February 28, 2010
Norma Shearer and Chester Morris in The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard - 1930)
February 25, 2010
Frank Launder - 1955
Wham! USA Region 1 DVD
It might be considered more appropriate to watch a film related to the Winter Olympics at this time. But thinking about films that had the Olympic games as the subject made me recall the first such film I had seen. What is personally significant for me about Geordie is also that it was one of the few times I had seen a movie on television that my father had selected. Geordie is also the first British film I had probably seen as well. Roughly fifty years, and broadcast in black and white, I vaguely recall that a small Scottish boy responded to a newspaper advertisement, and grew to be a very big man. Parts of the film involved discussion of the wearing of kilts.
The most interesting part of Geordie is the first half of the film, primarily the relationship between Geordie and Jean. The small boy takes the girl, slightly bigger than he is, to glance at an eagle's nest. The boy is too weak to pull himself up on the ledge, while the girl is able to observe the two baby eagles. Looking to challenge his perceived physical limitations, Geordie writes to Henry Samson, following a course of exercise through correspondence. Growing to the tallest and strongest man in his little village, Geordie is encouraged to take up the sport of hammer throwing, with abilities that catch the eye of the British Olympic committee. In the meantime, Geordie has an emotional tug of war with Jean who is skeptical of Geordie's athletic pursuits. Jean eventually becomes Geordie's most ardent supporter.
Raymond Durgnat cited Launder and Gilliat for "their consistent freshness and mischief, their cheerful lightly-and-slightly anarchism, their relaxed romping in and out of the system's little loopholes and bye-ways." The characters could be called quirky, although at the time the film was made, the favored word was eccentric. Chief among the villagers is Launder and Gilliat favorite Alastair Sims, known only as "The Laird", the wealthy, often distracted landowner whom Geordie and his father work for as gamekeepers. There is an affection for the characters as well, which is why the relationship between Geordie and Jean, both as children and as adults feels more palpable than many couplings of screen actors. The more interesting aspect of Geordie is the story about a group of people who are emotionally and physically tied to their little corner of Scotland.
Geordie is less interesting once the title character goes out into the bigger world. Released prior to the Olympic games held in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956, Geordie goes to the games on behalf of Great Britain. On the way, he meets his body building mentor, Henry Samson, amusingly played by the bushy eyebrowed Francis De Wolfe. There is also a female Olympian from Denmark who tries to make her own moves on the pure hearted young man from Scotland who pines for the girl back home. Some drama is attempted in Geordie's decision to wear his father's kilt over the objections of the Olympic committee.
One moment of filmmaking inventiveness is noteworthy. After retrieving his father's gun, left behind in a field after Geordie carries the ill man back home in the rain, Geordie stands over a hill overlooking his home, and hears the howl of a dog. While we hear the eulogy given inside the church during the funeral, what is shown is a panning shot of several dogs lounging outside of the church. The combination of the two shots is sweet, sad and gently satirical. There are some nicely composed individual shots by cinematographer Wilkie Cooper, but as several critics examining the films of Launder and Gilliat have concluded, the pair were craftsmen, not visual stylists. It could well be that it is because a film like Geordie has nothing more than the modest ambition to be entertaining that it also succeeds in being enduringly charming as well.
February 23, 2010
Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay
Batoru garu: Tokyo crisis wars
Kazuo Komizu - 1991
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD
I don't have it in me to hate a movie that stars someone named Cutie Suzuki. And Battle Girl is a mildly enjoyable entry that doesn't take itself seriously but doesn't pointedly aim for laughs either. The best line comes from one of the zombie hunters, when he yells at the zombies who are getting ready to feast on his buddy, that they already eaten too much.
A meteorite has splashed down in Tokyo Bay, enshrouding the city in some kind of fog. The greater part of Tokyo has been cordoned off from the rest of Japan as well as the world to isolate the effects of the meteorite. The dead have turned into flesh eating zombies due to something called cosmo-amphetamine. A army officer in charge of the operations, Fujioka, has found a way to turn people into indestructible killers with the cosmo-amphetamine, and has a small army killing human survivors and zombies alike. It is up to K-Ko, the daughter of an army colonel, to foil Fujioka.
The most interesting aspect of Battle Girl was something Komizu brought to the script, in making Fujioka's actions motivated by a perverse sense of nationalism. To paraphrase a line from U.S. involvement in Viet-Nam, Fujioka's plan is to destroy Tokyo in order to save it. There's also a plan to take over the world. On the down side, the closer one examines Battle Girl, the less sense it makes on all but the most visceral level.
This is the first film I've seen by Kazuo Komizu. The interview that comes with the DVD is somewhat informative, but I feel like most of it was a squandered opportunity by the unidentified interviewer. The most interesting part was Komizu discussing his changes to the screenplay, and the physical limitations presented by the costumes worn by Suzuki and some of the other actors. Komizu identifies The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a horror film that made a big impression on him, something that should have been examined more deeply by a more perceptive interviewer, considering that Komizu is famous, or infamous, for his own series of films that pushed boundaries regarding sex, violence and horror. Given the little bit of political weight Komizu provided to Battle Girl, I would have also wanted to know more about his early collaborations with Koji Wakamatsu, and in what ways that may have influenced Kozimu's work as a director.
Posted by peter at 12:53 AM
February 21, 2010
Celia Catalifo in Tiresia (Bertrand Bonello -2003)
Posted by peter at 12:31 AM
February 18, 2010
Wu Yonggang - 1934
Hong Kong University Press
Sometimes film preservation is decided by one person. In the case of The Goddess, we have the sole remaining print made available on DVD due to the efforts of Rlchard J. Meyer. Professor Meyer secured the 35mm print from the China Film Archive, take it Haghefilm in Amsterdam, where the print was restored as much as possible, and a digital conversion created. The Goddess is one of only two films starring Ruan Ling-Yu that is available on DVD. I had written about the other film, The Peach Girl about a year ago. The DVD comes with a short piece with Professor Meyer discussing the restoration of the film and the life of Ruan Ling-Yu, and composer Kevin Purrone on his musical choices for the piano score composed for the DVD.
The title is the slang term of the time given to Shanghai prostitutes. Ruan plays a streetwalker who is working to support herself and her baby son. Almost caught in a police raid on the streets, the woman who is never named, temporarily ducks into the closest open door. She finds herself in the small room of a very large man, though also a very small time gangster, known as "The Boss". First demanding sexual favor in exchange for hiding "The Goddess" from the police, "The Boss" blackmails "The Goddess" into surrendering her earnings to him to keep him from selling her son. "The Goddess" finds away to hide her money long enough to afford to send her growing son to school, with the hopes that he has greater opportunities in life.
Wu Yonggang's debut film, that he both wrote and directed, was socially conscious, dealing with class prejudices and people at the margins of Shanghai. There are several shots of the neon lights of Shanghai at night, promising a glamourous life that is beyond the reach of any of the characters. The overlapping traveling shots of the neon lights remind me of some of the later German silent films. It should be noted that Asian cinema was several years behind in converting from silent to sound filmmaking. Several times in The Goddess, Wu uses framing devices in his composition of several shots, often using windows, and later, the prison bars in the film's final scenes.
The DVD comes with a 94 page book by Professor Meyer that provides a biography of Ruan, a full list of her films, and a good sized biblography that covers writings on Ruan, Chinese cinema, and Shanghai in the 1930s. There are also a number of film stills and photographs of Ruan. All of this is especially recommended to those who only know of Ruan through her portrayal by Maggie Cheung and the few film excerpts that were in Stanley Kwan's Center Stage. There is much more to Wu Yonggang than what is listed at IMDb, as this more complete filmography will verify.
The two Ruan Ling-Yu DVDs are available through The San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Click here to contribute to the National Film Preservation Foundation.
February 16, 2010
Wallace Worsley - 1920
Kino International Region 1 DVD
Most people know Lon Chaney, if they know him at all, primarily from The Phantom of the Opera and possibly Hunchback of Notre Dame. In both films, Chaney is heavily disguised in make-up, in roles that helped secure his legend as "The Man of a Thousand Faces". Thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation and the George Eastman House, one can also see The Penalty, significant primarily as Chaney's first starring feature. But even beyond that historical marker, The Penalty is a pretty good film.
Chaney plays the role of a man who had both of his legs amputated as a boy, due to the misjudgment of young Doctor Ferris. The man, Blizzard, has become a crime lord based in the Barbary Coast section of San Francisco. In addition to keeping a pulse on the city, and keeping control of criminal activity, Blizzard has employed a group of young women to make straw hats of a specific design. A secret government agency employs their female agent, Rose, to seek employment with Blizzard's hat factory in order to get the goods on this as yet untouchable felon. The incompetent Ferris has become a respected surgeon, with a daughter, Barbara, who is an aspiring artist. Spotting an ad in a newspaper, Blizzard becomes the model for Satan, the proposed sculpture that Barbara is planning to create to make her professional reputation. Blizzard is hoping to extract revenge on Barbara and her father. Rose gets close to Blizzard, being the one to operate the piano pedals while Blizzard tickles the ivories. Even though she finds out more about Blizzard and his operation, she starts having feelings for the sometimes cruel man. Blizzard, though, is having feelings for Barbara.
The Penalty does get a bit complicated in an hour and a half. There's more cross cutting than one might normally see with several simultaneous developments. Even when the film gets topical with mention of "Reds" and foreign workers, it's only the clothes that date the film, not the concerns of the characters. Without being lofty about it, there is the idea that artistic expression is the best means of expressing a person's humanity. The film also can be viewed as a companion piece to The Unknown, Tod Browning's film with Chaney as a circus performer who pretends to be armless. Made seven years later, there are similarities. In both films, the main character's relationship with women can be said to be peculiar, and the sexual component regarding missing arms or legs is hard to miss. Both The Penalty and The Unknown also have plots that hinge upon particularly horrific surgery.
Chaney made a name for himself here by strapping his legs together and walking on his knees. The procedure was so difficult that Chaney could only do his scenes in short takes. Even watching Chaney, perhaps more so with the knowledge of what he went through, is painful, though nothing short of amazing to witness his physical dexterity in handling stairs and even a chain ladder. What makes Lon Chaney great in this film is watching his creased faced, his curled lips, the way he arches his eye, his expressiveness. Even if Lon Chaney had tossed aside the make-up kit, he would still have been one of the great screen actors.
Also worth seeing is a character actor named James Mason as the drug addled thug, Frisco Pete. Along with Chaney, Mason feral, leering, criminal, has the kind of face that doesn't need dialogue to let us know what's on his mind. The film is notable for being transgressive for its time, with a drug addicted character, women who are clearly prostitutes, an on-screen murder, and nudity in the form of Barbara's female model. Part of the film was shot on location in San Francisco. The Penalty was one of four films Chaney made with director Worsley, The Hunchback of Notre Dame being the most famous. Ace of Hearts is available on DVD. One other collaboration of Worsley and Chaney, A Blind Bargain is considered permanently lost.
There are unimaginable penalties for losing more films. Click here to contribute to the National Film Preservation Foundation.
February 14, 2010
Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth in I Can't Think Straight (Shamim Sarif - 2008)
Posted by peter at 12:26 AM
February 11, 2010
East of Borneo
George Melford - 1931
Alpha Video Region 1 DVD
For a couple of years, since I was aware that this film was available on DVD, I've decided that it was time to think outside the box, or at least outside of one of Joseph Cornell's boxes. Like a lot of people, what I knew of East of Borneo was Joseph Cornell's short film, Rose Hobart, where footage of the original film was reedited to eliminate virtually all but shots of the star, with a musical soundtrack added by Cornell. While Cornell's film was part of the required viewing at NYU, the source film was unknown, essentially dismissed as some inconsequential work that needn't be seen by serious film scholars.
East of Borneo definitely is in the category of "old movie" rather than "classic", but it has some points of interest. While Joseph Cornell has kept the name of Rose Hobart alive, the first thing a viewer will notice is that the actress was the top billed star of East of Borneo. The somewhat stern looking Hobart has her name above that of Charles Bickford, a better remembered actor who would usually be cast as the strict patriarch or father figure. Director George Melford is more rightly famed for his Spanish language version of Dracula, shot on Tod Browning's sets. A bit of aside here - both Melford's Dracula and East of Borneo feature Lupita Tovar.
I don't know if anyone on the production crew of East of Borneo could have found the actual country on a map. Certainly the film exploits the ignorance of the audience by cutting in nature footage of all sorts of animals that probably would not be found in the real Borneo. For all intents and purposes, Borneo is some kind of exotic jungle that's beyond the familiar confines of the United States or western Europe. In addition to the imaginative animal life, the Universal Pictures backlot version of Borneo is ethnically and culturally diverse as befitting a Hollywood production.
Rose Hobart plays Linda Randolph, a woman who shows up in Borneo in search of her husband, a doctor, played by Charles Bickford. The doctor is the permanent house guest of Hashim, Prince of Marudu. The doctor, taking the name of Allan Clark, is also perpetually sloshed, whiling away his time playing chess with his host. Hashim dresses like a maharaja in something like Wee Willie Winkie. Three hundred miles inland from the coast, Murudu is a remote paradise guarded by crocodiles, too close to an active volcano for Linda's comfort. When the jungle drums beat the news that a white woman is coming up the river, Allan gets nervous, while Hashim gets his hopes up for what is certain to be a beauty. The scene is basically just a couple of guys sitting at the chess board, drinking tea, but the dialogue has some wonderful howlers. First up is Clark's declaration. "White women are bad enough in their own environment, but when you get them into the jungle..." :Later, the Sorbonne (!) educated Hashim, ready to remind one and all of his superiority, mentions, "I am descended from the Aryan race, the oldest white race known to man." How civilized is Hashim? In this jungle paradise, formal evening wear is required for dinner.
There is one scene that may not have been intended as a visual joke, but given the context could be read as a sly commentary on the film's premise of white women in the jungle. While Linda is asleep, we see the shadow of a very large snake over her. Linda's good intentions come to nothing when she makes friends with a pet monkey, and sets it free, only to see it become a tiger's afternoon snack. Melford's film is a little slow at times, even with a running time of less than seventy-five minutes. The effect is almost as if the film crew was still trying to get the hang of making a talking picture. The obvious rear screen projection and the preposterous story give East of Borneo some antique charm. Whatever one thinks of East of Borneo, it should be studied along with Rose Hobart to compare not only what Joseph Cornell left in, and rearranged, but also what was left out.
February 09, 2010
Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai
Bushido zankoku monogatari
Tadashi Imai - 1963
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD
The title might suggest an action film full of sword fighting. That is not the case here. Bushido might more appropriately be called an anti-Samurai film. This is both in the subject and the telling of the story. Much of the action is off screen, and when swords are involved, more often it involves ritual suicide. Tadashi Imai's film is primarily a critique of the samurai code, with the implication that the same attitudes have remained in contemporary times. Additionally, the code of loyalty, whether to a lord, a country, or an employer, sets the stage for personal disaster.
Kinnosuke Nakamura portrays several generations of men in the Iikura family, from the beginning of the 17th Century through 1963. The current descendent of the family reflects on how his own actions may have destroyed his fiancee, and how he has acted in way that is similar to that of his ancestors. The film is also about the ebb and flow of fortunes of a family that is of samurai class, until nothing is left but the belief in a hierarchy that consistently proves itself unworthy of the respect demanded of others. When the Iikura men act in the name of loyalty and obedience, they set themselves up in a trap that inevitably destroys themselves and others.
The sequence that may cause a few eyebrows to be raised now, as it probably did back in 1963, involves homosexuality. The first glimpse is a scene of three men dancing for Lord Tambanokami Munemasa Hori. The lord then meets with a group of young students. One of the young men catches his eye. The student, Kyuraro Iikura, is invited to serve as the lord's page, but suspicions are confirmed when when of the women preparing young Iikura mentions "pretty boys" and tells the nervous young man that he is wanted in the bedroom. This scene is replayed in a sequence that follows. when wife of another generation's Iikura is beckoned to the bedroom by the descendant of Lord Hori. For Imai, the ruling classes indulge in decadence that has no sense of propriety, living out the famous saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It would be interesting to have read reviews of Bushido from when it was initially released. A contemporary of Akira Kurosawa's, Tadashi Imai is virtually unknown except for the most devoted of scholars of Japanese cinema. The film won the Golden Bear at the 1963 Berlin Film Festival, where the competition included Ralph Nelson's Lilies of the Field and Clive Donner's The Caretaker, and the judges included Jean-Pierre Melville and Karl Malden. The sex and violence that make up much of the story are mostly suggested, perhaps because Imai isn't interested in what would be the most exploitable aspects to his story, as much as the causes and effects of said actions. Even without any explicitness, Imai has a way of shocking the viewer simply by tossing aside any preconceptions regarding a bygone era. For Imai, the way of the the samurai has no love and honor, only regret and shame.
Posted by peter at 12:11 AM
February 07, 2010
Isabelle Huppert in Comedy of Power (Claude Chabrol - 2006)
Posted by peter at 12:09 AM
February 04, 2010
The Killer Inside Me (1976)
Burt Kennedy - 1976
Simitar Region 1 DVD
The disappointing news is that in spite of some of the talent involved, this version of The Killer Inside Me is not a very good adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel. In comparison with his other work, this is not even a decent Burt Kennedy film. Yes, Kennedy is best known for his westerns, but the guy has had some brief flings with contemporary criminals. Man in the Vault, which he wrote, and The Money Trap, which briefly reunited Glenn Ford with Rita Hayworth, suggested that Kennedy might have been able to recreate something resembling Thompson's universe of sociopaths and assorted marginal characters. The character of Bill Masters in the Kennedy penned Seven Men from Now, a darkly comic vision of ingratiating villainy, is not too distant from Thompson's creation, Lou Ford.
Maybe the film might have been better had Kennedy written the screenplay. What there is barely resembles the novel, moving the location from Texas to Montana, and barely touching the desperation of people caught in emotional as well as physical dead end existence. The characters are there, the richest man in town, his dumb son, and prostitute who attempts blackmail, and has a relationship with Ford that is sadomasochistic. What the film lacks is Jim Thompson's black little heart. Even in the 1970s when filmmakers were more prone to push boundaries previously unexplored before the revamped ratings code, Kennedy and company seem skittish about making a film that resembled Thompson's novel in either the dark humor or the violence.
The potential could have been there with the cast at hand. Stacy Keach, Susan Tyrell and Tisha Sterling are nowhere near as pretty as Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba or Kate Hudson in the same roles. Yet Kennedy's cast looks more like the kind of people one would find in a small town where there's not much going on. There is some pleasure at seeing character actors John Carradine, John Dehner, Keenan Wynn and Charles McGraw share screen time with Keach. Tyrell, especially, is right as a prostitute who is alluring without being conventionally attractive, a woman a man might find sexy given limited options, where everyone seems to know everyone else. There is something of a snapshot of Stacy Keach's career with the inclusion of Tyrell from the film that had suggested the most promise, Fat City, and Don Stroud, who would later costar with Keach in the "Mike Hammer" television series.
Where The Killer Inside Me really misses is in the character of Lou Ford. Thompson's dialogue could have been lifted verbatim. In the novel, Ford disguises his madness with an overly friendly manner, a good old boy who shovels folksiness and verbal cliches over friends and enemies alike. It might have been Steven King, writing about Thompson, that pointed out that Lou Ford's preferred method of murder was to bore you to death. What we have instead is a jettisoning of most of Thompson's back story on Ford, and a garden variety psycho. There is some heavy handed use of voices from the past, and flashbacks to indicate that Ford's madness stemmed from the sounds of a dripping faucet and the discovery of his mother in bed with another man.
This DVD version also suffers from not reproducing the original wide screen cinematography of the usually reliable William Fraker. The film in its current DVD state looks not too different from a movie made for television, minus some glimpses of nudity, as if Burt Kennedy had anticipated where his own career as a director was heading. After a reasonably successful ten year run beginning with Mail Order Bride and ending with his first boss, John Wayne, and The Train Robbers, Kennedy seems to have been exiled from theatrical films to television productions. 1976 saw Kennedy drummed of the set of Drum, the sequel to Mandingo, and having The Killer Inside Me, an independent production, get picked up by Warner Brothers only to be quietly dumped into a few theaters. This first filmed version of The Killer Inside Me had the book and the cast, and might have been a better film had the filmmakers not squandered the possibilities, and trusted their material.
Posted by peter at 12:49 AM
February 01, 2010
Joachim Hasler - 1968
First Run Features Region 1 DVD
It's the middle of winter, so it's a perfect time to watch a beach party movie, albeit one made in East Germany. While other reviews mostly dwell on comparing Hot Summer, not inappropriately to the series of films that usually starred Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, the big difference is that these high school grads from behind the Iron Curtain seem much better educated than their American peers. One example is one of the couples that pairs up briefly discusses the alienating effect of the theater of Bertolt Brecht. Frankie and Annette's pals would most likely discuss Breck hair shampoo. In another scene, two would be lovers exchange lines from a poem that I have been unable to identify even after Googling a few lines. Those couple of moments help make Hot Summer markedly different from the equivalent stateside films, even something as aware of its own absurdity, like Beach Blanket Bingo. While these East German kids aren't all literary, such as in an Eric Rohmer film, these scenes indicate a higher regard both for the characters and the intended audience.
Joachim Hasler doesn't have much much more of an inventive visual eye than his American counterpart, William Asher, but there is one shot displaying some visual wit. While the kids are dancing in line, frugging along towards the left of the screen, a flock of ducks is waddling in the opposite direction. Some may want to read more into that shot than I would, and one of the themes of Hot Summer is emphasis on the group over the individual. I don't know if the idea for that shot was in the original script that Hasler wrote with Maurycy Janowski. Hasler the writer is not always served well by Hasler the director. I wouldn't expect another Richard Lester or John Boorman, but Hot Summer might have been a better film with someone who could have mimicked Sidney Furie's work with Cliff Richards.
Girls are from Berlin, boys are from Leipzig, and everyone meets up at a small town by the Baltic Sea. There's lots of flirting, but most of the sexual tension comes in the form of blonde and pretty Britt playing tall, brooding Wolf against blond and bland Kai. While Kai acts as group leader for the boys, the girls are led by Stupsi. Naturally, being away from the parents, everyone wants to have an adventure, and flaunt the rules, whether they are those from the dormitory where the girls stay, or the rules expected of good kids from good families. The political realities of the time are most obvious in a scene where the boys briefly visit a farm collective run by a sturdy group of women. There is also a boy , an aspiring lawyer, who quotes from various statutes, such as prior to a break-in of the girls' dorm room to scare them with a box of white mice. Politics in its most overt forms is not part of Hot Summer any more than it would in the Anglo-American films of that time. There is just enough rebellion and irresponsibility to satiate the teens, and leave the few adults in the film to conclude that the kids are alright.
What also surprised me about Hot Summer was the quality of the songs. Musically, this is a bit closer to jazz and Broadway than to rock. But where Hot Summer shines is in the lyrics. One of the songs, essentially Wolf's thoughts about Britt, suggest an attempt at a contemporary version of Brecht and Kurt Weil's narrative verse. One of best moments is when Frank Schobel as Kai, performs a solo piece with guitar, with lyrics that include, "Love makes quiet words resound". I didn't find out anything about lyricist Hans-Jurgen Degenhardt, except that four years after Hot Summer, he collaborated on an album with one of the film's soundtrack composers, Gerd Natschinski.
Toothy Chris Doerk was one of Hot Summer's two big musical stars, and for a time was married to Frank Schobel. The most interesting character is bad girl Britt, played by Regine Albrecht. Closer to the actual age of her character than much of the cast who were well into their twenties, Albrecht has continued a career as a much demand voice artist dubbing dubbing American films and television shows. Joachim Hasler's credit indicate a versatile filmmaker serving as director, writer and cinematographer, sometimes on the same film as here. Hasler's best known credit may be for working on the film released in the U.S. as The First Spaceship on Venus. Hot Summer has some technical shortcomings for those use to the audio quality of an American musical, some fairly non-existent choreography, and a poorly staged screen fight where everyone involved is clearly trying not to get injured. But there is also more to the film for those who want to look beyond the superficial comparisons of teen musical movies, suggesting a more in depth examination of the film by someone more knowledgeable in German culture, especially German poetry.
Posted by peter at 12:45 AM