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April 30, 2007

After the Wedding

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Efter Brylluppet
Susanne Bier - 2006
IFC 35mm Film

At one of the many dramatic points in After the Wedding, I understood why her past two films are getting English language remakes. There is a sense of raw, primal emotion expressed by Susanne Bier's actors that has been forgotten by most Hollywood filmmakers. While formally not a Dogme film, After the Wedding carries the same sense of immediacy.

I made a point of seeing Bier's new film theatrically based on how impressed I was by Brothers. Bier's favorite theme is exploring how a relationship, usually a marriage, shifts as the result of an unexpected event, possibly catastrophic. Mads Mikkelson plays a teacher at an orphanage in India, whose invitation to the wedding of the daughter of a Danish benefactor has unimagined consequences.

Initially the film seems casual in setting up the events which coincide with the pre-wedding activities of the characters. And it is "after the wedding" that the characters relationships become defined and re-defined, based on what is revealed about them to the audience and to each other. Without laying everything out at once, Bier and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen manage to create sympathetic characters often in spite of what they do, as much as for what they do. Much of the film's energy is in the performance by Rolf Lassgard who at times suggests what Brando's Stanley Kowalski would have been like if he were a wealthy Dane. Much of After the Wedding pivots on Lassgard, swinging suddenly from boor to mensch.

Bier also makes use of extreme close-up of eyes and lips of her actors. Additionally there are shots of the eyes of animals, the heads mounted as trophies, as well as images of dried and dying flowers. After the Wedding opens and closes with montages of street life in India. In an indirect way, Bier and Anders have created a variation on the life of Buddha. One could read Mikkelson's journey as that of the boddhisatva discovering the Four Noble Truths. Bier is only marginally interested in contrasting the differences of life between the poor Indians and the wealthy Danes. After the Wedding is more of a reminder that no matter how isolated or sheltered one may be, there is no escaping birth, maturation, disease and death.

Posted by peter at 04:45 PM

April 29, 2007

Semen: A Love Story

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Semen: Una Historia de Amor
Daniela Fejerman & Ines Paris - 2005
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

There was this routine by the Sixties comedy act, The Smothers Brothers. Dick described as song as being poignant. Tom, playing dumb, asked what poignant meant. Dick's explanation of the word was "pregnant with feeling". Tom introduced the song as being about a girl who was nine months poignant. With the Smothers Brothers definition in mind, Semen is a poignant comedy about artificial insemination.

Actually the film is a bit more than that. Fejerman and Paris' previous film, My Mother likes Women was a bit of fluff that could be described as "Almodovar-lite" in its look at three sisters dismayed by their mother's unexpected choice in love. Even though this new film sidesteps several serious issues concerning medical ethics, the romance between a clumsy doctor and a trapeze artist is given a sense of both literal and symbolic gravity by the lead actors.

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The story gets progressively more preposterous. This is the kind of whimsical story telling that European filmmakers are more adept at making. Argentinian actor Ernesto Alterio plays the young doctor who literally falls in love. Leticia Dolera charms as the trapeze artist and her twin sister. The filmmakers who both write and direct as a team are interested in comic explorations of not only family dynamics, but in alternative families. Even if certain plot points collapse under casual scrutiny, there is a sincerity about the proceedings, so much so that I feel too much respect, prefering to avoid the puns one can easily shoot off with a title like Semen.

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Daniela Fejerman and Ines Paris

Posted by peter at 12:13 AM

April 27, 2007

Platform

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Zhantai
Jia Zhang-Ke - 2000
New Yorker Video Region 1 DVD

What I liked about Platform is the way history unfolded. Jia has most of the action taking place with full shots, almost constantly from a distance. The passage of time is announced through the changes of clothing that the characters wear, and the songs they listen to or sing. The film's title is from a Chinese song about emotional and physical distances.

Taking place between 1980 and 1990, Jia's film is about the cultural changes in China during those years. A group of perfomers, "art workers" go from town to town with a repetoire of songs praising Chairman Mao. As China changes, so does the group, evolving from government sponsored performers to a band performing their own verson of rock music. Platform is a portrait of a country that was as marginally aware of the world outside its borders, as many were unaware of what life was truly like within China.

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Even though the Cultural Revolution has been over, the Chinese are shown stumbling over what it means to be a good party member or an artist. Being an artist, even when it is done solely in the name of Mao is suspect. A son tell his mother that her mind should be liberated - the mother's response is that the son should practice self-criticism. A father reads from the introduction of a comic book version of Camille that indicates that Dumas' story was made available as a critique of Western politics and culture, alarmed that his son is reading about Paris and prostitutes.

Simultaneously to the changes in art was the change of the purpose of art, in this case, music. The first song, performed presumably for an audience that was required to be there, was meant to raise nationalistic pride. As the decade progresses, the songs become more personal. Love of the state is replaced by one person's love for another. What links several of the songs is that they are about travel, going to a particular destination, or knowing someone is at a distance, both literally and metaphorically. No longer a government entity, the group finds itself in a quandry of having the benefit of total control of their art, but dependent on needing to sell themselves to an audience that doesn't understand or want them. Platform is about people who are fueled by the dreams of worlds beyond their province, who sing about travel, but ultimately never leave home.

Posted by peter at 04:22 PM

April 25, 2007

Perversion Story

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Una Sull'altra/One on Top of the Other
Lucio Fulci - 1969
Severin Films Region 0 DVD

Lucio Fulci always wanted to be the thought of as the Italian Alfred Hitchcock. This film may have come closest to that dream. The San Francisco setting and the story of a woman who resembles another who died under mysterious circumstances obviously brings to mind Vertigo. There are other plot points that will remind one of Hitchcock, with virtually every character under suspicion. The last name of the main characters is Dumurrier, which sounds almost like Du Maurier. Of the several Fulci films I have seen, Perversion Story stands out as a smart mystery thriller.

Unlike the horror films Fulci is known for, there is no graphic violence. While Fulci uses extreme close ups of the eyes of his characters, none are gouged as in The Beyond or Zombie. There is much nudity, with Fulci taking advantage of both the new rating code and San Francisco's famed strip clubs. Fulci's cinema has almost always been of excess, but I'll take scantily clad or completely nude women over bloody body parts any time.

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The basic story, about a doctor possibly framed for the murder of his wife, is familiar. Fortunately, Fulci kicks into high gear in the last half hour with a few unexpected twists. Marisa Mell is the femme fatale. Also in the cast are former screen godess Elsa Martinelli and former Howard Hughes' starlet Faith Domergue. Perpetual supporting actor John Ireland plays the dogged police investigator who seeks the truth about pretty boy doctor Jean Sorel.

Concerning the title, Perversion Story was also given to another film by Fulci. One on Top of the Other is the translation of the Italian title. I am not certain what Fulci intended with his title, although it could possibly refer to the layer of lies the characters tell each other.

The DVD comes with a CD of the score by Riz Ortolani. A former jazz musician, Ortolani's music combines several of the jazz styles that would be heard both in film music in the late Sixties, both formal and improvised.

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Posted by peter at 08:20 AM

April 23, 2007

The William Shakespeare Blog-a-thon: Omkara

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Vishal Bhardwaj - 2006
Eros Internation All Region DVD

I have not seen Bhardwaj's version of the "Scottish play". That film was critically and commercially successful enough to encourage Bhardwaj to try adapting Shakespeare again with this version of Othello. While Omkara has its faults, I always find it interesting to watch any kind of attempt to transpose Shakespeare into a different time and culture. In this example, the action takes place in contemporary India, filmed primarily in the countryside of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Othello is renamed Omkara, usually refered to as Omi, and is the gangster chief in his region.

What may be a problem for Shakespeare scholars is how this Othello is presented. Unlike the Moor of traditional productions, Omkara is refered to as half-caste. His mother is described as a slave, which may or may not be an accurate translation from the Hindi dialogue. This brings up the question as to whether what marks the Othello character as an outsider needs to specifically be racial, or is the spirit of the play primarily in the narrative of a trusted adviser manipulating people for his own benefit, making his declared best friend lose trust in his wife before murdering her?

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What may also be considered a problem with this film, but may well be a problem with almost any production of Othello is that Iago is the more interesting character. Here renamed Langda, Saif Ali Khan (seen above) takes his part and runs away with the film, fully enjoying his villainy. In the other productions of Othello that I've seen, the Moor is something of a stiff, trying his best to be one of the guys, but inhibited by his sense of nobility. The Iago here relishes pulling strings and pushing the buttons of those who trust him. The scenes of Langda setting up the machinery of tragedy are laced with black humor. Too often the scenes of Omkara with his Desdemona, here named Dolly, are dull.

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This being a Bollywood version of Shakespeare, there are scenes of singing and dancing. As is often the case in a Bollywood film, the musical portions are the best part of the film. The film stops to allow Bipasha Bisu two opportunities to sing, dance and show off her belly button in her role as Billo, Shakespeare's Bianca. One good thing about DVDs of Bollywood films is that if you want to skip the story but simply enjoy the musical numbers, that option is available. At one point in the film, Dolly, the Bollywood Desdemona, sings an off-key version of a Stevie Wonder song to Omkara. Had I had my way, this Desdemona would have been smothered so much sooner.

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Of the other screen Othellos I have seen, Orson Welles knew how to dominate the screen. His is the only filmed performance that I would bother to see again. Laurence Fishburne did a good job in the 1995 version directed by Oliver Parker, but Kenneth Branagh had all the fun as honest Iago. My introduction to Othello almost put me off to the play altogether. Laurence Olivier may be the greatest Shakespearean actor of my time, but in film he was sometimes still playing to the audience in the balcony, overacting when he should have toned down his performance. I could not stop laughing when I first saw Olivier in blackface in the 1965 film of Othello. Not only did I think that the make-up was a stupid idea at the time when Martin Luther King, Jr. was making news, but I kept on waiting for Olivier to bend on one knee and belt out "Mammy". An honorable mention goes out to Ronald Colman who played a murderous actor playing Othello on stage in A Double Life.

Links to this blog-a-thon will be added during the day. If you wish to contribute a link, write to me at lensdarkly@yahoo.com.

Links: The Shamus investigates Branagh's Henry V
Flickhead - The Bard vs. The Shatner
Odienator discusses actors who should not do Shakespeare
Edward Copeland covers the book The Shakespeare Riots
Daniel Eisenberg on Olivier's Henry V
Windmills of my Mind looks at Shakespeare behind bars
Filmsquish does Tromeo and Juliet
All about my Movies' Emma lists her favorite Hamlets
Ogg's Movie Thoughts are about Hamlet goes Business
The Film Experience loves Lady Macbeth
Jurgen Fauth comes to praise Brando as Marc Antony
Cinebeats takes on Vincent Price and Theater of Blood
Bleeding Tree gushes forth on blood Titus
Andrew Bemis on Polanski's version of "the Scottish play"
Jerry Kutner at Bright Lights After Dark shares a clip from Chimes at Midnight
while Noel Vera takes a good look at Orson Welles and Falstaff
George Thomas looks at the Bollywood Maqbool
Brian Darr takes on Bugs Bunny and the Bard
Bohemian Cinema shows Shakespeare as the ultimate ad man

Posted by peter at 12:03 AM | Comments (2)

April 22, 2007

Two Evenings with Marian Marzynski

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This month, the Miami Beach Cinematheque devoted the majority of their screenings to Eastern European films. The past Friday and Saturday evenings were given over to filmmaker and teacher Marian Marzynski. A peer of Roman Polanski's, Marzynski created his own version of cinema-verite in Poland in the Sixties, and established himself as an unconventional teacher of filmmaking in the U.S. in the Seventies. The presentations were both of reunions.

The Friday evening show was of Marzynski's Polish documentaries. As Marzyinski left Poland as a political refugee, the fate of his documentaries, shown on Polish television, was unknown to him. Not only had the films been saved, but Marzynski was invited back to Poland to present his work to a new audience. The Polish television station, Kino Polska, not only preserved the films, but created a showcase collecting the work. Marzynski received copies of his films in exchange for providing commentary before each film.

Using a telephoto lens, Marzinski allowed his subjects to speak for themselves, sometimes exposing their own folly. The first film documented the reunion of Polish-Americans visiting Poland in 1962, some seeing family members for the first time in decades. A competition between two towns, shows the absurd lengths one may go for civic pride. What was most interesting about documentaries on gymnastic performers and a bicycle race were extreme close-ups of the action, of hands and faces. Marzynski complained about the bicycle race being boring, yet his use of creative angles occassionally gave the film an abstract quality, almost like Leni Reifenstahl on two wheels.

Saturday was for the presentation of Marzyinski's work-in-progress, the autobiographical Life on Marz. Primarily devoted to the years spent teaching filmmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design, the film includes excerpts from the films by his students. There are also several reunions with those students, in Hollywood, on shooting locations, and in Providence. Marz is the nickname given to Marzinski by his students. Among the graduates whose students work is shown are Jean de Segonzac, Bob Kensinger, and Gus Van Sant. Listed among the Marzinski's students is Mary Lambert. It is Marzynski's own story that is of the most interest, getting his first teaching job when someone at RISD assumed that the filmmaker was part of the Czech new wave of the late Sixties and was fluent in English. Marzynski follows up on students that made interesting work as students but had differing career paths, not always art related. Both life and art are presented as the results of circumstance and accident, as well as determination.

* * *

Speaking of The Miami Beach Cinematheque, I will be introducing Tears of the Black Tiger on April 28. Additionally, I will speak a bit about Thai film in general and my four and half months in Chiang Mai.

The big news is that Francis Fold Coppola will be presenting a special screening on May 13 in Miami Beach. The film, Coda: Thirty Years Later is about the production of Coppola's forthcoming Youth without Youth, while the title refers to the thirty years since the making of Apocalypse Now.

Posted by peter at 10:43 AM

April 20, 2007

Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume 1

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Eaux d'Artifice - 1953

Does anybody know if Roberto Rossellini saw Kenneth Anger's Eaux d'Artifice? There is some imagery that is too similar to be coincidental. Film at the Tivoli fountains, Anger has several shots where the camera moves in on the stone faces, the sculptures in the fountain. In a later moment, Anger's female character runs into a grotto that is also an ancient tomb. The similarity to similar images in Voyage in Italy is too much to dismiss. In him commentary, Anger mentions talking with Federico Fellini prior to shooting Eaux d'Artifice, so it seems possible that if Rossellini had not actually seen Anger's film, it could well have been described to him. What is established is that Rossellini's film came out a year later.

It has been over thirty years since I've seen any of Kenneth Anger's films. I had the opportunity to meet Anger in Telluride in 1975. He screened a collection of his films starting at midnight and treated those who stayed for the entire show to breakfast the next morning. While keeping a respectful distance from them, I watched Anger and Stan Brakhage, two old friends, conversing. I felt like I was a privileged observer of two artistic giants. For Anger and Brakhage, it was a personal moment, while for myself it was witnessing the reunion of the two most revered names in personal filmmaking.

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In the past thirty years I've become more aware of Anger's visual humor, as in this shot above. Of the films in Volume 1, the only film I do recall seeing is Fireworks. I liked listening to Anger give a historical context to this film, not only as a cinematic recreation of his dreams, but specifically in reaction to reading about the Zoot Suit riots. While Anger's original intention may have been to shock audiences with scenes of sadomasochism, and document his own homoeroticism, Fireworks turned out to be funnier than the film I remembered.

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The commentary is helpful in pointing out the the lady in the cage seen above is Anais Nin, one of the revelers in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Anger not only tells who his players are, but also which mythological characters they portray. Of some personal meaning to me was seeing Anger's friend Curtis Harrington made to look like the sleepwalker from Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Harrington is one of the few filmmakers who began making personal films before transitioning into relatively mainstream work. I did a shot by shot analysis of Harrington's short On the Edge for one of my classes.

While others have perceptively written about Kenneth Anger, it's nice to be able to see or re-see the films with Anger himself discussing his work. Even if the subject matter or filmmaking style seems remote for contemporary viewers, Anger's influence exists in the use of rock music as a soundtrack and audio commentary. Even if one finds a film like Rabbit's Moon too precious, Anger has the wit to add classic doo-wop songs to his vision of a sad French clown.

Posted by peter at 06:02 PM | Comments (3)

April 18, 2007

Who's Camus Anyway

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Kamyu Nante Shiranai
Mitsuo Yanagimachi - 2005
Film Movement Region 1 DVD

The first shot in Who's Camus Anyway is a single traveling shot that is six and a half minutes long. During this time, characters who are film students discuss similar shots in Touch of Evil, The Player and Shonben Rider. The discussion continues on to Mizoguchi's preference for long takes with minimal cutting, while the talk of a film teacher being nicknamed after a Thomas Mann character sparks students to name their favorite film by Luchino Visconti. Unlike the name-dropping in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, Yanagimachi's dialogue is smarter in its references, more interesting to listen to, and organic to the narrative. There are moments that convey the sense of exhilaration felt in watching certain films or in making films as a student.

One could name the influences of several filmmakers in Who's Camus Anyway. The film most frequently refered to is Truffaut's Story of Adele H.. The young director of the student film, Matsukawa, is pursued single-mindedly by his former girlfriend, Yukari. The students' professor, Nakajo, a former director now teaching film at the university, acts out his own version of Death in Venice, obsessed with a female student. The film the students are making is the recreation of the murder of an old woman by a high school student. The students debate the young murderer's motivation, with the actor studying Albert Camus' The Stranger, perhaps not so coincidentally filmed by Visconti.

What Yanamagimichi seems to be interested in how people feel connected, or disconnected with other people, and how either of those feelings can be channelled into artistic creation or killing someone else. In one scene, a student is reading from a non-fiction book that describes the mind of a murderer, only to have one student think the details fit him, while another student continually, and unconsciously, displays one of the supposed symptoms by talking to himself. At one point in this same scene, the non-fiction book is read aloud at the same time as the actor is reading from The Stranger, a way of expressing that the conflicting ideas may be equally true, or false.

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The intertwining of film and reality is explored in the final scene. Shots of the student film alternate with shots of the students in the process of making the film, setting up each take. The shifts between the film within the film, and the students with their actors are so subtle that at the final shot in the film is both ambiguous and disquieting. Who's Camus Anyway begins as a cheerful celebration of films and filmmaking, but concludes as an inquiry into how art and reality collide, affecting our selves and each other.

Posted by peter at 03:29 PM

April 17, 2007

The Game is Over

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La Curee
Roger Vadim - 1966
Wellspring Region 1 DVD

I'll never know how accurate Roger Vadim's vision of the future in Barbarella will be. But the first shot of Jane Fonda in The Game is Over, showing her exercise, seems prescient. Fonda is even wearing white leg warmers along with her t-shirt and panties. Almost twenty years after Fonda left Vadim, people were paying money for Fonda to excercise in front of a camera.

The Game is Over is essentially another Roger Vadim film that was sold on the basis of showing as much female skin as the censors of the time would allow. By taking a narrative from classic literature, be it Schnitzler, or in this case Zola, Vadim could allow audiences that wouldn't be caught dead at a "skin-flick" to justify that they were watching an art film. The first half of this film has brief glimpses of Fonda partially nude. A scene of her making love with Peter McEnery is made up of shots against a mirror that reduces the two bodies to abstract blobs. This was fairly hot stuff back in 1966 in the last years before the MPAA introduced a new rating code.

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I'm not sure which meaning was intended in the French title. According to one dictionary, curee translates as meaning "scramble for the spoils". The other translation is quarry, as in a stone pit. Both meaning are applicable for this narrative. Fonda plays the wife of a businessman, in a sexless marriage of convenience. Husband Michel Piccoli benefits more from this arrangement as Fonda's money supports his business. Fonda falls in love with stepson Peter McEnery, a college student dependent on his father's largesse. This being a story about love and money by Emile Zola means the conclusion is not unexpected.

What was unexpected was the second to last shot in The Game is Over. I don't know whether the credit goes to Vadim or to cinematographer Claude Renoir. The shot that I have attempted to convey with several screen grabs is a smash-zoom of Jane Fonda. A smash-zoom is a shot in which the camera simultaneously tracks out and zooms in on a character. The first and most famous example of this kind of shot is in Vertigo, shots from the point of view of James Stewart. I recall that Claude Chabrol used that shot at the end of La Femme Infidele, which excited several of my fellow film students at the time. To the best of my knowledge, no one was aware that Vadim had employed the smash-zoom, indeed what little serious writing about Vadim is primarily about who he filmed, but not how he filmed.

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That could also be the way Vadim prefered to be remembered. The Game is Over is worth looking at for its images of swinging Parisians dancing to the tunes of Arthur Brown before he became the God of Hellfire. The film also suggests that Vadim as a filmmaker was a bit more than the sum of his leading ladies voluptuous parts. This quote from Vadim indicates an emphasize of his actresses over his filmmaking style: "One would not ask Rodin to make an ugly sculpture, nor with me to make a film with an ugly woman. It is my style, it is my nature."

Posted by peter at 02:23 PM | Comments (1)

April 15, 2007

Syndromes and a Country

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In Thailand, general film audiences were able to see within the space of a couple of minutes both the rear view of a naked young woman and a hand lopped off by a long, sharp knife. This was in the preview of a new Thai horror film The Haunted Drum.

I cite this film preview as an example of how arbitrary the Thai government is in their concerns about what is appropriate for Thai audiences. What I noticed during my four and half months is that every Thai film was supposedly PG13. That same rating was also applied to Hollywood films like Charlotte's Web and The Last Mimzy. The Thai censors seem to have little problem with violence, I saw a couple of horror films with body parts severed and victims meeting violent deaths, in an audience that included young children. Likewise, language seemed to be of no concern as a well-known four letter word was stated clearly and frequently according to the subtitles. Sex seemed to another matter. While there was suggested nudity in several Thai films, it basically involved seeing the backs and at most, the briefest glimpse of a breast. 300, rated R in the US, was shown as PG13 in Thailand, with pixels covering up Lena Headey breasts and backside. Gerard Butler appeared to be wearing a shingle over his rear. Surprisingly, Babel appeared unaltered, but the ads listed the film as rated R.

Comedies concerning Buddhist monks are a staple of Thai film. While there is no criticism of Buddhism, the monks, usually novices, are shown in silly situations. Humor in Thai films often involves fat people, ladyboys, women and non-Thais.

Quoting Bangkok Post film critic, Kong Rithdee, these are the scenes that the Thai censors objected to in Syndromes and a Century: "The scenes the board found objectionable show a young monk playing a guitar, a group of doctors drinking whisky in a hospital basement, a doctor kissing his girlfriend in a hospital locker room, and two monks playing with a radio-controlled flying saucer."

Even before the military coup, official Thailand has been at odds with Apichatpong Weerasethakul also known as Joe. I have not found the source, but I recall reading that a Thai delegation was flown to Cannes because one of Joe's films had won a prize. Joe had to fly on his own dime as he was told all there were no available seats. While there is a sense of pride that Thai filmmakers have gained international attention, there seems to also be great unease that the most critical accolades have been given to a gay man whose films are not conventional in style or subject.

Since the coup last September, Thai officials changed their mind about which film would be their entry for the Academy Award. After Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves was announced as the official entry, the film was withdrawn. The decision was made by government representatives who objected to a multi-language, pan-Asian film as the Thai entry. It should be noted that two of Pen-Ek's previous films were Thailand's Oscar entries. After the announcements were published, and the film submitted to the Academy, it was decided that Thailand would be better represented by another, more clearly Thai, film.

I was planning to go to the Bangkok International Film Festival during the time I was in Thailand. There were major kick-off events in the Fall of 2006. I knew some people had expressed concern that the festival was not well-attended and was not doing what some had hoped in helping Thai filmmakers, or attracting a Thai audience. The festival was scheduled for late January 2007. The Los Angeles based organizers of the festival were fired around Thanksgiving of 2006 by the Tourist Authority of Thailand. The plan was to have the festival run entirely by a Thai team. The festival was still to go on as scheduled. A couple weeks into January, after assuring everyone that the festival would take place, the Tourist Authority of Thailand announced that the festival was postponed until July. Part of this was to make sure that the maximum number of screens were available for the first King Naresuan film, a guaranteed money maker for Thai theater owners. But postponing until July means hoping that the international film community would want to visit Thailand during the hottest, wettest time of the year.

I understand the sense of national pride Thais have for themselves and their country. What is of concern is that the government continually undermine their credibility at a time when Thai films have attracted international attention. This sense of pride comes with a short-sightedness that makes Thailand look foolish. Whether it's a matter of film preservation, or supporting their filmmakers, Thai officials have little sense of value. Even though I fully expect Thai officials to dismiss this petition on behalf of Syndromes and a Century as interference by "outsiders", please sign it to let them know that people are paying critical attention to Thailand.

Posted by peter at 12:00 PM | Comments (7)

April 11, 2007

Cattle Queen of Montana

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Allan Dwan -1954
VCI Entertainment All Region DVD

I wasn't planning on writing on another western. My DVD viewing is currently based on whatever I get next from the Miami Beach Public Library. Even more coincidental is that this film, like Riding Shotgun, is based on a story by Thomas Blackburn. What inspired me to take a look at Cattle Queen of Montana was thinking about Nathaniel R's Action Heroine Blog-a-thon. The oldest of the films Nathaniel refers to is Alien. I'm sure there are other actresses I am overlooking at this time, but among American screen actresses, Barbara Stanwyck provides a great example of a woman as action heroine.

Especially at a time when demographics determine everything in a Hollywood film, Cattle Queen in retrospect seems almost remarkable as the work of a mature cast and crew. Barbara Stanwyck was 47, and just three years away from the even tougher role in Forty Guns. Allen Dwan was still directing films at age 69. Dwan's directorial debut was in 1911, while his final film came out fifty years later. A film like this helps counter the notion that action films should be restricted to younger filmmakers and actors.

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The only thing truly authentic about this western is that it is indeed shot on location in Montana. The film was made at a time when it was common to cast actors like Lance Fuller, Anthony Caruso and Yvette Dugay as native Americans. Of more interest is seeing a supporting cast that includes Sam Fuller regular Gene Evans, Jack Elam, Morris Ankrum and Burt Mustin. Ronald Reagan manages not to get in the way of the fun. Essentially, if the western is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, than this is a nice, simple, well made hamburger, modest but satisfying.

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The main reason to see Cattle Queen of Montana is to watch the petite Stanwyck jump on and off horses, fight off bad guys with her two little fists, crack a whip or fire a six-shooter. Doing a little bit of online research I came across this pictorial of action heroines and this examination of of "action babes". I am hoping that contributors to Nathaniel's blog-a-thon do more than superficial searching for the films and actresses. While I cannot be positive that Barbara Stanwyck was the first female action star, she set a standard that could challenge actresses far younger and much taller.

Posted by peter at 06:00 PM | Comments (4)

April 09, 2007

Andre De Toth and Randolph Scott - Two Films

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Thunder Over the Plains
Andre De Toth - 1953


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Riding Shotgun
Andre De Toth - 1954
both Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

I was rifling through the DVDs at the only store in my end of Miami Beach, looking for a film for the previous blog-a-thon. In the bargain box was this DVD with three films starring Randolph Scott, with two films directed by De Toth. In the almost forty years since Andrew Sarris placed De Toth in the "Expressive Esoterica" category, De Toth have become an almost forgotten filmmaker. The two films on the DVD are part of six films De Toth made with Scott between 1951 and 1954. The was Scott's most significant collaboration with a director prior to the legendary work with Budd Boetticher. Those four years were also the most productive for De Toth, who directed a total of eleven films during that time including the original House of Wax.

The two best online examinations of De Toth are from Fred Camper and Adrian Danks. De Toth's films with Scott are usually mentioned as part of an overview of De Toth's work, but have yet to be more fully examined.

Thunder Over the Plains more easily fits into a study of De Toth's thematic concerns. Scott plays an army officer in Texas after the Civil War. A Texan who was on the Union side, Scott is seen as part of the occupying force maintaining martial law, and by default aiding carpetbaggers who are taking advantage of Texas farmers. The conflicts between professional and personal loyalties would be played out again on the larger canvas of Play Dirty. Throughout Thunder, Scott's loyalties, to the United States, to his Texan community, and to his wife are constantly questioned or challenged. Being a vehicle for Randolph Scott, there is little shading, nor could there be the pessimistic ending of Play Dirty.

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Riding Shotgun

Scott's quandry in Riding Shotgun is that the members of a small town accuse him of robbing a stage coach. This is a decidedly lighter film, but visually more interesting. De Toth's compositions are more dynamic in the positioning of characters. Close-ups alternate with long shots of sometimes one or two people within the frame. Both this film and Thunder were photographed by Bert Glennon. Based on the way space is used, with characters frequently barging in front of each other, it seems possible that Riding Shotgun was originally planned to be filmed in 3-D. Of possibly more interest for contemporary viewers may be the casting of a short actor as one of the bad guys, Pinto. The nasty little guy is billed in Riding Shotgun as Charles Buchinsky.

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Riding Shotgun

Posted by peter at 04:46 PM | Comments (1)

April 08, 2007

Two notes on the Shakespeare blog-a-thon

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There seems to be a bit of synchonicity in the air based on the Shakespeare and film links in GreenCine Daily that recently was posted. Between the book, 100 Shakespeare Films, the retrospective, and the Internet Movie Database list of films, plus the unofficial adaptations of Shakespeare, there are more than enough films to inspire many unique entries.

And speaking of Shakespeare and all that jazz, when you've posted your entry, please contact me via email at lensdarkly@yahoo.com. As most of you know, the blog-a-thon is on the Bard's birthday, April 23. Giving contributors at least a fortnight should be more than adequate to write a well thought out piece, as opposed to those last minute entries that force you to write all night long.

Posted by peter at 12:40 PM

April 07, 2007

Grindhouse

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Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino - 2007
Dimension Films 35mm Film

After all the talk about Grindhouse being a tribute to the low-budget action films of the early Seventies, the film, in total, is a mixed bag. The closest approximations to the kinds of stuff I actually saw on 42nd Street back during those years is to be found in the hilarious previews by Robert Rodriguez, Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie. The preview by Rodriguez, for a film titled Machete, actually looked the closest to what I hazily remember among the previews for films that would sometimes not actually get theatrical play. Wright's preview plays on both the gothic house thrillers, that if they weren't English, would be at least appear to be English, and the horror films with titles that offered stern warnings of something scary in the basement, attic, behind a door, or inside a refridgerator. Zombie's preview of Werewolf Women of the SS would have been considered restrained by the 42nd Street crowd. Just seeing the preview of one of the "Ilsa" movies was disturbing enough for me. Of the two actual features by Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, Rodriquez' Planet Terror is the stronger, more sustained work.

What is a bit jarring are the anachronisms running rampant throughout the films. Both features have contemporary settings but a filmed, more or less, with drive-in aesthetics. The big difference is that Rodriguez maintains the look of an old film - the colors occassionally fade in and out, and at one point the film appears to have been caught in the projector and burns up. The story about a virus that turns people into man-eating zombies never lets up. The narrative doesn't always make sense either, but Rodriguez simply keeps moving forward as we watch the members of a small Texas town shoot their way out of an impossible situation.

The main attraction of Planet Terror is watching Rose McGowan as a former go-go dancer. There is a visceral thrill when McGowan, to put it bluntly, lifts her leg, that is the one that has a machine gun in place. Planet Terror may also prove that Robert Rodriguez has spent a bit too much time looking at medical books, the kind illustrated with the most disgusting diseases ever photographed. There is enough blood, guts and goo for at least ten drive-in classics. It's enough to make a film like Humanoids of the Deep or Galaxy of Terror look like the paragons of good taste.

Death Proof is Quentin Tarantino at his laziest. The film starts off reasonably well, especially after Kurt Russell invites Rose McGowan for a ride, and she finds herself trapped in the passenger seat of a car that is "death proof", but only for the driver. There is a disconnected jump to a scene of four women talking. And talking. And talking. Death Proof almost falls apart during this sequence. Far from being grindhouse in style, Tarantino seems to be incongruously mimicking Jean-Luc Godard when the camera moves back and forth between the conversing women. That he even has four women sitting around talking for so long makes me feel like Tarantino was actually channelling his inner George Cukor. At least with Cukor, the gabfests are usually pretty engaging. Tarantino's conversations don't substantially add anything to the narrative or the characters, causing his film to virtually grind to a halt. Grindhouse tries to play with the audience by having missing reels in the two features, but if there was ever a scene by Tarantino that should have been cut, this is it.

After the laborious set-up, the women test drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger. One of the women does a stunt involving riding on the hood of the car. Russell reappears to ram his car into the Dodge, terrorizing the women. It's fun to watch battling cars, but given a choice, I'd prefer repeat viewings of Fireball 500 or the original Vanishing Point.

The biggest problem is instead of trying to make a grindhouse film from start to finish, Tarantino uses Death Proof to show off his pop culture frames of reference. Using an instrumental by Jack Nitsche is a nice touch. I even enjoyed looking at the vintage movie posters on the walls of a bar. Tarantino shows off his pretentious side by having characters quote Robert Frost. Silly is when Russell discusses how the television series "The Virginian" evolved into "The Men from Shiloh". Sillier is a discussion of the mostly forgotten 60s British band Dave Dee, Dozey, Beaky, Mick and Tich. Tarantino has a brief appearance, as a character named Warren Finnerty.

For a truer grindhouse experience, there are plenty of DVDs with built in double features and previews, with the films that actually played grindhouses and drive-ins. As for the movie Grindhouse, wait for the DVD. I suspect that we will be able to see a special edition, one that includes the "missing reels".

A somewhat different version of this review was published previously at Screenhead.

Posted by peter at 02:00 PM

April 05, 2007

The Trashy Movie Celebration Blog-a-thon: The Brain that wouldn't Die

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Joseph Green - 1962
Genius Entertainment Region 1 DVD

There are at least a couple of reasons to re-evaluate The Brain that wouldn't Die. One of those reasons is that it was a groundbreaking film in terms of on-screen horror. Made in 1959, but not released until 1963, the graphic horror was considered extreme for its time. Made before Herschell Gordon Lewis showed how to cook an Egyptian feast, and George Romero unleashed zombies in Pittsburgh, Joseph Green horrified the censors, and some in the audience that bothered to see his film. Stuart Gordon has stated that The Brain that wouldn't Die was influential on his own Reanimator. Time has proven that with several DVD and a downloadable version available, this is "The Film that wouldn't Die".

For those unfamiliar with the story, Dr. Bill Cortner proves to his surgeon father that he can revive the dead with a serum he has created. Cortner also hints that he has been working on experiments with this serum at the family's country home. Driving a bit to fast to his weekend getaway with his fiancee, Jan, Cortner crashes into a guard rail. While he is tossed out of the convertable, Jan is burnt in the flaming car. Cortner wraps her head in his jacket, and runs to his country home, actually a small castle, where he places Jan's head in a pan, connected with tubes with the special serum. The basement laboratory is maintained by Kurt, a former surgeon with one bad arm, a failed transplant attempt by Cortner. Also in the basement is a monster in the closet, a collection of body parts pieced together and made alive with the serum. Cortner has no more than forty-eight hours to take Jan's stil living head, and place it on a new body. In an attempt at one-stop shopping, Cortner looks for Jan's replacement body at a strip club. Meanwhile, Jan not only wishes she had been left to die, but additionally starts communicating with the monster in the closet.

There is a small bit of visual wit. Most obvious is a scene of two strippers fighting over Cortner, the camera tilts up to two pictures of cats, with the sound of fighting cats literalizing the action on the floor. Overlooked is the inclusion of a bust in Cortner's house, the sculpture of a head, that prefigures Jan's fate. While I have no way of knowing Green's intentions, the scenes of horror could be appreciated for their black humor. The monster in the closet tears off Kurt's good arm, leaving the loyal assistant to smear his blood-soaked smock against the laboratory walls. The monster bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Potato-Head, particularly as seen in Toy Story when he declares that he's "a Picasso". There is also shot after shot of Cortner interviewing possible victims, frequently with his hands around their necks.

The most famous line uttered by Herb Evers as Bill Cortner is, "Do I look like a maniac who goes around killing girls?" Part of Jan was played by former Fox contract player Virginia Leith. Leith was the step-mother of filmmaker Mary Harron. One could argue that the seedlings of Harron's feature films could be found in The Brain that would't Die. Certainly Cortner's words could have been easily said by American Pyscho's Patrick Bateman. The strip club scenes recall the milieu of The Notorious Bettie Page. And what to make of the facially scarred model, Doris, a self-declared "man-hater", perhaps not too distant in attitude from Valerie Solanas of I Shot Andy Warhol. Cortner is somewhat like Harron's male characters, self-absorbed and transgressive, while the female characters are objectified by men, sometimes by choice.

The Brain that would't Die may not be a good film in the conventional sense, but it should not be mistaken for a bad film, or so bad it's good, or camp. Bad films are never as perpetually entertaining as this. Can it be taken seriously as an examination of mad science or sexism? Somethings are better left at the surface. Be that as it may, The Brain that would't Die is the results of an idiosyncratic imagination that deserves to be valued for its shamelessness and audacity. In other words, this is truly what should be meant when one discusses an independent film.

Links to other entries in this blog-a-thon can be found at The Bleeding Tree.

Posted by peter at 12:21 PM | Comments (4)

April 02, 2007

I Vinti

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Michelangelo Antonioni - 1953
Minerva 35mm Film

Jet lag is keeping me from taking as much advantage of the film scene here in San Francisco. When it comes to having to make make choices, rarely available films by Michelangelo Antonioni trump everything else. Ideally, I would have seen I Vinti with a clearer head, but I trekked out to the Pacific Film Archive with a perhaps misguided sense of mission.

The film is actually three short stories about post-war youth and murder. If this were an American film, the poster would scream, "Ripped from today's headlines!". Antonioni is more understated than that in his introduction, which exposes someone far more conservative than the filmmaker who would make Zabriskie Point sixteen years later. The three protagonists are all middle class young men, each who murders someone without thought of the consequences. Each sequence takes place in a different country - Italy, France and England. The spoken language is post-dubbed Italian. It is, to be sure, one of Antonioni's lesser films, but is worth watching for nascent themes.

The characters range in age from high school seniors to early college age. With his portrait of middle class youth, Antonioni has taken a different track from other films at that time which portrayed youthful criminals as primarily lower-class and uneducated. Where I Vinti is of interest is in presenting the students when they are with each other. The young people are shown as self-absorbed, shallow, and callous. Especially in the French sequence, it is easy to imagine these kids growing up to be Alain Delon or Monica Vitti in L'Eclisse, or the travelers of L'Avventura. The murders that take place are almost beside the point, which is why the film met with censorship problems. Antonioni's heart and head are more interested in portraying the sense of alienation that his characters feel, from their homes and families, and from each other.

The varying degrees of indifference of the three murderers also suggests that Antonioni may have been seeking to create a filmic equivalent to Albert Camus' The Stranger. That Antonioni has been linked with Camus is not new, especially in discussion on The Passenger. The main difference would be that Camus' character of Meursault is more self-reflective than Antonioni's young men. Although not referring to the auther in connection to this film, Antonioni has perhaps left a clue regarding his own motivations: The principle behind the cinema, like that behind all the arts, rests on a choice. It is, in Camus' words, "the revolt of the artist against the real."

Posted by peter at 12:01 AM | Comments (1)