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June 30, 2006

100 Year Old Mann

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Railroaded
Anthony Mann - 1947
Kino Film Region 1 DVD

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T-Men
Anthony Mann - 1947
VCI Entertainment Region 1 DVD

"1947 . . . is important for me . . . it marks my first critical and commercial success." - Anthony Mann
from Anthony Mann by Jeanine Basinger

As my way of celebrating the 100th birthday of Anthony Mann I finally got around to seeing two of Mann's noir films. I've seen all of the James Stewart films which are generally acknowledged as the most consistent of his best work, but have only recently seen the earlier films from the Forties. As a person who grew up in the Fifties, this double feature also has the distinction of featuring early performances by Beaver's dad and Lassie's mom.

Railroaded takes place in the dark throughout most of its length. Mann and screenwriter John Higgins immediately upend expectations by opening the film in a threadbare beauty parlor that serves as a front for a bookie joint with female clientele. The proprietor Jane Randolph has set up a robbery of her place by boyfriend John Ireland. The robbery is photographed with Ireland and partner Keefe Brasselle peaking out of the dark, or with the characters seen as shadows. Guns blaze directly at the audience. Even when detective Hugh Beaumont finally has enough evidence to arrest Ireland, his timing is off and he is almost too late to rescue the sister of the wrongly accused cop killer.

Part of what makes Railroaded so fun is that not only was there effort to add some twists to what could have been a routine story, but the dialogue is both terse and caustic. This is a film where the top bad guy quotes from Oscar Wilde. There is a gag about Ireland's character known as "Duke", the namesake of Humphrey Bogart's early major role, with a floozie responding, "I'm petrified." Most often Anthony Mann is discussed because of his pictorial qualities, but Railroaded has dark snappy wit that bests many bigger budget noirs.

T-Men is famed for Mann's first collaboration with cinematographer John Alton. The imagery is certainly more consistent with many deep focus shots of people running in and out of shadows, and more use of expressionistic angles. Lots of framing devices are usedsuch as windows, doors, lampshades. Like Railroaded, Mann again has close-ups of guns shooting at the audience. The film does get bogged down with its official narration by Reed Hadley and introduction by government talking head Elmer Lincoln Irey. Dennis O'Keefe gets beat up in a couple of scenes anticipating the kind of masochism that James Stewart would go through in Mann's westerns. The punishment O'Keefe goes through made me think that had Mann lived long enough, Mel Gibson might have made a perfect Mann hero.

That O'Keefe looks for a crook known as "The Schemer" by visiting several bath houses, and that women barely figure in the narrative add to a homoerotic element. Like the Alton filmed Big Combo and Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo, male relationships and partnerships are emphasised. T-Men is about false images - government agents pretending to be hoods, counterfeit money, and the top gangster posing as a philanthropist. Of the two significant woman in the film, one is essentially a "beard" for the real mastermind, while the other inadvertently uncover's an agent's disguise.

Posted by peter at 10:00 AM

June 29, 2006

The Lana Turner Blog-a-thon: The Sea Chase

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John Farrow - 1955
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Of the many films starring Lana Turner, The Sea Chase is atypical, but it is representative of the state of her career at the time. By the early Fifties, Lana Turner had been a MGM star for over ten years. A consistent box office draw in the Forties, her home studio assigned her to increasingly sillier films following The Bad and the Beautiful. The Sea Chase was the first of several films Turner made for other studios during a period when MGM still kept her under contract. The film belongs primarily to star John Wayne. Turner is essentially along for the boat ride.

The story is about a German freighter captain whose ship is chased by the Australian Navy during the early days of World War II. Not only has the ship illegally slipped out of port, but one of the freighter's officers has shot several unarmed civilians at an island port, a criminal act of which the captain is originally unaware. Unlike his appearance in The Long Voyage Home as Ole Olsen, John Wayne does not use an accent as the German captain, Karl Ehrlich. None of the other actors have German accents either, although one is treated to the sight of supporting players James Arness, Claude Akins and Alan Hale, Jr. as Aryan blonds. The politics are fuzzy with these apolitical and "good" Germans, save for Lyle Bettger as the mandatory villainous Nazi who tries to get away with murder.

As the lone woman on Wayne's ship, Turner plays a mysterious woman from Wayne's past, Elsa Keller. Turner may have brought some star power to the role, but one could imagine that Gail Russell or Susan Hayward would have done just as well. Turner fits in with the casting short hand of bottled blond Germans. It may have been part of her contract, but Turner first appears wearing a fur coat. Later she is seen wearing some form fitting sweaters, a reminder of what made her a star in the first place. While the ship's crew gets grubbier as the film progresses, Turner remains her glamorous self no matter how primitive the conditions around her.

The Sea Chase was the second of two films John Wayne did with director John Farrow. It may reflect his failing health, but Farrow's last films lack the snap of films he had made just a few years previously. While not as petrified as John Paul Jones, The Sea Chase often feels stodgy compared to the compact Hondo. What The Sea Chase needed most was the sarcastic humor that informs such adventures as His Kind of Woman and the Wayne produced Plunder of the Sun. One of the few moments that is similar to those films is when a German government official, asking Wayne to cover-up the murder, states: "I wouldn't think of asking you to lie... you haven't had the proper diplomatic training."

Posted by peter at 12:49 AM | Comments (1)

June 25, 2006

Dumplings

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Gaau Ji
Fruit Chan - 2004
MegaStar Region 0 DVD

At a time when Hollywood is prone to remake an Asian horror film rather than come up with something relatively original, I almost feel confident that Dumplings is one film that Hollywood will leave alone. I may be cynical, but Dumplings subject matter may be extremely challenging given the so-called "culture of life" as expressed in the U.S. The film is extension of the shorter version that was part of the anthology Three Extremes, three short horror stories by three different Asian filmmakers. The story, by Hong Kong writer, Lillian Lee, examines the lengths that women to renew their beauty.

The DVD has the advantage of a statement by director Fruit Chan explaining his intent as well as how his film fits into the cultural history of China. The film begins with industrial sounds which reinforce the motif of "youth" as a product. This motif has its visual equivalent with eggs, a product made available through the industrialization of farming. An early scene shows Tony Leung Ka-Fai eating the undeveloped chicken from an egg, while a latter scene shows Miriam Yeung (above) stomping on an egg carton with one unhatched chicken. Chan looks at the contradictary state of being female in China in particular where unborn females are frequently aborted, yet young women in their twenties are coveted by men of all ages.

The full length version of Dumplings has more scenes concerned with the relationship between Yeung and Leung, a married couple who spend little time together. Leung's character, an executive with a young mistress, is a more important character in the longer version, not only in illustrating his relationship with his wife and mistress, but also having an encounter with the woman who makes the sought after dumplings. The film also expands the story of the dumpling maker, played by Bai Ling, a woman whose life traverses Hong Kong and China in a variety of ways. Too often nothing more than eye-candy, Bai shows the range of her talents as woman who is detached and clinical about her work and life. Dumplings has some disturbing imagery yet unlike films with dismemberment or torture which pass as entertainment, is more horrifying for what is suggested than actually shown. When Fruit Chan does get briefly graphic with his subject matter, Dumplings goes from horror to the depths of Greek tragedy.

Posted by peter at 02:17 PM | Comments (1)

June 23, 2006

The last films by Massimo Dallamano and Luciano Ercoli

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Colt 38 Special Squad/Quelli della Calibro 38
Massimo Dallamano - 1976
NoShame Films Region 1 DVD

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La Bidonata/The Rip-Off
Luciano Ercoli - 1977
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

The best moment in Colt 38 Special Squad happens about an hour and a half into the film. Marcel Bozzufi (seen above), takes a small hatchback to chase after villain Ivan Rassimov. In the terrific show of stunt driving, the car hops onto a moving freight train that normally tranports cars, and drives across the length of the train before hopping back onto the road. It's an extraordinary moment in a film that would otherwise be merely better than average.

In addition to featuring one of the villainous Frenchmen from The French Connection, Colt 38 Special Squad is full of chase scenes. That the film is about a special squad of policemen who sometimes operate in ways not by the book brings to mind Connection producer Philip D'Antoni's The Seven-Ups. Bozzufi leads a group of four young men who are taught to be cool under fire, shoot bad guys at the knees, and use motorcycles to get around. Most of the film concerns the team attempting to discover who is behind several acts of terrorism using remote control dynamite.

Music is an important part of this DVD presentation. Composer Stelvio Cipriani noodles around on his piano before introducing Colt 38, and has a half hour interview discussing his music and working with director Massimo Dallamano. The film also features the then little known Grace Jones, seen here as soul singer and far from the intimidating presence she would become.

The Rip-Off has a few comic stunts, but is more labored than funny. The story behind the film is actually more interesting than the film. Life duplicated life when the producer of this film about a kidnapping scheme was kidnapped himself. The Rip-Off was officially shelved and considered lost following this incident, althought the producer was released unharmed. The DVD by NoShame is the first time this film has publicly become available in any format. Director Luciano Ercoli was more effective with his Death Walks giallo films. Similarily, star Walter Chiari has been in much better films. There is some cleverness as Chiari, seen above with his two partners, follows the kidnappers with assorted trucks and cars, but more often The Rip-Off is the kind of film that is funnier in description than what actually on screen. Had the filmmakers achieved their aspirations, The Rip-Off would have succeeded as a blend of The Italian Job (the original version) and Big Deal on Madonna Street.

Posted by peter at 10:00 AM

June 22, 2006

One, Two, Three: Billy Wilder's 100th Birthday!

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Billy Wilder - 1961
MGM Home Video Region 1 DVD

"But we had to go with Cagney, because Cagney was the picture. He really had the rhythm, and that was very good." from Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe

I decided to celebrate Billy Wilder's 100th birthday with One, Two, Three. While the film can not be ranked with Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Apartment or Some like it Hot, my most recent viewing had me thinking about how it fits with Wilder's overall career. Made during the time when Wilder experienced both great commercial success and the freedom to make the films he wanted to make, One, Two, Three has some unique strengths and weaknesses.

I was more conscious of the ghost of Ernst Lubitsch hovering throughout Wilder's film. The three comic Russian businessmen that James Cagney negotiates with are clear reminders of the three Russian envoys from Ninotchka, Lubitsch's film co-written by Wilder. The treatment of Germans in general and the World War II jokes recall Lubitsch's To Be or not to Be, in particular the jokes about ex-gestapo members, and Arlene Francis' referring to film husband Cagney as "mein Fuhrer". While Cagney's heel clicking assistant, played by Hanns Lothar, is funny, the character's name, Schlemmer, lacks punch. While there is humor is seeing Cagney's Coke executive shock at finding a bottle of Pepsi in a Coke machine, his shouting the name "Shlemmer" just does not provoke the laughter that occurs after Lubitsch's inept "Concentration Camp Ehrhardt" fails to shoot himself and we hear him, behind closed doors, yelling for his aide, Schultz.

I suspect that One, Two, Three fizzles out frequently for younger audiences. So much of the humor is topical, referring to events that were current in 1961, or have a cultural frame of reference for adults of that era. While it is fascinating to see a film that takes place in a divided Berlin before the wall went up, gags about Nikita Kruschev probably require explanation for some. Jokes about Adlai Stevenson and Chet Huntley may seem obscure. Too many of the jokes concerning Pamela Tiffin's ditzy character of Scarlett refer to Gone with the Wind, although the jokes about Southern contempt for Yankees are still funny. Lilo Pulver, the tall, blonde, gum chewing secretary, remains sexy and funny, periodically recalling Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, especially in a scene where Hanns Lothar has to wear her clothes for a temporary disguise.

The film is pretty much carried by James Cagney from beginning to end. There are a couple of jokes about Cagney's gangster persona, including a moment where he re-enacts his grapefruit scene from Public Enemy with Horst Bucholz standing in for Mae Clark. Cagney also has a line that is a variation of Edward G. Robinson's famed words from Little Caesar. By making a film with Cagney, Billy Wilder worked with the three top stars from Warner Brothers "gangster" films - Robinson in Double Indemnity and Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina. Even though the circumstances for working with these three actors were different, the three are known for their unique voices and speech patterns. There is a roundabout kind of logic with Wilder working with Cagney, Bogart and Robinson, the gangster persona is not to far removed from the artist who made a point of pushing boundries, especially with the United Artists films.

At this time, I should take my queue from Billy Wilder himself who was noted as saying: “If there's anything I hate more than being taken seriously, it's being taken too seriously."

Posted by peter at 12:29 AM | Comments (1)

June 20, 2006

Edmond Greville 100th Birthday!

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My first encounters with the films of Edmond Greville were in reading about two of his films. I was aware of The Hands of Orlac through that not uncommon introduction into film scholarship, "Famous Monsters of Filmland". Beat Girl was one of the films mentioned in a famed "Rolling Stone" magazine article on "rock and roll movies". For a guy who was a one-time assistant to Abel Gance, and a one-time actor for Rene Clair, Greville's career as a film-maker has inspired little inquiry. His only directorial effort to get much exposure lately is Princess Tam-Tam, a film best known as a starring vehicle for Josephine Baker.

Is it coincidental that two of the most iconic films about British youth culture both feature Gillian Hills? Both Greville and Antonioni are examining alienated characters in search of meaning and some sense of community in a Britain where tradition is challenged and often overturned. The main difference is that Antonioni is attempting to make much larger artistic statement, while Greville's aims are more modest. Recently at other blogsites, there has been a discussion of Manny Farber's termites versus elephants. Based on my understanding of Farber's theories, Greville may have been among the tiniest of termites.

I am hoping to see Beat Girl in a new DVD made from the "European version", currently only available on tape. The version I do have is a fair tape version that, like most versions available, has the scenes taking place in a strip club cut to bits. The shots of the strippers in action would now seem harmless at a time when there are televised fashion shows from Victoria's Secret. The narrative would not be advanced by a single iota. Still one would prefer to see as intact a film as possible, even one as deliriously silly as Beat Girl.

The main reasons why Beat Girl remains compulsively watchable has to do with several elements. Probably brought on to score the film due to his connection with Adam Faith, the music by John Barry might not be pure rock and roll, but it remains more inspired than the score for Dances with Wolves. Consider this, Fatboy Slim never sampled the music from Out of Africa. Beat Girl also features several up and coming British actors who would be better known in the early sixties. One whose star took somewhat longer to rise, was Oliver Reed, in this film a minor supporting character known as Plaid Shirt. Reed's performance is comprised of his glowering at the rest of the cast. Christopher Lee, not yet reconciled to a life playing Dracula, has a small role as the owner of the strip club where Gillian Hills seeks employment. Having Walter Lassally photograph the film gives Beat Girl status as a connecting link with the "Free Cinema" of Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson. How much responsibility for the film should be given Edmond Greville is hard to say from this vantage point. What is clear is that by virtue of the various talents involved, Beat Girl should not be considered throwaway work in the history of British film.

Posted by peter at 12:07 AM

June 19, 2006

Gwendoline

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Just Jaeckin - 1984
Severin Films Region 0 DVD

I was recently surprised to find that I had been added to the screeners list for a new company, Severin Films. At this point, based on the two films that make up their catalogue, it appears their specialty is soft-core adult entertainment. The photo of the staff with Senior Jesus Franco suggests there may be some interesting titles to be offered in the future.

Severin Films' debut is curiously, the last film by Just Jaeckin. My only previous . . . um . . . exposure to Jaeckin, was with his debut, Emmanuelle, made back in that point in time when a major Hollywood studio, in this case Columbia, had no qualms about releasing X-rated films following the success of Last Tango in Paris. I haven't seen Jaeckin's other films, but my significant other assures me that his version of The Story of O is quite good. Gwendoline features an unexpected link with the French New Wave by featuring Bernadette Lafont (above left) as the queen of an underground amazon society. Lafont made her acting debut with Francois Truffaut's short film, Les Mistons. For those who get their French filmmakers confused, keep in mind that Truffaut later made Un Histoire d'Eau, while Jaeckin filmed Histoire d'O.

Jaeckin's film here is based on the erotic comic by John Willie. Jaeckin, as indicated by the shot above, has an eye for composition, but the DVD supplement of his photos of star Tawny Kitaen indicates that his strength is with the still camera. Jaeckin begins Gwendoline with some spectacular travelling shots that were elaborately planned, yet the film ultimately is at best cute if not silly. Jaeckin's photo essay of Kitaen for the French magazine "Lui" overflows with the eroticism that is missing from the film. Kitaen is the selling point of this film, and certainly there is more to see of her than in the Tom Hanks' vehicle, Bachelor Party. The biggest difference between Jaeckin's film and John Willie's cartoon, based the few examples of his work that I've seen, is that the cartoon characters, especially the women, are larger than life with exaggerated features. As attractive as the young Tawny Kitaen was when she made Gwendoline, neither she, nor the other actresses, save Bernadette Lafont, have the ability to dominate the screen with their presence. Even worse, while John Willie's cartoons embrace and celebrate his idiosyncratic universe, Just Jaeckin's film suffers from timidity and too much good taste.

Posted by peter at 07:00 AM

June 18, 2006

Coming Soon: The Lana Turner Blog-a-thon!

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For those who haven't heard the call of the Self-Styled Siren, this postman is ringing twice to remind everyone of the Lana Turner Blog-a-thon scheduled for June 29. Hopefully the Siren herself will be able to sit still long enough to do her own posting and set up linkage from wherever she may be at that time. Ms. Campaspe's last posting was from Paris, but she may be back in Toronto or at her new home in Brooklyn. My own plan is to write something today for future posting as I am also scheduled to move from the beach to a new, if temporary, home. I want to thank Flickhead for his posting of a reminder at his site. The date was chosen as the anniversary of Ms. Turner's death in 1995. I hope this gives everyone time to readjust their rental queues, visit your local library or do whatever it may take to participate in celebrating this classic Hollywood star.

Posted by peter at 12:47 PM

June 17, 2006

Convoy Busters

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Today marks one year since "Coffee Coffee and more Coffee" first was launched. First to be thanked is my significant other who encouraged me to write publicly and write often, did the work to create this site, and helped guide me in learning some of the technical aspects of running a blog site. I also want to that Joyce Shen of NoShame who put me on the screeners list before I even had the site up. I want to that the people who have taken the time to check in, whether to anonymously read or also leave comments, and engage in dialogue about film. Also, I want to thank those who have taken the time to create a link to this site. If I have failed to reciprocate please let me know and I will be glad to correct this as soon as possible.

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Un Poliziotto Scomodo
Stelvio Massi - 1978
NoShame Films Region 1 DVD

The literal translation of the title for this Italian thriller is "The Inconvenient Cop". Whether this refers to the inconvenience created by the lead character of Inspector Olmi, or that Olmi seems to be out of place no matter where he is, I'm not sure. The title of Convoy Busters seems to have been chosen to capitalize on that brief moment when truckers with citizen band radios ruled popular culture. While trucks figure as a plot point, the most seen on the road are two - one following the other - as much of a convoy as one person following another is a parade.

Convoy Busters is a vehicle for Maurizio Merli, an actor who specialized in cop roles similar to Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. Convoy Busters even ends with Inspector Olmi throwing down his badge at the end of the film. Essentially, Olmi is the kind of cop who makes a habit of getting on virtually everybody's bad side in the name of Justice. Frustrated with the bureaucracy of Rome, Olmi gets transfered to a small coastal town where he uncovers a smuggling operation involving firearms.

What Stelvio Massi's film lacks in coherent story telling it makes up for with bravura set pieces. One of the more spectacular scenes involves Olmi in a helicoptor chasing down and shooting some escaping bad guys with a pistol. That Olmi is such an accurate shot at great distances is hardly realistic, but it is a fun moment for the film.

The DVD supplements are primarily composed on interviews with Merli's son and several professional associates who discuss Merli's life and career. Merli was most famous in Italy during the Seventies for his resemblance to Franco Nero, and was typecast as the hard-edged cop. Rather than offering the usually scholarly notes on the film and crew, NoShame has included a small graphic novel, "Crime Story: The De Falco Solution", done in the style of Italian comic books from the Seventies.

Posted by peter at 12:20 AM | Comments (3)

June 16, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion

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Robert Altman - 2006
35mm film

Last night my significant other decided she needed to get away from Miami Beach for a few hours. We had discussed what was playing locally, only to determine that the couple art and independent films currently at the neighborhood multiplex were too downbeat, while the mainstream entries held no interest. My SO always wanted us to visit a favorite movie theater in Fort Lauderdale, and A Prairie Home Companion was playing there, and have dinner at a favorite Italian restaurant. As it turned out, the dinner was a bit more satisfying than the film.

One thing my SO pointed out about the audience was that it clearly skewed older. I'm not sure how many younger people have seen the film due to Lindsay Lohan (seen above with Meryl Streep) in the cast. I do suspect that the greater part of the audience is made up of people who have actually listened to the radio show, or have grown up watching Robert Altman's films. A Prairie Home Companion resembles a compact version of Nashville with most of the action taking place on and off the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater. With a running time one hour less than his sprawling epic, Altman's newest film often feels longer, slower, and less enthralling.

Maybe Garrison Keillor is better heard but not seen. Certainly some of the humor was laugh out loud funny, such as clueless detective Guy Noir mentioning that he had a grilled cheese sandwich with a bean chaser, or the cheerfully tasteless jokes exchanged by Dusty and Lefty. As much as I like Virginia Madsen, I kept wondering if her "Angel of Death" character was inspired by Tony Kushner, "Angels in Minnesota" as it were.

What worked best could be seen in the dressing room of the Johnson Sisters, played by Streep and Lily Tomlin. The surviving pair of a quartet similar to the Carter Family, but as one of the sisters puts it, "less famous", their dressing room is decorated with dozens of photographs of family members. One of the subplots involves Streep hoping to extend the family tradition through her daughter, played by Lohan. A Prairie Home Companion as a radio show and film runs counter to contemporary culture with its themes about tradition and family. Much of the music is country "gospel songs" and it is a given that everyone is familiar with "Amazing Grace". While the characters may be Christian as evinced by their song choices, there is a generosity of spirit that also allows for self-exploration, doubts and room for humor in various manifestations. At a time when being an "American" seems to be so rigidly defined, A Prairie Home Companion is a small reminder that one can siltaneously be a person of faith and an unrepentant goofball.

Posted by peter at 12:06 PM

June 11, 2006

Fong Sai-Yuk

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Fong Sai-Yuk
Corey Yuen Kwai - 1993
Universe Laser & Video Region 0 DVD

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Fong Sai-Yuk II
Corey Yuen Kwai - 1993
Universe Laser & Video Region 0 DVD

I've seen both of these films on cable. Like virtually every martial arts film they've got their hands on, the Weinstein Brothers cut and dubbed the two Fong Sai-Yuk films, retitled as The Legend. While the alterations for American audiences wasn't significant to either film, it was still nice to see both as originally intended by Jet Li and Corey Yuen. The first of this two part series was the first collaboration between Li and Yuen, capitalizing not only on Li's martial abilities, but also his comic charm and balletic grace.

The second film is a variation of the first. Li portrays a young man with proven martial arts skills who fights on behalf of the rebel Red Flower Society against the hated Manchus. In the first film there is a search for a secret list, in the second film it is a special box. Fong's mother, also a kung-fu champion alternately causes confusion and joins in the heroics. The films also share scenes of mistaken identities, women dressed as men, free for all fights, and Fong saving one of his parents from execution. While the films look somewhat crude compared to the CGI enhanced extravaganzas that mark similar films made now, the films also are marked by sense of humor that is missing in the current bid to impress audiences.

Although I enjoy Jet Li's films, the main reason to see either of the two Fong Sai-Yuk films is for Josephine Siao. The goofy facial expressions and ability to take pratfalls are reminiscent of Lucille Ball. Siao portrays the kind of character who is virtually unimaginable in Hollywood films, both a comic foil and a capable heroine. One aspect of Hong Kong films that is too often unremarked is the tradition of female martial arts heroes. While much of the humor is at the expense of Siao's character, her ability to fight is recognized with same kind of respect shown to the male characters. In the first film, Sai-Yuk beams in admiration knowing that his mother, disguised as a man, has been the only person to beat Sibelle Hu in a martial arts display to win the hand of Michelle Reis. Fong Sai-Yuk may be the only film with mother and son cross-dressing scenes, followed by the pair performing "Invisible Hand" kung-fu. Filial loyalty is both honored and gently satirized. Mom might not alway know best, but she can sure kick your ass.

Posted by peter at 02:41 PM

June 10, 2006

New York Doll

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Greg Whitely - 2005
First Independent Pictures Region 1 DVD

Even though I lived in NYC at the time, I never saw The New York Dolls in concert. Like a lot of people, I got put off by the clothes and make-up, and figured that if that's what the band looked like, I was nervous about who would be in the audience. Although my taste in rock was fairly wide, embracing Lothar & the Hand People and James Taylor, I couldn't be persuaded to go the short distance from my dorm room to The Mercer Arts Center. Except for a subway ride uptown to a club called Ungano's to see Captain Beefheart and Ry Cooder, my concert going was limited to whomever was appearing at the Fillmore East.

I was mostly interested in seeing New York Doll after reading about the film. The documentary of bass player Arthur Kane, above left, would seem almost too cliched for fiction. The narrative would read: a former minor rock star eventually falls into obscurity following the disolution of his band that has become a cult item over the past thirty years. Following battles with drugs and alchohol, the former rock star finds a modicum of meaning and happiness in religion, working on behalf of the church that has embraced him. His best years behind him, the musician still dreams of a triumphant return to the stage. His heartfelt prayer is answered, and the musician, for a few days, gets to live a life of glory as a revered rock star. Unknown to the musician, he is suffering from a fatal illness and dies soon after what turns out to be his final concert.

For me, the most interesting part of New York Doll was it's portrayal of Kane as a person of faith. The members of the Mormon church that Kane works with, as well as those who have provided religious guidance reveal a sense of humor and a generous spirit towards Kane's past persona. One of the church members explains that co-workers and church members collected funds to allow Kane to get his guitars out of hock prior to the New York Dolls reunion.

That generousity of spirit extends to Kane's relationship with David Johansen, above right. The one former Doll who has had the most success, Johansen shows up a day late when the reunion band is rehearsing. While teasing Kane about his ten percent tithing to the church, I had to wonder if Johansen may have denied Kane profits in New York Dolls merchandise. There is palpable joy in the scenes where Kane is overwhelmed by living in a London hotel room that is larger and more luxurious than his tiny Los Angeles apartment, and later enjoying a meal otherwise impossible in his normally frugal life. The film conveys Kane's total immersion and sincerity with his faith, a sincerity that is shown as affecting those around him. At a time when people are supposedly clamoring for films that extol Christian ideals, New York Doll's true story is more meaningful than any reenactment.

Posted by peter at 01:38 PM | Comments (2)

June 08, 2006

Shaw Brothers Double Feature

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Raw Passions/Law Huet
Lo Chen - 1969
Celestial Pictures Region 3 DVD

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The Lark/Xiao yun que
Hsieh Chun - 1965
Celestial Pictures Region 3 DVD

I need to note that for the next couple of months, entries will be sporadic. I finally sold my condo last Sunday and am now figuring out the logistics of where I will be moving to, as well as when. As soon as I am settled, I should be getting back to a more consistent pattern of writing. As I may be using other computers, there may not be film stills for a while. Keep watching this space for future news and developments. In the meantime, here are a couple of films I did catch . . .

A woman is stalked and murdered by an assailant, unseen by the viewer except for a gloved hand and a bloody knife. Raw Passions transposes some of the motifs associated with Mario Bava to Hong Kong, with strenuously bizarre camera angles, psychedelic opening credits and garish color schemes. The film is about two men caught up in a blackmail scheme involving nightclub performer Sasa, seen above, played by Suzy Meng Li. Director Lo Chen may have also taken a few pointers from Jesus Franco in filming Sasa's solo dance with the lens concentrated on her breasts and nether region. I have no idea what the original lyrics say, but Sasa's torch song about being a drunken slut, has this translated line:"That light, is it red or yellow? Beside you, I'm a drunken fellow."

The songs in The Lark don't have any hilarious (mis)translations of note. Like all of the other Shaw Brothers musicals from the Sixties, it stars Peter Chen Ho, this time as a hapless reporter posing as a music promoter to get close to Mandarin pop star Carrie Ku Mei, known as "The Little Lark". This is the Hong Kong equivalent to a musical starring Connie Francis, with the state of pop music represented by young women singing with serious emoting and many tears. The film is signficant as a vehicle for Carrie Ku Mei, a popular singer, but one who also was the singing voice for other stars, Hong Kong's Marni Nixon. The closest the film comes to anything resembling rock music is one of the big musical numbers near the end of the film. On a rooftop set, a bunch of "juvenile delinquents" perform a number that combines the social concerns of West Side Story with the sunny joy of Bye Bye Birdie. As boggling as that number is, I missed the brio of Russ Tamblyn and the sassiness of Ann-Margret.

Posted by peter at 05:56 PM | Comments (1)

June 06, 2006

The Cry of the Owl

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Le Cri du Hibou
Claude Chabrol - 1987
Allday Region 1 DVD

Claude Chabrol is a filmmaker I've been following as best as possible since I saw La Femme Infidele opened in NYC in 1969. During the time I lived in NYC, I was able to see several of Chabrol's older films and saw most of his current films through the release of Nada in 1974. For me, Chabrol's early period holds the most interest. Of all of the filmmakers who established their names as film critics for "Cahiers du Cinema", Chabrol has become the most prolific and the most consistently commercial. While I have enjoyed some of his latter films, particularly, Merci Pour le Chocolat, I feel like Chabrol has become frequently formulaic.

Like his admired Alfred Hitchock, Chabrol has made a film from a novel by Patricia Highsmith. The film is about observers and the observed, and an innocent man who is guilty of the deaths of several people. A plot by two jealous ex-lovers goes out of control. Among the visual motifs are rooms filled with photographs and paintings and people observing other people through picture windows. Much of the action takes place at night or in the dark, much like nocturnal animals in pursuit of their prey.

My main motivation for seeing this Chabrol film was due to the commentary on the DVD. An friend of mine from NYU, Ric Menello discussed aspects of Chabrol's filmmaking style as well as information on the making of the film. Ric's commentary was both informative and fun to listen to which was no surprise, as he was always a great story-teller when I knew him. I would recommend checking out Cry of the Owl for the commentary track, although this brings up a point of discussion. Most commentary tracks are by the filmmakers and cast members. A frequent complaint is that they are sometimes not very informative. I have listened to some directors commentaries that were sometimes better than the movies, for example, Peter Medak explaining what he was doing on Species II. I've had to stop DVDs where the commentary consists of droning non-information, often simply describing what I am watching on the screen. I just have to wonder why there aren't more films with commentaries by film critics and historians who are entertaining speakers. As much as I've learned from Donald Ritchie, I nodded out while listening to him discuss Crazed Fruit. Rate That Commentary would be more helpful if there were reviews in addition to the ratings. Otherwise, commentary tracks seem to be a hit or miss affair for everyone involved which is too bad. Done right as in Cry of the Owl, the commentary can be a valuble tool for film scholars. Otherwise, it's just another time waster.

Posted by peter at 09:19 PM

June 04, 2006

Four Sided Triangle

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Terence Fisher - 1953
Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

Four Sided Triangle invites a couple of different readings. The film is an example of the kind of low budget science-fiction produced a few years before Terence Fisher and company reinvented Dracula and the classic Universal horror film. One can also view the film as being a symbolic retelling of the life of star Barbara Payton.

The narrative begins with two young boys, Robin and Bill, infatuated with a slightly older girl, Lena. The girl pits the two boys against each other in fun but is clearly more attracted to Robin. The two boys grow up to be scientists who invent a machine that can duplicate objects by creating matter out of energy. During this time, Lena, who has left their little English town, has returned. Not knowing who Albert Einstein is, or indicating thoughts of suicide do nothing to keep the Robin and Bill from falling in lover with Lena again. Just when Bill gets nerve enough to ask Lena for a date, Robin and Lena get married. Bill's solution is to create a duplicate Lena. Of course this second Lena is a duplicate in every way, including her desire for Robin.

According to IMDb, the alternate title for Four Sided Triangle is Monster and the Woman. This raises the question of who the monster is suppose to be, the second Lena or Bill? One can also look at the story as a variation of James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein with the second Lena, known as Helen, feeling a sense of horror at living an unasked for life and rejection of her lover. While not using Whale's extreme angles in the cinematography, the black and white shots evoke Whale's two Frankenstein films with the electronic gizmos and the expressionistic lighting. Looking past the sci fi and horror trappings, Whale and Fisher have made films about the desperation of unrequited love.

Provoking men into fighting over her was a hallmark of Barbara Payton's life. Without forcing it too much, there are some parallels between Payton's recent life caught between Franchot Tone and Tom Neal with Lena's relationship between the genteel Robin and the more impulsive Bill. One has to wonder if Payton was cast in the role of Lena because of the similarities to her life, as well as the obvious attraction of getting a Hollywood star, albeit a rapidly falling one, for a bargain. When Lena returns to England, it is to sell her mother's belongings, enough to support herself for three or four months. When asked what she will do past that time, Lena remarks that she has no purpose in continuing her life as she has failed at everything she has tried. While Lena proves to easily regain her sense of self-esteem from being a help-mate to her two admirers, Payton's own life prefigures Lena's hinted at appetite for self-destruction. Even a random selection from Payton's ghost-written autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed almost describes what happens in Four Sided Triangle: "I had a lot of electricity in me and men didn't just hit and run with me. They usually came back for seconds and with their tongue dragging."

Posted by peter at 02:01 PM | Comments (3)

June 03, 2006

The War Lover

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Philip Leacock - 1962
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

Early on in The War Lover, Philip Leacock conveys the sense of fragility in war. One of the crew members is seen drinking some kind of stomach medicine that he mentions was never previously needed. The airplanes, described as flying fortresses, shake and rattle. The crew members in the machine gun turrets appear as the most vulnerable, but the shell of the bombers look ready to fall apart any any time. Philip Leacock's film takes place during World War II, with concerns about the psychological fragility of warriors still worth examining.

The role of the title character was something of a brave choice by Steve McQueen. Especially considering that The War Lover was done at a time when McQueen's stardom was on the ascent in modest budget films, McQueen's character of Buzz Rickson has moments where he is totally unsympathetic. Rickson is a pilot who takes chances with himself and his crew, impressing most, but not all with his bravado. At the same time, Rickson loves being destructive, both in his military capacity with enemy targets, and in relationships with other people. Leacock allows for Rickson to be viewed ambiguously, admired for his bravery under fire, occasionally repugnant at other times. One moment that captures both sides of Rickson's character suggests sexual release during combat.

Also ambiguous is Rickson's relationship with his co-pilot, Bolland (Robert Wagner). While Bolland early in the film is shown to admire Rickson, later scenes indicate Rickson's jealousy, almost a possesiveness, when Bolland develops his relationship with Daphne (Shirley Anne Field). Rickson is not only more comfortable in his role as a warrior, but as an admired man in the company of men. Rickson's relationship with women are indicated to be superficial, brief sexual liasons. Rickson's sense of masculinity and immaturity towards women are indicated when he tries to force his youngest crew member onto a plain looking barmaid. The War Loveris a low key twist on John Ford's celebration of military men, with the camaraderie shown as increasingly puerile. McQueen is later shown calmly drinking whiskey during an air raid, feeling as invincible on the ground as in the air.

The young crew member with the high pitched voice is played by Michael Crawford, a couple years before starring in several films by Richard Lester, and many years before becoming Andew Lloyd Webber's original "Phantom of the Opera". The main reason to see The War Lover is Steve McQueen just a year before he cemented his star status with The Great Escape. An officer describes Rickson as bordering between the heroic and the psychotic. This was a different kind of role for Steve McQueen, hinting at ambitions of an actor that were never fully explored.

Posted by peter at 06:34 AM

June 02, 2006

Champagne for Caesar

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Richard B. Whorf - 1950
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

To paraphrase the most famous statement by Art Linkletter: "Kids see the darndest things!" In this case, I refer to this somewhat unlikely film that had something of a cult following back when I was in Junior High school, back in the early Sixties. While Linkletter, seen at the left as Happy Hogan was for most of us a more meaningful star than Ronald Colman, what made Champagne for Caesar popular was primarily the game show milieu.

Champagne for Caesar fully anticipates real-life characters like Jeopardy winner Ken Jennings, as well as placing American Idol results as front page news. Ronald Colman's character, the over-educated, under-employed Beauregard Bottomley can be seen as a proto-slacker, albeit one much better dressed than his contemporary equivalent. While scenes of people flocking in front of store windows to watch television are archaic, some of the film's satire is as true today as it was over fifty years ago.

The film is a featherweight comedy primarily pitting Colman's money winning know-it-all against comic villain Vincent Price as the corporate sponsor chief. The humor becomes broader and funnier during the last half hour with Colman wooing Celeste Holm, a "fan" planted by Price to cause mayhem and discover possible gaps of knowledge. Broader still is the reunion between Caesar, an inebriated, foul mouthed parrot, and Price, his former owner. The scene of Colman in an ultra-modern reception area briefly resembles that of Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle, while the set design of arms sticking out of walls, holding soap bubbles seems like a parody of the candle holding arms in Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. This is no lost classic, but a decidedly minor film with a star who chose to slowly retire from movies following his Academy Award in 1947. Champagne for Caesar is more like Cold Duck than Moet or Korbel - light, sweet, and good for some giggles.

Posted by peter at 11:14 AM