April 30, 2008
Tian Tang Kou
Alexi Tan - 2007
Fortissimo Films 35mm film
Blood Brothers has a running time much shorter than that of the films that served as sources of inspiration. The look and feel of the film are closer to Once Upon a Time in America, mentioned by Alexi Tan, with more than passing resemblance to some of the style of Coppola and Scorsese. Currently seen at several film festival's, the film is an extremely accomplished. If Blood Brothers were an English language film with Hollywood stars, there would be talk of Academy Awards. Even if the story line can also be anticipated from the first few minutes, when the small town boys discuss making their fortune in 1930s Shanghai, the classic visual style of the film makes Blood Brothers satisfying to watch.
The original title translates as "Mouth of Heaven", which is also the name of the Shanghai night club where much of the film takes place. This particular heaven is run by Boss Hong, who wields the power of life and death over much of the Shanghai underworld even though his front is that of movie producer. For the three young men who initially come to Shanghai to work as waiters, the Paradise Club appears as a form of heaven with the well dressed men and women who come to dine and dance, and the stage show with scantily clad chorus girls and featured singer, Lulu. It is Lulu, mistress to Boss Hong, who warns one of the young men, Fung, to not get involved with Boss Hong. It is also Lulu who provides the motivation for the steps and missteps of the men who orbit around her.
It is no coincidence that the main female character shares the name of Louise Brook's ill fated Lulu. Blood Brothers is about irreversible destiny, as if no one has any choice about what they will do or what function they are expected to perform. The same could be said about the three young men - Kang, the one determined to be a success in the big city, Hu, his younger brother unable to do more than stand in his brother's shadow, and Fung, the sensitive friend who finds himself unable to break away from his past as a small town boy, or his more recent past as part of Boss Hong's family. Blood Brothers works because it fulfills the conventions of the genre, resembling a Italian or Italian-American epic as done by Chinese actors.
It could well have been the European influence of Blood Brothers that attracted John Woo to serve as the film's producer. Woo has been quite open about his admiration for Jean-Pierre Melville, and Daniel Wu may remind some of the young Alain Delon in his emotional vulnerability. Shu Qi, the Lulu of Shanghai, is transitioning ably from action star to dramatic actress. Lulu's dream is to appear in films produced by Boss Hong, and be a star like Anna May Wong. One brief scene in Blood Brothers features Wong as a guest in the Paradise Club, based on her real life return to Shanghai in 1936. In the end, Paradise, whether in the form of a nightclub, or as power or fame, is easily destroyed. The heaven that the characters aspire to turns out to be their hell.
April 28, 2008
Seduced by the the Bat Lady
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America
David Hajdu - 2008
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York
Artists and Models
Frank Tashlin - 1955
Paramount Region 1 DVD
I was taking classes in the summer of 1971 at the University of California in Berkeley. At a course on Mass Communications, I was discussing underground comics with a teacher. He encouraged me to read Seduction of the Innocent, the influential "study" of comic books by Fredric Werthem. A psychiatrist adept at self-promotion, Werthem's book fed into the fears about the corrupting influence of comic books of the kind that were available in the early Fifties. While I don't think my parents read Werthem's book, the hysteria regarding comic books was such that by the time I started buying them myself around 1960, the only kind I was allowed to buy were Classics Illustrated. I had also been aware that many of the comic books I wasn't buying featured a special seal of approval, stating that the comic met some designated code. David Hajdu's book tell about the history of comic books up to the time that the code was mandated.
When Artists and Models was released, the comic book industry had already changed. The screenplay refers to a kind of comic book that no longer was published. To a degree Tashlin's film reflects the film industry's attitude at that time towards comic books, both as a rival form of entertainment and for its depiction of violence. The middle class attitude toward comic books is reenforced with the main characters leaving the comic book industry for the more wholesome pursuit of children's stories and advertising art.
Even though Hajdu's book makes Tashlin's film outdated in its view of comic books, and the people in the industry, it still remains the best film from the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Eddie Mayehoff's comic book publisher probably was inspired in part by Bill Gaines. Gaines was perhaps the best known publisher not only because of the notoriety of "Tales from the Crypt" and "The Vault of Horror", but also his bravery to actually face the congressional hearings regarding comic books. Tashlin plays with the notion of how much influence comic books had on anti-social behavior on youth with nine year old George Winslow threatening Lewis with a letter opener thrown like a Bowie knife, and Lewis appearing on a television panel to report the effects of reading comic books for much of his life, the word "retarded" stressed in that scene.
Having Dorothy Malone as a comic book artist seemed unusual to me until Hajdu pointed out that until about 1954, the comic book industry was one of the few places where female artists could work. Hajdu explains the stratified world of professional artists in New York City, and how the comic book industry was more inclusive of women and racial minorities, especially when the industry peaked in the early Fifties. This is also documented by Hajdu's list of names of artists who were forced to leave the industry after 1954. Many of the events in The Ten-Cent Plague take place simultaneously to the HUAC trials of Hollywood filmmakers, and the later Army-McCarthy hearings. Similarly, it should be of little surprise that many of the people affected were of Jewish background such as Will Eisner, Stan Lee (Lieber) and Bob Kane (Kahn). It would be interesting to know if Bill Gaines had seen Artists and Models or if Frank Tashlin had ever read "Mad" magazine, the only Gaines publication that survived after 1954. The two shared an affection for parodies of movies, as well as an affection for the culture that they also satirized.
Setting aside the more topical aspects of Artists and Models, familiarity does not diminish the humor of Jerry Lewis confusing himself and Dean Martin in explaining his accidental encounters with the Bat Lady and the Fat Lady. While the Martin-Lewis films are usually overlooked in most discussions of musicals, the film features two scenes that continually delight. Written by Jack Brooks and Harry Warren, "Innamorata" may not be quite as catchy was the pair's "That's Amore", but it charms as one of the better vehicles for Dino's crooning to Dorothy Malone. Better and funnier is Shirley MacLaine belting out the same song, stopping the hapless Jerry as he attempts to make his way to catch some sun on their building roof. "The Lucky Song" is the type of number that could have probably wedged its way into a number of films but is fortunately found here. Dino is surrounded by some talented dancing neighborhood kids in this alternative version of Greenwich Village. Included is a dixieland jazz band featuring a piano player who looks like Fats Waller. It is also worth noting that unlike most films the time, the group of children performing with Martin are racially mixed, giving a little bit of New York City truth to this made in Hollywood scene.
April 27, 2008
John Garfield and Jennifer Jones in We Were Strangers (John Huston - 1949)
Posted by peter at 12:18 AM
April 25, 2008
Suay Laak Sai
Piraphan Laoyont & Thodsapol Siriwiwat - 2007
Magnolia Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD
I first read about Sick Nurses through Curtis, also known as Wise Kwai. You can google the term "Thai logic", or you can use this film as Exhibit A regarding the wide, undisturbed release of this film in Thailand while Syndromes and a Century finally gets released in a censored version. Curtis has noted several times the scenes that caused offense to the Thai cultural gatekeepers. Two of the offending scenes involved the medical profession - a doctor has an erection pressing inside his pants, his response to being with his fiancee, a female doctor, and some doctors imbibe on some alcohol while off duty, but on hospital grounds. To the best of my knowledge, no one speaking on behalf of medical professionals has expressed outrage, but these scenes were among the handful that has caused this critically acclaimed Thai film to be seen as intended almost everywhere, except Thailand.
In the meantime, Sick Nurses is in part about a doctor who works with a black market organ market. Doctor Tar is also revealed to have had affairs with most of his team of nurses, impregnated one, and had wistful flashbacks about the hunky male doctor who proposed marriage to him. One of the nurses, discovering that the good doctor was not going to marry her, gets killed by the doctor and the other nurses to prevent her from spilling the beans about the illegal activity. The ghost of the nurse goes around killing the nurses in a variety of inventive and increasingly gory ways.
Well, not always inventive, as the ghost looks like a more fashionably dressed version of one of those long haired ghosts from Ju-On. There is one scene that will look like it was almost lifted from that film or its English language remake. One of the murders involves a nurse losing her jaw after being forced to swallow paper clips, follow by the literal visual metaphor of a cat getting her tongue, topped off with a killer fetus. While Sick Nurses wallows in dubious taste, the revelation regarding the identity of the ghost nurse may strike some as not only offensive, but giving lie to the notion of sexual tolerance in Thailand.
Sick Nurses is crap. Undeniably well made crap, but crap just the same. It was produced by the same team made Tony Jaa a star, and distributed by one of the biggest film companies in Thailand. I wouldn't be surprised if, like the other horror films I saw in Thailand, this was released with their ubiquitous PG13 rating. Adding to the absurdity that the cultural gatekeepers of Thailand felt the need to gang up on a gentle film by a filmmaker who other countries would cherish simply for bringing prestige to their country, is that none of these people seemed to regard it in any way as contradictory that Sick Nurses would be given a pass for a more questionable presentation of the medical profession. It also bothers me that Sick Nurses gets a U.S. DVD release well before that of the far superior Alone. It's within the context of what is going on with Thai cinema, both within and outside of Thailand that I make my comments.
There are a couple of good points to Sick Nurses. The nurses are cute. And the film runs for less than 80 minutes.
Posted by peter at 12:07 AM
April 23, 2008
Showa Kayo Daizenshu
Tetsuo Shinohara - 2003
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD
The title Karaoke Terror suggest someone just drunk enough to get onstage to sing "Feelings", "Achy Breaky Heart" or "I Will Always Love You", very, very badly. The original title , from Ryu Murakami's novel, means "Complete Showa Era Songbook". Most western viewers will miss any significance from that title. Overlooking the silly English language title, this is a film that will probably be most appreciated by those familiar with author Murakami.
The store is about two bands of outsiders. One is a group of young men who hang out together and periodically dress up to perform songs in costume, in a remote beach location, with no audience. The Midoris are a group of divorced women ranging in age from the early thirties to forties, unrelated but sharing the same last name, who also share an interest in music from their youth. The film follows the escalation of revenge between the two groups, after one of the men murders one of the women following her decline of his advances.
For those who want a better idea of some of the Japanese pop songs of the time, or you just want to find out a bit more about Pinky and the Killers, this site will give you a better idea. Further musical explorations can be done here as well. Murakami has a very caustic view of Japan and Japanese society, but an abiding affection for popular culture in all its forms. In one scene, the four remaining Midoris discuss their next plan of action. Realizing there are only four of them, they think of themselves as The Beatles. When one asks who they were when they were five, the response is The Rolling Stones.
Murakami's novel was written in 1994. The songs used are similar in being about impossible love, or looking back to a lost past. As explained in the notes that come with the DVD package, the Showa era referred to by Murakami is Japan's post-war era which roughly coincides with his own birth and entrance into middle-age. The notes also helpfully come with the list of songs used in the soundtrack with the release dates and authors.
Those how are only familiar with Murakami through Takashi Miike's film, Audition may be disappointed by Karaoke Terror. The killings are bloody, but also very brief. Those who have read Murakami's books such as Coin-Locker Babies or 69 will see how the film fits in with Murakami's other works. The original novel seems to have not been translated into English.
It is worth noting that several of Murakami's other novels have been made into film, but have yet to be available in the U.S. Murakami also wrote and directed an English language film produced by none other than Roger Corman.
April 21, 2008
The Guatemalan Handshake
Todd Rohal - 2006
Benten Films Region 1 DVD
I hope whomever gives out prizes will remember The Guatemalan Handshake for best DVD packaging. The illustrations by James Braithwaite have a homey charm that held my attention in a way that the slapped together photoshop jobs from the big boys never will.
The two sports that are featured in The Guatemalan Handshake serve as fitting metaphors for life, especially when faced with limited possibilities. In the roller rink, the object is to keep on going forward, in a circle around the rink, or fall down. In the demolition derby, the goal is to be able to crash into another car until it no longer can move, while keeping your own car in motion. The winner is the last mobile car. Both of these sports involve repetition of movement to the point of monotony, kind of like the jobs most people have, and to a certain extent, like real life.
Thinking about the film just a little bit more after one viewing, what The Guatemalan Handshake may resemble is not any other films, but a smaller, less rambling version of a story by Kurt Vonnegut. One of the key events, a power outage in the small town is just apocalyptic enough to cause the mysterious disappearance of one of the residents. Even the names of the characters are reminiscent of those found in Vonnegut, such as Donald Turnipseed and Edith Firecracker. The concept of time, which goes forwards, backwards, and occasionally loops around, is a literary device Vonnegut explored most famously in Slaughterhouse Five.
Where The Guatemalan Handshake is best is when Todd Rohal is simply observing his characters, particularly the young girl known as Turkeylegs. The truth is that Katy Haywood's legs don't seem that much thinner than those of any ten year old girl. Even when some of the small town eccentrics have an overload of quirkiness, one smiles at scenes of Haywood, observing a sunset in a field, falling asleep on her oversized cowboy hat, practicing baton twirling, or swinging on a rope over a small lake. The film ends literally with fireworks, but it is the quiet moments with Haywood that I'll cherish.
April 20, 2008
Supakson Chaimongkol in Art of the Devil (Tanit Jitnukul - 2004)
April 18, 2008
Jung Brothers - 2007
Epitaph recently was shown as part of the Danger After Dark series at the Philadelphia Film Festival. It is a very ambitious film in that the Jung Brothers are attempting to smarten up the Korean horror film. That is is a ghost story, and that some of the ghosts are reminders of past horror films is in itself nothing new. What makes Epitaph interesting is the narrative structure which is mobius strip that repeats scenes from different perspectives, answering some, but not all questions, about the relationships of the characters in a haunted hospital.
The film takes place almost entirely in a hospital in Japanese occupied Korea, 1942. Starting with the memories of Dr. Park when he was an intern, the film has three main stories that interconnect. Park is seen as a clumsy intern, but a talented sketch artist, who is assigned to morgue duty. It's a creepy enough assignment made more difficult with electricity that is inconstant, with faulty refrigeration and lights that suddenly go out. There are dead bodies, live ghosts, stabbings, brain surgery, snails, and even necrophilia, and yet Epitaph is much less over the top than its description might suggest.
Hopefully someone will do an in-depth interview with the Jung Brothers about their film influences. The violins and violence of Psycho is obvious. There is also a shot that is the reverse of the signature shot from the Thai horror film, Alone. In the earlier film, we see the surviving half of two conjoined twins, walking on the beach, looking back to see two sets of footprints. In Epitaph two married doctors are at the beach, but we see only one set of footprints. There is also a scene involving a snow globe, which may possibly be a deliberate nod to Citizen Kane. It is not simply the use of the globe, but how Kane's shifting narrative may have inspired the Jungs. In addition to the repetition of scenes, the film shifts into memories, dreams, and dreams within dreams.
It is not simply time that is played with, but space. This can be as simple as a young girl stepping into a room filled with white light. One of the more spectacular moments is a scene depicting the evolution of a relationship between the young intern Park and the woman of his dreams. As the camera moves forward, we see the lovers in as newlyweds, and as parents, with screen doors sliding open to reveal each new stage of the relationship, with a corresponding color scheme representing the changing seasons. It's a brief scene, but one that indicates a promise that the Jung Brothers may be among the more interesting young filmmakers in Korean cinema.
April 16, 2008
Kiyoshi Kurosawa - 2006
Lionsgate Region 1 DVD
For a good part of its length, Retribution seems like nothing more than a reworking of Cure, the film that brought Kurosawa to international attention. This is not to say that this is a bad film, but so much of it seems derivative from not only Kurosawa's past work but the films of others. The plot twist does bring up an interesting point, directly commenting on the film that is most identified with contemporary Japanese horror films, The Grudge. Kurosawa has never been interested in simply working within the confines of the horror genre. While Retribution may succeed for some for its surface spookiness, what Kurosawa attempts to explore is the symbiotic relationship between people and ghosts.
Like many of Kurosawa's other films, this is also about memory. Do people need ghosts? Do ghosts need people? If the questions seem silly, it is only because Kurosawa is attempting to symbolic and literal at the same time. What is seen onscreen seems less silly if allowances are made for some suspension of disbelief.
Koji Yakusho again portrays a detective, Yoshioka, investigating puzzling cases of urban madness that have no clear connections. Cases are solved on what seems to be an intuitive basis. Kurosawa's characters often live in dark, rundown apartments or houses. Urban alienation has been a consistent thread in Kurosawa's universe, with lonely ghosts and lonely people sharing the same grimy spaces. The title is less obvious than it may seem if one considers that retribution can mean both punishment and reward. The Japanese title translates as "Scream", which could not have been used because of the American film of that title. The scream referred to here is that of one of the ghosts, not so much of a scream as an abstract sound that emerges from the mouth of the ghost of such intensity that Yoshioka runs in fear.
The sense of the abstract or mechanical also informs the look of the film. It isn't Fernand Leger, but many of the compositions are made up of circles and squares interrupted by the placement of the characters. This is not surprising as the word "mechanical" often recurs in discussing Kurosawa's universe. In discussing the origin of Retribution with FearZone, Kurosawa stated: "In the past I've featured ghosts in so many films. In most of them, I've treated those apparitions as something enigmatic and completely beyond the understanding of living humans. Lately, however, I've begun to realize the obvious fact that ghosts are just like any of us human beings. The only difference is that ghosts are human beings who have lived in the past. Therefore, I realized that from this point of view of the past, we may be able to reexamine the relationship between ghosts and humans and also by understanding the past we may learn to better understand ghosts, or human beings who have passed on. This is what got me started writing Retribution." Kurosawa has described his newest film, Tokyo Sonata as a family drama. This isn't much of a stretch because whenever families get together, they frequently talk about the past. In other words, it's still a ghost story.
Posted by peter at 12:34 AM
April 14, 2008
The American Cinema Blog-a-thon
I received my own copy of "The American Cinema" as a high school graduation present in June of 1969. The effect was both liberating and shackling. Liberating in that I felt less guilty about my consistent pursuit of any film that as associated with the name of Roger Corman. Shackling in that, like too many other people, I mis-read what Andrew Sarris was saying, and started to ignore some filmmakers based on where Sarris had placed them. Living in New York City in the early Seventies had its advantage so that I was able to see many older films theatrically and start making up my own mind on filmmakers. One person who remained in lockstep with Sarris well into that decade thought I was heretical for praising Taxi Driver. At the time, Sarris complained about Scorsese's lack of style. Since then, Sarris has named Scorsese as one of a handful of directors he has changed him mind about. For myself, there are a few directors that I value higher than Sarris did at the time his book came out, especially Henry King.
Often overlooked is that Sarris even said that he should not be taken as last or only word on the merits of any director. Like many others, I would like to see a revised "American Cinema" that reflected some of the changes in valuation, especially with filmmakers that had just begun their careers at the time the book came out, such as John Boorman, Francis Ford Coppola and John Cassavetes, as well as Roman Polanski, whose career is primarily of English language films, There are also several directors that Sarris did not include the first time out, with Michael Powell being the most obvious omission. My own entry to this blog-a-thon will be in a style inspired by Sarris, including use of one of the categories. On a more personal note, the most inspiring thing Andrew Sarris did was to marry Molly Haskell, still a hottie among female film critics. For more thoughts on others who may be "Lightly Likable" or "Expressive Esoterica", please go to Film at 11.
Angela Bettis in May
Oddities, One-shots, and Newcomers: Lucky McKee (b. November 1, 1975 as Edward McKee)
The woods are full of horror film directors, but Lucky McKee is one of the few to emerge with a consistent theme that connects him with older directors such as Dario Argento and Jacques Tourneur. Sick Girl could have easily been the title of some of McKee's other films. More graphic than the original Cat People, but more restrained than Suspiria, McKee's films of May, Sick Girl and The Woods make up a trilogy examining young women who are as alienated from themselves physically and psychologically, as they are from the world at large. The three films can also be read as feminist reworkings of classic horror films, Frankenstein, The Fly and Suspiria, respectively. The almost oppressively claustrophobic Roman, written by McKee, and directed by Angela Bettis, also explores the feelings of alienation and dislocation from the point of view of a man emotionally and physically so disconnected that he has trouble when love literally knocks on his door.
At this point, the director has been less than lucky commercially. May received a limited theatrical release, while The Woods got lost in the shuffle of studio politics and buyouts. Sick Girl was part of the cable series "Masters of Horror". McKee was replaced as director on his most recent project. If McKee gets the kind of opportunity to make a high profile project of the kind that studios seem more than willing to hand out to lesser talents, we will all be lucky.
Filmography: All Cheerleaders Die (co-directed with Chris Sivertson - 2001), May (2002), Sick Girl (2006), The Woods (2006), Red (completed by Trygve Allister Diesen - 2008)
Lucky McKee in Roman (Angela Bettis - 2006)
April 13, 2008
Meg Myles and Robert Yuro in Satan in High Heels (Jerald Intrator - 1962)
April 09, 2008
The Three Musketeers (1973)
The Three Musketeers: The Queen's Diamonds
Richard Lester - 1973
The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge
Richard Lester - 1974
both Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD
According to Charlton Heston and others connected with the making of the Musketeer films, Heston was first approached to play Athos. It was Richard Lester who recast Heston as Cardinal Richelieu. What makes the decision interesting is that Heston is the least physical actor in a set of films that emphasizes physical action. Heston brings to the role his history of being perhaps the most physically active star for the better part of the past twenty years. Additionally, Lester was playing with Heston's previous roles as the voice of moral or religious authority, and intermediary between man and God. It is almost as if Lester was saying if anyone had the right to speak on behalf of God, or play God on earth by manipulating people for his own amusement, the right was earned by Chuck Heston.
I had not seen the Musketeer films in over thirty years. The films still hold up, a concern I had after the disappointment of finally seeing Royal Flash, Lester and writer George MacDonald Fraser's attempt to launch a series combining the action and humor that worked well before. The credit sequence that opens the first film is a lesson on the physical exertion of sword fighting, that there is a greater demand on the body than simply trying to wave a long piece of metal in the right direction. More amazing perhaps, especially in this day of wire work and CGI, is that the actors actually did their own stunts. One beneficiary was Frank Finlay, who switched places with the more accomplished equestrian Raquel Welch, with his holding on to her, while she held the reigns. One of the unanticipated results of time also is that the cast seems more legendary than it did at the time of the original release.
Casting aside, this version of Dumas' story could probably not be done today because the caustic view of Christianity. In addition to the machinations of Richelieu, part of The Four Musketeers is devoted to the war between Catholics and Protestants. The war is presented as being far less about faith than about political power.
What makes the Musketeer films continually entertaining is that Lester crams the films with visual gags, such as Roy Kinnear running around in a bear costume or vainly attempting to leap high enough to diffuse a bomb beyond his reach, Raquel Welch as the constantly clumsy Constance, Oliver Reed leaning too far back with his drink in hand - falling backwards into a well, or the close-up of Michael York's face, after a night of love with Faye Dunaway, framed with a limp orchid. With all the activity going on, sometimes literally around him, Charlton Heston's Richelieu is like the relatively calm, but potentially threatening eye, of one very wild hurricane. It is little wonder that Heston enjoyed playing this role. No bartering with an unseen deity or walking for years through a desert, no suicidal chariot race with the former BFF, no staying on your back for years get paint splattered on your face. We knew what Charlton Heston was capable of doing so as Cardinal Richelieu there are no doubts that he could have kicked the rest of the cast with both hands tied behind his back. Heston as Richelieu is not only a man of God, but in his joyously perverse way, he is God.
April 07, 2008
Enrico Maria Salerno in Night Train Murders (Aldo Lado - 1975)
Posted by peter at 12:31 AM
April 06, 2008
Charlton Heston: 1924 - 2008
There will be debate as to whether Charlton Heston was truly "an axiom of the cinema" as pronounced by Michel Mourlet. He was at one point, my favorite movie star. Looking back, he was probably no more convincing as a Mexican cop than as a Jewish prophet or prince. Still, Heston's filmography, at least through the mid Seventies, is strong on some of the better, or least more interesting, films of some very good filmmakers. My own introduction was seeing El Cid on a huge screen in Detroit at the time of that film's first release. My feelings for El Cid did not diminish when I attended the theatrical re-release, much older, with a greater familiarity of Heston, Loren and especially Anthony Mann.
Other favorites would include his westerns, Major Dundee and Will Penny. Heston's appearance in Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet is a reminder of his classical training. His science fiction films, Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green constitute the best post-apocalyptic triple feature one could ever hope to see. Another personal favorite is his appearance as Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester's Musketeer films. I still recall "Take One" magazine's critic mentioning that this was the role Heston was born to play. Others may carp about politics, or remember Heston for other films. Axiom, maybe. But to borrow from the book title of one of his films, he was legend.
April 05, 2008
The Bette Davis Centennial: Now, Voyager
Irving Rapper - 1942
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD
Now, Voyager is one of those times I set aside my auteurist credentials. I'm pretty certain not all of it is meant to be funny yet I also can't watch it without laughing until tears well up in my eyes. Of course my first introduction to the film was actually a spoof of the famous cigarette lighting scene, a Warner Brothers cartoon of course, directed by either Tex Avery or Frank Tashlin, with the wolf lighting a dozen or so cigarettes from his mouth.
The retelling of the ugly duckling who becomes Bette Davis could never be made today. The film is two hours of platonic love, obvious rear screen projections, and lots of cigarette smoking. The film is also a love letter to Miss Davis, with two shots of the camera tilting up from her heels to her head. Davis liked whatever Irving Rapper did enough to have him direct her in a few more films, the most distinguished titles of the director's career.
It is the romance of Now, Voyager that is the least interesting part of the film. What remains for me as the highlights are the snappy put-downs, retorts and sarcasm in Casey Robinson's script. Between Robinson, producer Hal Wallis, cinematographer Sol Polito, and composer Max Steiner, there was enough talent to stamp Now, Voyager as a Warner Brothers film that it may not have mattered much who actually was the credited director. What makes the film rewatchable are Bonita Granville as the proto-Paris Hilton, with not much better to do than determine who's the hottie and who's the nottie, Ilka Chase as the sympathetic sister-in-law, and Mary Wilkes as the sassy nurse. Even though there is talk about marriage and children, the men, even Claude Raines, seem extraneous to most of the proceedings. The other downside of multiple viewings, especially on a larger screen, is the questions that come to mind, like why does one of the portraits in the Vale mansion look like it's of Elvis, and why do the pages from the diary of Charlotte Vale all appear as from a published book and not hand-written?
One of the benefits of DVDs is watching an English language movie with subtitles. I wanted to make sure I understood that last line of the film. Was it poetic speech or awkward grammar? This is it, as spoken by Davis to Paul Henreid: "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars." I'm not sure if I even want to know what that's suppose to mean. I'll just conclude by being man enough to say that Now, Voyager is my favorite "weepie", consistently causing me to weep with laughter.
April 03, 2008
The Chin of Fu Manchu
The Blood of Fu Manchu
Jesus Franco - 1968
The Castle of Fu Manchu
Jesus Franco - 1969
both Blue Underground Region 1 DVD
The Denver Public Library continues to amaze me. Not only am I able to free up my rental queue a bit with their selection, but I often find unexpected titles. Currently in the library are four films by Jesus Franco. That there are four titles is a mere drop in the bucket of his output, but it is four more than may be found in some other libraries. This was enough for me to check out Franco's two entries from the five Fu Manchu films produced by Harry Alan Towers. As Franco films go, these are not only the most conventional films I have seen, but also, sadly, the most boring. Seeing the films did succeed in bringing to my attention an actress I was previously unaware of, Tsai Chin.
One of the more interesting parts of this Fu Manchu series is the interviews included in the supplements. Tsai Chin discusses her conflicted feelings about taking on a role that had racist connotations. Chin had hoped to make her performance a tribute to Myrna Loy, who had played the role of the title character's daughter in The Mask of Fu Manchu, but was denied the opportunity, even by Franco, of being as sexually provocative as Loy. The films provide a footnote into the history of cinematic portrayals of Asians. While it is laudable that a Chinese actress played the part of a Chinese character in the series, the question is raised as to whether a Chinese actor would play the part of Fu Manchu, and if so, would he resemble the character created by Sax Rohmer, or would there be changes to reflect more current sensibilities?
This question of racial casting also brings to mind the subject of films that maybe should be remade. As long as Rosemary's Baby is to be redone by (yipes!) Michael Bay, and other films are slated to be remade or "re-imagined", here are a few more titles to consider:
Breakfast at Tiffany's. Now some will mutter about this being THE Audrey Hepburn classic. Even Blake Edwards has acknowledged that casting Mickey Rooney as the Japanese neighbor was a mistake. "Seinfeld" even had an episode about how the film diverges from Truman Capote's novel. I say that someone like Todd Haynes make a film that actually hews closer to the novel. I also nominate Takeshi Kitano to play Mr. Yunioshi.
Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. How about a Eurasian actress to portray the Eurasian doctor? Instead of Jennifer Jones, why not Cecila Chung or Josie Ho? And Henry King directed the film from the point of view of a tourist in Hong Kong. Maybe Han Suyin's story might benefit from being filmed by Sylvia Chang, Mabel Cheung or Clara Law?
Meanwhile, back to films starring George Peppard that are need of remaking, how about The Subterraneans. There is a reason why there haven't been any other film adaptations of novels by Jack Kerouac and this is it. A year before Capote was bowdlerized for the big screen, Peppard starred in MGM's travesty. The original novel is about a young writer involved with an African-American woman. In the MGM version, the woman is . . . French! I don't think Leslie Caron was who Kerouac had in mind. Then again, maybe it's better not to fool around with film versions of Jack Kerouac novels. While not as tall as Christopher Lee, but taller than Boris Karloff, how about Chow Yun Fat as the first Chinese actor to play Fu Manchu? It couldn't be that much worse than Bulletproof Monk.
April 01, 2008
The Love God?
Nat Hiken - 1969
Universal Region 1 DVD
The Love God? almost defies description. In its own peculiar way, Nat Hiken's film encapsulates the confusion of late Sixties, simultaneously progressive and conservative, hip and square, nostalgic and progressive. Hiken gently skewers everybody, poking fun of his characters as he embraces them. There is also a certain amount of suspension of disbelief in watching a film more or less made for general audiences that is about sex. Most of the skin on display is no more licentious than what's to be found in the lingerie section of a Sears catalogue.
At the time it was released, The Love God? was already dated. "Playboy" magazine had been around for about fifteen years, and was challenged by new, more graphic upstarts. Hiken is smart enough to let the audience connect the dots involving some of his double entendres though such as having Don Knotts portray the failed publisher of a bird watching magazine, the legacy of his family named Peacock. Edmond O'Brien, the publisher of girlie magazines, takes over the operation. O'Brien's magazine bizarrely feature one woman, his wife, played by Maureen Arthur. Not only could O'Brien's venture be called a mom and pop operation, but O'Brien addresses his wife as "Mother", not entirely inappropriate considering that Arthur straddles the fence between voluptuous and matronly. Added to the mix is the not so silent partner, a gangster played by character actor B.S. Pully, and Anne Francis as the magazine editor, the epitome of the contemporary modern woman. What is seemingly prescient about the role Francis plays as the editor of the envisioned upscale magazine is that while her dialogue seems lifted from Hugh Hefner's "Playboy Philosphy", she also anticipates Gloria Leonard and Christie Hefner.
This is a film where the Attorney General argues with Knotts that it is his constitutional duty to be a smut peddler. Knotts' association with the bucolic entertainment of Mayberry is subjected to Hiken's satire, especially when the loyal, virginal girlfriend waits on the porch for Knotts to come courting, no matter what the weather conditions may be. Hiken manages to fill the screen with women unashamed of their libidos, while putting Knotts in the position of almost publicly announcing his purity.
Almost thirty years later, Hiken's only feature film might be best appreciated by those who cherish Preston Sturges and Frank Tashlin. Most obviously influenced by Sturges is Charlie Midnight, the gangster who finances the revamped magazine. Midnight, in an attempt to better himself, has the elderly former teacher, Miss Love, expand his vocabulary with such words as prerogative and fastidious. The Tashlin influence might be seen throughout the film, but is personified by Edmond O'Brien's character which is almost a continuation of his role in The Girl Can't Help It. Even though O'Brien was a last minute replacement for Phil Silvers, the casting gives the film an extra edge it may not otherwise have had. Anne Francis, coincidentally, starred in Tashlin's Susan Slept Here, another movie about sexual tension in an otherwise chaste relationship. Hiken is best remembered for his comic television series about men in uniform, "Sergeant Bilko" and "Car 54, Where are You". How much of The Love God? represents Nat Hiken's vision may be up to debate as the strain making the film helped cause Hiken to die at the age of 54, almost eight months before the release of the film. As a satirist, Nat Hiken may not have had the edge of some of his contemporaries, but what is offered instead is something both sweet and wonderfully silly.