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August 30, 2009

Coffee Break

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Yujiro Ishihara and Mie Kitahara in I am Waiting (Koreyoshi Kurahara - 1957)

Posted by peter at 12:05 AM

August 28, 2009

I am Waiting

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Ore wa matteru ze
Koreyoshi Kurahara - 1957
Eclipse Region 1 DVD

The French influence on I am Waiting is announce in the first accordion notes of the title song. The film may have been a vehicle for star Yujiro Ishihara, but it seem like writer Shintaro Ishihara could well have had Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret in mind. The literary Ishihara was a self-proclaimed existentialist and fan of Jean-Paul Sartre. A more obvious nod to French culture comes in the form of an excerpt from the opera Carmen, heard on the radio.

Joji runs a small joint called Restaurant Reef. It may not quite be the end of the line, but it seems like the gathering place for people who really have no where else to go. Walking alone late, on a cold, rainy night, Joji notices a young woman looking like she's about to stroll in the the sea. Joji talks her out of what may be an attempt at suicide, and takes her in, where she works as a waitress. Gradually, it is revealed that both Joji, and the young woman, Reiko, are running away from their pasts. Joji was a champion boxer who killed a man in a bar brawl, while Reiko was a former opera singer who, due to a voice damaging illness, has been reduced to a forced contract with a small time mobster who owns a small cabaret. On a couple of occasions, Reiko describes herself as a "canary who lost her voice". Joji and Reiko learn that they are connected in other ways in addition to the attraction they have for each other.

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The film reveals the past of Joji and Reiko through the most public and indiscriminate of means, mass media. At a movie theater, Joji winces while watching a newsreel about one of his past fights. Reiko loses her composure hearing herself singing Carmen. Both could be said to be former performers who have chosen to flee the spotlight for more anonymous lives. Having Reiko describe her self as a canary could possibly also be a nod to Edith Piaf, the "little sparrow", with the relationship of a singer with a boxer being inspired by Piaf's own relationship with Marcel Cerdan. The French influence on I am Waiting can be seen with Joji first serving Reiko not tea or sake, but cognac, the black sweater Reiko wears, and the haircuts of the men, combed down across the forehead. I am Waiting is a Japanese film that indirectly is about mass media, both as it affects the lives of the characters, and how western culture has permeated Japanese life.

Like several other films written by Shintaro Ishikawa, starring Yujiro Ishikawa, I am Waiting was produced by Takiko Mizunoe. Her role as a female staff producer at Nikkatsu, as well as being an actress and singer, warrant more information than is listed at IMDb. That Mizunoe's last known credit as a producer was Branded to Kill, the film that also ended Seijun Suzuki's career at Nikkatsu, should be noted. Faces that reappear in the other "Nikkatsu Noir" series include Naoki Sugiura and Michitaro Mizushima. I am Waiting was the second film to pair Mie Kitahara with Yujiro Ishihara, and the first to have them as top billed stars. There is little written in English on director Koreyoshi Kurahara aside from Mark Schilling's piece in No Borders, No Limits, and a review of several films at The Auteurs. Also leaving Nikkatsu in 1967, Kurahara transitioned from making low budget, youth oriented films to respectability with his film Antarctica which was Japan's Oscar entry from 1983, and the source for the English language remake, Eight Below. Even with a country seemingly better documented in its film history as Japan, there is evidence that there is more exploration needed.

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Posted by peter at 12:55 AM

August 26, 2009

Rusty Knife

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Sabita Naifu
Toshio Masuda - 1958
Eclipse Region 1 DVD

Rusty Knife is part of the five DVD set titled "Nikkatsu Noir, and it doesn't get much blacker than this film. Much of the action takes place at night, in unlit rooms and dark, narrow alleys. The cast and crew are from Japan's Nikkatsu Studios, but the tone of the film and the semi-documentary touches easily allow this film to nestle in between such American counterparts as Phil Karlson's Phenix City Story and Sam Fuller's Underworld U.S.A.. The characters are all here: the ex-con trying to go straight, the mobster who terrorizes everyone, the politician who is really in control of the corruption, the young woman who takes a stand against crime in her community, and the assorted rats, stoolies, b-girls and other lowlife, shadowy denizens in a shadowy world. I also should admit to a special fondness for any movie that was produced in widescreen (Nikkatsu Scope) and black and white.

Taking place in an industrial town in western Japan, the police are stymied in their attempts to nail a yakuza boss, Kutsumata. A former low level gangster from a rival gang sends an anonymous letter to the police, letting them know he witnessed Kutsumata engaged in a murder that was disguised to appear as suicide. That same tipster also tries to blackmail the yakuza boss. Trying to play both side, the tipster gets trapped, his plans for escaped ending violently. The two surviving witnesses work at a very small bar owned by one of them, Tachibana. While one, Mokoto, is easily bought off, Tachibana tries to keep away from both the mob and the police until he finds he has no choice, and that events from the past have still not been resolved.

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That the filmmakers at Nikkatsu had relative freedom is evident in a couple of places in Rusty Knife. Toshio Masuda's love of French culture probably was responsible for one of the gangsters speaking a smattering of French. The main character, played by Yujiro Ishihara, is probably more introspective than most of his American counterparts, and even a good number of his Japanese peers, conflicted over ability to commit murder in the past, and unable to let go of his penchant for anger. There is also a scene when Akira Kobayashi is riding his motorcycle with his girlfriend, and the film shows us the point of view shots of a wild ride with extreme angles of the surrounding buildings. As with the lower budget crime films made by Hollywood in the Fifties, it wasn't just the story or characters, but how the various elements were used.

Fans of Suzuki Seijun would want to keep their eyes open during the first ten minutes of Rusty Knife for a small role by Joe Shishido, here playing the former bodyguard who finds himself outsmarted in his attempts at blackmail. The film was written by Shintaro Ishihara, the older brother of star Yujiro Ishihara, the two being the artistic catalyst and the personification of Japanese youth culture in the Fifties. Not only did Rusty Knife mark Yujiro Ishihara's first teaming with Toshio Masuda, as well as one of the earliest films the actor made with Mie Kitahara, who would be his leading lady in twenty-four films before retiring from the screen to be Ishihara's full-time wife. Kitahara portrays an idealist young woman reporter who finds herself involved in the gang activity in ways not previously anticipated. A counterpoint to the stoic hero and upstanding young woman is the villainous Kutsumata, with the immaculately dressed Naoki Sugiura providing an almost constant, hearty laugh as he menaces the rest of the cast. According to Masuda in his interview with Mark Schilling, the film was scheduled had a ten day shooting schedule that was pushed to two weeks. Nothing about Rusty Knife appears rushed or haphazard, especially the way the characters are framed or how the scenes are lit.

I hope that this set of films from Nikkatsu does well enough to inspire more similar packages or releases of individual films from this era of Japanese filmmaking. It was the film Red Handkerchief that is reputed to have inspired 20th Century Fox producer Elmo Williams to choose Masuda to replace Akira Kurosawa on Tora! Tora! Tora!. In retrospect, the pairing of Masuda with Richard Fleischer makes some sense in that, while their careers were not parallel, both had established their reputations in making low budget crime thrillers before becoming directors for hire on more expensive studio projects. In summing up Toshio Masuda's career, what Mark Schilling has written could easily be slightly altered to describe the recent reevaluation of Richard Fleischer: " . . . he (Masuda) made films that were not only box office hits in their day, but are also still affectionately remembered by Japanese fans and regarded by Japanese critics as genre landmarks."

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Posted by peter at 10:16 AM | Comments (1)

August 25, 2009

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Posted by peter at 12:41 AM

August 23, 2009

Coffee Break

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Salma Hayak and Colin Farrell in Ask the Dust (Robert Towne -2006)

Posted by peter at 12:19 AM

August 20, 2009

Bull in the China Shop

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One of the news articles that caught my eye concerned rulings regarding China's limits of imported movies. China currently limits the number of imported films to twenty, and those twenty films are distributed by one company. Members of the World Trade Organization, which includes China, found this to go against the spirit and letter of WTO membership. Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Association of America has never been shy about fighting with other countries that limit imported films. But what angered me is this opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor that displayed willful ignorance about several interlocking issues.

"Democratic norms and fair practices"? While doing a little bit of research, I discovered a book, excerpted in Google, American Films Abroad: Hollywood's Domination of the World's Movie Screens from the 1890s to the Present by Kerry Segrave. From just scanning a few pages, among the bits of information gleaned is that Hollywood had a global presence of 85 percent of the world's movie theaters for over eighty years. And as Al Jolson once famously said, you ain't heard nothing yet. Hollywood versus the rest of the world seems to be a story almost as old as the debate over who invented the movies. Even during the days when silent films were giving way to talkies, countries such as France and Italy were limiting the number of Hollywood films that would receive theatrical runs. It was pointed out that in a year when 250 Hollywood films were shown in Germany, the number of German films that played in U.S. theaters was five. Year after year, whomever had the job to lobby on behalf of Hollywood would complain about how unfair it was that a country would limit the number of imported films could be shown, while also coming up with reasons why U.S. audiences would not want to see a foreign film.

Currently, the number of imported films allowed in China is twenty. Yes, it is a small number especially when one considers the hundreds of films produced just in the United States. Then again, does one seriously think that allowing more imports means that the Chinese people might more likely see the hot new release from Gaumont, a major French company, or RAI of Italy? Does anyone think that a smaller U.S. production such as Wendy and Lucy or Beeswax will appear at a multiplex in Shanghai or Beijing? When it comes to discussing the restricted number of Hollywood films on foreign screens, we are really talking about Transformers or G.I. Joe. And what the editorial from the Christian Science Monitor does not mention is how much money just a few imported films earn in proportion to the local product.

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One problem not addressed is that the major studios have set themselves up for an eventual financial bankruptcy. It isn't just that most new films have their origins in juvenilia, be they comic books, games or old television shows. The other problem is one of basic film economics. In my first year as a film production student, I learned that the standard gauge of for considering a break even point for most movies was at least two times the production cost. With more films produced with unconscionable budgets approaching 200 million dollars, it's no wonder that the Hollywood lobby wants as much of the film going pie as possible.

What is also ignored is that Hollywood has been dependent on foreign films for an increasing number of their own productions. Korea, for example, saw a renaissance in their film production as well as an increased presence in world cinema following their own acts of providing funds for film production and establishing quotas giving preference to the screening of their own films. Hollywood, in turn, has produced a remake of A Tale of Two Sisters while pre-production is underway for remakes of Oldboy and A Bittersweet Life. Hong Kong films continue to influence Hollywood action films even though locally they make up less than half of the box office.

As for foreign films shown in the U.S., it's complicated. An article about the shrinking number of foreign language films in the U.S. is less than encouraging. That the few films that make it to the U.S. are shown in only a few theaters in a select number of cities makes the existence of anything outside of the mainstream Hollywood production virtually invisible to most filmgoers. Not helping is that when a film breaks out in a big way, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, what comes to the U.S. are more films that attempt to cash in on the popularity of Ang Lee's homage to King Hu. Which brings up another point, of attempting to guess what the audience wants to see. Did anyone foresee that there would be interest in anything produced in Hong Kong beyond the Chinatown audiences, when Bruce Lee films appeared at neighborhood theaters? It took a French filmmaker, Luc Besson, to make an international star out of Tony Jaa, at a time when the few Thai films to be seen in the U.S. were those in the festival circuit. At the very least, martial arts films have occasionally opened the door for other films from Asia.

And do I need to talk about fairness? I will concede that Hollywood movies, no matter what I, or anyone else might think of individual films, are popular around the world. When I lived in Thailand, the first movie I saw was Casino Royale. At least half of the films playing in Chiang Mai were Hollywood productions, with only Curse of the Golden Flower and I'm a Cyborg, But That's O.K. being the only two imports to play outside of Bangkok during my time there. If one was serious about being fair, then there would be more imported films playing in U.S. theaters. And before scolding China, consider how many Chinese films even get a theatrical run in the U.S. Even the two most successful Chinese productions will not be seen in the U.S. as intended by their respective filmmakers. As I have noted previously, John Woo's Red Cliff films are to be condensed from five hours to about half the running time for an "international version". If You are the One, the most popular Chinese language production to date, will be seen by U.S. audiences only on DVD. Hollywood has bullied audiences and governments around the world in the belief that their films are the only ones that matter or are deserving of an audience. In an ideal situation, there would be a larger proportion of imported movies at the neighborhood multiplex. Xenophobic filmgoers might grumble and complain at such a notion. But if more were aware of how many Hollywood films are seen around the world, then perhaps they might grudgingly agree that seeing the latest film from Johnny To as easily as a film by Michael Bay or Brett Ratner would be a concession truly being fair.

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Posted by peter at 12:03 AM | Comments (3)

August 18, 2009

Demon Warriors

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Opapatika
Thanakorn Pongsuwan - 2007
Magnolia Films Region 1 DVD

Let us give thanks to Tony Jaa, without whom even fewer Thai films might be available on U.S. DVDs. Demon Warriors is produced by the same company that brought the world Ong-Bak and Chocolate. I have to assume that the price for bringing Tony Jaa and Jeeja to U.S. viewers is to include the rest of the productions slate from Thailand's most successful film producer.

Demon Warriors is a film about faith. It's about a filmmaker's faith that the viewer will not mind the plot holes and lapses of logic, and instead succumb to the visceral pleasures of gorgeous cinematography and a mostly handsome cast of characters. Maybe the best way to approach this film is to liken it to a dream that is propelled by its own internal coherence, intuition if you will. What I am certain about is that Dream Warriors is a singular kind of genre bender, maybe the ultimate Bruce Willis film without Bruce Willis, in other words, the action of the Die Hard movies, with the dead spirits among the living of The Six Sense. Even when the film pauses for some quasi-Buddhist philosophizing on life and death, it somehow works within the context of the film, and is less pretentious than it sounds.

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If I try to describe the plot or explain the story, my own head will probably explode. Suffice to say that it's about characters called opapatika who exist as good or evil spirits. The hunt is on for four of the evil spirits who seem to live to kill other people. A new opapatika, Techit, seeking to understand the mysteries of human existence, finds that he has the ability to read minds, but also finds himself losing his other senses. Techit is given the task of seeking out the evil opapatika on behalf of an elder who keeps his own special power a secret. There's lots of fire power, long knives, some Muay Thai action, lopped off heads and hands, and spurting blood. What isn't explained is how one goes about killing somebody who is suppose to be immortal.

There was a reminder of Werner Herzog's version of Nosferatu, when one of the characters states that eternal life isn't all it's cracked up to be. Basic Buddhism is discussed during the quieter moments, so that it is understood that the characters, by no longer being human, are trapped by their own karma, unable to change. This is a Thai film intended primarily for a Thai audience, with a few words of wisdom at the end about the perpetual state of Hell that is in store for those who commit suicide.

What makes Demon Warriors intriguing to watch are the images of Leo Putt with his golden gun and tinted aviator glasses, Kemapsorn Sirisukha wandering around in a white dress, and Shahkrit Yamnarm with his two differently colored eyes and scarred face. Much of the action takes place in what appears to be the most rundown sections of Bangkok, in abandoned buildings and depopulated streets.

Thanakorn Pongsuwan is a filmmaker I am mostly familiar with by reputation, with his current film, Fireball appearing in several film festivals. A film about a sport that combines Thai martial arts with baseketball, Fireball would indicate that Thanakorn is interested in unexpected combinations of elements in his films. Prior to taking the director's chair, Thanakorn was a production assistant to the Pang Brothers, also noted for their use of compelling images, more than the logic of their narratives. Taken on its own terms, Demon Warriors might be best understood as a dream about Buddhism, karma, and the value of life. And like all dreams, it's about the senses, not about sense.

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Posted by peter at 12:06 AM

August 16, 2009

Coffee Break

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Jeanne Moreau and Lucia Bose in Nathalie Granger (Marguerite Duras - 1972)

Posted by peter at 12:15 AM

August 13, 2009

What Makes Sammy Run?

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Delbert Mann - 1959
Koch Lorber Region 1 DVD

The DVD has been around for a couple of months. The recent death of Budd Schulberg hastened my viewing this version of What Makes Sammy Run? sooner. There hasn't been much writing about the teleplay since its release, perhaps because most of what needs to be said has been in reference to the novel. Still, a few thoughts . . .

It's Budd Schulberg's script from his novel, cowritten with brother Stuart, that makes the television version of What Makes Sammy Run? worth watching fifty years after the original broadcast. The kinescope version on DVD is at times crude in quality. What is presented is a black and white version of a show that was seen in color for those households that owned those large wooden boxes with the oddly rounded screens. As one who grew up acquainted with Julian Beck and Judith Malina, I winced at the words by the off-screen announcer, "Living theater in living color". I have read the book, quite a few years ago, when there were rumors of a remake with Tom Cruise that perhaps fortunately was never made. The novel was published in 1941. The television play produced in 1959. Schulberg's novel and teleplay may have been meant as a cautionary tale about the price of success, but a glance at the current state of Hollywood would indicate that Sammy Glick is alive and well. Even though the story takes place from the 1930s to the then present day, there is a vagueness about the settings and costumes that makes the story seem to take place in a constant current moment.

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Though religion isn't stated, it is also about being Jewish in America. A young Sammy Glick states he doesn't want to be dumb like his father who eked out a living in New York City's Lower East Side. A later Sammy Glick states he doesn't want to be dumb like his brother, making a modest living, enjoying his work teaching art. What drives Sammy is a success that cannot be doubted, that is so enormous, that it eradicates any of the barriers regarding class, education or ethnicity. The two women in Sammy's life are shiksa ideals, the educated, literary Kit Sargent, and the blonde, wealthy Laurette Harrington. Sammy's idea of success may be seen as conforming to stereotypes, but it is a stereotype that persists to this day. Apparently Samuel Goldwyn had trouble seeing beyond the title, and assumed that he was the real Sammy of Schulberg's novel. Goldwyn seems also to have been the source for pegging the novel as anti-Semitic. While Sammy Glick may be interpreted as personifying the most obvious negative example of the Jewish go-getter, he is counterbalanced by Al Manheim, the drama critic who is Sammy's reluctant best friend and Schulberg proxy, and Sidney Fineman, the paternal studio chief, a warm-hearted soul unlike the real life Louis Mayer or Harry Cohn. It is also notable that nominally Jewish Sammy Glick and Al Manheim are played by two non-Jewish actors, Larry Blyden and John Forsythe.

What really struck me was a line by Glick, about the movie business, "We sell products, not personalities". The films produced by Sammy Glick seem to be reworkings of other movies, either some kind of change of character or plot that is derived from an older movie, or a movie that is made to cash in on the publicity of a rival studio's film by covering a similar subject but getting to the theaters first. An example of the first kind of film is described by The Siren with an excerpt from the novel. An example of the second kind of film is when Glick discussed making a "submarine picture" with his two favorite writers, Manheim and Sargent, because another studio has a film about to go into production. Not unlike stories relayed about current studio executives, Glick is unaware of past productions, having to have Manheim and Sargent describe Rain. Were Sammy Glick alive today, he would chuckle at two studios with competing films about a giant earthbound asteroid, and might even describe even one film about Truman Capote as mashugana.

The big change in Hollywood productions where real life goes beyond what even Sammy Glick imagined is how marketing dictates what films are being produced. The actual film is almost an afterthought. One might be hard pressed to describe exactly what makes a film directed by Shawn Levy different from one directed by Adam Shankman, but they are the type of filmmakers that are successful in present day Hollywood. The financial stakes have become so absurdly high that some recent films would have to earn back at least half a billion dollars to reach the break even point. Mainstream films literally can not afford anything as idiosyncratic as a director's point of view. While Hollywood studios always had to answer to New York City bankers, when Schulberg wrote his novel, the studios were essentially independent entities. With the studios all now subsidiaries of much larger corporations, the wheeling and dealing by Sammy Glick seems almost genteel.

The teleplay ends with Sammy Glick running off to be honored for his humanitarian efforts. Back in 1959, this may have seemed like rib poking irony. Fifty years, the most shocking thing about What Makes Sammy Run? is how the worst aspects of Hollywood that Budd Schulberg attacked are also the most deeply ingrained.

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Posted by peter at 12:32 AM | Comments (1)

August 11, 2009

The Samurai I Loved

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Semishigure
Mitsuo Kurotsuchi - 2005
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

If anyone thinks of Yoji Yamada's recent films about samurai while watching The Samurai I Loved, there is no coincidence. Mitsuro Kurotsuchi's film is based on a novel by Shuhei Fujisawa, whose books also served as the basis of Yamada's films. The English language title is a bit misleading as it may suggest great passion and much swordplay. The original Japanese title refers to the sound of cicadas and is might be more appropriate for a film where nature plays an important part in this period drama.

The film takes place in a remote village where the samurai essentially act as civil service employees on behalf of the ruling lord based in Edo. Not only are these samurai poorly paid, but are subject to the various political schemes of their superiors. Bunshiro sees the fortune of his family change, as his father is forced to commit suicide for being on the wrong side of a rivalry between two chief samurai retainers. The home and financial fortune are restored, but a price testing Bunshiro's loyalties. Fuku, the girl next door, from a samurai family of even humbler means, is in love with Bunshiro, as he is with her, but both are too reserved to express their feelings to each other. Fuku reluctantly leaves the small village to become the lord's concubine, further complicated her relationship with Bunshiro.

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Kurotsuchi opens the film with shots of the sky, of rice fields, the wind blowing, on a snowy winter day. Bunshiro and Fuku's relationship is first established on a hot summer morning when Fuku is bitten by a snake. It's a small bite, with Bunshiro spitting out the venom, and admonishing Fuku that a samurai's daughter would not cry over a small wound. Nature again plays a part when during a flood, Bunshiro's father, Sukezaemon, convinces a group that would take apart a dike, to work in an area that would cause flooding away from the rice fields, saving the livelihood of seasonal workers, and unstated, the income of the feudal lord. Bunshiro's official position is a the rice field inspector of his home area. Kurotsuchi breaks up his narrative with several montages of fields covered in snow, cherry blossoms, a shot of a small tree frog, and flowing water. The songs by the villagers are either about the changes of seasons or about animals. Several times, Kurotsuchi will use long shots of his characters, small, on the bottom of the frame, surrounded by the sky, fields and mountains.

The Samurai I Loved was a leading contender for Japan's Academy Awards in 2006. I have found nothing of substance on Mitsuo Kurotsuchi, although his slender filmography suggests that he might be the Japanese equivalent to Terrence Malick in both his output and visual concerns. In the brief interview that comes with the DVD, Kurotsuchi mentions another notoriously slow filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, in reference to having his sets created by former members of Kurosawa's team to be as accurate as possible. Kurosawa is referenced indirectly by casting Mieko Harada as Bunshiro's mother. As Bunshiro's father, Ken Ogata brings his own history of not only older period films, but whole chapters of Japanese film history, somewhat analogous to recent films casting Paul Newman as the father or father figure to Kevin Costner or Tom Hanks. Somegoro Ichikawa plays Bunshiro, neither overplaying the sentimental aspects of his character, nor underplaying the hidden feelings kept under close reign. Yoshino Kimura displays similar reserve to Ichikawa in the role of Fuko, indicating her passion in only a few small gestures.

The one scene of samurai action does supply generous spurting of blood when a ninja army fights Bunshiro. What makes is the reaction Bunshiro and the other characters have in realizing what kind of injury they can inflict on each other, the brief hesitation that any of them can die at any moment. The introspective aftermath is unusual for a genre where the characters typically live and die by the sword. The film ends on a poignant note. The Samurai I Loved examines the codes of conduct and how they conflict with a higher set of ideals. This is a love story in which the love is realized only in the intentions of the heart.

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Posted by peter at 12:07 AM

August 09, 2009

Coffee Break

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Emmanuelle Beart in Nathalie (Anne Fontaine - 2004)

Posted by peter at 12:14 AM

August 06, 2009

The GoodTimesKid

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Azazel Jacobs - 2005
Benten Films All Region DVD

Taking place in a period of about twenty-four hours, The GoodTimesKid follows three people who temporarily weave in and out of each others lives due to an unexpected coincident. The two men are both named Rodolfo Cano, with one receiving a letter intended for the other. The letter announced that the recipient has officially enlisted in the Army.

The one who unexpectedly received the letter, referred to in the credits as Rodolfo II, lives in a boat. It's an obvious metaphor for a person who appears to be drifting in life, with only the most casual attachment to the world at large. Rodolfo I intends to break away from his girlfriend, Diaz, by joining the Army, and pointedly denying her plans to celebrate his birthday that day. When Rodolfo I and Diaz are first seen, her attempts at reconciliation for an implied rift from the night before are immediately rejected. If The GoodTimesKid could be said to be about anything, it would be about how totally unexpected incidences can undo plans or conversely, impose a defined direction that might be accepted spontaneously.

Rodolfo I's enlistment in the army might be interpreted as an act of eventual self-destruction, of putting himself in harm's way in the Middle East. Rodolfo I's only physical contact is in getting into fist fights, first with a gang of men at a bar, and later on the street with Rodolfo II. At the same time, Rodolfo I also pushes away Diaz. Rodolfo I does not explain himself, nor does anyone else his motivations. It is as if his only sense of self-validation is though physical punishment, perhaps death, as indicated with the words "Shoot Here" on his stomach. At the same time, Rodolfo II, witnessing a frustrated Diaz mashing a birthday cake, and punching a refrigerator gains her attention by furiously pummeling the refrigerator as well. Even if neither Rodolfo II, nor Diaz, understands why he is hitting the refrigerator, the act stirs Diaz temporarily from her anger to perform a kind of old-timey dance to amuse Rodolfo II.

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It really is Diaz who is the heart and soul of The GoodTimesKid because of the animated presence of actress Sara Diaz. My favorite scene in the film simply follows Diaz walking on the sidewalk of Los Angeles at night, the skinny legs in red sneakers, the long, swinging arms, as she strides across while the camera tracks along side her. In his notes that come with the DVD, Glenn Kenny compares Sara Diaz to Shelley Duvall as Olive Oly in Robert Altman's film of Popeye. I would push this further to compare Diaz with the Fleischer Brothers cartoon character in the way her arms and legs stretch across the screen. This is not meant to be an insult. Sara Diaz defies the conventional looks of that would be found in film by someone of lesser imagination, just as she defies the viewer to not look at her. I could take or leave the two Rodolfos but Diaz I would see again in a heartbeat.

While The GoodTimesKid is my introduction to Azazel Jacobs, I have long been familiar with some of the work of his father, filmmaker Ken Jacobs. One of the requirements of New York University's Cinema Studies program was to watch the senior Jacob's Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son at least twice. For those unfamiliar with that film, Jacobs takes an eight minute movie, filmed tableau style, and breaks the various actions into smaller shots, using close-ups and slow motion, stretching out over the course of almost two hours. Ken Jacobs other films could be said to recall the memory of older movies, especially silent comedies. One of the extra features on the DVD is Whirled which takes parts of Ken Jacobs other films shot in the Fifties and early Sixties featuring actor and fellow filmmaker, Jack Smith.

The love for old movies can be seen in the other extra, Azazel Jacob's short film, Let's Get Started. Sara Diaz chases after a runaway bicycle tire that continuously eludes her. It's a short, simple film that might remind some of the pursuit of errant objects in the films of Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy. The comic short concludes that sometimes what we need the most can sometimes come to us if we choose to momentarily stand still.

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Posted by peter at 12:39 AM

August 04, 2009

The Way We Are

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The Durian may provide an imperfect metaphor for Ann Hui's film. What is certain is that that is a smaller scale, more intimate film than some of the other honored Hong Kong films of 2008. That Hui won again for Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards is even more amazing considering that she was competing against not only John Woo for his first Red Cliff film, but also Johnny To for his sweet change of pace caper Sparrow, and Wilson Yip, director of Best Picture winner Ip Man. Then again, perhaps comparison with a durian fruit might be appropriate considering that a quiet film about everyday people in Hong Kong is less easily approachable than the more easily consumable films of Hui's peers.

The film takes place in Tin Shui Wai, in a section of rundown apartments literally across the tracks from the glitzier apartment complexes. Hui observes the life of a middle aged widow, Kwai, who works at a supermarket, supporting herself and her son, On. Taking place in July and August, On either hangs around his apartment or with friends, awaiting results of his high school graduation exam that determines his future, of going for further education or into the work force. An older woman, known as "Granny" gets a job at the supermarket through Kwai. A recent resident at the public housing apartment building that Kwai and On live in, Granny eventually becomes an unofficial family member. There is no dramatic arc, or plot, but instead a recreation of everyday life.

Using a high definition video camera and available lighting, The Way We Are deliberately recalls Hui's roots as a documentary filmmakers. The film could be said to be about the events and rituals that bring families together - dinners, funerals, and holidays. The film ends with the three principle characters sharing a dinner to celebrate the August Moon Festival. The most dramatic moment in the film is when Kwai travels with Granny, who hopes to visit her only grandson, Kit. Kit's mother, Granny's daughter, is dead. Not only is Kit unavailable to meet with his grandmother, but Kit's father, Granny's former son-in-law, is abrupt in his treatment of Granny, disregarding her feelings for her only relative. It is after that unsatisfactory reunion that the relationship between Kwai and Granny is cemented.

Kwai's own mother considers her daughter foolish for sacrificing her own future to pay for the education of her two brothers, both of whom have achieved significant material success. Through everything that she goes through, Kwai remains cheerful and resilient. There is a moment when the film breaks to a montage of still photos of women at work at the kind of jobs that have minimal wages and are often physically demanding. Again recalling Hui's earlier work for television, The Way We Are is about the people normally not the subject of either documentary or dramatic films. The dialogue is unforced, virtually belying the existence of a script by Lou Shu-wa, or the professionalism of star Paw Hee-ching.

The film was in fact originally conceived of as a television production, only coming to fruition due to last minute funding from producer-director Wong Jing. Kwai's brothers are portrayed by two filmmakers, Vincent Chui and Clifton Ko. What has made The Way We Are different from the other films by Hong Kong filmmakers is that the film was not part of the general pattern of films designed for the larger Chinese language or Asian markets. Even so, just as there was a universality to Vittorio De Sica's story about a stolen bicycle, Ann Hui's Hong Kong is not so distant our our own streets.

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The Way We Are is available from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 12:44 AM

August 02, 2009

Coffee Break

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Ricardo Montalban in Mystery Street (John Sturges - 1950)

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

August 01, 2009

North West Frontier

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J. Lee Thompson - 1959
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

On the occasion of J. Lee Thompson's 95th birthday.

Can anyone confirm if North West Frontier began as a project for John Ford? The story is credited to Ford's son, Patrick, and there is a screenplay credit to frequent Ford collaborator Frank Nugent. The final screenplay is credited to Robin Estridge, yet the influence of John Ford can not be denied. At the very least, the film can easily be described as Stagecoach in 1905 India, with a railroad car. Instead of cowboys and indians, we have the British and Hindus fighting Muslims who are trying to murder a six year boy, a Hindu prince, primarily because of his symbolic importance. The basic comparison to Stagecoach is announced when someone mentions how each of the passengers is representative of differing philosophies. Of course the title would make most immediately think of a western.

Granada, Spain substitutes for the part of India that is now Pakistan. The mountains and plains are don't have the same majesty as Monument Valley but are as much a part of the story just as the environment played a role in The Searchers. Had the boy prince had a more significant part in North West Frontier, Thompson's film might have made an interesting companion piece to Ford's Indian adventure Wee Willie Winkie. The Muslims are like the Native Americans, even in some of Ford's films, colorful, but anonymous warriors. At the same time, there is not the total endorsement or sense of nostalgia regarding British rule. Neither the film's sympathies, nor the film's villain, are difficult to identify.

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The film that really had me reconsidering J. Lee Thompson was also about a wartime journey, Ice Cold in Alex. Alex is Alexandria, Egypt, and the movie can almost be summarized as being about John Mills driving across the desert to get a frosty glass of beer. There's more to the film than that, with Mills, Sylvia Syms, Harry Andrews and Anthony Quayle fighting an uncompromising environment and Nazis, with a traitor among them. That film, made a year previously, is almost a warmup for the bigger budget, Cinemascope and color North West Frontier. Not considered worthy of a paragraph by Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, J. Lee Thompson was at his critical peak fifty years ago, competing against himself at the BAFTA awards with both North West Frontier and the arguably better Tiger Bay, the film that launched the career of Hayley Mills.

J. Lee Thompson would probably get a better critical evaluation were his British films more easily available on DVD. Even on British DVDs, Thompson gets short shrift. Most of the films currently on DVD have some kind of entertainment value. At a time when directors with far bigger budgets and more sophisticated equipment seem incapable of putting together decent action sequences, J. Lee Thompson's craftsmanship looks better in comparison. Taras Bulba may not be what Gogol imagined, and Mackenna's Gold did not recapture the magic of the team that made The Guns of Navarone, but are still fun to view. And if we can be honest for a moment, critical stature and Robert De Niro's muscled arms aside, there's no way one can say Martin Scorsese really improved upon Cape Fear.

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Posted by peter at 12:14 AM