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August 31, 2006

Glenn Ford: 1916 - 2006

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Some of you may remember a piece I wrote about Glenn Ford a week after his birthday. I don't have much more to add except that Ford starred in quite a few memorable films. Below is my subjective list of some other favorite films that star Ford.

1. The Big Heat - 1953
2. Human Desire - 1954
3. The Money Trap - 1965
4. The Rounders - 1965
5. Plunder of the Sun - 1953
6. 3:10 to Yuma - 1957
7. Jubal - 1956
8. Cowboy - 1958
9. Courtship of Eddie's Father - 1963
10. Experiment in Terror - 1962
11. Gilda - 1946

Posted by peter at 08:31 AM | Comments (1)

August 29, 2006

Story of a Cloistered Nun

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Storia di una Monaca di Clausura
Domenico Paolella - 1973
NoShame Films Region 1 DVD

As far as exploitation movies about nuns go, The Story of a Cloistered Nun is quite pretty to look at. The film combines the expected contents of a film by Jesus Franco, with nuns getting whipped, naked, or hot and heavy with lovers of both sexes, with the sumptous costuming and colors of something from Merchant-Ivory. This may be an oxymoron to describe this as a tasteful exploitation film. This isn't the delirious trash of Killer Nun or Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun, but neither is it as serious as Rivette's The Nun.

Eleonora Giorgi is the young woman banished by her family after refusing an arranged marriage. As Carmela, Giorgi finds herself pitted between the hedonistic Sister Elizabeth (Catherine Spaak) and the Mother Superior (Suzy Kendall). Carmela also sneaks out of the convent to resume her affair with Julian who gets the novice pregnant. Word gets back to the Vatican that an unidentified nun has given birth. The scene where the nuns all claim to be the mother to protect Carmela plays almost as a parody of the hundreds of slaves claiming to be Spartacus.

The DVD includes interviews with Giorgi, arguably more attractive now as a "woman of a certain age", as well as supporting actor Umberto Orsini. Along with two trailers, and liner notes about "nunsploitation" films, I have to suspect that NoShame realizes The Story of a Cloistered Nun should be regarded primarily as an entertaining trifle compared to many of their other releases.

Coincidentally, I should note that Giorgi, Spaak and Kendall all starred in films by Dario Argento. I guess that when one portrays a bad nun, one also has to give the devil his due.

Posted by peter at 05:53 PM

August 28, 2006

Report from Sarasota

My significant other decided we needed to get out of the house and away from the heat of Miami Beach for a couple of days last weekend. Her solution was to visit the "west coast" meaning the west coast of Florida. There was a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival at Sarasota which she figured may have some noteworthy films. We also went to Sarasota so she could visit some friends, so keeping on top of all of the screenings was not a priority. There was one very good film seen, plus two of interest, although the highlight of the weekend may have been the Sunday drive through Sarasota down to Longboat Key. The decision to only see three films turned out to be a good one in that as good as the movies may be at the Burns Court Cinema, the theater got a bit chilly and seats were not comfortable enough for even a two hour film.

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C.R.A.Z.Y.
Jean-Marc Vallee - 2005

As it turned out, all three films dealt with family relationships. I had read about C.R.A.Z.Y. last October when I was visiting Toronto. The French-Canadian comic drama has rightly received rave reviews. A hit in Canada, the film has yet to be shown commercially in the U.S., making me wonder why distributors have passed on a proven audience pleaser.

The title is taken from the Patsy Cline song, and also refers to the first initials of five brothers. Describing the plot almost makes the film sound like yet another coming out story, which is secondary to the exploration of self identity and family dynamics. The film is primarily about Zac, the fourth brother, following his birth in 1960 through 1980. In addition to growing up with four brothers who each have distinct, and sometimes incompatible, personalities, Zac's biggest problem is his ability to heal people telepathically. Catholic and French-Canadian identity are as important as sexual identity, contributing to both the humor and drama of the film. Music plays an important part indicating time shifts as well commenting on the characters. The eclectic soundrack includes Patsy Cline, Charles Aznavour, David Bowie, Jefferson Airplane and Stories. One of C.R.A.Z.Y.'s several scenes of audacious humor involves the singing of Sympathy for the Devil by the church choir and congregants.

Counterpointing the sight gags and fantasies is an essentially truthful presentation of how family relationships change and evolve. Sibling rivalries are outgrown, and parents eventually yield to the knowledge that their children are adults, though perhaps not the adults they envisioned at their birth. This is a film with several unexpected twists and turns that revels in the messiness of relationships, and life in general.

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Love Sick/Legaturi Bolnavicioase
Tudor Giurgiu - 2006

I'm not sure how much I should comment on Love Sick as the film was not shown as intended. A technical glitch forced a choice in showing the film, on tape, to be screened in color with no sound, or in black and white with sound. After several false starts, the film was screened in black and white with no apology or explanation from anyone representing the festival. The narrative is about a young student from the country, Kiki, who moves to Bucharest primarily for school, but also to be with her girlfriend, Alex. Complicating matters is that Alex has had an incestuous love-hate relationship with her brother, Sandu.

The love triangle is not especially compelling. The plot synopsis makes Love Sick sound like a blend of Angels and Insects with Therese and Isabelle. What is more interesting is getting a glimpse of present day Romania. Except for the students having cell phones, the film could just as well have taken place thirty years ago. There are no computers in sight, Kika's father drives a battered old car that resembles a Yugo, and people in the country still travel by horse. Even the presentation of the sexual liasons seems, if not censored, at least coy. There is a scene of Alex and Sandu making love in the opening of the film, before the audience knows who they are, a scene that could be viewed as that of simple heterosexual coupling. The most explicit scene of Alex and Kiki consists of a brief display of topless foreplay in a field. Most of the time, Kiki's memories are less of lost love, than of a friendship manifested in ditching class, sleeping through movies, getting drunk and amiably wasting time.

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Queens/Reinas
Manuel Gomez Pereira - 2005

A couple of the men in Queens play a "Harry Potter" video game. There is also a quick glance at an Ocean's Eleven poster in a bedroom. Company pride is almost as much in display as gay pride with the Warner Brothers' tie-ins. Curiously, while Queens was made by Warner Brothers in Spain, the parent company passed on releasing the film in the U.S. The film is about three pairs of men who are about to be among the first gay couples in Spain to get married, and the men's parents, particularly their mothers. The narrative shifts back and forth showing the interaction between the six men and their respective parents, and the events that nearly undo the various wedding plans.

A reference to Almodovar is one of the film's jokes. One of the mothers is frequent Almodovar star, Carmen Maura. Other mothers on the verge of breakdowns include Marisa Parades and Veronica Forque. Manuel Gomez Pereira's characters, like this film, are almost family friendly compared to the various transgressive types to be found in Almodovar's films. While Almodovar is almost consistently subversive with his characters and narrative, Gomez Periera chooses to be heart-warming and go straight for the laughs.

Posted by peter at 11:00 PM

August 26, 2006

Ong-Bak

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Prachya Pinkaew - 2003
Twentieth Century Fox Region 1 DVD

With the hype I was reading about the upcoming The Protector (the U.S. title for Tom Yum Goong), I made a point of seeing Ong-Bak. Even those who don't make a point of watching martial arts films should check out Tony Jaa in action. Sure, he's been compared to Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Let's add to that the acrobatics of Burt Lancaster, the grace of Gene Kelly and the ability to defy gravity like Nijinski. Admittedly the screen capture above shows Jaa as a blurry presence, but most of Ong-Bak is a perpetual motion machine, with Jaa in one set piece after another. Jaa's athleticism delivers in spades what other films and action stars have promised.

Certainly much of the credit for the film should also go to writer-director Prachya Pinkaew. That the operative word for staging fight scenes is choreography is not lost on Pinkaew. The fight scenes are filmed in the same way that Astaire or Kelly are filmed dancing, with Jaa's body fully in frame to capture all of his movement. Everything is shot so that the viewer has a clear sense of the action at all times. Pinkaew occassionally will edit a specific moment so that it is seen repeated in three shots from different angles. What makes the action set pieces more amazing to watch is that there is no wire work or special effects involved. Pinkaew outdoes even the best Hong Kong action directors with his ability to film and edit, and should be required viewing by Hollywood directors who failed to understand that it's not enough to have Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan or Jet Li in front of the camera. Pinkaew, like Corey Yuen, knows that fight scenes are most meaningful when filmed like a musical number. Even a scene involving the little Thai taxis called Tuk-Tuks has eye-popping stunt driving.

The action scenes take up so much of the film that it is sometimes easy to forget the story everything hangs on, with Jaa as a countryboy in search of the stolen head of a statue revered by the villagers. An underwater scene involving the discovery of ancient statues as a dreamlike quality. There are Buddhist underpinnings to the narrative which can be viewed as an allegory about the defense and protection of Thai culture. Most people will simply enjoy Ong-Bak has an action film that doesn't dawdle with too much exposition. For those who can appreciate the choreography of fight choreography, this is like watching Fred and Ginger, only with deadlier kicks.

Posted by peter at 10:04 AM | Comments (2)

August 25, 2006

Do You Like Hitchcock?

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Ti Piace Hitchcock
Dario Argento - 2005
Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

In retrospect, there is a certain irony that the most famous film by Alfred Hitchcock is one of his least characteristic. When Dario Argento was supposedly fighting with Lucio Fulci over who was more deserving to be called the "Italian Hitchcock", the argument was based on which filmmaker had outdone Psycho. What has been usually overlooked is that when Hitchcock made Psycho, he wasn't trying to be Alfred Hitchcock. After the box office failure of Vertigo showed that the "Master of Suspense" was unable to be the American Clouzot, Hitchcock settled on making a William Castle-style horror movie better than Castle had produced.

Do You Like Hitchcock is a decidedly minor film that Dario Argento made for Italian television. Filmed in Torino, the film shows Argento in a much lighter mood. Elio Germano, an actor who resembles a younger Argento, portrays a film student named Giulio, a name that perhaps not coincidentally sounds like giallo, the genre of Italian horror movies. Giulio believes he has stumbled upon a murder plot inspired by Strangers on a Train carried out by Sasha and Federica, two women who meet at the neighborhood video store that Giulio frequents.

Someone with even general familiarity with Hitchcock should recognize elements of Rear Window, Vertigo, Dial M for Murder and Marnie. There are times when I felt that instead of watching Argento imitate Hitchcock, Argento was also recalling De Palma's Body Double. The De Palma connection is reinforced by the use of music by Pino Donaggio, with his score that takes its cues from Bernard Herrmann. Giulio is also seen watching Murnau'sNosferatu and Paul Wegener's The Golem. Giulio's apartment is overdecorated with movie posters, which like those in the video store almost distract from paying attention to the film's story.

Signature elements of Argento's style include extreme close ups of lock mechanisms, traveling shots observing people through windows, and a gloved killer. The violence is toned down, possibly due to the film serving as a pilot for a proposed television series. For those unfamiliar with Argento, go directly to Suspiria or Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Those who are waiting for the completion of the "Three Mothers trilogy" just need to know that Do You Like Hitchcock is far less traumatic than Trauma, and neither deep nor red.

Posted by peter at 09:01 AM

August 24, 2006

Stay

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Marc Forster - 2005
Twentieth Century Fox Region 1 DVD

In an early interview, Marc Forster mentions several of his favorite filmmakers. Reading this after seeing Stay certainly adds to a critical perspective of this film, a box office failure following mixed reviews. It is of little surprise that the most positive, or at least respectful criticism, was by those critics I knew were familiar with most of the films by Kubrick and Bunuel, as well Nicolas Roeg. Stay could also be read as a reworking of the themes of memory as filmed by Alain Resnais, with the literary roots of Jean Cayrol and Marguerite Duras. One could even think of Stay as a kind of tribute to the Twentieth Century Fox of thirty years ago, the company that brought the cinematic dreams of Louis Malle and Luis Bunuel to the U.S.

What I am certain frustrated audiences, and not a few "critics" was that Forster dives directly into a narrative stuctured around the act of dreaming without giving the viewer a context to distinguish dream from reality. Based on my own admittedly flimsy memories of dreams, the narrative of Stay reasonably reflects the seamless jumping around from place to place, people who may have the names of familiar people but might not look like them (or vice versa), and settings that shift for no identifiable reason. Forster maintains the appearance of a linear narrative by linking his scenes visually, so that it may appear that a characters sees himself outside a window, or one shot digitally blends in with another shot. One scene, of Ewan McGregor chasing Ryan Gosling (seen above) down a seemingly endless spiral staircase recalls The Believer, with Gosling running up a staircase with no end. One of the other interesting visual touches is the motif of twins and even triplets who occassionally appear in some shots in the background, as well as the use of some of the supporting actors in more than one role. Stay may remind some of the writings of Borges, where identities are not always certain, and there is sometimes no difference between dreams and reality.

A piece by Jason Kaleko, commented on by Kim Voynar at Cinematical discusses the lack of originality in Hollywood films. The usual suspects, Hollywood producers and the desired young audience, are declared guilty again. What passes for film criticism in most mainstream outlets has been less than helpful. One could also blame those optimistic executives at Fox who thought there was an audience for a 50 million dollar art film, forgetting that the stars of Star Wars and The Ring were the movies themselves, not Ewan McGregor or Naomi Watts.

I am glad that chances were taken, and Stay was made. Those few times a big budget Hollywood production goes against the grain of sequels, remakes and comic book adaptations need to be appreciated, though hopefully not in retrospect.

Posted by peter at 08:35 AM

August 22, 2006

Dogs on a Plane

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As much as I love movies, I generally hate watching movies on airplanes. Not only has the act of viewing a film declined as the technology has theoretically improved, but the quality of films is wretched. I feel somewhat nostalgic about watching Treasure Island with Orson Welles on a single screen in a jumbo jet, flying from NYC to LA in 1973. My eyes water thinking about the time an airline goof put me in First Class, where I got to enjoy John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. Since those glory days, it appears that the rule of thumb in domestic flights is to show the worst film available on awkwardly placed little screens that are either too far or too close for comfortable viewing.

My one experience with European flights was only marginally better due to the choice of films. I was on SwissAir (motto: Forget the lack of leg room, we give you free chocolate). There were about eight or so films to choose from in a variety of genres and languages. Being a long flight, I saw the Hong Kong action film Full Contact followed by Woody Allen's Anything Else?. The screen, about eight inches diagonally, was on the back of the seat in front of me. This meant that the person in front of me had to sit still. I also had to adjust my viewing angle or the image would be a bunch of shadowy blobs.

Even worse have been flights on United (motto: We use to be good when we had real competition). Someone realized that passengers on an airplane truly are a captive audience. There was no way I could escape from Queen Latifah in Taxi. Last month, when I flew back from San Francisco to Miami, I had to switch planes in Denver. I ended up glancing at Eight Below twice in addition to the remake of The Shaggy Dog. For some of us, no movie for a few hours is better than being stuck in G rated movie hell. It's not that I hate the entire Disney Dog movie genre - Old Yeller was the first movie I saw in a theater, when I was six years old.

As a little act of rebellion, my partner took out her i-Pod and we watched a William Burrough's film she had downloaded from Ubu. The Cut Ups briefly distracted me. Certainly in a variety of ways this little film provided a marked contrast to what everyone else on board was viewing.

I'm concerned about the ban of personal electronic devices on future flights. Some of us may want to watch a movie while flying, just not the movie that the airline has chosen as suitable for its customers. I know I should be concerned about people with box cutters, flamable shoes or explosive sports drinks. What really scares me is being several miles in the air when I learn that I'm stuck with another movie starring Tim Allen.

Posted by peter at 09:41 AM

August 21, 2006

The Friz Freleng Blog-a-thon: Hi Diddle Diddle

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Andrew L. Stone - 1943
Animated sequences by Friz Freleng
Alpha Video Region 1 DVD

Credited to "Leon Schlesinger Productions", Friz Freleng's work on Hi Diddle Diddle has something of the spirit, if not the look of his work with Warner Brothers. The film it is a part of is a cute, if dated, farce by Andrew Stone that in recent years has been championed by Quentin Tarantino. There are a few chuckles to be had. This is one of those comedies that must have seemed funnier in conception than in actual execution. Freleng's work is first seen in the title sequence involving a lovebird with a roving eye. The stills featured here are from the last two minutes of this 72 minute film.

One of the film's several running gags involves Pola Negri as a less than talented opera singer who specializes in Wagner. In the final scene, Negri, Billie Burke, June Havoc and others have joined in a chorus from "Tannhauser". Negri's husband, Adolph Menjou (seen above) looks at the cacophony with resignation, while the characters painted on the wall take on life, and flee in horror.

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While the howling pups look similar to those in a Warner Brothers' cartoon of the same era, the humans, such as the character below could have been refugees from something out of the Van Beuren Studios of the Thirties. While the animated sequence is essentially a work for hire, it is appropriate that the animator responsible was the person who had the longest tenure at Termite Terrace. If Freleng's work never was a distinctive as the work of Tex Avery with its play on words, Frank Tashlin's spoofs of Hollywood or Chuck Jones' reducing the cartoon to simplicity and nearly abstract backgrounds, one could almost always count on some manner of silliness for its own sake such as Bugs and Yosemite Sam taking a moment to demonstrate their dancing ability.

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That the animated sequences were considered the high point of Hi Diddle Diddle at the time of release is suggested by this excerpt from the New York Times' review from September 24, 1943: "Mr. Stone has demonstrated his craftsmanship heretofore, so there's no doubting that he started out with an idea this time, one which was to result in a new type of screwball comedy. But there is no telling what he had in mind from "Hi Diddle Diddle." The film has a novel introduction, beginning with a cartoon sequence and ending on an even more unusual cartoon note."

For more celebrations of Friz Freleng's 100th birthday, check out the links at Hell on Frisco Bay.

Posted by peter at 07:30 AM | Comments (3)

August 19, 2006

The Friz Freleng Blog-a-thon: A Pictorial Preview

This Monday will be devoted to the Friz Freleng Blog-a-thon as proposed by Brian Darr of Hell on Frisco Bay. Below are some images from "The Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 2" from the animator also known as I. Freleng.

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Little Red Riding Rabbit - 1944

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Bugs Bunny Rides Again - 1948


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Hyde and Hare - 1955

Posted by peter at 01:24 PM | Comments (1)

August 18, 2006

The Wedding Party

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Brian De Palma, Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe - 1969
Troma Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In part because of the entries written by Girish on his blog, and because I like to be a completist with some filmmakers, I finally saw Brian De Palma's debut feature. Filmed in 1964, with a copyright dated 1966, the film did not receive theatrical play until the release of Greetings, De Palma's first film to get significant distribution following its December 1968 opening. The evolution of Brian De Palma will probably be better evaluated by the scheduled DVD release of his first solo directorial credit, Murder a la Mod from 1968.

What importance The Wedding Party has is largely based on its being the first film for several participants in the cast. Cast primarily with actors and friends from Sarah Lawrence College, the film includes Jill Clayburgh, as well as three actors who would collaborate several more times with De Palma - Jennifer Salt, and William Finley, seen above to the left of Charles Pfluger and future De Palma star Robert De Niro. Had none of the actors or the co-writer/director gone to greater acclaim, The Wedding Party would probably be another forgotten student movie.

This is not to say that the film is bad or unwatchable. The Wedding Party is the kind of cute farce that students from the Sixties would make primarily for an audience of their peers. Having been an NYU film student at the end of the decade, I speak from experience. De Palma's taste for satire and sight gags would be developed in future films. The rich white people teased gently here would be treated more savagely in films like Greetings and Hi, Mom. Some of the visual humor is inspired, if not by silent films, then second-hand by Godard, Truffaut and quite probably, Richard Lester.

De Palma has become something of the Rodney Dangerfield among the so-called Film Generation directors. Instead of giving his films fair evaluations, De Palma has too frequently been written off for imitating Alfred Hitchcock. I have to wonder why Claude Chabrol is not held to the same standard, especially as his films have become increasingly formulaic. More than any other filmmaker from the Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol has made films that are similar to the French "Cinema of Quality" that Cahiers du Cinema had rebelled against fifty years ago. De Palma, at his best, including the maligned Femme Fatale, still manages to take his narrative into unexpected places, often with startling images. While Chabrol sometimes is too refined for his own good, De Palma is unafraid to shock, jolt and above all, entertain.

Posted by peter at 09:00 AM | Comments (1)

August 16, 2006

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Doppelganger Double Feature

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Seance/Korei
Kiyoshi Kurosawa - 2000
Home Vision Entertainment Region 1 DVD

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Doppelganger/Dopperugenga
Kiyoshi Kurosawa - 2003
Tartan Video Region 1 DVD

The recent release of the American version of Pulse inspired me to catch up on a couple more films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. As it turned out, Seance was based on the novel Seance on a Wet Afternoon, filmed in 1964 by Bryan Forbes. Kurosawa's film isn't so much a remake as it is a twisted reworking of key plot elements. While Kurosawa admits to no direct literary or filmic influences for Doppelganger, the film shares with Dostoevsky the notion of a "twin" who appears to create havoc on one's life. As it progresses, Doppelganger takes on the resemblance to some of the films of Brian De Palma. While Kurosawa is unable to sustain a comic mood for more than a few seconds, he is consciously aiming for a dark comedy with moments of slapstick. What is also shared with De Palma includes several scenes using split screens, and De Palma's thematic obsession with twins or doubles. Seance also has a De Palma connection by having Koji Yakusho play a sound recordist, a job somewhat similar to that of John Travolta in De Palma's Blow Out.

Both of Kurosawa's films here begin similarly with an explanation of doppelgangers including the explanation that one who sees their "twin" will die soon. At its best Seance is like a contemporary version of the kind of horror films produced by Val Lewton in the Forties. Kurosawa creates a sense of creepiness and unease with lights, sound, wind and those unknown horrors that are just outside the camera frame, if not behind a door or under a blanket. Showing the ghosts, faceless people who suddenly appear and disappear at will, undermines the mood of Seance, perhaps the fallout of viewing Japanese and American versions of The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water. The J-Horror ghost, especially the screaming kid, has quickly become another film cliche. The appearance of doppelgangers aside, Seance maintains its suspense as several coincidences add up to tragedy, and a middle-aged couple who think of themselves as ordinary find themselves in an extraordinary situation made worse by a every attempt to outguess fate.

Doppelganger is unusual in that Kurosawa is in a more playful mood, and the usually somber Yakusho even cracks a smile as his character's mischievous alter ego. The doubles in Doppelganger are twins who are opposite selves. In some ways, Doppelganger could be seen as having Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde share the same space. The film is also a critique of how scientific altruism and a demand for perfection get corrupted by capitalism. The split screen is sometimes used to show Yakusho as the twins in two different places at once, while at other times the technique indicates the character's sense of split personality. While the narrative goes into unexpected directions when Yakasho's scientist and his double co-exist in an uneasy truce, Kurosawa is by nature too serious even for the blackest of comedies. Displaying humor in brutality and violence takes a special talent that eludes this Kurosawa. No matter how funny Kurosawa tries to be, it's as if he were on automatic pilot to make the kind of serious-minded horror films that first gained him attention. Another critic mentioned that Doppelganger might represent Kurosawa's conflicts of his demands as an artist with the demands of Japan's film industry. If the conclusion of Doppelganger is any indication, it can be seen as symbolic of someone who creates and then destroys his own art because of the impossibility of offering it to the public on the artist's own terms.

Posted by peter at 02:51 PM | Comments (3)

August 14, 2006

Beautiful Boxer

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Ekachai Uekrongtham - 2003
TLA Releasing Region 1 DVD

I've been watching more Thai films in anticipation of a possible extended visit to Thailand. One side advantage of Beautiful Boxer is that it was largely filmed where I will be staying, in Chiang Mai. My partner, who has spent time there has verified how much the film is accurate in showing life in Thailand based on her Chiang Mai experience. One major point worth noting is seeing the difference in a society where attitudes are informed by Buddhism, especially in the attitude towards transexuals.

The film is based on the true story of Parinya Charoenphol, also known as Nong Toom. Seen in the still above in various phases of her life, the film follows Toom's life from a female-identified boy through his career as boxer, ending with sexual reasignment surgery. While I do not know enough Thai to recognize the word used to describe Toom, and it is not the pejorative "kathoey", the English word used, transvestite, is certainly inaccurate to describe a man who desires to be a woman, rather than one who dresses for sexual pleasure. The only other glaring fault to this film is the overuse and sometime inappropriate use of graduated colored filters, as if no one trusted that the Thai countryside looks beautiful enough.

The film is neither as lurid nor as exploitive as its subject matter might suggest. Uekrongtham gives equal time to the Boxer as he does to the Beautiful. A good portion of the film is devoted to showing Toom's training in Thai boxing. One scene showing an advanced class in training is balletic, similar in some ways to capoeira, martial arts as dance. That Toom grows and evolves with the support of family and friends, and transitioned as a teenager, is a more positive presentation of a transgendered person on film than appears in most Western films. The film is critical of the show business aspects of sports, and to some extent the violence of boxing, as well as some of the attitudes shown to transexuals and "ladyboys". The scene showing Toom's father expressing concern prior to the sexual reasignment surgery may be one of the best moments in a movie to illustrate "family values".

Posted by peter at 12:30 PM | Comments (3)

August 13, 2006

Otto Preminger: A Girl in Trouble is a Film Noir Thing

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Whirlpool
Otto Preminger - 1949
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

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Bunny Lake is Missing
Otto Preminger - 1965
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

" . . . read masses of noir novels and see film noirs in abundance. As long as you only do your killing in your imagination, we'll be able to to sleep in peace. It's the blessing I wish for us all."
Marcel Duhamel from the preface for A Panorama of American Film Noir by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton.

I've been reading Borde and Chaumeton's book on Film Noir. Duhamel published crime novels as part under the banner of La Serie Noire (Series Black). While the literary roots of film noir are explored, I had to think of the other color, yellow, and how much of what Borde and Chaumeton write could easily be applied to Giallo, both in print and on the screen. The relationship between noir and giallo has yet to be fully explored. It would be facile to say that giallo is a less polite version of noir, a more obvious display of noir's sex and violence. Neither of the Preminger films that I saw could be defined as giallo, but some of the more lurid aspects to Whirlpool and especially Bunny Lake is Missing suggest these films could be viewed as transitional links.

Both films are about women in peril, in situations that defy rational explanation. Both women are also made to doubt their sanity by both well-meaning and not so well-meaning men. While Whirlpool is the more conventional film, from Guy Endore's novel, Methinks a Lady, an examination of Endore's bibliography suggests a greater interest in sex and horror than could be accommodated in an American film in the late Forties. The narrative of the "crazy" young woman would be explored by such giallo filmmakers as Mario Bava and Sergio Martino. Both of Preminger's films have Gene Tierney and Carol Lynley as the victims of men who are revealed as crazier than is alleged of either woman. In the Preminger films, as is often the case in giallo, the plot hinges on a psycho-sexual secret.

Being the Forties, one of gorier parts of Whirlpool is described, leaving its vividness up to imagination of the audience. In the more open Sixties, Preminger could openly mention abortion and hint at incest. The scene of a doll set on fire in Bunny Lake is not far removed from Dario Argento's troubled characters haunted by childhood trauma. Sado-masochism, a frequent staple of giallo, is also clearly suggested in Bunny Lake by the whip wielding Noel Coward. Bringing things to a sort of circle, it should be noted that De Sade was the subject of a book by Guy Endore. In the Preminger films, like the giallo films, the villain isn't just crazy, he's "let's lock the door and throw away the key" nuts.

Because of the crumbling restrictions of the Production Code, it may be that Preminger took on Bunny Lake not only to make a smaller film in the midst of his larger scale works of the Sixties, but also to make the kind of film he could not make in the Forties during the period between Laura and Angel Face. A tentative connection to horror films is made by the inclusion of the British invasion band, The Zombies, most famous for their song, which would have been fitting for Bunny Lake, "She's Not There". What is interesting about Bunny Lake is that there is what could be described as a subjective breakdown of the narrative during the scene of adults playing childrens' game such as "Hide and Seek". The transition is initially jarring. At the same time the scene anticipates some of the subjectivity that would appear in giallo films which would reflect the disoriented and disorienting worlds of villains and victims. Preminger, unlike someone like Argento, would still have one foot in the "real" world, returning within a few minutes to a more objective view. This scene, plus the explanatory scene that precedes it are not only key to Preminger's film, but suggest that Bunny Lake is Missing could be re-examined as a transitional link. Preminger may have been reworking Film Noir for a post-Psycho audience, but Bunny Lake also contains some of the seeds that would grow wildly, colorfully, and often with little inhibition, in Giallo.

Posted by peter at 09:00 AM

August 11, 2006

Two by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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Mysterious Object at Noon/Dokfa nai meuman
Apichatpong Weerasethakul - 2000
Plexifilm Region 0 DVD

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Tropical Malady/Sud Pralad
Apichatpong Weerasethakul - 2004
Strand Releasing Region 1 DVD

This Saturday, I will be initiating the first of several films presented at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in conjunction with "Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee". If there are readers of this blog in the Miami metro area, I hope you come by and say hello. Dana Keith, director of the cinematheque will also offer free coffee.

* * * * * *

Of the handful of Thai filmmakers known in the west, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is probably the most acclaimed and, for me, the most difficult to fully understand. Unlike Pen-Ek Ratanaruang or Wisit Sasanatieng, Weerasethakul is not interested making films with obvious narrative structures. The two films currently available on DVD are the work of someone more interested in observing human activity from a distance. There is a narrative of sorts in both films, but of the sort that requires the audience to look and listen, essentially demanding more than passive viewing.

It is not surprising that Weersethakul's films are not popular in his native Thailand, where horror movies frequently rule the box office. With his company Kick the Machine, Weerasethkul and other like-minded film-makers are exploring ways to redefine the concept of Thai cinema, both looking toward the future and honoring the past. Weerasethkul's films are specifically about being Thai, with a narrative structure that is indirect, seemingly meandering.

Weerasethakul has stated that Mysterious Object at Noon was inspired by the Surrealists' "Exquisite Corpse". Weerasethakul bills himself as a story editor rather than a director on this film. Several people narrate a story about a young boy, elaborating on different parts of the story or the characters. The film is not quite a documentary as much as it could called an assemblage of different narrators alternating with observations of life in the Thai countryside. While the first woman who begins the story needs to be prodded, the film ends with children who enthusiastically add detail on top of detail.

The more widely seen Tropical Malady is somewhat more conventional, but also achieves direction by indirection. There is an early scene where one of the characters, Tong, is flirting with a young woman on a bus. From there the film emphasises the soldier Keng's flirtatious pursuit of Tong. Weerasethakul wanders between scenes of Keng wandering through Bangkok and Tong with his country neighbors. Most of the first half of the film takes place during the day, ending with Tong and Keng kissing each other's hands and Tong seen disappearing into the night. This ending provides a kind of seque to the second half which takes place almost entirely at night. Weerashethkul uses Thai folklore as a beginning point with Keng hunting, or being hunted by, a tiger that may have the spirit of Tong. The second half also owes some of its visual style to Henri Rousseau with its people and creatures barely seen peeking out of the jungle, while Weerasethakul also cites Jacques Tourneur. In spite of the idiodsyncratic and personal nature of Weerasethakul's storytelling, Tropical Malady is understood more on an intuitive than intellectual level.

Posted by peter at 07:39 AM

August 09, 2006

Three by Daniel Burman

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Waiting for the Messiah/Esperando al Mesias
Daniel Burman - 2000
TLA Releasing Region 1 DVD

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Every Stewardess goes to Heaven/Todas Las Azafatas van al Cielo
Daniel Burman - 2002
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

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Lost Embrace/El Abrazo Partido
Daniel Burman - 2004
New Yorker Films Region 1 DVD

In the most recent issue of "Film Comment" is an article on the films of Daniel Burman. I had a couple of his films in my rental queue and quickly hiked them up to the top. The most immediate theme to emerge is that of the meaning of personal identity, in particular what it means to be Argentinian. Messiah and to a lesser extent, Lost Embrace, also explore what it means to be Jewish in Argentina, with both starring Daniel Hendler as a young man named Ariel, though as two different characters in the two films.

It is worth noting that while Buenos Aires has the largest Jewish community in Latin America, significant acts of anti-Semitism have also occurred there, including the bombing of a community center in 1994. I bring this up only because, with the main exception of something like Schindler's List, Jewish identity is closeted in Hollywood entertainment. When someone is clearly identified as Jewish, it is primarily for comic effect. Not that Burman's films are humorless, which is certainly not the case, but his characters feel more at ease about mentioning their Jewish identity than anyone on "Seinfeld". One of the funniest lines in Waiting for the Messiah is when Ariel thinks he has misunderstood a new female acquaintance and asks himself if she said she was "Goy or gay?"

In one way or another, Burman's characters have been knocked off-kilter by a traumatic event. Waiting for the Messiah takes place against economic crisis in Argentina, with a former banker suddenly becoming homeless, and others looking to survive as best as possible. Stewardess is initially about a doctor who finds his existence meaningless following the death of his wife. The characters find themselves stranded in a remote town due to threats of "terrorists". Ariel in Lost Embrace is conflicted about the disappearance of his father soon after his birth, and the father's reappearance over twenty years later. While Stewardess has a more conventionally happy ending following its melancholy beginning, the Messiah and Lost Embrace conclude with Ariel in a tentative peace with himself.

The idea of displacement and alienation is also presented in the environment. Messiah takes place during the Christmas holiday season while Ariel Goldstein and family celebrate Hannukah. Stewardess takes place in Ushuaia, cold and remote. Lost Embrace primarily takes place in a small shopping mall standing for multicultural Buenos Aires.

Hopefully someone will be able to interview Burman in depth about his filmic influences. Not only is the title similar to Fassbinder's Mother Kusters goes to Heaven, but the film ends with the same manic samba used in Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Tony Holiday singing in Francois Ozon's film, while Burman uses Rafaella Carra. Burman seems to have an afinity for Italian cinema with the casting of Stefania Sandrelli in Waiting for the Messiah, while Lost Embrace includes a clip from the DeSica tearjearker, Sunflower.

Posted by peter at 09:10 PM

August 05, 2006

My Late Mario Bava Birthday Celebration

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Knives of the Avenger/I Coltelli del Vendicatore
Mario Bava - 1966
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

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Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre
Garry S. Grant - 2000
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In anticipation of Tim Lucas's book on Mario Bava, I've made a point of seeing as many films as possible. Like most people familiar with Bava's work, I prefer his horror films, especially Black Sunday and The Girl who knew Too Much. In filling in the gaps, I even took in a late night cable showing of Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, Bava's one attempt at making a Western.

I found Knives of the Avenger a bit more rewarding. I don't know how much Bava's heart was into making a Viking film, but certainly one can see his hand in the framing and composition. Some of the costuming made me think of a furry version of the peplum, the sword and sandal genre that was popular in the early Sixties. The story could have easily been remade as a Western, with elements that strongly recall Shane. Certainly the mask Cameron Mitchell wears has similarities to the mask forced on Barbara Steele in Black Sunday, a similarity Bava emphasises in a scene of Mitchell raping Viking queen Elissa Pichelli. Without the mask, Mitchell is a bit distracting to look at with his dyed blond hair contrasting against his dark stubble filled jaw. What I did like about Knives of the Avenger is that it is a reminder of a time when adventure films that took place in a distant past were a common staple of filmgoing. If Bava was not overly concerned with the story, the film is filled with several loving gazes at the sea, something of a visual continuation from Whip and the Body.

The documentary on Bava is somewhat worthwhile as an overview of Bava's career. Part of the hour is wasted on proving how much Alien was influenced by Planet of the Vampires and how Friday the 13th is a remake of Bay of Blood. I would have prefered to see some example of Bava's work as a cinematographer to get an idea of stylistic similarities between his work for others and for himself. Roberto Rossellini and Raoul Walsh are mentioned, but not the films (La Nave Bianca and Esther and the King respectively) that Bava filmed. There are no clips from Bava's non-horror films, but also no clips from Blood and Black Lace, Whip and the Body or the little seen Rabid Dogs. Maybe the Bava documentary I would ideally like to see is too specialized but it would includes clips that illustrate Bava's sense of composition and use of color to demonstrate his artistry. In terms of Bava's playful side, the anecdotes are cute, but Bava's humor is best seen in the end of the Italian version of Black Sabbath. The film concludes with a shot of Boris Karloff, seen in a medium shot, riding his horse through the woods. The camera pulls back to reveal how the shot is actually done, an example of one of cinema's magicians revealing how he does one of his tricks.

Posted by peter at 06:16 PM | Comments (2)

August 03, 2006

Pretty Poison

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Noel Black - 1968
Second Sight Region 2 DVD

Back in 1968 when Pretty Poison was originally released, no less than Pauline Kael compared Noel Black's directorial debut to that of Orson Welles for Citizen Kane. It is worth mentioning that Black's short film, Skaterdater not only won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1966, but that Black also won a Technical Grand Prize, along with Orson Welles for Chimes at Midnight. For all of his troubles, Orson Welles managed to make several memorable, and even great films, over the course of his career. For Noel Black, one of the first film school grads to become a Hollywood director, he would never again get the critical kudos of Pretty Poison. To the best of my knowledge, the only critical examination of Black's films was the one I wrote for the magazine, "The Velvet Light Trap", published in 1974. Six years after the release of Pretty Poison, Black's following films, Cover Me Babe and Jennifer on my Mind came and went while Black was eclipsed by newer film school grads including Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg.

While Noel Black managed to work fairly consistently, primarily in television, Pretty Poison has managed to be a venerated, if little seen, film. The most recent screenings that I'm aware of were in Los Angeles, sometimes with Black in attendance. Twentieth Century Fox, which bungled the release of the original film, recognized that there was some kind of cult value and produced a made for television remake in 1996. It has taken until just recently for someone at Fox to figure out that there would be interest enough in the original film to warrant a DVD release in the U.S. The British DVD may still be the choice of serious film scholars primarily because it also contains commentary by Black with German film scholar Robert Fischer.

For those unfamiliar with Pretty Poison, it is essentially the story of a young man, recently released from a mental institution, who still has an overly active imagination. A young woman he meets by chance seems entranced by his imagined career as a spy until she finds herself able to manipulate her lover to fulfill her own murderous fantasies. One can argue that Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, while effective in their roles, were too old. The film still intrigues, especially the title sequence with the combination of music by John Philip Sousa and images of the American flag and girls with guns, a high school marching band. The pretty poison of the title refers most obviously to Tuesday Weld's character, seen marching in the title sequence, but also to the red chemicals spilled into the river from the factory where Anthony Perkins works. Pretty Poison could be seen as a parable about the United States in the late Sixties and the violence we do to ourselves, each other and to nature.

The commentary is worth listening to in terms of understanding how the film was developed and filmed, as well as what aspects Black will take credit for or credit others. Fischer, in turn, has an eye for the possible influence Pretty Poison may have had on other filmmakers, especially David Lynch. The influence, and the avoidance of imitation, of Alfred Hitchcock is discussed at several points. I should note that when I first met Noel Black, he told me of his preference for Hitchcock's British films. Even though Pretty Poison is not the earth-shaking debut on par with Citizen Kane, it is still a marvel of economical story-telling. The narrative concerns are still in some ways more meaningful following constant news stories of kids with guns. If for no other reason, Pretty Poison is worth viewing or re-viewing for the image of Tuesday Weld and her killer smile.

Posted by peter at 07:54 AM | Comments (2)

August 02, 2006

The Avant Garde Blog-a-thon: A School of Filmmakers

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Way back in the 1960s, 1967 to be more precise, I was an unpaid helper for a short-lived "hippie" newspaper. I still have one of the issues saved, and recently looked at it for inspiration for my posting today. The article turned out to be less informative than I remembered, but still is a source of pride for me. For whatever problems the city may have, I will always have an unreasonable affection for the city I've spent a major part of my life - Denver, Colorado. Maybe I'm giving this more significance than it deserves, but I always thought it worth noting that three of major filmmakers all went to South High School in Denver, two at the same time, with one graduating a few years later.

The most famous South High grad is Stan Brakhage. A fellow classmate was Larry Jordan. The filmmaker I read about in 1967, with a quote of praise from Brakhage, was Paul Sharits. While the fact that all three filmmakers not only grew up in the same city, and attended the same high school does not make Denver a hotbed of the avant garde, there has to be something more than coincidence at work here. While Denver was certainly less cosmopolitan when I moved there in 1965, one could get some exposure to avant garde art if you knew where to look.

As it turned out, I never saw any films by Brakhage, Jordan or Sharits until I left Denver to study film at NYU. Maybe I went to the wrong high school (I went to East High School). I did have an art teacher who showed some films by Norman McLaren which in turn inspired me to make my own first attempts at experimental film, 16mm black leader with pin scratches. Most of the avant garde films I saw at NYU were part of classes. The teacher I had as an undergrad did little in helping me appreciate what then being called "New American Cinema". Certainly I didn't help myself by walking late to a screening of "Window Water Baby Moving". Fortunately, as a graduate student, P. Adams Sitney was patient enough to explain to me how to study a Brakhage film.

Stan Brakhage was the only one of the three South High filmmakers to return to Colorado. There was something of a bitter joke that one could more easily see Brakhage's films in New York City than in Denver or Boulder, Colorado. Eventually that changed so that Brakhage showed his films at the Denver Film Festival among other venues. Now that several of his films are on DVD, almost anyone can get acquainted with the work of Stan Brakhage. Even Paul Sharits is relatively accessible on Ubu Web and You Tube. Larry Jordan's films can also be viewed, but only as intended, as movies from Canyon Cinema. As for Denver, just as Brakhage inspired Jordan and Sharits, he has also continued to inspire newer generations of filmmakers.

Posted by peter at 12:18 AM | Comments (4)