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September 29, 2008

Coffee Break

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Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler - 1942)
courtesy of the Jonathan Lapper collection

Tonight Walt and Greer will party like it's 5699. Happy Jewish New Year!

Posted by peter at 12:26 AM | Comments (1)

September 28, 2008

Coffee Break

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Ralph Richardson and Michele Morgan in The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed - 1948)

Posted by peter at 12:16 AM

September 27, 2008

Sweet Bird of Youth

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Richard Brooks - 1962
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

For reasons I can't explain, Sweet Bird of Youth is the one movie starring Paul Newman that I've seen the most, along with Exodus. Unlike Exodus, I had only seen Sweet Bird of Youth on television. This was in the days when watching a movie on television meant black and white pan and scan, plus some judicious editing of a Cinemascope and color movie. Not having had the opportunity to see the film theatrically, I finally saw Tennessee Williams' lurid story on DVD.

It is probably pure coincidence, but the main character's name is made up of the last names of the actor and his character in Rio Bravo. I am making an unintended connection here with John Wayne, his character of John Chance, and Williams' creation, Chance Wayne. Even more coincidentally, the play, Sweet Bird of Youth opened about a week before the premiere of Rio Bravo in March of 1959. More likely, Williams' name is a pun on "chance wane", with his protagonist living a life of ever decreasing opportunities and fortune. Of further possible coincidence is that an actor Howard Hawks originally wanted for Rio Bravo, Montgomery Clift, starred in the film version of Suddenly, Last Summer, which opened in December 1959.

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I remembered the basic story about a gigolo who shows up at a small Southern town with a drunk has-been actress, still in love with the daughter of the man referred to as "Boss". My memory of how the film ended was closer to what Williams wrote, rather than what actually happens on screen. Even though Chance Wayne is the main character of the play and film, he is less interesting than the characters that surround him, especially Boss Finley and his son, Tom. Paul Newman seems to recede when Ed Begley and Rip Torn, grinning with evil, appear. One of the supplements of the DVD is of a screen test with Geraldine Page and Rip Torn, with Torn performing the part of Wayne. While Torn does not have the Newman's charm or handsomeness, his performance suggests greater desperation and animal instinct in those few minutes.

Some of the political attitudes of Boss Finley and those who surround him are striking, fifty years later. What seemed like a parody of life below the Mason-Dixon line now is in some ways very much ingrained as part of the national political landscape, particularly the false presentation of family values and the dirty tricks that are officially disavowed. That the play was altered to be filmed does not seem to have created much damage. I can imagine the suggestion of an abortion to have been equal, or more disturbing than Wayne's causing his former love, Heavenly, to have a hysterectomy following infection from an unnamed venereal disease. Rip Torn's one whack on Paul Newman's face would have to suffice in place of castration. The film ends with the two damaged lovers driving off from Boss Finley's mansion, although one imagines that the future that awaits them is more squalid than that of Williams' other white trash characters.

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Posted by peter at 09:47 AM

September 26, 2008

Cinematic Denver: Vanishing Point

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Richard C. Sarafian - 1971
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

It took me twenty-eight years after seeing Vanishing Point but I did my own road trip between Denver and San Francisco. Actually it was the opposite direction, from Oakland to Denver. I wasn't chased by cops and I wasn't in that big a rush, but for a good part of the trip I was driving 80 on 80, that is 80 mph on US Highway 80. I also stopped for sleep along the way, in Elko, Nevada and some ugly little place in Wyoming. My car was a Volvo 240 DL, not a souped-up Dodge.

As far as seeing Denver on film, there isn't that much to see in Vanishing Point. What little I could recognize has been transformed by urban renewal in some shots filmed in the outskirts of the downtown area. The appearance by newscaster Bob Palmer was all that could connect the Denver of my memory with Denver as presented in this film. Probably the most fantastic element of Vanishing Point may be a simple lapse in what is essentially a plotless film, that Barry Newman manages to drive from Colorado to California through Nevada, but totally avoids Utah. As one who has been on the road between Denver and California more than once, the direct routes are all through Utah. Then again, if verisimilitude was the goal of Vanishing Point, there wouldn't have been Cleavon Little's blind disc Jockey name Super Soul with a radio station in a no-name town.

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Instead of watching Vanishing Point as a narrative film, it works better as a series of abstract images. What I liked were the long shots of open country and two lane highways, visual minimalism to compliment the minimalism of the story. Yes, there are flashbacks to give some kind of story to the character of Kowalski. Mostly what we get are hints. As Kowalski, Newman doesn't say very much, and much of the film is designed to let the audience either connect the dots for themselves. Contemporary audiences might be at a loss in dealing with Vanishing Point as there is little explanation for why Kowalski needs to be in San Francisco at a certain time. A scene deleted in the U.S. release version is emblematic of the disinterest in reality. Driving at night on some off the beaten path road, Newman comes across hitchhiker Charlotte Rampling. The two spend the night together in the Dodge. When Newman wakes up, Rampling has disappeared as mysteriously as she appeared. Like Dean Jagger's prospector, Rampling just seems to appear out of nowhere, as phantoms to remind Newman of his own remaining vestiges of humanity. Vanishing Point makes me think of questions raised by Girish Shambu regarding geography on film. Most films about journeys have the geographical aspects mirror a sense of self-discovery in the protagonist. Vanishing Point takes that well worn trope and gives it a nihilistic twist, with a man who realizes he has nothing more to live for and goes nowhere fast.

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Posted by peter at 12:38 AM

September 24, 2008

Seoul Raiders

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Han Cheng Gong Lue
Jingle Ma - 2005
Arts Alliance America Region 1 DVD

Looking at his filmography, Jingle Ma's best work is as cinematographer for other people. The films Ma has done as a director are more decidedly lightweight, though not without considerable technical skill. At the very least, he should be commended for not jumping on the Crouching Tiger bandwagon, although his previous film, Silver Hawk made it clear that Michelle Yeoh needs more than just her physical prowess to carry a movie. Seoul Raiders is a caper film of not great consequence, but it is enjoyable simply to see a couple of veteran Hong Kong stars having fun.

Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Shu Qi meet cute as thieves competing to steal a suitcase with counterfeit plates. The two plates are intended to be used by a terrorist organization to flood the U.S. Richie Ren plays a U.S. embassy employee from Hong Kong who tricks Leung, and attempts to sell the plates to a gang leader with international ties, based in Seoul. Leung chases after Ren, accompanied by his gang of leggy beauties, with Shu showing up to get what she believes are her just rewards.

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Seoul Raiders is a relatively stress free caper film, with little suspense or mystery. What the film has going for it are some amusing fight scenes, such as in the opening when Leung and Shu are chased by henchman, and the two toss the valuable silver case between each other while arguing whether they are partners or rivals. In another set piece, Leung and his team chase Ren through the streets of Seoul and into a subway where Leung grabs onto Ren's scarf on the inside of the train, while Ren is holding onto the outside door, inches from being dashed against the tunnel wall. One other scene that elicits chuckles is Leung defeating a hang of thugs by hurling plates at them. Shu Qi mostly laughs, smiles and generally looks cute. If you want to see Shu as an action star, she is used to better advantage in So Close.

Tommy Wai's score seems to have been lifted, with very little alteration, from one of the music themes used by Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill. Jingle Ma may be taking his queues, both musical and visual, from American films. There is the nervous camera, the editing of shots to the beat of the music and again, the seemingly inevitable slo-mo action shots. There's very little in Seoul Raiders that hasn't been seen before. But with Tony Leung having made his mark most significantly with Wong Kar-wai, and Shu Qi graduating to the artistic heights as Hou Hsiao-hsien's muse, a lighthearted romp may have been in order.

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Posted by peter at 12:23 AM

September 21, 2008

Coffee Break

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Mark Stevens and Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner (Henry Hathaway - 1946)

Posted by peter at 12:03 AM | Comments (1)

September 18, 2008

Masters of War

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This is Korea!
John Ford - 1951

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San Pietro
John Huston - 1945
VCI Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The reason why the serious cinephile will want to check out a copy of Surrender - Hell! is because this is one DVD where the bonus features are more meaningful than the main attraction. While some might find John Barnwell's yarn of battle in the Philippines of some interest, the more compelling viewing is in the documentaries by John Ford and John Huston. Also subject to discussion is how these two filmmakers choose to insert their own personalities and predilections into their observations of war.

This is Korea! has John Ford stamped all over the film. Save for "O Little Town of Bethlehem" instead of "Shall We Gather at the River", and Koreans instead of Native Americans, this is clearly John Ford's version of the Korean conflict. We have the Navy and the Marines, nuns and children, including one boy with the improbable name of Babe Ruth DiMaggio. The colors of Trucolor are no longer true, but are sometimes muddy or washed out. Still there are recognizable visual touches in the use of silhouettes in some of the shots. Ford even inserts some lowbrow humor as he as tended to do in even the best of his films. John Ireland informs the audience that the fight is to same Korea from the Commies, yet near the end he asks the audience to explain the reasons for the war.

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From a purely historical point of view, I was unaware that napalm was a major tool of battle. There was a scorched earth policy when it came to the land and the people designated as the enemy - "Burn 'em out! Cook 'em!". As in Ford's features, what is of interest is the male comradery, and the function of doing a job, no matter the meaning of that job. Politics aside, what Ford and his camera crew do well is to shoot film alongside men who are shooting guns in the bitter cold of a Korean winter. Nor does Ford shy away from showing the casualties of war, at least in a form palatable for moviegoers in 1951. Ford isn't afraid to do a bit of showboating with a credit to himself as a retired Navy Rear Admiral, but agree or disagree with his view of the world, John Ford always remained true to his convictions.

John Huston narrated his documentary, San Pietro but otherwise had chosen to step back in his observations of this battle in Italy. Credits inform the audience that parts of the film include dramatic recreations. The most striking images are of the barren trees of what were wine and olive vineyards. Both Huston and Ford show the human cost of war in shots of the graveyards where soldiers were buried, but Huston also filmed the men digging the plots, and one anonymous soldier's wrapped body laid to rest. Huston, like Ford, also seemed unable to resist the easy sentimentality of filming children at play in the most miserable of conditions. Reportedly, the version available is heavily edited due to concerns from the Army that Huston's original film was too "anti-war". Huston could have made a film of more slanted intent as in Across the Pacific, but real life war had the effect of tempering the more boisterous side of John Huston with a larger degree of introspection.

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Posted by peter at 12:43 AM | Comments (1)

September 16, 2008

Those that are Unseen

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Today, Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule memed me regarding films that I want to see that have thus far eluded me. My list is of films that I have yet to see in any form. I am using the general guidelines of Joseph B. for my list. Some are available on DVD-R that I have avoided because of my own feelings about illegal discs and because the quality may be uncertain. Some are available on DVD but without English subtitles. Some others might be available on tape which is now the format of last resort.

1. It's Trad, Dad (Richard Lester - 1962) Back before I head of the auteur theory, Richard Lester was my first favorite film director. This is the only film of his that I've not been able to see. When it aired on TCM, I was in Thailand. If the film every played in NYC during the years I lived there, it eluded me. With a couple of other rock and roll performance films produced by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg available on DVD, what's holding up Richard Lester's feature debut?

2. Japanese War Bride (King Vidor - 1952) There was a major retrospective of the films directed by King Vidor at the Museum of Modern Art. Donald Richie had the muscle to forbid the inclusion of this film about interracial marriage. That's reason enough for me to want to see this. It should be noted that with the exception of Korean-American Philip Ahn, the other Japanese and Japanese-American characters are portrayed by actors of Japanese descent.

3. Kagi (Kon Ichikawa - 1959) Considering the number of films he made, and that he was a contemporary and friend of Akira Kurosawa's, Kon Ichikawa is poorly represented on DVD in the US. An Actor's Revenge is finally getting a Region 1 release. This is one of several films by Ichikawa that I have only been able to read about, from the novel by Junichiro Tanizaki, with Michiko Kyo and Tetsuya Nakadai. Yes, I missed the Nakadai retrospective because I no longer live in NYC. By the way, am I the only one who wants to see Ichikawa's Topo Gigio movie?

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4. Fear and Desire (Stanley Kubrick - 1953) There was a retrospective of Kubrick films at the Museum of Modern Art. Kubrick promised to include his debut feature, then changed his mind. This may not be as good as Killer's Kiss, but I would love to see it anyways. The screenplay is by Howard Sackler, fifteen years before making his mark with The Great White Hope.

5. La Voce della Luna (Federico Fellini - 1990) You would have thought that someone would have distributed Fellini's last film in the U.S. You would have thought that during Robert Begnigni's brief moment of popularity in the U.S., someone would have brought this film to the art houses of the U.S. This film couldn't possibly be that bad, or is it?

6. Shang Hai zhi yen (Tsui Hark - 1984) I read about Shanghai Blues in a monograph about Tsui's films. This is a musical comedy taking place in 1937 with the multi-talented Sylvia Chang and comic star Kenny Bee. I'm a big fan of Tsui, especially his earlier films before the special effects took over.

7. The Big Fisherman (Frank Borzage - 1959) This was Borzage's final film, and the only non-Disney film released by Walt Disney. Veterans Rowland V. Lee produced, while Lee Garmes got an Oscar nomination for his cinematography. if that's not enough, the cast includes Jonathan Harris before he was lost in space, future director Brian Hutton, as well as Martha Hyer and Susan Kohner.

8. Thieves after Dark (Samuel Fuller - 1984) After the one-two punch of The Big Red One and White Dog, Fuller went back to Europe where he was always more appreciated. The largely French cast includes Claude Chabrol, Stephane Audran and Micheline Presle. This is the only Fuller theatrical film that I have yet to see in any form.

9. La Signora senza Camelie (Michelangelo Antonioni - 1953) Antonioni's second dramatic feature, and second with luscious Lucia Bose. This is a Antonio's movie about movie making.

10. Les Amants de Montparnasse (Jacques Becker -1958) This was the film Max Ophuls started working on when he died. I also like what I've seem by Becker, plus the cast is enough to make me curious. And speaking of Gerard Philippe . . .

11. Devil in the Flesh. I've read the novel, the first time when I was about the same age as the main character, seen Marco Bellochio's update, but would like to see this first filmed version.

12. Private Hell 36 (Don Siegel - 1954) A great title, starring Ida Lupino and with one husband behind the camera, and the other as a co-star. Plus Steve Cochran and Dorothy Malone! And bit parts by Chester Conklin and Richard Deacon. A young guy named Sam Peckinpah was also part of the production crew.

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Posted by peter at 12:59 AM | Comments (6)

September 14, 2008

Coffee Break

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Mickey Rooney in Quicksand (Irving Pichel - 1950)

Posted by peter at 12:43 AM

September 12, 2008

Film Culture

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China is near: Xu Jinglei - filmmaker, actress and blogger

Last week I went to the one bookstore I was was certain carries "Cineaste" magazine. As it turned out, with a distributor going out of business, "Cineaste" was no longer available. A couple of days later, I found out that the article I wanted to read, the symposium on internet film criticism, was now online. My initial interest was based on the involvement by film bloggers that I had read prior to starting my own blog, way back in the Spring of 2005. Until I read the various entries, I was totally unaware that I was one of the several people named by Campaspe, also known as the Self-Styled Siren. Being mentioned with people much brighter than myself like Girish Shambu or Zach Campbell was an unexpected bonus.

One aspect of the symposium that has bothered me is that part of it is framed around the concept of something called film culture. For me, a definition is needed. Being someone who studied film seriously in the early Seventies, in New York City, I automatically link think of the magazine titled "Film Culture". What the magazine defined as film culture could probably be described succinctly, if not totally accurately, as being poetic expression on film. Even though film culture is presumably not as narrowly defined by the symposium participants, I would like to think that the best of them are fueled by the same motivation, which is to offer serious discussion of film, and more importantly, to bring attention to those films and filmmakers who are undervalued, overlooked, or simply in need of greater critical evaluation.

Those who have checked out this space when I first began may recall that I had a section regarding my own academic background in film studies. My main reason was to let readers know that I wasn't just another guy with a computer and an opinion. Maybe it was insecurity on my part to include that information. What I can say is that cinema studies did force me to watch films that I would not have seen otherwise, and think about films in ways I would not have done so before. Even though I had the fortune of seeing some great movies theatrically that I cannot see now, in comparison, the contemporary cinema student has advantages I could have only dreamt about thirty years ago.

I wish Amy Taubin would explain what she means by film culture. If she means an adherence to film art and criticism as it was understood when I went to NYU, than I say tear down those walls. There will always be films we can see, or see again, but with DVDs I've been able to see films I would not have seen otherwise, both old and new, from a wider number of countries. The internet means that while discussion of films may still exist between a small circle of friends, that circle is not defined by immediate geography. Instead of fretting about traditional film culture being "marginalized" as Ms. Taubin, puts it, I see reason to celebrate that the discussion of film has widened.

That there are too many blogs and not enough time to read them should not be considered a problem. I am comfortable with letting a thousand flowers bloom. Sometimes, if you don't find something online, it may have a way of finding you. There can also be unexpected results. A review I did of a couple of Louis Hayward pirate movies has morphed into a mesage board of notes between some people who cherish this almost forgotten star. Were this real life, I would have gently kicked these people out of my house and encouraged them to seek out a neighborly motel. Maybe it's goofy on my part to allow an extended discussion on my own site, that I'm not participating in. One might also liken the blogosphere to be the true field of dreams, where if you build it, they will come.

Posted by peter at 12:02 AM | Comments (2)

September 09, 2008

With Beauty and Sorrow

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Utsukushisa to kanashimi to
Masahiro Shinoda - 1965
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Would I have liked Masahiro Shinoda's film from Yasunari Kawabata's novel had I not read the book? I probably would have had differing expectations. Comparing the two works does point out to the problem with making films from literature, especially from a novel that devotes space to the thoughts of the characters. It does not help anyone that the DVD is from a faded print. While Shinoda is fairly faithful to the written word of Kawabata, he has made some changes that I question, and refashioned the story so that the relationship of the two former lovers is sidelined, with little of the sense of devotion or loss conveyed in the novel. Coming just a year after Yasuzo Masumura's film of Manji, Shinoda seems even more awkward in his reluctance to be as clear as Kawabata, in dealing with the subject of lesbianism.

The story, which is at least partially autobiographical, is about a middle aged writer, Oki, who travels to Kyoto to hear temple bells on New Year's Day, and also to meet again the woman, Okoto, he had an affair with, twenty-four years previously. The woman was sixteen at the time, and had a child that died in infancy with the writer. In the present day, the writer is famous, primarily for the novel based on the affair, while the girl has grown up to be a famed painter. Okota currently lives with her protege, Keiko, also a painter. Kawabata eventually reveals to the reader and to Toshio that the two women are also lovers. Keiko decides to take revenge, against the advice of Okoto, for the actions Oki took in the past, with the goal of destroying Toshio's family.

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I don't know if the changes were choices made by Shinoda, or were mandated by the production company, but a certain timidity to several aspects of Kawabata's novel are evident. Oki's novel, titled "A Girl of Sixteen" by Kawabata, is retitled "Bitter Seventeen" in the film. Not only does this show a problem with dealing with the age of a fictional character, but the novel's title change gives an unneeded and unwanted emotion charge to the past events. Keiko is referred to in the film as one of Okoto's pupils, further lessening the relationship between the two women. What little physical contact in shown on screen consists of a hand slipping into a kimono, and a kiss barely seen in the dark. A scene with the two women sharing a bath coyly reveals Okoto's bare shoulders above the water, and the glimpse of a woman's foot. Even Keiko's declarations that she hates men comes across more as the whine of a girl who has had too many bad dates, then the young woman who understood her sexual preferences at an early age. It may be worth noting also that the sado-masochistic elements of the novel remain relatively intact.

One of the themes of the novel is the use of one's life as source material for creating art. Oki is most famous for his novel based on his relationship with Okoto. Okoto is in the process of creating a painting titled "Ascension of the Child", the child being Okoto's as he is imagined. While the film bypasses the novel's discussion of Oki's thoughts on literature, the choices made on the paintings by the two women raises questions. Rather than showing any of Keiko's paintings, they are discussed by the characters in the film, but unseen by the audience. Unlike in Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse which uses the unseen painting for dramatic purpose, Shinoda's choice of not showing Keiko's paintings does not work, even though it should be understood that any painting would probably not live up to the expectations of those who read the novel. Okoto's one painting seen in the film is more abstract than the work described by Kawabata. There are a couple of shots of Okoto and her painting that anticipate what would be done to better effect in Double Suicide.

Shinoda's film has, unsurprisingly, some beautiful imagery of its own. There is also the interesting device in the use of screens or passageways, allowing for some of the action to be only partially seen, or only heard. The film was released just a year after the publication of the novel. That was certainly done to capitalize on Kawabata's popularity in Japan in general and on the freshness of the novel. One can only guess as to whether a better film might have been made a few years later when there was more frankness to Japanese film, both with mainstream product, and the advent of the "Pink film", or if Shinoda was the best person to film this novel.

Might With Beauty and Sorrow been a better film had Shinoda been willing, or able, to have made something as avant-garde as Toru Takamitsu's score? Considering that Kawabata wrote the story and screenplay for Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness, I think Shinoda might have done better to have given sway to madness, seeking the visual equivalent to Kawabata as the younger artist, rather than the revered master he had become.

Posted by peter at 12:24 AM | Comments (1)

September 07, 2008

Coffee Break

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Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry - 2006)

Posted by peter at 12:48 AM | Comments (1)

September 06, 2008

The Wolves

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Shussho Iwai
Hideo Gosha - 1971
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Like many American film scholars, my introduction to the yakuza genre was through Paul Schrader. This came in the form of his "Film Comment" article, two films shown at the Museum of Modern Art in early 1975, and of course, the film he co-wrote with his brother, The Yakuza. Currently, I am reading Chris D.'s Outlaw Masters of the Japanese Film. In terms of genre, Chris D. expands on the variations of the yakuza film, pointing out how different types of films were done by different studios, marked by historical periods and narrative concerns. While Chris D. does not discuss Hideo Gosha, he includes a filmography. Additionally this discussion of the different types of yakuza films helps explain why The Wolves does not resemble many of the other films I have seen.

The film takes place beginning in 1926. The new emperor has granted pardons to almost four hundred criminals including Iwahashi and Sasaki. Iwahashi has been incarcerated for the murder of the a rival gang's boss. Sworn as "brothers" while in prison, Iwahashi concedes leadership to Sasaki when his former group is merged with the rival group. The two yakuza gangs are in control of the building a railroad on behalf of a corrupt businessman. Iwahashi also is determined to discover who murdered his former boss. Complicating matters is that in feudal tradition, the late mobster's daughter is to marry Sasaki, the head of the rival gang, even though she was at one time promised to Iwahashi, and is in love with someone else.

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Unlike similar films, The Wolves is more methodically paced. One can describe the film as almost a meditation on what it means to be a yakuza. Iwahashi's prime motivation for not seeking revenge for the death of his boss is his concept of honor, loyalty to the code of being a yakuza. Tsutomo, the gangster in love with the dead mobster's daughter states that his code of honor is based on his being human. Sasaki, finally confronting Iwahashi, declares his goal to be an animal. The title is put into focus as the celebrated code of honor is set aside for self-gratification, the animal instinct replacing humanity.

What also makes The Wolves unusual are some of the visual choices made by Gosha. Often characters are partial obscured by by wooden slates or a glass window distorts their features. At one point, when Iwahashi and Sasaki have their final duel, they are seen in the background in silence, while the foreground is dominated by a musician playing a stringed instrument. There are also some unusual musical choices for what is essentially a period film, with the more traditional music electrified, as if redone by Duane Eddy. If surf style Japanese music wasn't enough, some of Masaru Sato's music is totally abstract percussion. Filmed in northern Japan, in a relatively isolated area by the sea also provides a contrast with the more traditionally urban based yakuza films.

In other ways, Gosha breaks from genre traditions. The women are as murderous, perhaps more so than the men, especially a pair of women who work as a team. In addition to the amped up violence, there is more sex and partial nudity. The effect is as if Gosha was personally attacking the traditions of Toho Comany's past, particularly the period films by Kurosawa. Tatsuya Nakadai mostly glowers through the two hours plus running time, at least until it's time for action. Not having seen any other films by Gosha, I can't say for sure if The Wolves is the best place to start. What I can say is that I am intrigued enough to see more by this lesser known filmmaker.

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Posted by peter at 12:38 AM | Comments (2)

September 04, 2008

Give Us this Day

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Edward Dmytryk - 1949
Allday Entertainment Region 1 DVD

On the occasion of Edward Dmytryk's 100th Birthday.

Is now the time to give Edward Dmytryk a full reevaluation? Are we distant enough from the past events? I know that for myself, I feel a greater sympathy for the one member of the Hollywood Ten who recanted to reclaim his career if only because I understand in my own life how one makes a variety of compromises to pay the bills, and exchange ideals for a sense of security. While I have not seen most of Dmytryk's films, I have seen enough to agree with the majority opinion that he was a better filmmaker prior to his post-blacklist return to Hollywood.

Give Us this Day may be Dmytryk's finest film, where art and political ideals came together in a portrait of the corruption of the American dream. One of the interesting bits of the commentary, actually a dialogue that includes the son of the novel's author and the widow of the screenplay writer, is that there was previous interest in Pietro DiDonato's novel, Christ in Concrete by some more celebrated directors. The original project was set up at one point for Roberto Rossellini, and then Luchino Visconti. DiDonato bluntly refused Frank Capra. It was seeing Crossfire that convinced DiDonato that Edward Dmytryk was the man to make a film from his novel. As it turned out, it was also Crossfire that inflamed several members of the United States Congress, with producer Adrian Scott and director Dmytryk named as two of the Hollywood Ten. Unsurprisingly, this pessimistic story about America was made in England, and was barely released in the United States.

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Spanning a period of about ten years, from 1921 through the early years of the Great Depression, Give Us this Day is primarily in the form of an extended flashback. Geremio looks back upon the circumstances that brought him to a state of crisis on his birthday. A brick layer by trade, Geremio finds his life a battle to fulfill the dreams for himself and his immigrant wife, Annuziata, and his growing family. Work is sporadic, and the goal of buying a home is the main source of motivation. It is just on the eve of the Depression that the possibility of buying the home suddenly is out of reach. Bringing in a few dollars by shoveling snow, Geremio accepts the position of foreman on a dangerous construction project in order to support himself and his family. On the night of his birthday, Geremio confronts the reality that he has betrayed his wife, his friends, and his own ideals.

I was hoping to read DiDonato's semi-autobiographical novel before seeing the film again. From what I understood from the commentary, it was the British censor who asked for the title change as well as other changes that caused the religious aspects of the novel to be virtually eliminated. Two moments of visual symbolism stand out - in the opening sequence of the film, Geremio strikes his hand against the arrow shaped end of a fence, creating a self-inflicted stigmata, while the end of the film shows Geremio with his arms extended outward while drowning in wet concrete. The other significant points are the name of Annuziata, from Annunciation, and Geremio's death on Good Friday.

Screenwriter Ben Barzman may have also brought out the best in Dmytryk. This film and Back to Bataan are visually Dmytryk's strongest work. Shorn of the title montage of New York City street scenes, Give Us this Day almost resembles a horror movie, with Sam Wanamaker stumbling through the empty slum streets at night, foreboding clouds in the sky. Give Us this Day also serves as the flip side to Back to Bataan. While the 1945 film attempts to justify the importation of American democracy and ideal to Filipinos, Give Us this Day is about those who came to the United States in search of the imagined America only to find themselves marginalized. Both films are linked by the themes of idealism and betrayal, and the brutality sometimes required for survival.

The availability of Dmytryk's films on DVD is still spotty. I am hoping especially to see one of his early post-blacklist films, The Sniper, just for the opportunity to see virulent Commie hater, Adolphe Menjou as Police Lt. Frank Kafka. Also unavailable is Where Love has Gone with the triple threat casting of Bette Davis, Susan Hayward and Joey Heatherton. And while the rest of the film may have only fleeting resemblance to the novel, Dmytryk will be remembered for his association with the best opening credits sequence created by Saul Bass.

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Posted by peter at 12:23 AM | Comments (3)

September 01, 2008

Dean's List - The Matt Helm Series

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Summa Cum Laude Ann-Margret in Murderers' Row (Henry Levin - 1966)

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Magna Cum Laude Stella Stevens in The Silencers (Phil Karlson - 1966)

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Cum Laude Elke Sommer in The Wrecking Crew (Phil Karlson - 1969)

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Egregia Cum Laude Cyd Charisse in The Silencers

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Camilla Sparv in Murderers' Row

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Janice Rule in The Ambushers (Henry Levin - 1967)

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Nancy Kwan in The Wrecking Crew

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Senta Berger in The Ambushers

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Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew

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Tina Louise in The Wrecking Crew

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Honoris Causa Beverly Adams in The Silencers

Posted by peter at 12:09 AM | Comments (2)