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June 30, 2007

Tagged!

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I've been tagged. I frankly have mixed feelings about it. One one hand, when you look at someone's blog listing five other blogs, and you aren't on the list, it makes you wonder why you weren't considered worthy enough. When you are tagged, as I was twice, by Matt Riviera and Campaspe, you have to think about tagging someone who hasn't been tagged, and not causing any hurt feelings because someone had hoped to be tagged. I almost was going to have this tagging stop, but then I figured I might be able to encourage a couple people who may not have been tagged yet, and acknowledge a couple of others bloggers as well. Had they not been already tagged, I would have to first acknowledge Girish, Flickhead, Filmbrain and Campaspe as the first film bloggers I had started to read before I launched "Coffee, etc". They were also the first to write comments on my site as well.

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Above is the logo, and here is the link that started it all. A couple of the people I list have been around awhile, and may have already been tagged by others. There are also a couple of bloggers who seem to have been inactive for a significant amount of time, which is too bad as I enjoyed reading them. I want to tag a couple of writers who are based outside of the U.S. and often do not write in English, with the goal of creating cinematic international goodwill.

1. On the top of my list is Emma at All About my Movies. Still in what we in the U.S. call High School, Emma is at least twice as smart as I was at her age. I first knew about Emma through the Shakespeare blog-a-thon. Emma is hosting her own blog-a-thon next week. Not only do I enjoy reading Emma, but I am hoping someone is smart enough to give Emma a professional platform. We have more than enough teen girl movie stars. What the world needs is that teen girl movie critic.

2. I don't know how CelineJulie does it, as Thailand is not the most ideal place for film scholarship. Limitless Cinema features essays about films that in some cases I haven't seen from Europe as well as Asia. Even if you can't read Thai, there are some great images.

3. I don't know what Garrick is writing at Safari Undergroung as I don't read Japanese either. But I can appreciate great screengrabs, graphics, and an eclectic choice of films.

4. One blog that should encourage everyone to think is Zach Campbell's Elusive Lucidity. Mostly about film, but with other cultural connections. Not merely a blogger, but one of the better writers. I also have to admit that in comparison I feel like an intellectual pinhead.

5. Last but not least, is Michael Guillen at The Evening Class, If people aren't banging on Michael's door to be interviewed, they probably will soon. Michael has the gift of gab talking with a variety of filmmakers and other critics. Also, I loved his piece on Speedy Gonzales, making me rethink my attitude towards the animated Mexican mouse.

Honorable mention: Jeuce has not been writing about films at Red Balloon2006 since April. But she has a great selection of screengrabs. I would encourage everyone to click on her other links to see her photography.

Some of my favorites have been tagged by others, You know who you are. One other iindispensable blogger I would like to cite is Tim Lucas at Video Watchblog. As most should know by now, Tim's book on Mario Bava is about to be made available. Tim writes for his own magazine, as well as contributing to such august publications as "Sight and Sound", and does audio commentaries for DVDs, all from Cincinnatti, Ohio. Tim's even found the time to email me a couple of times! As much as I've been complimented on my embrace of a wide range of films, I am dwarfed by Tim's knowledge of film and film history. Probably the only person who could write about an even larger variety of films would be Martin Scorsese, but he seems too busy making his own film history these days.

Posted by peter at 09:22 PM | Comments (6)

June 28, 2007

Hot Rods to Hell

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John Brahm - 1967
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Twenty-one years before they were reunited for Hot Rods to Hell, Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain starred in State Fair for Twentieth Century Fox. At another part of the Fox lot in 1945, John Brahm was filming Hongover Square. In 1966, the three were probably happy to be working, even if it was on behalf of schlockmeister Sam Katzman. That the veteran actors would be the stars of a film titled Hot Rods to Hell is but one indication of how hilariously out of touch Sam Katzman was in his waning years. If Katzman wasn't so cheap, the film might not have broken even.

The only reason to have seen Hot Rods to Hell then, as now, is to watch Mimsy Farmer and a bunch of fast cars. As Gloria, Farmer comes of like a combination of Marlon Brando in The Wild One and Natalie Wood in Rebel without a Cause, the small town bad girl always looking for kicks. Riding with bad boys Paul Bertoya and Gene Kirkwood, and sometimes playing them against each other, Farmer joyfully is unapologetic for her misbehavior. Farmer brings a feral energy that was never fully appreciated or taken advantage of until she moved to Europe to act, most notably for Barbet Schroeder and Dario Argento.

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This almost disasterously unhip tale is about Dana Andrews as the square from Squaresville, actually Boston, who seems to be a magnet for car accidents. Farmer and her gang of hot rodding kids try to drive Andrews, Crain and family off the road. The most wrong-headed error of Hot Rods to Hell was to make a film aimed for the teen market, with stars of their parents generation. The producer of up-to-the-minute films starring Bill Haley and Chubby Checkers could do no better this time around then to feature rock music performed by Mickey Rooney, Junior, and his combo.

There are times when John Brahm seems to really care about what he's doing, especially in the shots of Laurie Mock, who plays Andrews and Crain's daughter. Mock's acting career was short lived, while Farmer proved to be more than a low budget Tuesday Weld once she got out of Hollywood. Hot Rods to Hell is a reminder that stardom can come and go even faster than a souped up car.

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Posted by peter at 11:28 AM | Comments (1)

June 27, 2007

Woman on Top - some thoughts on the AWFJ Top 100

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The Alliance of Women Film Journalists posted their list of the one hundred best films Monday. Created in part as a reaction to the AFI list, the AWFJ list includes, not surprisingly more films by women, and is international in scope. What surprised me is both who was included as well as who was not named at all. In some ways this list is more conservative than what I would have expected.

Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra and Howard Hawks made the cut. Conspicuously absent is John Ford. Men without Women pretty much sums up Ford's films. Still, Ford's filmography includes Katherine Hepburn in Mary of Scotland and Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie. A film that could have, and maybe should have made the AWFJ list is Grapes of Wrath, as much for Jane Darwell's performance as Ma Joad, as well as Henry Fonda's stirring speech.

My Brilliant Career launched Gillian Armstrong's sometimes brilliant career, but for me it is a less interesting film than High Tide or Last Days of Chez Nous. Her version of Little Women is also given short shrift in favor of George Cukor, who is the most beloved director on the list.

Not listed at all is Ida Lupino. Mike Nichols, makes the list, but not Lupino? Three films by Mike Nichols, and not one by Ida Lupino, or Elaine May for that matter. My suggestions: Lupino's Outrage and May's A New Leaf.

Also missing is Kathryn Bigelow. Andrew Sarris noted that Raoul Walsh's characters go on adventures for the sake of adventure. In some ways, Bigelow's characters are similar. Perhaps Blue Steel and The Weight of Water to the contrary, Bigelow's best known films are about men literally plunging into adventure. Women are absent from Point Break and K-19. Those two films are particularly Walshian in their depiction of rivalry, friendly and not-so-friendly, between men. What I like about Strange Days is the end of the film which displays Bigelow's training as a painter, the film becoming the cinematic equivalent to abstract expressionism.

This list lacks any titles from the silent era, and the only experimental filmmaker included is Maya Deren. No films by or about women in Africa or the Middle East, especially Iran or Israel is noted. The only Asian film listed is Raise the Red Lantern.

Hong Kong has several female filmmakers worth noting including Sylvia Chan, Ann Hui and Clara Law. One of the best is Mabel Cheung with the remarkable Soong Sisters, the true story of three sisters, one of whom married Sun Yat-Sen, another who married Chiang Kai-Shek. In terms of female action heroes, a Hong Kong tradition since the mid-Sixties, Alien's Ripley has nothing on the women portrayed by Brigitte Lin, especially the appropriately named Asia the Invincible.

And if gay male directors like George Cukor and Pedro Almodovar are cited, mama's boy Yasujiro Ozu should be part of the club. Not only are Ozu's films consistently good, but I would think a list of all time great films would include at least one of his family tales featuring Setsuko Hara. In film after film, Hara stoicly sacrifices her happiness and almost silenty suffers on behalf of others. In comparison, Meryl Streep is a self-serving shrew.

The AWFJ list has picked films from a narrow, almost exclusively Western, perspective. I was hoping to see a group of films from a, pardon the pun, broader point of view.

Posted by peter at 12:16 AM | Comments (2)

June 25, 2007

Angel-A

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Luc Besson - 2005
Sony Pictures Classics 35mm Film

Luc Besson's 2005 fantasy is getting a belated theatrical release in the U.S., paving the way for the inevitable DVD. The film was Besson's return to directing, following the box office failure of his version of the Joan of Arc Story. During the six years, Besson wrote and produced a significant number of films, most notably the Taxi and Transporter series. Angel-A, pronounced like the name of the angel of the film, Angela, is a trifle in comparison with Besson's previous films like Leon or Nikita. What it has going for it is some beautiful black and white, wide screen imagery, a disorienting tourist's eye view of Paris and some of its landmarks. Besson even incorporates bits of other angel movies into his story, notably It's A Wonderful Life with its angels mythology and Wings of Desire with its angels and architecture.

The short, swarthy Andre plans to jump into the Seine, unable to pay off the two different gangsters he owes money. The tall, blonde and beautiful Angela is also on the bridge, and jumps first. Andre saves her, and the two argue about whether life is worth living. Angela acts as Andre's angel, initially in the symbolic sense, gradually revealing her true identity.

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Unlike so many of Besson's films that he has either directed himself, or had others direct from his screenplays, Angel-A is dialogue heavy. The banter is the kind that is reminiscent of the great screwball comedies. Maybe something got lost in the translation to subtitles, as the dialogue is less engaging than what is found in the talk heavy movies of someone like Eric Rohmer. There are some funny exchanges between Andre and Angela, but there is not enough of the action that usually characterizes Besson's films. I even missed the silly antics of the Besson written and produced Taxi (the original, not the wretched remake with Jimmy Fallon).

While there are a few chuckles from the contrasting heights of the six foot Rie Rassmussen with the much shorter Andre, the joke wears wears thin quickly. Besson, whose previous films are noted for their odd couples, especially Leon's Jean Reno with Natalie Portman, is less inventive here. Looking back at Besson's films, they are often about two outsiders, a male and female, who in some way attempt to save each other. As a screenwriter, Luc Besson has been extraordinarily prolific, and perhaps this may explain why Angel-A is less interesting than Besson's earlier films, made before his attention was spread to several simultaneous projects. Angel-A is a gorgeous film to watch, but often I would wish that Besson would return to his previous mode of more guns and less talk.

Posted by peter at 11:04 AM

June 23, 2007

A Mighty Heart

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Michael Winterbottom - 2007
Paramount Vantage 35mm Film

There is one problem with Michael Winterbottom's film of A Mighty Heart - it's not the book. Two things that Mariane Pearl did successfully in telling her story were to give the reader details about the several people connected with her in the search for Daniel Pearl, and to make the reader have a sense of hope that Daniel Pearl would be found, in spite of our knowing what would happen to him. Also, Mariane Pearl gives the reader a better sense of Daniel Pearl.

My response to the film may have been different had I not read Mme. Pearl's story. While Winterbottom and screenwriter John Orloff may have conveyed the general essense of the book, what is missing is any sense of Daniel Pearl's sense of humor, which Mariane Pearl refers to frequently. The film audience sees the journalist who is interested in relaying the stories of those who may not otherwise be heard, and the cultural traveler whose own marriage to Mariane Pearl represents a mix of ethnicities and religious beliefs.

What the film does succeed at is providing concrete images of the chaos that is Karatchi, Pakistan. Parts of Mariane Pearl's voice overs are complimented by a combination of documentary footage as well as documentary style recreations of events. What may have been the best decision was to limit the scenes of Daniel Pearl's kidnapping to the few known facts rather than attempting a dramatic, fictionalized recreation of that event.

There has been some discussion regarding A Mighty Heart as being something of a companion piece to Winterbottom's Road to Guantanamo. I would offer as a counter-argument that the film in need of re-examination is Beyond Borders. The same humanistic impulses that inspired Angelina Jolie to star in Martin Campbell's film are likely what encouraged Mariane Pearl to trust Jolie with her story. Both films are about women who seek to address some of the inequalities in the world, one as a United Nations aid worker, the other as a journalist. While Beyond Borders relies too much on coincidence and contrivance to support a romantic storyline, the mighty heart of the film and the filmmakers is in the right place. If A Mighty Heart is the better of the two films, it is because it has more modest goals and the benefit of a true story.

Even though Jolie is the star of the film, Winterbottom often frames her as part of the ensemble of the people in the house in Karatchi, where most of the film takes place. The one significant time when Jolie is shot in close-up is during her howl of grief when Mariane first learns about the death of Danny. More than any other moment in A Mighty Heart, the sense of loss is palpable. An almost similar expression of pain is repeated when Mariane gives birth to her son, Adam. The film ends with Mariane and the four year old Adam walking away from the camera, on a street in Paris, a quiet resolution following the anger and anguish that have been portrayed. I am not sure if a better film of A Mighty Heart could have been made, but what I do know is that the best version of Mariane Pearl's story is the one she tells herself.

Posted by peter at 10:37 PM | Comments (2)

June 22, 2007

The Film Music Blog-a-thon: Invitation to a Gunfighter

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Richard Wilson - 1964
MGM Region 1 DVD

David Raksin will probably be firmly linked with the title song and movie Laura. What has me wanting to investigate his music further though is seeing Invitation to a Gunfighter. Raksin scored three films for former Orson Welles' associate Richard Wilson. Of the three films, only Invitation to a Gunfighter is available on DVD. Al Capone shows up on television once in a while. I have yet to see Pay or Die which seems to be hidden in someone's vault.

Based on the two films I have seen, it would suggest that Wilson, more than any other director Raksin worked with, was given greater freedom in composing his film music. There was a time in American film when composers were able to incorporate the influence of such contemporaries as Aaron Copland or older avant-gardists as Nadia Boulanger. Raksin had worked with Stravinsky and studies under Arnold Schoenberg. Raksin's music for Wilson's films is more idiosyncratic, breaking away from conventional film music.

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More specifically, Raksin has a score that uses minor chords, as well as occassional dischordance, particularly in his main themes. Rather than use music as illustration or as background, Raksin scores for Wilson's films are meant to evoke the psychological and emotional conflicts of the characters. The music fits in with a period primarily in the early Sixties with film scores by Alex North (The Misfits, Elmer Bernstein (The Caretakers) and David Amram (The Manchurian Candidate).

Invitation to a Gunfighter is a post-Civil War parable with Yul Brynner as the gun hired to shoot returning rebel soldier George Segal for the benefit of town boss Pat Hingle. Being produced by Stanley Kramer, the film tries to justify itself by being a statement about racism and hypocrisy. What the film is really about is how the Russian born, faintly exotic, Brynner was always the coolest looking guy in a cowboy hat. Not only does Brynner out shoot everyone, but he's always much better dressed.

For those more interested in David Raksin's career in music, he spoke at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

For more film music, go to Windmills of my Mind.

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Posted by peter at 01:28 AM | Comments (2)

June 21, 2007

Panic in Needle Park

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Jerry Schatzberg -1971
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

Especially in my first few years of living in New York City in the early Seventies, I had my own panic about the area known as "Needle Park". The closest I came to that neighborhood was when I took subway rides to the Upper West Side, for visits to the New Yorker or Thalia theaters. Just as I avoided being caught in or around West 72nd Street, I also avoided seeing Panic in Needle Park at the time it was released.

Growing up reading the Sunday New York Times, I actually knew a little bit about Al Pacino, having seen a photo of him from one of the plays he did, written by Israel Horovitz. Seeing him in his first starring role in a film though did clarify why Hollywood studio executives were resistant about casting Pacino in films. Even Jerry Schatzberg does Pacino no favors with framing that emphasized Pacino's appearance as a pasty faced runt, dwarfed by Raul Julia, and barely the same height as Kitty Winn.

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This in one film that would have benefitted from a commentary track from Jerry Schatzberg and/or screenplay writer Joan Didion. The narrative is filled with ellipses, while the acting appears improvised. There is also no music sound track which also adds to the appearance of naturalism. Panic in Needle Park often looks like it was shot off the cuff, but I suspect that much of the spontaneous look of the film was well planned.

The film sheds no new light on drug addiction, nor does it make any kind of judgment on its characters whose lives are a series of bad choices informed by the overwhelming need for heroin. The film is probably of greater interest in seeing Pacino in his first major film role, as well as watching early appearances by Raul Julia and Paul Sorvino. Schatzberg appears to have been smitten by Kitty Winn as indicated by the many close ups of her face. One of the best things about Panic in Needle Park is simply watching the faces of a cast of primarily New York based actors who appear to have been filmed without make-up. What may be most amazing about Panic in Needle Park is to look back, knowing that this film came from a major studio. Even today, the so-called independents would be nervous about making a film as downbeat or as marginally experimental.

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Posted by peter at 10:22 AM | Comments (1)

June 20, 2007

Dance, Girl, Dance

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Dorothy Arzner - 1940
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

While the DVD release of Dance, Girl, Dance is part of a set of films starring Lucille Ball, top billed Maureen O'Hara gets most of the screen time as well as the close-ups. The best parts of the film are with Ball demonstrating comic ability well established before she teamed up with Desi Arnaz. Ball plays a dancer named Bubbles with enough of a suggestion of promiscuity that those who have grown up loving her might punningly rename her "Loosey".

O'Hara and Ball are friends and competitors. Introduced as part of a nightclub dance troupe in Akron, Ohio, the two return to New York City to try their luck again as ballet dancers under the tutelage of a very butch looking Maria Ouspenskaya. Ball gets a job as a burlesque dancer because, as Ouspenskaya puts it, she has "oomph". Ouspenskaya decides O'Hara has what it takes to be in Ralph Bellamy's ballet company but inconveniently gets run over by a car taking her protegee to the audition. Meanwhile Louis Hayward pops in and out, caught between O'Hara, Ball and ex-wife Virginia Field. The story is by Vickie Baum, and is almost as hilarious as her Grand Hotel.

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There are a couple of scenes of the serious, modern ballet that O'Hara wishes to join. Someone thought it would be a swell idea to have the male dancers dress like the guys from the planet Mongo in the old Flash Gordon movies. Another dance sequence seems to anticipate the title dance from An American in Paris in terms of the dance style, costuming and the music which faintly is similar to Gershwin.

Ball gets two musical numbers which appear to have been largely inspired by Gypsy Rose Lee. One number involves parts of Ball's clothing blown away. There's enough show of leg, plus a hint of cleavage to make one temporarily forget the housewife and mother that became a television institution.

Dance, Girl, Dance was one of the couple of Hollywood films produced by Erich Pommer, who seemed to have a weakness for show biz stories. According to IMDb, Roy Del Ruth was originally handed the assignment to direct the film. Pommer had him replaced with Dorothy Arzner who may have had a hand in certain elements that seem markedly progressive for a film made in 1940. Del Ruth did get to work with Lucille Ball in the film that introduced her as a redhead, Du Barry was a Lady.

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Posted by peter at 02:41 AM

June 17, 2007

The Man from Colorado

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Henry Levin - 1948
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

For those who haven't seen it, click onto DVD Panache to check out my "Screen Test" with the man from Idaho, Adam Ross. With the second year of "Coffee Coffee and more Coffee", I've decided to celebrate with a film about Colorado. Not that The Man from Colorado was actually filmed anywhere near Colorado, as shooting was done at Ray Corrigan's ranch outside of Los Angeles. For one who has spent most of his adult life here, a passably generic Colorado is less bothersome than watching films that are set in Denver, and are filmed on sets and locations that look nothing like the place I've called home for a substantial part of my life.

The Man from Colorado really has little to do with Colorado for that matter. The "man" could have been from New Mexico. Considering the history of Colorado during the Civil War, a lot of potentially interesting stories were ignored in favor of a fictional account. That the film takes place right after the end of the Civil War can be viewed as a fiction, as the film could be be interpreted as actually being about the psychological disintegration of soldiers following World War II.

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With his whitened temples, Glenn Ford may remind some of the aged John Wayne in Red River. Both films came out in the same year, and have Borden Chase as author of the original stories. In the beginning of The Man from Colorado, Ford plays a Union officer who disregards the flag of surrender flown by the Confederate Army, and shoots down all but one. In his diary, Ford recognizes that he has some kind of pathology regarding killing, but dismisses it to "the war". Returning as a war hero, Ford is offered the job as a judge who finds that one of the perks of his new position is that he can legally hang assorted criminals at will. Ford's strict understanding of the law eventually alienates best friend William Holden, wife Ellen Drew, and town big shot Ray Collins.

While The Man from Colorado is presented as a Western, it's more interested in Ford's inner darkness than wide open spaces. By the time the film moves to the shadowy hideout of Holden and his gang of disenfranchised former soldiers, the film could be more accurately described as cowboy noir. The film is ultimately less interesting than it could have been in part because Henry Levin is not a filmmaker of the caliber of someone like Anthony Mann, and Ford is more surface, without the undercurrents of anger and resentment that informed much of James Stewart's performances in such films as Bend of the River and The Far Country. Bleach blond William Holden seems to be marking time until Billy Wilder tosses him into Gloria Swanson's swimming pool in another two years.

The film ends with Ford killed by the inferno of his own making, conveniently allowing widow Ellen Drew to eventually get together with Holden, the guy she always really loved. Maybe someone like Anthony Mann couldn't have done much better had he directed The Man from Colorado, but based on his other films written by Borden Chase, it's easy to think otherwise.

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Posted by peter at 12:14 AM

June 16, 2007

Shutter

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Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom - 2004
Tartan Region 1 DVD

The last movie I saw in Thailand was Alone, the second film by the team of Banjong and Parkpoom. I had to wait to see Shutter with English subtitles in the U.S. Shutter is currently being remade, in an English language version, in Japan, with Japanese horror specialist Masayuki Ochiai serving as director. From what little I've been able to glean, the story will not be quite the same as that of the original film. Banjong and Parkpoom's debut film is pretty good, but nowhere near the the achievement of Alone.

If I like Alone better, much of the reason is that the film seemed directed more towards an adult audience, with its casting of Masha Wattanapanich in the lead role. Shutter is more clearly aimed towards the traditional Thai audience of young people who want to see actors about the same age or a little older. Some of the narrative elements are staples of the Thai ghost story including the long-haired female ghost seeking revenge, the students who bonded at college, and the secret that ties seemingly unrelated events together. While Shutter avoids making fun of any fat people, there is a moment given to that other cliche of Thai films, the comic transvestite.

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The initial premise is interesting, about a photographer who discovers a ghost making appearances in his photographs. The best moments in Shutter involve the discovery of strange streaks of light and shadows that appear in the photos. A scene with the photographer caught in his darkened studio, with the lights flickering on and off is effective.

A major plot point hinges on the act of photography. As such, Shutter is something of a critique of the male gaze. What Shutter suggests about how photography is used is addressed superficially, raising more questions than answers, which is to say that there is the hint of seriousness to distinguish Shutter from other Thai ghost movies, but not enough to slow down the film. The scene in question, as I have belatedly discovered, was reused for more offensive effect in Haunting Me, another Thai film I wrote about earlier this year. As may be appropriate for a film titled Shutter the strength of the film is not the story, but some of the imagery. The final shot of the ghost and the photographer offers one very disquieting resolution.

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Posted by peter at 01:41 AM

June 14, 2007

The Two of Us

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Le Vieil homme et l'Enfant
Claude Berri - 1967
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

I never had the opportunity to see The Two of Us during its initial theatrical release. Had I seen the film then, I would have probably focused more on Claude Berri's on-screen alter ego, portrayed by Alain Cohen. I would have also more likely felt more outrage at the anti-Semitism of the old man played by Michel Simon. In the forty years that have passed, there has been a parade of lovable and not so lovable film curmudgeons, making Simon's character less outrageous in retrospect. What has also happened, at least for me, is that the story is less important than the pleasure of watching Michel Simon on screen.

Simon always seemed larger than life, and in The Two of Us, his added girth would give him extra weight both physically, and with his presence on screen. What makes The Two of Us fun to watch now is to see the star of Boudu Saved from Drowning and L'Atalante goofing off in his early Seventies. Whether spoon feeding his dog, or kicking up his heels on a swing, Simon's old man suggests a less agile Boudu combined with a less wise Pere Jules. Simply watching Simon's face which suggests a well-worn old shoe is a reminder of the many engaging turns in so many earlier films.

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The DVD includes Berri's short film, Le Poulet, which won the Academy Award in 1966. The film is about a young boy who adopts a chicken as a pet, saving it from becoming Sunday dinner. The inclusion of the short is helpful in that his frequent theme, about the importance of family, is already in place. The Two of Us is the story of a young boy with two families, his biological family and his adopted family.

Inspired by Berri's own experiences in World War II, his debut film is about a young Jewish boy who stays with an older couple in the country. The couple are not told of Claude's true identity, assuming that he is a French Catholic boy. There is tension due to the old man's periodic outbursts of anti-Semitism. Claude is asked by the old man, the day he moves in, to call him Grandpa. Claude and the old man develope a relationship that is warmer than that of Claude with his real father. At times taking his disguised role to the hilt, Claude goads the old man to explain his anti-Semitism. Claude finds ways to humorously throw the old man's arguments back at him.

While Berri felt that his film was making a statement about racism, the old man's attitudes seem more like minor character flaws than major failings. Watching Simon chase Alain Cohen with a garden hose or introducing the young boy to the pleasures of alcohol makes some of the dramatic concerns besides the point. The one time the dramatic and comic merges best is a scene with young Claude making sure he bathes privately. In one of the DVD supplements, a grown up Alain Cohen notes that the relationship he had with Michel Simon extended off screen, with the veteran actor protective of his young co-star. The two remained in contact until Simon's death in 1975.

A few years younger than the filmmakers that emerged with the initial Nouvelle Vague, Claude Berri's films seemed stylistically old fashion in comparison. Berri's lack of trendiness served him best with Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, another tale of families in a pastoral setting. Still, the main reason to see, or re-see The Two of Us is to watch Michel Simon filling up the screen with his last major role.

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Posted by peter at 12:27 AM | Comments (1)

June 12, 2007

Action Heroine Blog-a-thon: Cat Ballou

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Elliot Silverstein - 1965
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

As much as I like Cat Ballou, the film never quite lived up to the promise in the animated pre-credit scene. The Columbia Pictures torch bearer sheds her robe to become a cowgirl with a six-shooter blazing from each hand. Even in the posters and publicity pictures, Jane Fonda appears ready to shoot her way through the film. While Fonda remains firmly the brains of her bunch of outlaws, as the title character, she's mostly the foil to the guys who have most of the fun.

There is a bit of proto-feminism, especially in a scene where Fonda tells Michael Callan that she's not interested in marriage. Mostly Cat Ballou fails to take full advantage of Jane Fonda, one of the few actresses who could have, and should have been able to follow in the boots of Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns or Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. The film might have been different had it been made when Fonda was more politically conscious, in terms of Cat Ballou not only calling the shots but firing them as well, but it's also probable that Cat Ballou would have been less fun. It should be noted that Cat Ballou and Johnny Guitar are both based on novel by Roy Chanslor. Fonda helps out in a train robbery, and ends up accidentally shooting the industrialist responsible for her father's death in a later scene. Fonda is mostly an observer while the train robbery takes place, while in her encounter with the industrialist, she is dressed as "woman of the evening". For the character of Cat Ballou, the feminine overwhelms any suggestions of the feminist.

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It has to be recognized that although Cat is the title character, the story actually belongs to the gunfighter, Kid Shelleen. Producer Harold Hecht bought the rights to Roy Chanslor's book as a possible vehicle for Burt Lancaster. As an independent producer, Hecht offered the role to Kirk Douglas and Jose Ferrer. Lee Marvin was director Elliot Silverstein's choice. In the transition from book to film, Hecht changed the story from a straight western to a comic tale of revenge. It was also Hecht's idea to have the narrative partially relayed by the two itinerant minstrels. The most inspired bit of casting was pairing Stubby Kaye with Nat King Cole to provide the musical commentary. Ann-Margret reportedly was offered the starring role but turned it down. Certainly, given the chance, Ann-Margret could have imaginably been a rough-and-tumble cowgirl, had the filmmakers allowed her to be one.

Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman provide a somewhat informative commentary on the DVD which informs us that Roger Vadim hung around the set, the western town was filmed on the same set as High Noon, and that Cat Ballou was a relatively low-budget film as far as Columbia Pictures was concerned that turned out to be a major hit.

Jane Fonda later became the "Queen of the Galaxy" in Barbarella. As far as Hollywood and Europe were concerned, the rare times a woman could be an action star would perhaps be in a spy film. Even then, seeing Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise, or Honor Blackman stealing Goldfinger was unusual. Only a few people were paying attention to the Hong Kong movies starring Connie Chan Po-chu and Cheng Pei-pei. There are at least a couple of reasons for Jane Fonda not becoming an action heroine - that action films then as now were seen primarily as the province for boys, and that the films were not where one usually found serious acting opportunities. On its own terms, Cat Ballou is an enjoyable film. But there was also an opportunity lost, had Jane Fonda done a bit more than look good in her form-fitting jeans.

For more action, check out The Film Experience.

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Posted by peter at 12:15 AM | Comments (5)

June 11, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

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Steven Soderbergh - 2007
Warner Brothers 35mm film

I suppose it is possible to enjoy Ocean's Thirteen without having seen the previous films. With references to characters from the previous versions, as well as appearances by a couple of the cast members that came onboard for Ocean's Twelve, seeing the earlier films makes the third film more meaningful. Soderbergh goes full circle with Ocean's Thirteen. The film not only brings his trilogy to completion, but also makes reference in a couple of ways to the original Rat Pack vehicle.

The story is initiated following a double-cross of Elliot Gould's Rueben Tishkoff by casino owner Willy Bank (Al Pacino). Tishkoff is certain of Bank's integrity based on their both having shook the hand of Frank Sinatra. Instead of a heist of Bank's casino hotel on the day of its grand opening, Danny Ocean and company create several ways to break the Bank as it were. One thing Clooney, Soderbergh and the gang could not duplicate is the gleefully indifferent attitute of Sinatra, Martin and most of the participants from the 1960 film. If Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven was a bit too professional, Ocean's Twelve was a bit too loose. Ocean's Thirteen finds the right balance between detailing the mechanics and the filming the offhanded moments between the actors.

The best moments have nothing to do with the operation. One such scene is of Clooney and Pitt having a conversation made up of the kind of sentence fragments exchanged between people who've known each other for years. During this scene they stop in front of one of the newer theme hotels and remark how the original landmark hotels have disappeared. Especially for those people in any way familiar with that older Las Vegas, with references to the Sands and Dunes hotels, the dialogue also recalls the Las Vegas of Frank Sinatra and the original Ocean's Eleven, a film that was as much an advertisement for Las Vegas and the kind of entertainment popular for the pre-Rock Generation.

A further self-referential moment comes when Sinatra's song "This Town" is played during a fireworks display. The song and Sinatra again recall the original film, as well as making a comment about Las Vegas. The fireworks could well be a visual coda for Soderbergh and Clooney's artistic collaboration. One of the nicest moments from their first film, Out of Sight, featured fireworks outside the window as Clooney was charming Jennifer Lopez over dinner.

Other filmic references pop up, such as the hotel muzak including the themes from Dr. Zhivago and A Man and a Woman. Casting Pacino with Ellen Barkin seems like a casual tribute to Sea of Love, the film they starred in almost twenty years ago. While not together onscreen, having Garcia as a business rival to Pacino provides a sideways glance at The Godfather III. Just like the original film which was peppered with little "in jokes", the new film has similar references such as when Clooney advises Pitt to have a couple of kids.

It is the casual moments that reveal the true heart of Ocean's Thirteen. The film is ultimately a pop culture artifact about pop culture.

Posted by peter at 10:30 AM

June 10, 2007

The Bridge

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Un Pont entre Deux Rives
Gerard Depardieu & Frederic Auburtin - 1999
Fox Lorber Region 1 DVD

The images of Carole Bouquet riding her bicycle made me think back to Bernadette Lafont on a bicycle in Francois Truffaut's short Les Mistons. The opening shot of The Bridge is of the matinee audience leaving the town's movie theater, where Jules and Jim is playing. Truffaut is also recalled when two teenage lovers are bicycling down the road. The Bridge is certainly the type of film Truffaut could have done, with its dual portraits of young love, and a marriage falling apart due to infidelity. The film takes place in 1962 and for several of the characters, Ideas of love are informed by movies and popular culture.

When Bouquet meets the man who will be her lover, Charles Berling, in the theater, West Side Story is onscreen. The billboard outside the theater announces the film as an "evenent", an event. It was at that moment that I thought back how American filmmakers have shied back from love stories, once a staple of mainstream cinema. This may in part explain why Titanic was so popular. In the pursuit of an audience of young men, romance, especially serious romance, has been left for to be explored by the so-called indie filmmakers. When the teen boy and girl discuss The Misfits, one can not imagine any recent film that could carry the mythic weight of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, together, and in what turned out to be the final film for both actors. It seems odd to think that at a time of frankness about sex, contemporary filmmakers and much of the audience is uncomfortable with unabashed declarations of love.

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Heard but not seen, is an excerpt from Henri Verneiul's A Monkey in Winter. As he ages, Gerard Depardieu has developed the kind of lived-in face and experience with the world that makes him the successor to Monkey's Jean Gabin and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Depardieu has always had an iconic presence, but seeing him age, the sense is that both he and French cinema share a mutually dependent existence. Depardieu and Bouquet have worked several times before, most famously in Too Beautiful for You. As a woman of "a certain age", Bouquet reminds me of Romy Schneider in that the youthful prettiness may have faded to be replaced by a sense of knowing conveyed in the smile.

The title is ironic in that while Depardieu helps build the bridge that Berling works on as an engineer, a bridge serves to link people whereas the bridge in this film destroys several relationships. Bouquet and the teenage lovers look to run away from their respective homes. Houses are not homes, but temporary shelters for people who have chosen to be transient. That several of the characters feel the need to escape in the name of an ideal relationship suggests the title of another Truffaut film, Love on the Run.

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Posted by peter at 08:08 PM

June 09, 2007

Day Night Day Night

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Julia Loctev - 2006
IFC First Take 35mm Film

I was looking forward to returning to the Starz Cinema and seeing Day Night Day Night. The experience was ruined by the people who run the theater. While it is great that Denver has a theater dedicated to showing the small art and independent films from the smaller distributors, the management seems to have forgotten that it's not enough to show great films, you have to care for the audience, the lifeblood of any theater. As indicated by this schedule, there should have been no problem showing this ninety-four minute film. The schedule said 12:45 pm Saturday as did my ticket. The film started about fifteen minutes early. When I expressed anger that the film started signficantly earlier than scheduled the guys at the ticket counter first explained that there was a problem with the posted schedule that would affect the later showings. They also explained that the correct schedule was published in the newspapers and was posted on the theater door. I did not see anything clearly posted indicating a change of schedule, and foolishly thought that the theater's own website would make a point of posting a correct schedule. Because I thought that the excuse was unacceptable given that the film was booked well in advance, and because I had the nerve to ask to speak to a manager, the ticket guys started threatening to call security. I should point out that three other people were in the audience for Day Night Day Night, and they entered the theater later than me, again based on the assumption that the film would start at the time published on the tickets.

Maybe the guys working at the theater are actually working on behalf of Mark Cuban, because this has been very effective in making me feel more supportive of my local Landmark Theater chain. I suspect that I will be barred from from seeing films at the the Starz Theater in the future because I expected the theater to be run by professionals. I will be emailing this posting to Natasha Hoover who I was told was responsible for the scheduling gaffe at natasha@denverfilm.org, as well as Ron Henderson, the Artistic Director at ron@denverfilm.org. You can post comments of sympathy to me if you wish, but better that if you feel as outraged that a theater's idea of customer service is to call security. What seems to be beyond the comprehension of the theater staff is that when you show a film for only a week, there are viewers who can only see that film at a specific time, or not at all, or at least not until the DVD release.

The film, at least what I saw of it, was effective in generating suspense once one realized that the young woman with no name was a suicide bomber on a leisurely walk through Times Square. The organization she is associated with is not named, but some of the images of the girl being photographed suggested those photos of Patty Hearst and the "Symbionese Army". By the time Day Night Day Night ended, it seemed that Loctev was less interested in presenting the portrayal of a terrorist, or even showing how a terrrorist act could take place. Instead, the film is about how people can be desperate for a sense of belonging, for the sense that they are doing something significant or are in some way clearly defining themselves. In some ways Luisa Williams is perfect for the role as she is nominally attractive, but otherwise fairly anonymous. Williams' voice is of a person not very certain of herself. Williams fragility and inconspicuousness are a reminder that so-called terrorists do not announce themselves, but are more often just faces in the crowd.

Posted by peter at 04:46 PM | Comments (2)

June 04, 2007

Aurora (Colorado) Asian Film Festival, Part 4

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Buddha's Lost Children
Mark Venkerk - 2006
Zeitgeist Films 35mm Film

Last January I wrote about the Thai film, The Golden Riders. At the time I was unaware that the film was inspired by an actual group of horse riding monks. Curtis, a film critic based in Bangkok had commented that a documentary of the actual group would have been better. Both of us being in Thailand at the time were unaware that the documentary had already been made and was just starting to be seen beyond the Netherlands.

The closing night film shown Sunday at the Aurora Asian Film Festival was a Dutch film about Thailand. And I feel mixed about Buddha's Lost Children as a choice for the festival, as well as concerns about the film itself. Considering that the only new Thai film getting something resembling a wide release is Dynamite Warrior, there are some other Thai films, including a couple I've seen, that deserve some kind of stateside theatrical run. What bothers me the most about Buddha's Lost Children is that it struck me as a tourist's eye view of Thailand.

The story of the monk, Kruh Bah, is of interest. A former boxer, Kruh Bah established his Golden Horse monastary in 1991, in northern Thailand near the Burmese border. Taking in young boys, many whom are orphans, he has educated the boys in animal husbandry and Buddhism. Some of the boys stay and become monks. Kruh Bah travels through the border area meeting with hill tribe families, and repairing Buddhist shrines.

It's a touching story to be sure, and one is impressed that Kruh Bah has taken on the drug smugglers in this part of The Golden Triange. But the filmmakers don't convey the conditions that the hill tribe people live in, where garbage is dumped in an open pit, all manner of animals often run free, and sanitation is minimal, if it exists at all. No mention is made that hill tribe people are culturally different from ethnic Thais, and do not have all the rights given to Thai citizens. It could be that this semi-glossy view was part of the condition of making Buddha's Lost Children. Buddha's Lost Children is a sweet, touching film. It also is less than truthful about hill tribes of Thailand.

Posted by peter at 12:01 AM | Comments (2)

June 03, 2007

Aurora (Colorado) Asian Film Festival, Part 3

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Paprika/Papurika
Satoshi Kon - 2006
Sony Pictures Classics 35mm Film

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Time/Shi Gan
Kim Ki-duk - 2006
Lifesize Entertainment 35mm Film

Between the giant toys of Paprika and the giant sculptures of Time, as well as the psychological breakdowns of the characters in both films, Saturday evening's pair of films strangely worked as a double feature about people and their dreams, and their sense of self. In Paprika the main female character final unites the two versions of herself, while in Time the female character remains hopelessly divided in her identity.

I usually, at best, ambivalent about anime. While I recognize and appreciate the craftsmanship, I find myself losing interest in the stories. The story for Paprika is so convoluted that I am unable to relay it in such a way that it would make sense. It is sufficient to say that the plot revolves around a machine called the DC Mini, which enables people to see and even be in other peoples' dreams. The DC Mini has been stolen by a former colleague of the scientists who created the machine.

But what makes Paprika worth seeing is that Kon fully takes advantage of what makes animated films unique. The film is ultimately a dream about movies, as well as a movie about dreams. The way characters jump in and out of settings first made me think of Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr., perhaps the original virtual reality movie. One can also easily link Paprika to such films as David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. In another moment that may be a nod to Cronenberg, two of the characters jump into a television screen. Because this is a truly animated film, Kon creates a universe where a long office hallway and walls suddenly undulate with the solidity of a half-filled waterbed, characters in advertisements leap out into other billboards or out into the streets, and giant toy dolls threaten the planet.

It is the dense and detailed imagery that makes Paprika stand out. Frames are crowded with giant marching frogs, large appliances and living dolls. The goofy spirit of the film is close to the self-refererential work of the Fleischer Brothers' earlier work with Koko the Clown and Betty Boop. The story loops around itself like a mobius strip, with dreams and dreams within dreams.

Paprika, the character, dreams of a street where there are old fashion movie theaters, one of which shows Roman Holiday. Kon even has a character going to a multiplex that is showing nothing but Kon's previous features on each of the screens. Movies have informed Kon's films, so that Perfect Blue is an anime thriller that has reminders of Hitchcock, De Palma and Argento. Tokyo Godfathers, with both its plot about an abandoned baby and Christmas setting could well have been inspired by John Ford's Three Godfathers. While Kon has not cited specific films as influences on Paprika, he did agree with the observation that his new film was "like a collision of Hello Kitty and Philip K.Dick."

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Time is a less formal film from Kim Ki-duk. Unlike his previous films, the characters are less isolated from the rest of the world. The film starts off with footage of cosmetic surgery which is the plot device for Kim's film. But what Kim is primarily interested in is the relationship between the observer and the observed. In addition to having scenes pivot on how people react to others' physical appearance, photographs, paintings and sculpture function as commentary and as plot devices. The similarity of cosmetic surgery to sculpture is perhaps too obvious, but Kim has chosen to have several scenes take place in an art park with sculptures of giant bodies and body parts, and even a huge sea shell big enough to walk in.

A young woman, Seh-hee, decides to undergo plastic surgery thinking that her boyfriend, Ji-woo finds her no longer attractive after two years. The essential story of Time is not original. The question regarding whether one is love with the person for how they look, or for some inner quality has been done in countless films. It's also the essence of every episode of "Nip/Tuck". Kim does take his theme into some unexpected directions as well as refreshing the familiar.

Ji-woo is a film editor and photographer. One of the characters is a painter with a scene in a gallery. As mentioned, much of Time takes place in a sculpture garden. While art is an important component in Time, the film itself is not as self-consciously arty as some of Kim's previous films. The comparison to other Kim films needs to be regarded in a matter of degrees, with the formal qualities toned down in favor of a more dialogue driven narrative. While Time might be considered more accessible than some of Kim's other films, the plastic surgery plot still won't get him confused with George Cukor or even Larry Peerce. What makes Time different from other films by Kim is that in previous films the main character will go through trials before finally gaining a new sense of self. Time has an ending, perhaps borrowed from the great film about changeable identities, Darkman, in which a character loses their physical identity in order to be lost in the crowd.

Posted by peter at 03:20 PM

June 02, 2007

Aurora (Colorado) Asian Film Festival, Part 2

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The Go Master/Wu Qingyuan
Tian Zhuangzhuang - 2006
Fortissimo Films 35mm Film

In some ways, the Friday night pairing of Tian Zhaungzhauang’s The Go Master with Johnny To's Exiled was complementary. The beginnings of both films are similar with their lack of dialogue and concentration on the formalities of their characters' functions. Whether it's the game of Go or an order to kill on behalf of a mobster, there are rules that must be obeyed, and strategies regarding how one interacts with one's opponent. Tian films close ups of the Go table and the stones being set up, while To films his three gangsters methodically preparing their guns for Exiled's initial shootout. Both films are about men who define themselves within specific groups that operate independently traditional society.

The Go Master is perhaps a more difficult film to appreciate. Nothing in the film explains how the game is played, or why games have been known to last for days, perhaps longer. Tian's film is about Wu Quigyuan, who as a child prodigy in the game of Go could be thought of, in passing as similar to Bobby Fischer in mastering their respective games, Go and Chess, at a young age, and placing their professional status as game players above almost everything else. Wu is famous for not only his lengthy tenure as the top Go of the world, but also for introducing new strategies for playing the game. The need to remain a Go champion was so great for Wu that he chose to live in Japan as a professional Go Master.

The main narrative of the film takes place between 1933 and 1945, the years that the military government of Japan began planning for war against China culminating in World War II. Wu essentially makes himself an exile from China by becoming a Japanese citizen, although in his mind the act is apolitical. Wu status as a Go champion is enough to earn him deferment from military activity. While outside events force the players to move their tournaments to different locations, what happens on the Go board is of greater concern than what may be occurring beyond the dim rooms. A tournament is moved from Tokyo to Hiroshima. Even though the audience is set up to anticipate what will happen, the scene of the tournament is still astonishing. The players are seen surrounded by a bright light that eventually envelopes them. A huge, explosive force pushes slams against the men and their house. Pulling themselves out of the debris, the men resume the game.

More baffling for Western audiences, is a subplot about Wu's involvement with a religious group. During the time that it became obvious that Japan would be defeated, Wu became devoted to a group centered on a woman who claimed to be the goddess Joki. Without knowledge about Japan in the latter years of World War II, or the chaos of the postwar years, these scenes are almost incomprehensible.

For much of the film, Tian has chosen to create the filmic equivalent to the game of Go. Even when the game is not being played, the film is composed of shots with only ambient sound, little dialogue, and deliberate and carefully composed movements. For reasons mentioned above, the film is less easy to appreciate than Tian's famous remake of Spring in a Small Town. The Go Master is beautiful to watch, even if one has no understanding of the rules of this game.

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Exiled/Fong Juk
Johnny To - 2006
Magnolia Pictures 35mm Film

Exiled is yet another meditation on the gangster life by Johnny To. The film centers on what is revealed to be a group of five childhood friends who have grown up to be low level criminals. One of the friends, Wo, is to be shot for attempting to kill Boss Fay. Two of the friends show up ordered to perform the hit on Wo, while two others appear to protect Wo. Following a three way shoot out inside Wo's house, the five agree on a temporary truce that evolves with them all being targeted by Boss Fay.

For To, all of the characters are inescapably tied to each other. Equally inescapable is the fate of the gangsters. The opening sequence of Exiled shows To at his most confident, with his use of overhead shots as the characters seek strategic positions, and the close ups of hands manipulating guns and bullets. None of the gangsters is especially competent at dealing with business or guns. The nominal leader of the five exiles, played by Anthony Wong, hedges his bets by wearing a bullet proof vest and making decisions based on a coin toss. The five find themselves continually running into Boss Fay and his men while attempting to run away from him.

Exiled is Johnny To's send-up and homage to Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. While the shifting loyalties existed throughout the Dollars trilogy, the discovery of a legendary cache of gold especially recalls The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The film culminates in a final gun battle that is To's version of the finale in The Wild Bunch. The goofiness of Wong's group might remind some of Ben Johnson and Warren Oates as the Gorch brothers, or Ernest Borgnine's humanitarian killer who reminds the audience that at least they don't hang anyone.

What was the greatest pleasure was seeing Exiled with an audience that for the most part had never seen a film by Johnny To, and was delighted by the experience. For myself, it took a few moments to overcome the disorientation of seeing the Media Asia logo on a theater screen after countless DVDs. Exiled and The Heroic Trio have been the only films I've seen by To theatrically. For Johnny To, Exiled is "all about the rhythm and music of the action scenes.". This is one movie that needs to be seen as big and as loud as possible for maximum enjoyment.

Posted by peter at 01:14 PM