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January 31, 2007

None but the Brave

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Frank Sinatra - 1965
Warner Brothers 35mm Film

Nathan Gardels in The Huffington Post: The era of globalization finally has its first filmmaker -- Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. His Oscar-nominated film, "Babel," is the first of a new genre in which the Hollywood template is used, in Gonzalez Inarritu's words, to "show the point of view of others, of those on the other side."

Based on the brief biography, Gardels is a pretty bright guy. He probably is way to busy to see a lot of films. I do wish he bothered to at least talk to a couple of film scholars before babbling about Babel. There may be other films I either don't know about or forgot about, but there is at least one film I saw that pointed the way for two current Oscar nominees.

Back when Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was barely out of diapers, and Clint Eastwood was the star of the TV series Rawhide, Frank Sinatra made None but the Brave. After bullying the likes of Lewis Milestone, Robert Aldrich and John Sturges, Sinatra stepped into the director's chair officially for this one time. What made the film unique was that it this was a World War II film alternating between the American and Japanese soldiers. Nothing was said that wasn't expressed in films like All Quiet on the Western Front and almost every film that followed. Based on what little I knew about film at the time, I was excited to see a film that looked at war from the point of view of both "our side" and "the enemy", overlooking the cliches of cast and characters one expected from a Warner Brothers production, albeit a co-production with Toho. One might further argue that Sinatra's film was essentially redone, reduced to a cast of two in John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific and as the multi-million dollar extravaganza Tora! Tora! Tora!. None but the Brave is currently available as a French DVD, and is on VHS in the U.S.

Babel wasn't created in a vacuum. If Gonzalez Inarritu hadn't made it, someone else would have made a similar film. For all I know, someone may have already made that film. Someone well-versed in film history could rattle off the dozen or so films and filmmakers which paved the way for Babel as neither its structure nor its Third World point of view are new. It is for those reasons that Gonzalez Inarritu and Gardels have made statements that I question. In its own way, None but the Brave looked at how people are divided by language and culture, using the Hollywood template of the war film.

Speaking of Third World points of view, for those not humor-impaired, let me recommend this film which illustrates what Thais really think of Americans and the French.

Posted by peter at 02:34 AM | Comments (1)

January 25, 2007

King Naresuan: Part I

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Tamnan Somdej Phra Naresuan Maharaj: Ong Prakan Hongsa
Chatrichalerm Yukol - 2007
Sahamongkol Film 35mm Film

I had to wait almost a week, but subtitled prints of Part One of the King Naresuan trilogy finally came to Chiang Mai. The film is doing well which is to expected being the only new film to open in the past two weeks, with saturated bookings on almost every screen in Thailand. Chatrichalerm Yukol is known in the west for the Francis Ford Coppola edited version of The Legend of Suriyothai. His new film has even greater ambitions than the earlier film, which is five hours long in the original Thai release. Part One clocks in at almost three hours, with a record length combined with a record budget for a Thai film. Chatrichalerm clearly wants to make the Thai equivalent to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and indeed recruited some of Peter Jackson's team to make his film. Chatrichalerm might have done better to have looked at a different trilogy, Masaki Kobayashi's Human Condition films, to see how another filmmaker examined national identity against a historical background.

I have started viewing Chatrichalerm's earlier films on DVD. While his newer films are much more polished than his earlier work, they are connected by the same basic theme concerning Thai identity. The older films examined the ills of contemporary Thailand. The trilogy and Suriyothai can be viewed as films with the goals of instilling a sense of national pride for a country that has a tenuous grasp of its culture, and perhaps as justification for Thailand remaining essentially as a monarchy. Just as in the earlier films, characters are identified by their pride in being Thai or Siamese.

The first film is about Naresuan's boyhood. Taking place in the 16th Century, the Burmese king Bayinnaung, has conquered several Siamese kingdoms. Naresuan, the son of King Mahathammaracha, becomes the Bayinnaung's prisoner and protege. Naresuan, about nine years old at the time, distinguishes himself by his challenges to his captor. Naresuan receives formal education from a Buddhist monk, as well as learning from the Burmese king who stresses that battles are won both by weapons and intellect. Along the way, Naresuan picks up a companion in the form of a begger boy named Bunthing. The two become friends and protectors of a young girl living in the temple, Manechan. Focusing on young kids, the film gets a bit cloying with scenes of the two boys getting caned by the priest for getting involved with cock fighting, or young Naresuan making like Tony Jaa against two bulky opponents. Too often, Chatrichalerm seems to forget the difference between a film for kids as opposed to a film about kids.

Better yet are the scenes involving Bayinnaung demonstrating his pride, wisdom and foolishness. Also impressive are the battle scenes combining the ancient, with soldiers mounted on elephants, and the then fairly modern use of cannons and rifles. The big problem with King Naresuan is that Chatrichalerm has a big story to tell, with several characters who are related in various ways. While the narrative is not too difficult to follow, it occassionally gets confusing for an audience unfamiliar with Thai history. This is the kind of story that has the twists and turns that could easily be part of one of Shakespeare's tales of royal families. Because Chatrichalerm tried to make sure all of the details are covered, the film meanders from one set-up to the next. While Chatrichalerm has stated that each part of the trilogy can be seen as an individual feature, this first film functions primarily as the introduction for the next two films, ending with Naresuan's escape from Burma. Just before the final credits, there is a montage of battle scenes promising excitement in the next two episodes.

There are moments when it would seem that Chatrichalerm should take the lessons of some of his characters to heart with his filmmaking ambitions. King Naresuan is sometimes too big for itself, with too many characters and story lines. There is a character who get the gold, but drowns trying to carry the heavy treasure. The scene serves as an apt metaphor for Chatrichalerm, a sincere filmmaker overwhelmed by his desire to make the great Thai epic.

Cross-posted at Twitch.

Posted by peter at 03:49 AM | Comments (2)

January 23, 2007

Coming April 23: The William Shakespeare Blog-a-thon! (Part II)

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On this day of Oscar nominations, a thought related to a former winning film . . .

There are Jets, and then there is Jet. Might Stephen Sondheim rewrite his lyrics along the lines of "When you're Jet Li, you're Jet Li all the way, from your first kung-fu kick, to your star in L.A."? Probably not.

One of my favorite versions of Romeo and Juliet is West Side Story. The first time I saw it was on the huge screen of the Riviera Theater in Chicago in 70mm, in 1963. I sort of rooted for the Sharks because they dressed better. I saw it again almost twenty years later on pan and scan video tape and was more aware of which parts of the film were directed by Jerome Robbins and which parts were directed by Robert Wise. The last time I saw it was one time when it was broadcast on TCM. I had to wonder if the character of Maria was really dumb when Natalie Wood asks Richard Beymer what the name Tony means. It's the kind of line that makes you wonder if Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein or Arthur Laurents actually knew any Puerto Ricans.

Certainly West Side Story has had influence both in making Shakespeare palatable for a young audience. But of the several versions and variations of the story, I can't think of a Romeo tougher than Jet Li. Li's own martial arts moves go beyond the acrobatics of Russ Tamblyn. Unlike Natalie Wood, Aaliyah was an actual singer. Even though he never said it, Jet Li's roles are of characters who exemplify the words, "Fight till the last gasp." As for Li's character in Romeo Must Die not actually named Romeo, as Shakespeare wrote: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title."

Posted by peter at 08:26 AM | Comments (1)

January 20, 2007

A Century of Thai Cinema

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Compiled by Dome Sukwong & Sawasdi Suwannapak
English edition translated and edited by David Smyth
London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. - 2001

I was hoping to post a review of the biggest movie in the history of Thailand a couple of days ago. Scheduled to play in theaters all over Thailand on January 18, the film was not even available for Bangkok audiences until Thursday evening, while people in Chiang Mai were told to wait until Friday. When I checked the most reliable guide to films playing in Thailand, I found that there were no subtitled prints in Chiang Mai at this time. Keep in mind that normally an English subtitled print of a new Thai film always plays at at least one theater here, irregardless of the quality of the film. The first film in the trilogy of films about King Naresuan may not be a blockbuster going by the first English language reviews. Weighing in are Kong Rithdee of the Bangkok Post, a positive review by Thanong Khanthong of The Nation, Chaiwat Ahantharik at Monsters & Critics, and some funny observations about the selling of the film by Wise Kwai.

2007 may possibly be the year that Thai cinema stumbles after finally attaining international recognition. This month alone has seen the postponing of the Bangkok International Film Festival from January to July, when Thailand is hot or wet, or hot and wet, due to last minute decisions by the Tourist Authority of Thailand. The problem plagued opening of the first King Naresuan film needs to overcome lost momentum, crucial for a film that will primarily earn money from its small domestic market. Official Thailand looks foolish when their Academy Award entry is changed after making a formal announcement. Among Thai film critics and historians is the hope that the newest film by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, Syndromes and a Century, actually gets its promised theatrical run this March. Like several of his talented peers, the filmmaker known as Joe is better appreciated outside his home country.

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There is very little written in English concerning the history of Thai cinema. Finally available in the U.S., A Century of Thai Cinema is somewhat helpful in providing an overview. What is needed is a more detailed examination such as Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie's history of Japanese film. Dome and Sawasdi have a book that is comprised of a few short paragraphs and lots and lots of pictures. There is some discussion about the first feature shot in Thailand, by silent veteran Henry MacRae. Royal involvement with film started from the beginning with the filming of King Chulalongkorn in 1897, while Prince Sanbhassagtra is noted to be Siam's first cinematographer in 1900. The best reason for getting a copy is for the visceral pleasure of the posters, all reproduced in color, with several full page reproductions. The posters that are most fun to look at promise two-fisted adventures with girls and guns, or girls and guns. The artwork from the Sixties frequently resembles some of the posters I remember from American International films, while the posters from the Seventies made me think of some of the films produced by Roger Corman when New World ruled the exploitation market. There are also posters indicating more refined artistic sensibilities at work, such as the above poster. The book overflows with promotion photographs, magazine covers, Thai posters of western films, and photos of film related playing card, records and other collectables. There is also historical information regarding 20th Century Thailand, a monarchy that has simultaneously hosted several military dictatorships, with brief periods of "democracy". A Century of Thai Cinema does very little to add to the woeful lack of information found in the Internet Movie Database. What the book does well is offer some temporary visual enjoyment, both silly and superficial, not unlike most Thai movies.

Posted by peter at 03:20 AM | Comments (1)

January 19, 2007

Some thoughts on Richard Lester on his 75th Birthday

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Richard Lester was the first director I really seriously admired. While other people around my age saw A Hard Day's Night and wanted to be rock and roll stars, I wanted to be the guy who directed the movie. If I couldn't be the director, I wanted to at least be the cinematographer which in this case was Gilbert Taylor. As I had seen just a short time before A Hard Day's Night, Taylor was the person I had hoped I was emulating at the time I was the cinematograper on a 16mm film in junior high school. My idolization of Lester included keeping a profile written about him in the New York Times magazine. I had only seen one other film that he had done, Mouse on the Moon, and that was simply because it was part of a double feature with The Great Escape. But the film with The Beatles gave me a glimpse of very different kind of filmmaking.

What Lester did was not entirely original, but in some ways A Hard Day's Night reflected Brian Epstein's advice to The Beatles. I am paraphrasing here, but Epstein had encouraged The Beatles to be aware of new trends in music in order to stay a step ahead of their audience, while somewhat behind their more avant-gard peers. What Richard Lester did was use some of the techniques from films and filmmakers that while known to cineastes, would be unknown to most teenagers. Parts of A Hard Day's Night owe something to the cinema verite documentary Lonely Boy, about the then popular Paul Anka, as well as the French New Wave, particularly Godard. While Richard Lester may not have created a new cinematic language, he took the elements and served them to an audience that didn't know it was looking for a new kind of movie musical, and an audience looking for an alternative to the traditional Hollywood narrative.

That Lester has chosen to make films that disregard certain audience or film executives' expectations, in spite of popular success, seems to have been a curse as well as a blessing. In 1973, I was working as the Assistant Manager of a Greenwich Village movie theater that was closed one night in order to be used as the location for a short film. Jack Gilford, who starred in A Funny Thing happened on the way to the Forum, had a role in the short. When I asked Gilford about his exerience working with Lester, he complained about Lester not respecting the stage show. Lester's seeming disregard for his source material has caused him to be unfairly maligned by the fanboys for his role in the Superman films starring Chistopher Reeves.

I didn't know that Lester was an uncredited producer on the first film in the series until I had read Steven Soderburgh's interview with Lester. I may be wrong about this, but when I saw the first Superman film, one comic scene in particular looked like something from one of Lester's films. I also suspect that Richard Lester had a far greater hand in the actual direction of the first film than either he or Richard Donner are willing to admit. And while I won't begrudge Richard Donner his Superman II DVD with his director's commentary, I have to wonder why there is no DVD with Lester discussing his work. I also was bothered that when Bryan Singer was about to shoot Superman Returns, he sought out Donner's blessing but not Lester's. What is often overlooked is that Richard Lester was the first choice to direct Superman. While Lester seems to have chosen to maintain distance from his films, a detailed, impartial examination of what the two Richards did on the first two Superman films would be a helpful cure to what sometimes degenerates into partisan bickering.

The overdue release of Petulia on DVD has reminded people of what a great filmmaker Lester was during his first peak of activity. With cinematography by Nic Roeg, one can look at the fractured narrative of Lester's film and make a straight line to Roeg's co-directorial debut, Performance. Without either Lester's jump cuts back and forth in time, or The Beatles paving the way for The Rolling Stones, there arguably would have been no Performance.

Soderburgh's book is frustrating in reading about the films that Richard Lester was not able to make in spite of the success of the Superman films. One of the most vital English language directors forty years ago is now remembered, if at all, for a handful of films. It wasn't overnight, but Hollywood movies changed following the release of A Hard Day's Night. The Beatles starred and sang the songs, but when it came to filmmaking, Richard Lester knew how to rock.

******

Richard Lester's first feature, It's Trad, Dad is scheduled to play on Turner Classic Movies on January 29. I expect to still be in Thailand where I don't get TCM. If anyone out there can record the film for me, preferably on DVD-R format, I will send in exchange a "rare" Asian DVD. There is a gray market version available online, but I the quality is unknown.

Also, Performance is to be available on DVD on February 13. Make sure to check out Tim Lucas' article on the soundtrack (check the Video Watchdog link at the right). Having seen the original film five times theatrically, I have to wonder how completeness of the DVD version. The original film was rated X and Warners has since then had a policy of not releasing films harder than R, although they did release an unrated DVD version of True Romance. Also, the last time I saw Performance, on the Independent Film Channel, it was slightly edited. Significantly missing were a couple of very brief shots that hinted that the characters played by James Fox and Mick Jagger had been together in bed.

Posted by peter at 03:29 AM | Comments (4)

January 16, 2007

A Battle of Wits

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Muk Gong
Jacob Chueng Chi Leung - 2006
Huayi Brothers Region 0 DVD

Just a week or so after it came and went in its Chiang Mai run, I was able to purchase A Battle of Wits on DVD. There will be other DVD versions that will have bigger, more readable English subtitles than the version available from my local street vendor, and it is a film that ideally should be seen on as large as screen as possible. The film is full of great battle set pieces that fully use the wide screen, and make use of the desert and mountain locations.

Taking place approximately 370 B.C. in China, the story is about a lone warrior, Ge Li, who shows up to help one of the warring kingdoms. Ge Li uses strategy that keeps the kingdom from being defeated in battle, and minimizes the casualties on both sides. The lord who benefits from having his kingdom saved allows his pride to take over, jealous over the Ge Li's popularity. The lord is also distrustful of Ge Li's humanity. In one key scene, enemy soldiers are killed once they are captured, in disregard of Ge Li's orders. One scene that has an unintended echo with current events shows Ge Li in conversation with an enemy general. The general wants to go to battle in the name of his 5000 soldiers who have been killed. Ge Li emphasises an life with honor over an ultimately meaningless death.

This is only the secong film I have seen by Jacob Cheung. Previously I had seen Midnight Fly, an intimate drama starring Anita Mui that had a storyline that follows an unexpected path. A Battle of Wits is based on narratives established by a Japanese manga which in turn inspired a novel. Cheung is as interested in the smaller moments as he is in staging battle scenes with hundreds of archers, and soldiers in low-flying balloons. Some of the best moments in the film involve the interplay between Andy Lau as the always forthright Ge Li, and Fan Bingbing as the female cavalry officer who pursues him. The French title of the manga, which translates as "Strategy" would more inclusively describe the activity in the film, ranging from the planning and execution of military battles, the personal philosophical discussions, and the internecine fueds.

Andy Lau has been developing nicely from matinee idol to character actor, and as ably stepped into the kind of role that Leslie Cheung might have taken in the past. What makes A Battle of Wits more interesting than some of the Chinese epics that have been more visible for Western audiences is that Jacob Cheung is more interested in the relationships between his characters than in any displays of technique. There are no martial arts acrobatics, nor any obvious displays of CGI technology. Instead, there is an emphasis on the physical, emotional and moral toll of war. More than dramatizing the oft-stated, "Pride comes before the fall", Cheung shows the confused loyalties of generals and slaves, royalty and serfs. The story, about recognizing the humanity in others, especially those designated as enemies, may seem like a cliche. The obvious similarities between what occurred in China over two thousand years ago, and the events currently in Iraq make A Battle of Wits worth seeking out. Even without those similarities, A Battle of Wits announces that Jacob Cheung has been more than ready to be recognized as one of Hong Kong's more talented filmmakers.

Posted by peter at 02:28 AM

January 04, 2007

Toni

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Jean Renoir - 1935
Eureka! Region 2 DVD

I've been making a point of seeing Jean Renoir's films as they have become available on DVD. While I have seen several of his films theatrically, I have only recently begun to truly appreciate Renoir's work. The turning point may have been a few years ago when I attended a screening of La Marseilles and marvelled at the interactions between characters in a lateral tracking shot. I understood that to create such a shot required a lot of planning and coordination between the technical crew and the actors. What makes Jean Renoir different from someone like Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky, is that Renoir's style of filmmaking usually doesn't call attention to itself or the act of directing.

While I liked Toni, I've been thinking about it more in terms of how it influenced Renoir's assistant, Luchino Visconti. In their commentary track, Philip Lopate and Kent Jones note that Renoir encouraged Visconti to film The Postman Always Rings Twice. With Toni, one can see the seeds of both Ossessione and La Terra Trema.

Some of Cain's characters are similar to those in Toni in that they are poor, working people living hard-scrabble existences. While Lopate and Jones mention the similarities of plots, with the love triangles and murders, neither mentions that Cain wrote about Okies and people like those in Toni who either travelled to find work, or like the diner owner in Postman and the uncle with the small vineyard in Toni have achieved modest dreams working for themselves rather than an exploitive boss. As in Cain's novels, most of the characters in Toni are looking for better lives for themselves, and are involved in questionable relationships based on emotional, if not financial, gain.

Like Toni, La Terra Trema was filmed on location, is about the working poor, used non-professionals as actors, and has a narrative about a worker seeking a way to work for himself instead of being an abused employee. Much has been written about how Toni influenced the creation of Neo-Realism. It is because of the Sicilian location shooting and casting of non-actors that I feel that La Terra Trema could not have been made had Visconti not worked on Toni. A quote from Visconti about a very different film, the elegant Death in Venice could easily apply to the film he worked on as an assistant: "I prefer to tell stories of defeat. I have a soft spot for lonely souls and destinies beat by reality."

Posted by peter at 06:21 AM | Comments (1)

January 03, 2007

The Golden Riders

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Ma-Kab-Phra
Udom Udomroj - 2006
Pranakorn Films 35mm Film

The last Thai film released last week is a cute, if inconsequential story more or less about a couple of novice monks. Had The Golden Riders been more about the monks, and jettisoned the silly romance, it probably would have been a better film. Not that anyone would ever confuse this with something like Kim Ki-Duk's Spring, Summer, etc., although it should be noted that Udom actually had religious advisors according to the credits, while Kim's presentation of Buddhist monks came totally from his imagination.

A better film might have concentrated on the experiences of the chubby boy who goes from Bangkok to a small mountain village, to spend three months as a novice in a remonte monastary. Udom doesn't trust the dramatic or comic elements in this premise, instead adding a cute romance between a young man who also comes to work and teach at the monastary, and the cutie pie daughter of the village chief, the somewhat comic villain who exploits the area farmers. There is also a subplot involving a large cache of gold hidden on the monstary grounds.

There a periodic moments of inspired humor, such as a when a recording of Buddhist chanting is played loud enough to disguise that the young monks are actually sleeping. The monks and novices are given to spouting words of wisdom to each other, as well as those they encounter. One of the small moments that I liked was a nod to the cultural diversity of Thailand, with an abbot explaining that the villagers have their own beliefs and traditions. Still, this is not a film meant to be taken for more than entertainment. The Golden Riders is primarily populated by some good-hearted monks, but in terms of theology, this is close to a Buddhist version of something like Going My Way.

Posted by peter at 08:47 AM | Comments (1)

January 01, 2007

The Circus

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Last Friday night, I went to the circus. Throughout much of the Cyclown Circus' performance of juggling, switching hats on each other's heads, and silly acrobatics, I thought of the Marx Brothers. More specifically, I was thinking of the physical gags and general silliness that the Marx Brothers probably performed on vaudeville almost one hundred years ago. My significant other commented to me that based on the reaction of a Thai acquaintance, as well as the few other Thais in the audience, that the Thais laughed harder and enjoyed themselves much more, and more easily, than the audience which was mostly Western travelers in their 20s and 30s.

Living in Thailand, there was something else I noticed. Available among VCDs of such popular films as Mission Impossible III and Jackie Chan's Rob-B-Hood are the silent comedies of Charles Chaplin. I even saw a young girl, maybe six or seven years old, purchase a copy at the neighborhood conveniece store. Among the several films available are The Circus and The Gold Rush, made when Chaplin was at his silent era peak. I also thought back to when I saw the silent Laurel and Hardy films screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Parents and grandparents brought young children who have never known a time when there wasn't color television, home computers, or DVDs, and they laughed just as hard as earlier generations. That silent comedy is still popular in the beginning of the 21st Century brings up several questions.

I feel like the concept of the "language of film" needs to be reconsidered. What is declared to be "universal" often seems to be made from a Western and academic viewpoint. I don't know if they still do it, but before each film showing, Landmark Cinema's would have a brief "bumper" with various voices in various tongues declaring that "the language of film is universal". In retrospect, it seems like a bit of self-congratulations to an audience that bothers to see films from other countries that have subtitles. I also have to wonder how intertwined the problem is that American audiences seem to prefer verbal comedy over visual comedy, or that filmmakers seem to have lost the knack for making comedies more dependent on sight gags than insults. I know for myself, the funniest parts of the recently seen Jour de Fete were Jacques Tati's pratfalls, such as bicycling into a stream, or accidentally falling through a boarded pit.

Perhaps Chaplin understood why his kind of comedy has remained popular almost thirty years after his death - "I do not have much patience with a thing of beauty that must be explained to be understood. If it does need additional interpretation by someone other than the creator, then I question whether it has fulfilled its purpose." And more simply - "A day without laughter is a day wasted."

Posted by peter at 10:20 PM | Comments (2)