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March 30, 2010

Augustin, King of Kung-Fu

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Augustin, Roi du Kung-Fu
Anne Fontaine - 1999
Wide Sight Region 3 DVD

Anne Fontaine's film is a slight comedy-drama, an expansion on an earlier film about a character named Augustin, a childlike man trying to find his place in the world. When first seen in this film, Augustin is on the phone, seeking auditions for small roles in movies. When an immediate offer is made, Augustin claims himself as too busy, and goes off to watch a movie, Drunken Master as it turns out. Inspired by the dream, Augustin travels to as close to China as is currently possible for him, the Chinatown section of Paris.

For someone with the dream of being a French martial arts star, Augustin is hobbled by the fact that he can not stand being touched, even shaking hands is impossible. A cure is sought from an acupuncturist, Ling. Augustin immerses himself in Chinese culture, working at a gift shop, training in kung-fu, and learning to speak Chinese. Augustin is also befriended by an older clerk at the gift shop, Rene.

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I saw Fontaine's first major film, Dry Cleaning, but don't remember much about it. Nathalie and Coco Before Chanel were seen more recently. What appears to be a constant in Fontaine's work is a theme about people put in circumstances where they reinvent themselves. As it turns out, Augustin finds his place in spite of himself, as much as a result of any conscious efforts.

The most extended comedy is in an early scene where Augustin has garnered a small acting job. Constantly forgetting his lines as a waiter, serving a dish to Fanny Ardant and Andre Dussollier, Augustin can't get things right even after thirty-one takes. Augustin complains to the director that he has only had one week to rehearse his one line part.

Jean-Chretien Sibertin-Blanc, perhaps not coincidentally, the brother of Anne Fontaine, resembles Steve Carell, both physically and with the similar kind of character in the latter's career defining 40 Year Old Virgin. Sibertin-Blanc is all energy and enthusiasm but no coordination as he knocks over lamps practicing martial arts moves in his small apartment. A deliberately unglamorous Maggie Cheung plays Ling. It's the kind of role that maybe should have gone to a lesser known actress. It could well be my own perceptions but if she is not performing in Chinese, that Cheung's performances in English with Olivier Assayas work better for me, perhaps because she is the focal point of those films.

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Posted by peter at 12:02 AM

March 28, 2010

Coffee Break

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Carmen Machi and Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar - 2009)

Posted by peter at 12:36 AM

March 25, 2010

The T.A.M.I. Show

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Steve Binder - 1964
Shout Factory Region 1 DVD

The first time I saw The T.A.M.I. Show was when the film was seven years old, in a sixteen millimeter print, in Berkeley, California. This is the kind of film which, if you're part of a certain age bracket, probably can't be seen without it invoking multiple feelings. There is the adage that one's tastes in music are fairly well established by the age of 12. Not true in my case, at least with the acts involved here. Adding to the experience watching the film are the biographies behind many of the smiles.

Not all biographies. I hope Gerry Marsden and Billy J. Kramer are happy where ever they are, but I don't really care. But there is a twinge of sadness in watching the original Beach Boys, knowing about Brian Wilson's breakdown and artistic, if not commercial, comeback. This was a time when I was a fan of Jan and Dean, enough to try sidewalk surfing on one of those first generation skate boards on the streets of Evanston, Illinois. Art followed life in the worst possible way for Jan Berry. I can't watch The Rolling Stones without thinking about how Brian Jones was booted from band he formed, and died under questionable circumstances.

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The opening montage owes a debt to A Hard Day's Night. There are shots of The Barbarians and Gerry and The Pacemakers in their respective tour buses. Leslie Gore rehearsing on stage. Diana Ross trying to apply make up in a crammed dressing room. Bits of madcap business with The Miracles running out of The Knickerbocker Hotel and crowding into a cab. There's also Jan and Dean, riding in motorcycles and, yes, skate boarding around Sunset Boulevard, shot with kooky camera angles. Much of this work should be credited to Vilis Lapenieks, whose credit would be unknown without director Steve Binder's commentary.

As for the music, mixed feelings as I shuffle towards senior citizenship. I like some of Chuck Berry's songs, but the guy himself always struck me as kind of creepy, even before I leaned about his scandalous past. Gerry and the Pacemakers were were never quite good enough to be Beatles wannabes. There's no electricity until The Miracles show up, with Marv Tarplin standing by on bass. As far as I'm concerned, "Mickey's Monkey" is still an infectious delight.

It's been over ten years since I read David Ritz's biography of Marvin Gaye. Was he battling demons behind that expressive smile even then? Every shot of Gaye seems to indicate that he's quite happy to be in Santa Monica, backed up by The Blossoms. This was before the really great Motown songs that would follow, but "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and "Hitch Hike" indicate the themes of many of Gaye's songs, which could be said to be about idealized love, or romantic longings, fueled by persistence, and perhaps a form of masochism. It's no stretch to imagine the guy who will "hitch hike around the world" for that one perfect woman, is also the same guy who remains the devoted lover in a song recorded the following year, "Ain't That Peculiar".

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I use to have a crush on Lesley Gore. I wanted to let her know that even though I was five years younger than her, I wouldn't break her heart the way Johnny did in "It's My Party". Years later, Lesley Gore outed herself in The Village Voice, and I keep thinking maybe in her heart of hearts, Judy and Johnny would have switched roles. I still like "It's My Party" and "Maybe I Know", although the latter song has the kind of lyrics that would raise eyebrows, "Maybe I know that he's been cheating, but what can I do?". On a more personal level, Lesley Gore was not the first lesbian I would fall in love with.

The Barbarians, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Rolling Stones? Once upon a time I liked them in varying degrees. The high point of The Beach Boys is when the camera moves away from Mike Love to concentrate on Brian Wilson singing "Surfer Girl". The Supremes were on their way to becoming Motown's biggest act, with the camera focusing on Diana Ross's teeth and eyes, looking more scary than sexy.

On the other hand, time has been on the side of James Brown. You want classical music? You want a great theatrical performance that Laurence Olivier could only dream about? The only thing better than watching James Brown (and the Famous Flames) perform "Out of Sight" is his following that with "Prisoner of Love" and "Please, Please, Please". Nobody can drop hard on their knees like James Brown and seem like they mean it. The consolation of his flunky, the flinging down of the jacket, even the man himself thinks this is his best filmed performance. In the close ups, streams of sweat are visible after the first song.

Keep you eyes open for a glimpse of Jack Nitzsche, conducting the house band that would include Glen Campbell and a short haired Leon Russell. Dancer Terri Garr is most visible at about the thirty-six minute mark. The dancers are sometimes distracting, and the production uses the same kind of setup seen on television's Shindig and Hullabaloo. The commentary track helpfully points out that the spectacularly endowed woman dancing on stage in a bikini is Joy Ciro, who was a performer on the television show Where the Action is. Toni Basil was the assistant choreographer, while documentarian Kent MacKenzie lent a hand in the editing. One of the more interesting bits of information was that the theme song, "Here They Come (From All Over the World)" was written by Steve Barri and Phil (later P.F.) Sloan when they were still in high school. A little fact checking indicates that Sloan and Barri were already out of high school in 1964. Their song could have used a little fact checking. Is there still anyone who thinks The Rolling Stones are from Liverpool? The musicians were hardly from "all over the world" for that matter, but when you were an American teenager in 1964, the musicians were from the parts of the world that mattered.

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Posted by peter at 12:07 AM | Comments (2)

March 23, 2010

Dora-heita

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Kon Ichikawa - 2000
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

One of the ironies of Akira Kurosawa's legacy is that as a filmmaker, his name has become more commercially viable in death. Following the expensive failure of Dodes'ka-den in 1970, financing for Kurosawa's films largely came from Russia, Hollywood and France. After Kurosawa's death came the production of older screenplays, as well as remakes of The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro, and a television series based on Seven Samurai. That Dora-heita was made almost thirty years after it was written is indication of the change of perception towards someone who was virtually written off by the Japanese film industry.

The selling point has been the screenplay, a collaboration of Kurosawa with well regarded peers Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Masakaki Kobayashi. The four created a production company, in theory a tantalizing idea, but one that might remind film students with long memories of a similar attempt by William Wyler, George Stevens and Frank Capra, where precarious financing trumped artistic autonomy. At the time Dora-heita was filmed, Ichikawa outlived his friends and colloborators, remaining an active filmmaker until 2006, a career lasting sixty years.

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Based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, the elements that link this film to Kurosawa's other films are readily identifiable. A magistrate is sent to an outlying fief, the subject of much corruption. The son of a lord, Koheita has the reputation of being more interested in playing around than fulfilling the duties of a samurai. His nickname can be interpreted as being a play on the Japanese word for alley cat. Koheita shows up to meet with the local feudal lords, where he promptly pulls rank, and lets one and all know that he plans to clean up the small town that is a haven for prostitution, gambling and smuggling. Koheita proves more than capable of handling all opponents, save for the woman Kosei, who single-mindedly is determined to bring Koheita back with her to Edo. Koheita plays three crime bosses against each other, and proves himself unbeatable using his wits as well as his sword.

Some of the machinations of the plot should remind some of Yojimbo and Sanjuro, with Toshiro Mufune as the lone samurai who comes to town. It is fairly easy to imagine Tatsuya Nakadai in the title role had the film been made in the early Seventies. Even had the film been made when originally intended, it could well have been derided as old fashioned with nary a suggestion of sex, and bloodshed limited to a small cut on someone's forehead. That Dora-heita was made thirty years later may have been in the film's favor, allowing the work to be judged on its own merits rather than in comparison with the genre work of the time. Koji Yakusho, an actor better known for his association with a different Kurosawa, Kyoshi, works up his voice to speak in the commanding timbre of the chambara of the past.

The greater emphasis on humor can be attributed to Ichikawa. There is also the thematic element of the playing of perceived identities, as in The Burmese Harp and An Actor's Revenge. Like previous Ichikawa films, the characters often undermine themselves with their hubris. Still, with the combined talents that wrote the screenplay, Dora-heita can not be called a great film, though it is certainly an entertaining film. Then again, with all of the expectations that would have been placed on them, Ichikawa, Kurosawa and company more than deserved the opportunity to relax and make some lightweight fun.

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Posted by peter at 12:53 AM

March 21, 2010

Coffee Break

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Alix Koromzay in Tre (Eric Byler - 2006)

Posted by peter at 12:04 AM

March 18, 2010

Umetsugu Inoue: 1923 -2010

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What little I know about Umetsugu Inoue's life is thanks to the wonderful Sabrina Baracetti of the Udine Far East Film Festival. Through her, I was able to get a copy of the book, Asia Sing! A Survey of Asian Musical Films. It is a terrific book that ideally would be more widely available. Prior to this book, my limited introduction to Inoue was through two of his Chinese language musicals, produced by the Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong Nocturne and Hong Kong Rhapsody. Both films were seen on Region 3 DVDs. What I was unaware of at the time of seeing the films was not only the extent of Inoue's career, but also how much of it was invested in the movie musical, both in Japan and Hong Kong. I had found out about Inoue's death by accident, researching something else online.

The following are some passages from a recent interview with Inoue, conducted by Mark Schilling, from Asia Sings!:

I managed to sneak into a screening of Yamanaka's Humanity and Paper Balloons. I was really impressed by that film - it made me realize how wonderful movies were. I became an enthusiastic film fan and snuck into theaters in various ways , . . but I never thought in a million years I would enter the film world myself.

Run Run Shaw asked me to come to Hong Kong. He even met me at the airport when I first came over. After that Raymond (Chow) handled all the negotiations. But Run Run Shaw talked to me about films. He asked me to watch the American film How to Marry a Millionaire, about three air stewardesses. He wanted me to remake it. I said there's a problem with the rights. He said "We don't worry about that in Hong Kong." I said "You say you don't worry, but I'm in Japan, so there's no way I can remake it just as it is." Then he said "We want you to make it any way," so I said I would change the stewardesses to dancers and have them go to Taiwan, Japan and Thailand. He said OK - and the film (The Millionaire Chase/Diao Jin Gui - 1969) became a big hit.

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Posted by peter at 12:17 AM | Comments (1)

March 16, 2010

Death Traps

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Sha ji chong chong
Wang Tian-lin - 1960
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Death Traps is the Hong Kong version of one of those dames in distress movies that came out of Hollywood that were produced in the early to mid-Fifties, and usually starred Joan Crawford. The film might be as good an introduction as any to Helen Li Mei, one of the top Hong Kong stars of the mid Fifties through early Sixties. Unlike fellow Cathay Studios star Grace Chang, Li was just a few years older, and by Hong Kong standards, more openly sexual. The film isn't quite Hong Kong noir, but has some stylish touches by veteran Wang Tian-lin, with a screenplay by future martial arts auteur Chang Cheh.

Li plays the part of Jieyun, a woman of apparently independent means, and an alcoholic. Her boyfriend, Shouli, played by the stalwart Roy Chiao reminds her that he plans to marry of woman with good habits, and certainly not one who gets drunk every night. A date at a nightclub turns out badly when Shouli is seen sitting with the ditsy Meigui. Drunk and jealous, Li steps out with the gangster, Fatso Cai. Knowing Cai's underworld connections, Jieyun requests that Cai set up a hit on the woman that Shouli will marry, going so far as to write a check for Cai's services. Waking up the next day, resolved to stay sober, Jieyun finds herself engaged to Shouli, and unable to contact Cai.

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There are amusing scenes of accidents and encounters with strangers strike Jieyun as evidence that someone is after Meigui, and then herself, with a flower pot nearly falling on the chatty friend, and Jieyun panicked when fireworks explode while she exits the church following her wedding. There's a mysterious young punk, one of Cai's crew who is seen earlier, who coincidentally is on the same ferry when Jieyun and Shouli go on their honeymoon in Macau. Even stranger is that this man, with his ever present cocked hat and sunglasses, is also staying at the same hotel.

Among the echos of Hollywood films is the opening shot with Helen Li driving wildly drunk on a dark road, a nod to The Bad and the Beautiful. Wang's occasional use of overhead shots recalls a favored touch of Robert Aldrich. Within the context of a thriller, Li's (dubbed) singing to Chiao might recall Doris Day in The Man who Knew too Much. Wang makes nice use of dolly shots moving in on close ups of Li as well as utilizing framing devices within some of the shots. There is also one shot of Li's cheongsam dress rip on top that is relatively innocent by current standards, but no doubt inflamed many of Li's admirers fifty years ago. While one of the weaker aspects of the film was addressed by Chang Cheh in an interview, regarding the unrealistic treatment of alcoholism, it's the kind of flaw that doesn't get in the way of this very entertaining film.

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Posted by peter at 12:26 AM | Comments (2)

March 14, 2010

Coffee Break

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Hilary Swank in Amelia (Mira Nair - 2009)

Posted by peter at 12:14 AM

March 11, 2010

Precious: Base on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

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Lee Daniels - 2009
Lionsgate Region 1 DVD

I will say this for Lee Daniels - he has the courage of his convictions. Unfortunately his convictions are sometimes as outsized and as wrong headed as his title character. I shied away from seeing Precious due the arguments regarding the film's merits. Also, I had seen Daniels' debut film, Shadowboxer. That first film was about a hit man and hit woman doing one last job. Aside from the quasi-incestuous relationship between the older woman and the younger man, there was a mobster who seemed unable to collect too many large, ornate, crucifixes, and a shady doctor with a crack head nurse named Precious. Cuba Gooding, Jr. will appear in just about anything, but how Helen Mirren was convinced to star might better remain a mystery. By the end of Shadowboxer I was convinced that Lee Daniels had watched early Tarantino, and a Guy Ritchie film or two, and said to himself, "I can top that!". Unlike his proclaimed sources of inspiration, John Waters and Pedro Almodovar, Lee Daniels has trouble realizing when he needs to reign in the excess.

Part of my problem with Precious is that Daniels seems to love using technique for no apparent reason. Maybe using an overlapping dissolve shot of Gabourey Sidibe walking down a class room hallway looks arty, but it seemed like a very random choice. The characters have some intense conversations and the camera tentatively zooms in and out as if simply framing the characters and holding the camera still for a few seconds was not an option. There is a pretty shot of the city reflected in a puddle. The scene of Precious and her mother, Mary, watching Vittorio De Sica's Two Women, subtitled on television, was unbelievable, especially as Mary's television diet seemed to consist solely of game shows. The De Sica film Precious reminded me of was After the Fox which includes a film within the film, a parody of neo-realism. Precious frequently seemed like a parody of someone's idea of an art film.

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Just like a poet is hidden inside the inarticulate Precious Jones, there was a potentially better film that could have been made from Geoffrey Fletcher's screenplay. The best parts of the film seem like the least forced, especially in the alternative classroom, and the exchanges between the teacher with the unlikely name of Blu Rain, and the other students. Perhaps one reason why the scenes in the classroom work is because Paula Patton's performance as the teacher who coaxes Precious out of her shell is not the stunt casting as is the case for Mariah Carey, Lennie Kravitz or Mo'Nique. Of the young women in Patton's class, Xosha Roquemore as the overly self confident Joann and Amina Robinson as the sexually ambiguous Jermaine might be the ones to watch in the future.

There's a memorable smash cut in Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls where the shot of a screaming woman about to have an abortion is followed by the close up of an egg dropping into a frying pan. It's a simultaneously gross and funny moment. Lee Daniels, unlike Meyer, doesn't know when to let up, and is like a child furiously writing in big block letters with lots of underlining to make sure we don't miss his point. We get lots of big close ups of eyes, of pots of some awful stew on a stove, and assorted flotsam and jetsam and body parts that must have looked pleasing to Daniel's eye, but don't add up to anything meaningful either in the narrative or in anything resembling a coherent or cohesive visual style. It's not a good sign when I watch a movie about life in Harlem and start to wish it had been directed by white liberals Martin Ritt or Ralph Nelson. This was not the intention of anyone involved with the film, yet the ultimate effect is a work that can be interpreted as supporting the worst stereotypes of urban African-Americans. Especially after an Academy Award nomination, I doubt that Lee Daniels will restrict himself to the role of producer. But I also believe, Precious could have been a better film had the direction been handed over to someone like Julie Dash or even Angela Robinson. A good filmmaker knows that sometimes a stationary camera and confidence in your material and players is all you really need.

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Posted by peter at 12:35 AM | Comments (5)

March 09, 2010

Japan at War

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Japan's Longest Day/Nihon no ichiban nagai hi
Kihachi Okamoto - 1967

Battle of Okinawa/Gekido no showashi: Okinawa kessen
Kihachi Okamoto - 1971

Father of the Kamikaze/A kessen kokutai
Kosaku Yamashita - 1974

Black Rain/Kuroi Ame
Shohei Imamura - 1989
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

AnimEigo has taken four older titles and repackaged them collectively. The idea is to give viewers more of an idea of World War II from a Japanese perspective. Two of the films though aren't war films in the traditional sense of being about men in battle, but about the events that took place at the close of the war, and the aftermath for one civilian family. While not an exact comparison, it would be as if a set Hollywood films about World War II included Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives.

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Japan's Longest Day is comparable to The Longest Day only in the casting of what must have been every male star on the Toho Studios lot. The most famous name of course is Toshiro Mifune, but there's also Tadashi Shimura and Chishu Ryu, as well as Tatsuya Nakadai providing the narration. Although the history regarding the debates that proceeded the surrender is fascinating, as film it gets a bit talky for the the first hour.

Where things really kick in is when a group of young officers decide that they would not only not surrender, but they would persuade the military staff to back their plan to extend the war. Whether or not these rebellious officers were the wild eyed fanatics that are presented in the film, it is amazing to learn that their obsession with continuing the war included burning down the home of the Prime Minister for being a traitor, and ransacking the offices of the Emperor in order to keep the recording of his surrender speech from being broadcast.

Most of the people are introduced with their titles, and some notes that are part of the supplement give added context to some of the references to other historical events or persons. On a purely cinematic level, what I liked best about Kihachi Okamoto's film was his use of close ups, whether of a pragmatic Mifune, a tearful Shimura, or several of the lesser known actors. Some of the more earnest pronouncements, such as Ryu's declaration that younger people should replace the aging government cabinet, or Mifune's exhortation to his junior officers to live to rebuild Japan bear the hallmark of screenplay writer Shinobu Hashimoto.

Battle of Okinawa is a more traditional type of war epic, alternating primarily between the officers' headquarters and fields of battle. The film is more interesting for its content than any cinematic concerns. What may be most alarming is learning about how the military forces and the civilian population were virtually placed in a position to be defeated by the numerically superior Allied forces, and the extent of suicide among both populations. Used as a symbol of innocence in time of war, there is small girl, perhaps no more than five years old, who is seen wandering from place to place, the lone survivor amidst the ruins, mud and corpses.

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A streak of very dark humor also runs through the film, with such characters as a nurse's introduction to battle field surgery, which usually consists of sawing off injured legs, and the army barber, who provides comic relief. Tatsuya Nakadai and Tetsuro Tamba are the two officers who provide the main advice to Keiju Kobayashi. Nakadai portrays Hiromichi Yahara, who survived to write a book about the battle, and served as an advisor on the film.

There is a curious footnote to the film: Tamba and Nakadai nostalgically mention seeing a movie together, the American silent, The Blue Danube, by forgotten writer-director Paul Sloane. In doing some research, Sloane's last listed film, Feng ye qing was a Japanese production made in 1952, about an American soldier and a Japanese woman.

While it appears that Tora! Tora! Tora! has been used as a template, Father of the Kamekazi also seems to have been inspired by Patton. There are not one, but two scenes of soldiers being slapped. I had only scene one previous film by Kousaku Yamashita, the fast moving yakuza adventure, Red Peony Gambler starring the then very popular Junko Fuji. Clocking in at over three hours, Father of the Kamikaze is probably of greater interest for its presentation of historical events.

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The idea of using suicide pilots apparently came from several sources, buy it was the naval officer, Onishi, who created the official group. Originally seen as a last ditch attempt to turn the tide of was back into Japan's favor, it became the chosen tactic, even after it became less effective. More so than Japan's Longest Night, the film helps explain the psychological trap that the military found itself in with the inability to accept surrender, as well as the general psychology of Japan of that time.

What worked best for me were some of the quieter moments, primarily Onishi with his wife examining a flower that only blossoms at night, and their reunion in bombed out Tokyo - the wife waiting at the ruins of their house with a pot of tea. There is also one remarkable scene with Onishi defiantly standing outside an air base while others hide from the strafing of U.S. planes.

I have written about Black Rain previously to coincide with that film's initial DVD release. Not only is Imamara's film the best in this set, Black Rain is still the best DVD release of a classic film in 2009, equal if not better than anything stamped with the label "Criterion Collection".

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Posted by peter at 11:40 AM | Comments (1)

March 07, 2010

Coffee Break

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Catherine O'Hara and Harry Shearer in For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest - 2006)

Posted by peter at 12:17 AM

March 04, 2010

Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters

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2499 antapan krong muang
Nonzee Nimibutr - 1997
Audio Graphics Region 0 DVD

Often when discussing the "new wave" of narrative filmmaking in a certain country, there is discussion pointing to a handful of films that were released within a short time of each other. For the history of Thai film, there is the directorial debut of Nonzee Nimibutr, with a screenplay by Wisit Sasanatieng, that served as a catalyst for a decade of films that brought some serious attention to a country usually ignored in discussion of Asian cinema. While Nonzee's film was not the only "new wave" film of 1997, it set a new box office record for Thailand, having the kind of impact that Easy Rider created in Hollywood in 1969. Seen out of context, Dang Bireley might simply be dismissed as a derivative film that owes some of its verve to Martin Scorsese's Mean Street and John Woo's The Killers. It was this repackaging of Scorsese and Woo for a Thai audience that created such a commercial success that it paved the way for Nonzee to produce Wisit's debut feature, Tears of the Black Tiger as well as several other films by new Thai filmmakers.

Based on a true story, most of the film takes place in 1956, when the sixteen year old became a gang leader of considerable influence. The film is also about an identity shaped by outside sources. The son of a prostitute, Dang's last name is that of the orange soda that was popular at the time. Dang's home features photos of James Dean, and Dang wears a small photo of Dean around his neck. It is the mutual admiration for Dean that links Dang with his girlfriend, Paa. Elvis Presley also is present, in photographs as well as the soundtrack, with both original songs and a Thai cover band. There is one scene of Dang and his friends scuffling with each other and some girls, with Hound Dog on the soundtrack, that has as much energy and electricity as anything from Scorsese.

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Dang's mother keeps hoping that her son will be ordained as a monk, and at least temporarily forgo his life of crime. Dang gets in deeper, first with a major street rumble that originated from a barely remembered high school rivalry, and then joining up with a former cop turned gangster who sets up a bar and casino near an air base used by U.S. military personnel. Adding to the trouble is the turf rivalry between the ex-cop, Chien, and another gangster, Tek. Chien points out that his casino is open to take both Thai and U.S currency, unlike Tek's joint, making his small operation part of Thailand's increasing attempts at accommodating globalization.

One the surface, Dang Bireley is a story of gangsters in Thailand in 1956. There is certainly some nostalgia in hearing the old Elvis songs, as well as getting a glimpse of the nightlife in what was then known as Phra Nakhon, with Paa act as a lounge singer. The film can also be read as discussion on modern Thai identity, and as as such is a self critical work. Just as Dang and his friends take on some of the style and attitude of Elvis Presley and James Dean in their mass media versions, Nonzee and Wisit have made use of elements from admired filmmakers from outside of Thailand, albeit more consciously then their characters. When Dang shoots a rival, the incident takes place in an outdoor movie theater while the film Nueng Tor Jed, a Thai gangster movie, is running on the screen. In this sense, the film can be understood as commenting on the Westernization of Thai identity concurrently in life and in popular culture. That Dang's ordination as a priest is constantly postpones, and would be done only to please Dang's mother, might be interpreted from a Buddhist standpoint of immutable karma and/or what Buddhist text describe as Dang being a person of incorrigible disbelief.

It is disappointing that this film is currently available on a somewhat sloppily produced DVD. The framing is not always consistent and may not be quite in proportion to the original aspect ratio. The English subtitles are embedded and occasionally not well translated. It's a disappointment that given the historical importance of Dang Bireley, that this virtually out of print DVD has only been made available in Thailand. Unfortunately, with the marketplace being the prime source for determining what films are available on DVD, Dang Bireley may be one of those films known better by reputation, while being unseen by those who might appreciate it the most.

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Posted by peter at 12:02 AM | Comments (1)

March 01, 2010

Juliet in Love

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Jue lai yip yue leung saan ang
Wilson Yip - 2000
Mei Ah Entertainment Region 0 DVD

I didn't know much about Juliet in Love before seeing the DVD other than that a couple people I occasionally exchange notes with regarding Asian films thought it notable that it was listed among the top Hong Kong films of the past decade. This is the kind of film that defies any easy description. The story, as such, is centered around the type of characters who would be peripheral to many Hong Kong films, taking a roundabout route from loosely threaded beginning to heartbreaking end.

This Juliet is actually Judy, a restaurant hostess, who meets luckless gambler Jordan, who attempts to scam a reservation by posing as On Cheng, a local gangster. The real Cheng shows up, with the two men ready for what appears to be a showdown. Jordan later learns that it is Cheng who is owed a significant gambling debt. The three meet again at a hospital where Jordan and Judy end up babysitting the baby of Cheng's mistress. What Wilson Yip's film is really about is people brought together by food, money, bottled Coke, and sense of family.

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As if to underline Judy's status as an outsider, she lives in a dilapidated old house a good distance from the high rises of Hong Kong, with her grandfather who seems to live for his Coca Cola. As the grandfather says, "No Coke, no hope". And on the surface it seems like one of those devices that filmmakers use to made a character adorably quirky, yet is arguably truthful to the little or big attachments or addictions that are embedded in daily existence. For Judy, a divorcee and breast cancer survivor, her job allows her to dress up, and be in a situation where she is control of others within her limited sphere. Jordan is content to drift along in life, letting events dictate his actions.

The act of sharing meals ties the characters together. The three main characters encounter each other at the formal, brightly lit restaurant where Judy serves as hostess. Jordan and Cheng meet again at a more informal neighborhood dive tucked away from a main thoroughfare. Jordan and Judy first share a meal at a street restaurant. Judy also feeds Jordan food from the restaurant where she works, food supposedly intended for her cola addicted grandfather who has the bed next to Jordan where both are hospitalized. Jordan and Judy also spend time simply trying to figure out how to mix the formula for Cheng's baby. Key is a scene of Jordan and Judy sharing a simply noodle meal at Judy's home, eyes gazing at each other, establishing an unstated mutual attraction.

There is one moment when Sandra Ng, with back to the camera, exposes her chest with the one missing breast, and asks Francis Ng if he still finds her attractive. Otherwise, Wilson Yip reveals Juliet's character and sense of self through visual clues - the dowdy clothes when she is not working, the open drawer with the mastectomy bra on top, as well as her general self effacing manner, whether with Jordan or the driving instructor who shyly pines for her.

Juliet in Love doesn't hide its low budget. There is a casualness to the flow of the story as well as the way many of the shots were composed. For several reasons, Juliet in Love has been an anomaly in Wilson Yip's filmography, mostly known for male centered action films.

In an interview that in part discusses Juliet in Love, Yip explains his reasons for making the film ambiguous at the end: "I think I share my feelings with the audience and after I lead the audience into the story, I don’t want the audience to think and feel exactly like I do. I was sharing a love feeling with the audience, I tried not to explain everything because I believe one has his own interpretation on different things." As to the more central theme of family: "Maybe because my dad passed away when I was 16. I love family, I like the feeling of having a close family. I also treasure friendship. Family can be gone all of a sudden, when you don't expect it. I didn’t realize this had an impact on me and on my movies and now I'm more aware of it."

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Posted by peter at 12:32 AM | Comments (2)