DaVinci Code was the violence. Specifically, because of the PG-13 rating, children will be seeing this film. The scenes of self-flagellation and use of a celice belt by the character of Silas were intense. There was also a scene of Silas murdering an old woman in a church. For me this seems far less "family friendly" than some gentle films rated R simply because of the hurling of a few choice four-letter words.

The use of digitial effects is somewhat similar to what Howard did with A Beautiful Mind, providing literal visions of mental imaginings. I can't really fault Howard for his ambitions. He wants to be the neo-classic director of big films about big ideas. Even when the film is about controversial ideas as in The DaVinci Code or a controversial person such as John Nash, one senses that Howard sees himself getting close to the edge, only to skitter back a bit to view things from a safe distance. If Ron Howard wants to truly approach the creative heights of the filmmakers he admires, he needs to be as adventurous as some of his characters and have greater faith in himself.

Posted by peter at 06:30 PM | Comments (1)

May 18, 2006

Swing Girls

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Shinobu Yaguchi - 2004
AG Entertainment Region 0 DVD

I've read a couple of articles pointing out to the decline of interest in foreign language films both by audiences and film distributors here in the U.S. I know that some of my interest in foreign films was from encouragement from my parents. I forgot how old I was when I saw The Red Balloon, but I grew up with an awareness that there were some interesting films, usually coming from France, Italy or Japan. I don't have children of my own but I have tried to plant seeds in my young neice by sending her DVDs of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast and Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service. While I don't know the best way of resolving this issue on a larger scale, I do know that future audiences for world cinema need to be encouraged.

Would U.S. high school students be interested in seeing a film about Japanese kids? I don't know. What I do know is that Swing Girls is a very accessable film that could be a great icebreaker given the chance.

I had seen Shinobu Yaguchi's Adrenaline Drive about five years ago. Swing Girls is much less frenetic. The film begins with a scene of high school girls, generally distracted, sitting in summer school classes. The effort to deliver lunches to the school band gets undone when the lunches are delivered late and spoiled, causing the band members to get sick. A half-hearted effort by the girls to form a swing band that summer turns into a more serious effort during the school year. The girls are bratty to their parents, teachers and each other, yet find a bond of greater value than designer clothing or immature boyfriends. Of interest is that the girls actually learned to play their own instruments for the film and toured following the release of Swing Girls.

Except for a scene of the girls attacted by a wild boar, shot as a parody of action films with the action frozen while the camera moves around the characters, stylistic flourishes are kept to a minimum. The humor is mostly friendly with scenes of old musical instruments falling apart in the hands of the girls, a scene of a snow fight, and a shot of the girls rushing from railroad tracks to muddy rice fields when they realize a train is right behind them are indicative of this kind of non-aggressive comedy. The recent American films I've seen about high school kids had stories about murder, sex, hate crimes and such. Not to deny that particular reality, but one gets the feeling that it's the only one that Hollywood thinks exists, or that audiences want to see. Swing Girls may not be the truest portrait of Japanese youth, but it allows the girls to be smart and dumb, but mostly show kids actually enjoying their lives.

Posted by peter at 06:22 PM | Comments (3)

May 17, 2006

A Hen in the Wind

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Kaze no naka no mendori
Yasujiro Ozu - 1948
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Of the half dozen or so films I've seen by Yasujiro Ozu, this may be the most unique. Taking place following World War II, the film is about a young mother whose soldier husband has not yet been repatriated. Selling old kimonos to scrape enough money for herself and her son, Tokiko is financially devastated when her son requires hospitalization for his illness. Refered to be several characters, but not seen, Tokiko turns to a one-time act of prostitution to cover her debts. Her husband, Shuichi returns soon after the son has recovered. Tokiko explains what happened to her less than understanding husband. While Shuichi can feel empathy towards another young woman in a similar situation, he is initially unforgiving of his wife.

Visually, the film has the classic hallmarks of an Ozu film. There are geometric patterns in the arrangement of three houses or shots looking through large, abandoned pipes. This particular area outside of Tokyo resembles a ghost town until the end of the film with no one on the streets save for Ozu's characters. The interior shots are identifiably Ozu's which is to say from the point of view of a person kneeling on a tatami mat.

Less typical of Ozu is the frankness of A Hen in the Wind. Even more than the illicit lovers of Tokyo Twilight, this is a film with some venal and cruel characters. Unlike the overly polite and frequently stoic Satsuko Hara taking care of Chishu Ryu, are characters who don't hide their feelings and express themselves in the bluntest terms. Conversely, when Shichi reunites with Tokiko and their son, the son is afraid of his father, and husband and wife do not touch each other in any way. Most atypical of Ozu is a scene where Shuichi throws Tokiko down a flight of stairs. His understanding of her situation at the time does not prevent his outburst, and even after Shuichi is aware of his action and runs down the stairs, he simply stands above his wife. Tokiko is seen standing on her own, limping back up the stairs. The finally shot is of the couple embracing, vowing to move forward and forget the past. Ozu focuses on Tokiko's arms, wrapped around Shuichi, her hands clasped as if in a form of prayer.

Posted by peter at 06:04 PM

May 15, 2006

St. Francis

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Francesco
Michele Soavi - 2002
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

Prior to seeing Michele Soavi's version of the life of St. Francis, I saw three other films in the past week. In addition to Roberto Rossellini's Flowers of St. Francis which I wrote about, I also saw Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Michael Curtiz' Francis of Assisi. While Soavi's is the most complete in covering Francis' life from childhood to death, it is still interesting to see different points of emphasis and filmmaking style from the four directors. Curtiz' version suffers from being the most Hollywooden with the traditional overwrought excesses of Biblical films from the Fifties. It also has one of the funniest (intentional?) lines when a character states, "It takes stones to build a church." Curtiz' film also has the unintended depth from the knowledge that the actress who played Clare, Francis' friend and first female follower, Dolores Hart, left Hollywood to become a nun at the age of 25.

What makes Soavi interpretation distinguished is his inventiveness with the camera. The film begins audaciously with a point of view shot with young Francis looking at the world upside down. Soavi's camera tilts skyward and down, spinning and still. There are frequent subjective shots, such as Francis seeing his reflection in a basin of water, or shots of Francis and Clare (Chiara) looking at each other at play. Soavi also makes use of extreme close-ups of faces in particular, but also hands and feet, often framing them partially and at odd angles.

Soavi also incorporates elements from previous St. Francis films. Ginepro, the "holy fool" from Rossellini's film appears near the end, while the scene of Francis undressing in the town square recalls Zeffirelli. Curtiz' film touches on how the Franciscan order became something different than intended by Francis following his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This part of Francis life is more fully explored in Soavi's film with Francis struggling with the idea of codifying his ideas of religious life.

The film depicts how having a copy of the Bible in Italian, rather than Latin, was considered heretical by the Church. Soavi not only examines the difference in faith as expressed by Catholic Church of the 12th Century with that of Francis and his original followers, but suggests that Francis' message may have been corrupted with his group recieving Church recognition, as well as growing large enough to require formal organization, something Francis eschewed.

Considering that Soavi previously made a horror film taking place in a church, St. Francis may seem in some ways an uncharacteristic choice for the filmmaker. What this film shares with Soavi's earlier work is the theme of the difference between the world as it is, and the world as it is imagined.

Posted by peter at 09:32 PM

May 14, 2006

They Caught the Ferry

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De nåede færgen
Carl Theodor Dreyer - 1948
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In the ten years between Two People and Ordet, Carl Theodor Dreyer made a driver's safety film. A guy with his girlfriend go very fast through Denmark from one port to another on his motorcycle. On the way, the guy gets distracted and runs into a tree. This short film is based on a story by a Nobel Prize winning author. Dreyer made the film for the Danish government which for some unknown reason had no established speed limits on public roads. And while Dreyer scholars may try to convince me that this is the greatest driver's safety movie every made, it is still, a commissioned project and a public service message.

I have to wonder if Carl Theodor Dreyer followed the Hollywood careers of former collaborators Rudolph Mate, Karl Freund or Walter Slezak. Throughout the eleven minutes of They Caught the Ferry I felt that Dreyer could have had a Hollywood career if he really wanted one. He might not have made the ambitious ilms he wanted to, but he might not have gone ten years between films either. Based on the evidence of We Caught the Ferry or any of his other films, had Carl Theodor Dreyer gone to Hollywood, would he have made one of the following films? Check the titles below, and write your answers in the comments section.

1. The Wild One

2. Vanishing Point

3. Le Mans

4. Clear Last Chance

Posted by peter at 05:46 PM

May 13, 2006

Hong Kong Nocturne

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Xiang jiang hua yue ye
Umetsugu Inoue - 1966
Celestial Pictures Region 3 DVD

Hong Kong Nocturne can't be faulted for trying to be ambitious. It's probably not fair to judge it against more polished American musicals. Inoue obviously wanted to equal Vincente Minnelli's creativity in Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon. Being a Shaw Brothers production, the budget was more appropriate for the equivalent of an Elvis Presley film like Harum Scarum. There are so many things wrong in Hong Kong Nocturne yet you end up liking the film for its embrace of its hokiness.

The first indication that something's not right is in the beginning with the montage of neon signs. Someone needed to know that there is such a thing as too many superimposed shots at one time. The story is about three sisters and their magician father. The "magic" in the film is crude even by the standards of George Melies. The "go go" dancing of the Hong Kong teens is as graceless as the gyrations of Jody McRae, the resident lunkhead of the Beach Party movies. Every half remembered cliche finds its way to the screen. One can either fight it, or simply enjoy the formula, knowing for example that Cheng Pei-Pei has seen husband Peter Chen for the last time when he has to catch a last minute flight to Japan and a typhoon hits Hong Kong minutes after he's out the door.

Not only is the film a Cantonese version of the "show must go on" musical, but it there are bits and pieces, usually from MGM musicals, that one could make a game of guessing which film Inoue has cribbed from. A rooftop number resembles something from West Side Story only with an obviously fake set, and a cast of six. The one brief moment that would not have passed in an American musical is a number performed by Lily Ho inspired by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Seen taking a bubble bath in a giant clam shell, Ho is seen from the distance exiting the bath, her nude backside visible through a sheer nightie held by two dancers. This bit is actually a variation of a very similar scene in the Joe Mankiwicz version of Cleopatra. My significant other always wonders why I bother watching movies through their entirety. Sometimes when watching a film, it's like being a miner who digs through all sorts of muck to uncover that little chip of gold.

Posted by peter at 07:01 PM | Comments (5)

May 11, 2006

The Valerio Zurlini Box Set: The Early Masterpieces

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Violent Summer/Estate Violenta
Valerio Zurlini - 1959
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

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Girl with a Suitcase/La Ragazza con la Valigia
Valerio Zurlini - 1961
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

If there is a reason why Violent Summer and Girl with a Suitcase should be made mandatory viewing for virtually all contemporary filmmakers, it is to study how Valerio Zurlini uses popular music in film. While most films use pop and rock songs as a form of short-hand often indicating artistic laziness, Zurlini seems to have known which is the precise song to both comment on a scene and to add dramatic heft. Girl with a Suitcase uses music constantly, heard from radios, jukeboxes and record players, ranging from Verdi to The Champs, each piece of music adding more than aural wallpaper.

Both films share narratives about a younger man in love with an older woman, crossing various social barriers in the process. Both films also end with the main characters going their separate ways. Violent Summer explores these themes against the backdrop of World War II. Jean-Louis Trintignant, the playboy son of a local Fascist leader falls in love with Eleonora Rossi Drago, the aristocratic widow of a Naval Captain. The film takes place in Riccione, a town along the Adriatic Sea relatively untouched by the war until the summer of 1943. In an early scene, the beach is crowded, a typical summer day, broken by the unexplained appearance of a low flying German fighter plane that causes everyone to panic. In showing Italians who for the most part are living their lives in relative comfort prior to the fall of Mussolini, Violent Summer can be viewed as a companion piece to De Sica's Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Both De Sica and Zurlini conclude their films by showing how no one living in Italy could escape from either the war or Mussolini's policies.

Violent Summer has a perfectly realized scene almost mid-way through the film. During an air raid blackout, Trintignant has invited his friends to his house. Searching for music to dance to, one of the guys finds a copy of the American pop song, Temptation by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. The men and woman form couples, with Trintignant dancing with an insistant Jacqueline Sassard. Drago is dancing with one of Trintignant's friends. Zurlini cuts between the two would-be lovers glancing helplessly at each other, each in the arms of someone else, while the soundtrack underlines their mutual frustration in maintaining something other than a socially correct relationship.

A dance scene is also significant in Girl with a Suitcase. A 16 year old boy from a well-to-do family, Lorenzo, tries to make up for his older brother's mistreatment of a young, itinerant night club performer, Aida. Lorenzo follows Aida, who with a couple of other young women are entertaining three older, professional men. Lorenzo watches the three mature men dancing with their much younger partners. I cannot identify by composer or song title, but the musical themes virtually anticipate what would be heard in a few years in spaghetti westerns. Again, Zurlini films people dancing with music used as a form of counterpoint to emphasize the tension between characters.

Zurlini two films here share a similar visual style. Most of the shots are of two or more people, with characters reacting to each other while sharing the same screen space. Violent Summer has two exceptionally composed scenes, one with Trintignant seen just outside the room overhearing Drago and her mother meeting with a sailor who served with Drago's husband. A later scene following the dance shows Trintignant and Drago kissing with the camera pulling back to show Sassard off to the side, witnessing the lovers. Zurlini rarely cuts between characters, choosing medium and full shots, with the camera tracking in, out and around his players.

Girl with a Suitcase is the better known film. This is mostly due to the stardom of Claudia Cardinale, baby-fat cute at the time, but not quite the beauty she would be in 1963, the year of Eight and a Half, The Leopard and The Pink Panther. (I am hoping that year's Bebo's Girl by Luigi Comencini gets rediscovered.) For me, Violent Summer was the revelation. It was unfortunate that the film was originally released in the U.S. following the one-two punch of La Dolce Vita and L'Avventura, which could not have helped Zurlini establish even a toehold with even the most serious film critics. Both DVDs come with discussions about Zurlini from several professional associates adding some knowledge to Zurlini's working methods and unrealized projects. NoShame's films are pristine, a point reinforced by a brief supplement comparing the opening scene of Girl with a Suitcase in a previous DVD version with NoShame's complete, Italian language version. As the set subtitle is "the early masterpieces", along with their previous release of Desert of the Tarters, I hope this means NoShame will be releasing other Zurlini films in the near future.

Posted by peter at 07:53 PM

May 10, 2006

Love and Sex in Korea

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A Good Lawyer's Wife/Baramnan Gajok
Im Sang-soo - 2003
Myung Region 1 & 3 DVD

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Woman is the Future of Man/Yeojaneun Namjaui Miraeda
Hong Sang-soo - 2004
Bear Region 0 DVD

I sometimes see films that I don't feel like I can discuss with the kind of insight that will add to the understanding about the film or filmmaker. For a deeper understanding of these two films from Korea, I encourage reading the analysis from Filmbrain twice. What I am seeing in general is that at least for now, Korean films do something that you don't have much in U.S. films which is study relationships between adults.

Part of it is the sex. Ignoring all the hysteria regarding Brokeback Mountain, American movies depicting consenting heterosexual couples are pretty much relegated to the ghetto of late night CineMax. Setting aside the nudity in A Good Lawyer's Wife, an American movie about a woman's declaring control of her sexuality would be labelled and dismissed as a "chick flick". Even a commercial and critical success like Unfaithful can be considered the exception that proves the rule being a remake of a French film. I have seen three films with Moon So-ri and consider her one of the bravest actresses working in cinema today.

What makes Woman is the Future of Man more interesting than its American equivalent, Sideways for example, is how messy the relationships are. The two main male characters get together to eat, get drunk and talk. What Hong shows is the competitiveness and distance that marks relationships. It may be called friendship, but what Hong films are closed entities bumping into each other before going off in their own orbits.

Posted by peter at 04:20 PM

May 09, 2006

The Flowers of St. Francis

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Francesco, Giullare di Dio
Roberto Rossellini - 1950
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

One day after the 100th birthday of Roberto Rossellini, I had the opportunity to view The Flowers of St. Francis. For contemporary viewers, Rossellini is difficult to evaluate properly with relatively few of his films available on DVD or even tape. I have to date seen ten of Rossellini's films representing different periods of his career, from an early feature, La Nave Bianca (1942), to a couple of his biographical films made for television in the late Sixties and early Seventies. For some filmmakers this would be enough for a general overview, yet I feel like I am barely scratching the surface in understanding why Rossellini was embraced by the critics at Cahiers du Cinema, and how he influenced other directors. While the impact of Rome, Open City and neo-realism is part of the traditional film school canon, I feel that I don't always grasp the import of the films made beginning with Stromboli.

Part of why I chose to see The Flowers of St. Francis is because I will be reviewing Michele Soavi's television film on St. Francis shortly. Not having seen any of the several films, I like to compare different filmmakers' takes on the same subject. Also, this is one of the Rossellini films I had not seen that is currently available on DVD.

Having recently written about films expressing religious faith or being about religious subjects, The Flowers of St. Francis provides an interesting contrast to the films cited at the Tribeca Film Festival. Specifically, this is a film that demonstrates that a film with religious subject matter does not have to be a solemn film. Several people have attributed the humor in Rossellini's film to co-screenwriter Federico Fellini. The Italian title of the film translates as "Francis, God's Jester". Keep in mind that religion, specifically the Catholic faith, is not ridiculed, nor are Francis or his followers. The humor is generated by the childlike innocence and literalness of the Franciscans, as well as Francis' approach to his disciples. An example is Francis' treatment of Ginepro, a follower who manifests humility in its extreme. Ginepro makes a habit of offering his own shabby robe to anyone dressed more poorly than himself, leaving himself naked. Francis "commands" Ginepro not to offer his clothing to the poor, yet his eyes move to the side, a look similar to Bob Hope uttering a double entendre. Later, when the disciples are to walk to separate destinations to spread Francis' message, they are uncertain where to go. Francis orders the men to spin around until dizzy and travel in whichever direction they land. Faith is expressed as youthful devotion to a man and a spiritual philosophy.

To a limited extent, neo-realism informs The Flowers of St. Francis. With the exception of Aldo Fabrizi in a brief role, all of the other actors are non-professionals. The Franciscans of the film are real Franciscan brothers. While the titles that precede each vignette refer to Francis as a saint, Rossellini films him as the other characters. There is no dramatic emphasis, special lighting, music or other devices used. That non-professional actors were used is more amazing in the case of the person who portrays Ginepro. There is a scene with "barbarians" in which Ginepro is tossed about between several very burly men before being dragged on the ground by a horse. The men who portrayed Francis and Ginepro all perfomed without screen credits, perhaps out of their own humility as Franciscans, but also diminishing any difference between their personal identities and those of the believers on-screen.

Posted by peter at 04:37 PM

May 08, 2006

Belated Glenn Ford Birthday Double Feature

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The Green Glove
Rudolph Mate - 1952
Alpha Video Region 1 DVD

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The Violent Men
Rudolph Mate - 1955
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

Even before I knew that Glenn Ford's 90th birthday was coming up last May 1, I was planning to see The Green Glove. This was a film I vaguely recalled seeing on television when I was maybe seven years old. There was have been something about the title, more than the actual movie, that stayed in my memory. Whatever mystique Glenn Ford may have had seems to have dissipated over the years. In retrospect, it seems difficult to realize that not only was Ford a top star in the Fifties and early Sixties, but his name was enough to get films the greenlight, as illustated in Frank Capra's autobiography. While Ford's appeal as a star seems to be that of the reliable everyman, his filmography is interesting for the number of films he did, sometimes back to back, with the same director. Ford's peak as a star is bracketed by his pair of films with Fritz Lang in 1953, and two films with Burt Kennedy about 11 years later. In between are the two films with Rudolph Mate, two with Vincente Minnelli, and several with George Marshall. With The Green Glove planned, I thought it would be interesting to compare it with a second Ford film directed by Mate. It should also be noted that Mate was the cinematographer for Gilda, the film that elevated Ford to stardom. Given that Mate worked essentially as a director for hire, viewing his two films with Ford suggest that there are stylistic and thematic elements in Mate's films worthy of deeper consideration.

Rudolph Mate is remembered primarily as a cinematographer. Like several of his peers, his best work was for other directors. Mate was mostly a journeyman director. If he didn't have a distinct visual style, his films reveal touches that are reminders of some of his work with Carl Dreyer in particular. I am thinking of how often Mate places the camera to look up at his characters, or how he finds the opportunity to photograph the action in silhouette. Somewhat analagous to Dreyer, the characters Ford portrays for Mate are both outsiders in hostile environments. While The Green Glove has quasi-religious elements that make the theme more obvious, both films are about men who find redemption by placing a greater good above self-interest.

The Green Glove also boasts a Hitchcock connection with the screenplay by Charles Bennett. Ford is a down on his luck American who returns to France to recover a crusading knight's gauntlet, the green glove of the title, that he stumbled upon in World War II. Informed of the glove's great monetary value by the art collector (smuggler?) working for the Germans, Ford acquires the glove in the confusion of an attack and allows a French partisan to store the glove on his behalf. The film bears some similarity to The 39 Steps as Ford is pursued from Paris to Monte Carlo and southern France by the police who suspect Ford of murder, and the art collector's thugs seeking out the gauntlet. Ford is accompanied by Geraldine Brooks, and like The 39 Steps, there is a scene involving the unmarried couple comically forced to pose as husband and wife. Filmed on location in France, the cinematography is by Claude Renoir. The visually qualities would be better evaluated on a DVD made from a good quality print rather than a video tape transfer. Especially interesting is the scene of Ford being chased through a rocky trail by villainous George Macready, his former Gilda nemesis. While Ford is filmed scrambling against the rocks, it is Macready who is filmed almost heroically as a shadow against the sky.

The Violent Men starts off fairly routinely. Ford is cattleman ready to sell his ranch to the man who has been buying out, or forcing out, other ranchers to gain monopoly on "the valley". The basic premise is one seen in too many Westerns. Ford is a former civil war captain who doesn't wear a gun. The film hits high gear with the sub-plot involving the land-grabbing rancher, Edward G. Robinson, a cripple with legs shot following a shootout against some other ranchers. Robinson's wife, Barbara Stanwyck is secretly carrying on with Robinson's younger brother, Brian Keith. The shades of villainy within one family make for perverse entertainment. Added to the mix is Richard Jaeckel, virtually reprising his role from The Gunfighter as the punk who doesn't know when to back down. What makes The Violent Men an interesting moral tale is that when Ford decides to literally fight fire with fire, the film becomes a study of violence spinning out of control with unexpected consequences. Ford, who has moved to town to recuperate from the Civil War, is still described as a stranger even after living there for three years. "The valley" that the ranchers are fighting over is arid and rocky, a hostile environment. Even though the ending is formulaic, The Violent Men offers the pleasure of a film where Glenn Ford is not an entirely good guy, and Robinson, Stanwyck and Keith display varying degrees of humanity.

Posted by peter at 05:23 PM | Comments (2)

May 07, 2006

Day Watch

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Dnevnoy Dozor
Timur Bekmambetov - 2006
1VK Region 0 DVD

Last August, knowing that Fox Searchlight was dithering with its U.S. release, I saw the Russian DVD of Night Watch. If you want to read my review, it's in the August archive. Considering that Fox failed to capitalize on whatever "buzz" had been generated from Night Watch, I figured that I could see the sequel on an import DVD long before the film appears in any U.S. format. One good thing about the Day Watch DVD is that the set-up instructions are also in English. With Night Watch it took me about fifteen minutes of trial and error to figure out which setting to hit for English subtitles.

Pretty much, whatever I wrote about Night Watch is true about the sequel. The second film begins with a new prologue, again taking place in the Middle Ages. A character named Tamerlan leads his army on horseback, crashing through the walls of a castle, for the chalk of fate. Imagine, if you will, Frodo and Bilbo and the gang fighting not over some magical rings but a mystic piece of chalk. There is a spectacular battle with body parts lopped off with swords, and flying crows that turn into warriors clad in black. With the special chalk, you can literally rewrite your fate. Day Watch ends with an apocalyptic vision of Moscow that is equally enthralling to watch. The narrative in between the beginning and end of the film must have been written in chalk, and then erased just as quickly, because it makes very little sense.

A common complaint about Night Watch is that the story was hard to follow. Once again we have the forces of Light versus the forces of Dark. There are also characters who are in something called "The Gloom". One of the guys from Light, Anton, tries to rescue his son, who is with the Dark. As best as I could figure, the Dark included vampires who stuck unsuspecting people with long needles, and drank blood out of the same kind of little box containers used for Juicy Juice. While several of the characters from Night Watch are in Day Watch, it almost doesn't matter whether one has seen the first film.

Day Watch is almost like watching a film with all of the action sequences of a Joel Silver production as reimagined by Terry Gilliam with the retro-future of Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, with bits of Luc Besson's Fifth Element, the cold weather fashions of Aki Kaurismaki, and a moment of soft-core lesbian porn reminiscent of Russ Meyer. Day Watch was built for speed, not logic. People chase each other, trucks and cars race through the streets, action follows action with little time given to any meaning or explanation. This is a movie where a woman with a devil's horns hairdo drives her car on the side of an office building, breaks through a picture window, and accelerates down the hallway. This is a movie where a parrot is transformed into an extremely manic human being. If you want a movie with meaning and character motivation, let me recommend Swordfish. Day Watch stops for nothing, hurtling from one scene to the next without pause.

Amazingly, Day Watch was reportedly produced for a little over four million dollars. Again, the speed of the film keeps one from seeing how so much was done with a fraction of the resources. Slowing down the film, especially frame by frame indicates that to compare Day Watch with, for example, Return of the King is almost like comparing classical Walt Disney animation with Huckleberry Hound. When you have scenes of a guy chasing down a baby with spider legs, and a party that suddenly is populated by medieval mercenaries with swords, and you have absolutely no idea what to anticipate, you're too dazzled to care how it was done. If Day Watch was a thrill ride, it would be that old, rickety roller coaster that is more fun and exciting than the high tech ride because part of the fun is the suspicion that it will fall apart from under you at any moment.

Posted by peter at 02:00 PM | Comments (1)

May 05, 2006

Faith in Film

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"Religion and art are parallel lines which intersect only at infinity, and meet in God." - Gerardus Van Der Leeuw

Maybe my belief that writers for Reuters are smarter is unfounded. I read an article on-line titled What Would Jesus Direct?. It is somewhat odd that the last name of the author is Parsons. I am troubled by this article for a couple of reasons. This points back to the superficial nature of the mainstream media in most stories covered, but the story reinforces certain ideas that seem not to be questioned, or at least not more visably questioned. Considering that my readership is relatively tiny, I cannot expect much of an impact, but I hope to get some more reasonable dialogue going.

I consider myself to be a person of faith. I am not, though, a Christian. I have to question the equation of faith with what is presented as a generic form of Christianity. I am concerned when the keywords of "faith" and 'uplift" are discussed in conjunction with Passion of the Christ, as if it was the epitome of spiritual expression in film. While I am not going to begrudge Mel Gibson's own passion in using his own money to make a truly personal film and the commercial success of that film, one would wish there was a deeper examination of how faith is expressed in film. Does faith in film mean pandering to an audience that appears to have uncritically taken Mel Gibson to its collective bosom while condemning Martin Scorsese for his own equally sincere expresson of faith? Ralph Winter of 20th Century-Fox is quoted as saying: "Movies that raise issues are more interesting than movies that try to give answers." To me it seemed that the reason why Gibson's film was so successful was because for many audience members, it supplied answers.

In terms of my own faith, I am a Buddhist. I have to explain to people that my practice has nothing to do with Zen or the Dalai Lama. The most commercially successful film about my particular sect of Buddhism was What's Love Got to Do With It. Brian Gibson, the director, is also a Buddhist. No one seemed to catch on to his recurring visual motif of using mirrors, a literal metaphor for the scroll that Buddhists chant to, self-reflection as enlightenment. I have known of a few people who actually became Buddhists as a result of Tina Turner's story. I have also seen on several occassions, the two films that comprise The Human Revolution, a Japanese epic about Buddhism that I have had to question because I felt it too close to the Cecil B. DeMille school of religious expression on film.

I have also had a lifelong interest in religious films. Maybe it was the same impulse that directed me to Buddhism. I would like to think that whatever sincerity I have in my faith is what helps me recognize and value the expression of faith of other filmmakers. The film pioneer Henry King discussed his conversion to Catholicism with me when I had asked about his film The White Sister. I bring this up because the current discussions of faith and film acts as if Mel Gibson was the first filmmaker to make a film motivated by his religious beliefs. The quote above is from a favorite book, "Transcendental Style in Film" by Paul Schrader. I wish more of the people who discuss faith and film would read his book, even if they disagree with Schrader. In the films he has written and directed, Schrader has attempted to realize some of his theories.

If there is an audience that sincerely wants films with what Parson's calls "strong spiritual and moral messages", how come they aren't flocking to see the films of Robert Bresson? If millions of people can fill theaters for a film in Aramaic, what's preventing them from seeing a movie in French? Ideally a fraction of this audience would discover the spirituality of Au Hasard Balthazar, or the moral lesson of L'Argent. In her article, Parsons tosses various buzzwords, and quotes statements, without question or challenge of any kind as if matters of faith or film should be accepted at face value.

Maybe there will be an article that looks into the actual discussions at the Tribeca Film Festival more deeply. For myself, based on personal knowledge, I already know what Jesus directed.

Posted by peter at 04:00 PM | Comments (8)

May 04, 2006

AMC means Always Messed-Up Cinema

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The press release concerning American Multi-Cinema, also known as AMC, adding art and independent films to their theaters, is wrong. AMC has previously tried to showcase art and indie films in the past. My own experience with AMC is that given the opportunity, they'll bungle the job. This is based on my personal experience.

In the mid Eighties, AMC opened a theater in the Tivoli shopping mall near Downtown Denver. They had what they called the "Bijou" theaters as part of their twelve screens. As best as I could tell, "Bijou" refered to whichever theater was designated for the particular film. I have to admit that I saw some great movies: Bellochio's Henry IV, Rohmer's Summer, and Huston's Moulin Rouge come to mind. Not a lot of people saw the art or independent films there. My take is that seeing films at the Landmark theaters had become an ingrained habit for Denverites. Eventually, AMC discontinued the "Bijou" designation and left the art and indie film exhibition to Landmark. I read somewhere that according to AMC management, customers were confused by the "Bijou" designation and were baffled enough to buy tickets, but think the films were shown at another theater. In the convening years, the Tivoli went dark and is now run in conjunction with The Denver Film Society.

About ten years later, in late 1998, AMC tried again. With big fanfare, AMC reopened one of their multiplexes well south of central Denver and called it an "Artplex". Once the press releases stopped and the theater actually opened, AMC dropped the ball. Whomever was hired to be the projectionist either had a pathological hatred for films with subtitles, or was inept at his job. I had to walk out on Wild Reeds because the subtitles were shown below the screen. I was told that the correct lens was not available for the projector. Un Air de Famille, wide screen film, was projected in the wrong aspect ratio. Every time I saw a foreign language film, I had to get someone to fix the projection of the film, to make the subtitles visable, or simply get the film in focus. English language films usually had no problems. Although it was great to see Lady from Shanghai on a sort of big screen, the film began about five minutes before its scheduled start. Not too many people showed up, possibly due to the Landmark habit, the technical problems that always happened with foreign films, and the fact that there was no advertising. AMC hoped that simply reading the list of films at the theater would be enough, as if without advertising people would show up to see Lan Yu. I was often an audience of one. I did show up to the Three Stooges retrospective and can say with certainty that the bigger the Stooges are, the funnier they are. I discussed the situation with someone at AMC's headquarters who claimed surprise when I listed how many films I saw and how frequently things went wrong. I was disappointed that a couple of promised films never showed up, but was not surprised when AMC gave up on their "Artplex" experiment at the end of 1998.

Now AMC is going to try again, ignoring their own history. That the new press release has been published with no one mentioning what AMC did previously indicates that I'm the only film blogger who has lived where AMC has theaters, or my memory is better than others. Will see how this new experiment works out. I'm giving AMC no more than six months before they go back to showing the same stuff as before in their glorified warehouses with movie screens.

Posted by peter at 08:24 AM | Comments (2)

May 03, 2006

Viva Maria

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Louis Malle - 1965
MGM Region 1 DVD

Viva Maria is a reminder of how inconsistent Louis Malle was when evaluating is work. Unlike some of Malle's other films which can withstand critical analysis, Viva Maria is a lightweight entry in Malle's filmography. While certainly better than Crackers, it's almost as if Malle realized he really had nothing to say beyond achieving the task of pairing Brigitte Bardot with Jeanne Moreau. The operative word to describe the film is burlesque, both in subject matter and level of humor.

Taking place in 1907, the intertwining narratives are about two women, both named Maria who are both involved in revolutionary activities, and work together as stage partners and rivals. Maria I, Bardot, is the French speaking daughter of an Irish revolutionary who's career consists of bombing the British wherever they may be. Alone in a fictional Central American country, Maria I stumbles upon Maria II, Moreau, an itinerant stage performer with a small time traveling circus. Bardot accidentally tears her costume on stage, developing a stage act with Moreau that becomes more elaborate as more clothing is shed. The new act becomes the main attraction at bigger venues, becoming progressively more risque.

In this fictional country, the peasants are enslaved by a landowner, Rodriguez, who is in cahoots with the Church. While Bardot has placed her revolutionary activity behind her, Moreau swears to the dying George Hamilton that she will take up his cause to fight against Rodriguez. There is one somewhat funny scene with Bardot and Moreau about to be tortured by priests. The tools of the inquisition have not been used for so long that the tongs and racks fall apart in the hands of the would-be torturers, rusty and rotten after so many years. Most of the humor is heavy-handed with bomb dropping pidgeons and a running gag concerning a young man constantly slapped by his mother. The plot device of a peasants' revolution may be a cliche worth spoofing, but Malle and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere seem ambivalent about taking viewing it either seriously or as satire. Whatever energy was put into creating the relationship and stage routines of Bardot and Moreau disapates in a lazily thought out narrative. It's as if Malle and Carriere had intended to make some points about love and political action, and lost interest along the way.

The first hour of Viva Maria is fairly entertaining. Bardot is totally gorgeous and Moreau looks the best she ever has on film. With the talent involved, one would expect a better film. After Le Feu Follet, Malle probably wanted to make a something fun and more entertaining. Viva Maria is so light that it easily is blown away by even some of Malle's lesser films.

Posted by peter at 11:55 AM