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June 29, 2010

Puzzle

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Dodoiyuheui peurojekteu, peojeul
Kim Tae-kyung - 2006
Genius Products Region 1 DVD

At the time that I formally studied film history and theory, there was a linear sense of progression, from silent to sound films, black and white to color, squarish screen to panoramic screen, montage to deep focus to, um, rack focus? Into the current century, maybe it's time, at least for myself to rethink about film theory and history as it was taught back in the days when Robert Altman was king. It's not only a matter of reworking of various genres, but remakes, reboots and "re-imaginings". For myself, Puzzle might be of greater interest as part of a dialogue about film.

Kim Tae-kyung doesn't mind letting everyone know that his debut film was inspired by Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. The basic story about a gang of crooks, strangers to each other, and a robbery gone wrong, should be recognizable without a glance at the DVD supplements. Tarantino's film has arguably been something of a remake of Ringo Lam's City on Fire. What is of interest to me is how the different filmmakers take some of the same basic elements and make three very different films. So we have a Hollywood film, inspired by a Hong Kong film, inspiring a Korean film. Within the broader scope of film history, John Huston proved with his version of The Maltese Falcon that the third time with Dashiell Hammett's novel was the charm. Kim Morgan has put up the argument that Gus Van Sant's version of Psycho may have more than met the eye of many viewers. Likewise, Kim's movie has enough virtues of its own to merit consideration.

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Kim dives into the action from the first shots of a man lying dead on a warehouse floor, set on fire. The contents in a brief case are also burnt to a crisp, Following the robbery of the contents of a safe deposit box, four youngish men, and their female hostage, meet in the warehouse. The dead man is tentatively identified as the gang leader. The four men discuss their options regarding their next steps. There is an assumption that they are to wait for the unknown person who brought the five men together, and organized the robbery. The problem is that no one knows who exactly they are waiting for, or if they are being set up to be killed.

The most obvious redo of Tarantino is a scene recalling Steve Buscemi's complaint about being named Mr. Pink. All of Kim's five main characters go by pseudonyms, but there is a mildly comic scene where one of the guys complains about the name given to him on his passport. The characters in Kim's film are more introspective. There isn't the jauntiness of the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs with the gang walking together to a rock and roll beat. The puzzle of the title is the question regarding who the gang is working for in Kim's film. Flashbacks reveal how the five crooks are linked to each other. For the careful observer, the twist ending not entirely surprising.

Each of the five men has a flashback that is only partially revealing. What was surprising was to see clips that were filmed but not used, in one of the DVD supplements. The film, even the original Korean release, runs slightly more than a tidy ninety minutes. Further research has indicated that there is a three disc (!) Korean special edition DVD that possibly has this other footage. Kim and his cinematographer discusses the making of the film, but not the decision of scrapping what appears to be several finely set up pieces of action that give further details regarding the characters' outlaw lives. Kim plays with technique a couple of times, with dutch angles and a short multiple screen sequence. There is no question about the film being shortened either, as the film on the U.S. DVD has the same running time as the Korean version. The decision not to use this additional flashback footage seems more odd considering how frequently Korean gangster films run at the two hour mark or longer.

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Posted by peter at 12:07 AM

June 27, 2010

Coffee Break

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Catherine Deneuve and Patrick Dewaere in Hotel America (Andre Techine - 1981)

Posted by peter at 12:11 AM

June 24, 2010

The House of 72 Tenants

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Chat sup yee ga fong hak
Chor Yuen - 1973
IVL Region 3 DVD

At the time I saw Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, I was unaware that the main set, a group of tenement apartments sharing a courtyard, was inspired by The House of 72 Tenants. I was also unaware of the classic status of that film, not only as a source of inspiration for other Hong Kong comedies, but as the film that made Cantonese Chinese the prime language for Hong Kong films with its immense popularity. This was the film that bested Enter the Dragon at the box office in 1973.

Seen on DVD, this is also a film that might be best appreciated be seeing all of the supplements, the interviews with Chor, Bey Logan, and Hong Kong film critic Po Fung. Unlike many of the other Shaw Brothers films that have been made available for U.S. viewers, this is one film that is only available as a Region 3 DVD. In part, this can be attributed to the film not being the more exportable martial arts production. More problematic are certain cultural aspects that require some basic knowledge of both Chinese culture and Hong Kong at the time the film was made. The film also relies on word play based on Cantonese Chinese which cannot be conveyed with the subtitles.

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The origins of the film are from a mainland Chinese play that served as a condemnation of capitalism. Even though the film, adapted by Chor for the screen, is not openly didactic, the theatrical and philosophical roots are not difficult to identify. Every person and every thing can be reduced to its monetary value. The film takes place at a time when, save for a handful of altruistic people, even needed public services require payment in advance. Some of the neighbors band together to pool enough money for a mother to take her sick child to the hospital. Mistakenly called to put out a fire in one of the apartments, the firemen perform a little rhyme explaining that without payment, they would just assume have the building burn down. Even glimpsed through a window, one can see the difference between the stingy landlady's comfortably appointed apartment, and the rougher, more spartan living quarters of some of her tenants.

In addition to the disparity between those with money, and those without, is the conflict between those who feel entrenched in Hong Kong, and those who are still regarded as outsiders from the mainland. It took me a few minutes to realize that when the characters discuss changing their money, trading the yuan for the Hong Kong dollar. Most of the tenants have recently arrived in Hong Kong, and pointedly cooperate with each other, while those on the outside are guided by self interest, accumulating money through business, legal or illegal, bribery or theft.

The film was shot entirely on a giant soundstage. Even when the film takes place outside of the apartments and the courtyard, there is a sense of claustrophobia in the streets and alleys. The sea and sky are only briefly seen in the distance. Most of the cast is of actors who were part of the Shaw Brothers stable, with the best known, in small parts being Lily Ho near the end of her career, and Danny Lee, not too long after beginning his own still active career. There was a version of the play filmed in mainland China in 1963 that should also be of historical interest should it be ever be available to be seen again. A recent remake, The 72 Tenants of Prosperity is chock full of contemporary Hong Hong stars, including the daughter of Lydia Shum and a couple of the actors from Chor's film.

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Posted by peter at 12:55 AM

June 22, 2010

The Revenge of the Crusader

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Genoveffa di Brabante
Jose Luis Monter - 1964
Mya Communications Region 0 DVD

The Revenge of the Crusader is not a great film, nor is it a very good film. But it does function as satisfying a peculiar nostalgia I have for the kinds of films that usually showed up on the bottom half of double features in in early 1960s. Not that I actually saw many of these films, but I loved the lurid posters that always promised much more than would actually be delivered. Most of these movies were made in Italy, and featured women more voluptuous and unmistakably sexual than any of the stars of Hollywood, the stuff of early adolescent dreams.

Revenge of the Crusader was filmed in Spain with Spanish and Italian actors, with a primarily Italian crew. The authorship is a bit murky with the opening credits stating the film was "realized" by Riccardo Freda, but directed by Jose Luis Monter. Some sources claim that Monter took credit either for completing the film, or as a requirement for financial and quota purposes. What is known is that Monter also worked as the Assistant Director on Freda's version of Romeo and Juliet. This second collaboration uses some Shakespearean elements in this variation of a classic story.

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The film is vague on such things as history and geography, as well as motivation for many of the key characters. Count Sigfrid saves a man from a gang of bandits, only to get wounded for his trouble. The saved man is a rival royal, the Duke of Brabante, although their grudge is not explained. In spite of being sworn enemies, Sigfrid is nursed back to heath by the duke's daughter, called Jennifer according to the less than accurate subtitles. Sigfrid and Jennifer get married, and go to Sigfrid's castle. Much to the dismay of his right hand man, Golo, Sigfrid has given up pillaging and assorted banditry to go straight. Wedded bliss in interrupted when Sigfrid is ordered to join the Crusades, leaving his castle and servants under the control of Golo. And Golo does indeed go low, attempting to force himself on Jennifer, finally imprisoning her under false charges of infidelity.

Not listed in the IMDb credits is that some of the cinematography was done by Stelvio Massi, as well as by Julio Ortas, the cinematographer to Freda's Romeo and Juliet. There are a handful of moments that provide Revenge of the Crusader with more in common with some of the Italian genre films of the time. The entrance of Maria Jose Alfonso, with a knife in her hand, is the type of image seen in many horror films. Later, Golo takes Jennifer's servant, Berta, down to the dungeon to be whipped. One of Sigrid's loyal men is killed with an ax by Golo, his face covered in blood. In their final duel, Golo tries to attack Sigfrid with a giant crossbow and a well placed bucket of flaming oil. For those with keener interest in Italian cinema of a certain era, there is enough to remind one that Freda was one of the creators of the Italian horror film, and that some of the peplums, the sword and sandal movies, would contain elements of horror films as well.

An earlier version of the story, also titled Genoveffa di Brabante, was filmed in 1947. The couple of posters alone suggest that even then, the filmmakers were most interested in the most exploitable aspects, with one poster depicting a scene of bloody torture. A 1951 version, starring Rosanno Brazi, titled Mistress of Treves, appears to have had greater interest in the more romantic side of the story. For unknown reasons, this 1964 version never was released in the United States theatrically. What The Revenge of the Crusaders offers is some undemanding pleasure of watching a film made at a time when little films could be made with sword fighting characters dressed in the costumes of a long ago era, all without bombast or pretension.

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Posted by peter at 12:46 AM

June 20, 2010

Coffee Break

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Deborah Walley and James Darren in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (Paul Wendkos - 1961)

Posted by peter at 12:31 AM | Comments (1)

June 17, 2010

Chushingura

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Chushingura - Hana no maki yuki no maki
Hiroshi Inagaki- 1962
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In addition to remembering Setsuko Hara, today marks the fifth year of Coffee, Coffee and more Coffee.

Today I hope Setsuko Hara is enjoying her 90th birthday, wherever she is. Unlike some of my cinephile friends I don't love her for her roles in Yasujiro Ozu's films. I once joked with the Self-Styled Siren that Hara's screen persona, at least in Ozu's films, makes Meryl Streep appear to be a selfish harpie. Having your baby eaten by a wild dog or choosing which child lives or dies in a concentration camp is nothing compared to sacrificing one's personal happiness on behalf of father Chishu Ryu.

Hara came to mind last April when I saw Mikio Naruse's film, Sound of the Mountain. Sure, she remains relatively stoic when in the face of her husband's inattention, but better yet, Hara laughs. If there was a double feature to be had, it would be Sound of the Mountain paired with Ninotchka. Hara has been described by some as the Japanese Greta Garbo for her also choosing to retire rather than age before the camera, and live out a reclusive existence. The differences are that Garbo retired to hide among the crowds in New York City, while Hara chose the more remote Kamakura. Hara also retired with the nickname, "The Eternal Virgin", intact. The status of Greta Garbo's virginity has never been questioned.

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It was also last April that I saw Millennium Actress theatrically. The actress of the title lives in a difficult to find cabin in northern Japan, alone except for a live-in helper/companion. That premise seemed inspired by Hara, although the glimpses of fictional films that we see have more in common with the costume dramas starring Hara's contemporary, Machiko Kyo.

Inagaki's version of Chushingura was the last film of note to feature Setsuko Hara. This is basically a featured supporting role, that also includes turns by Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. For those who have never seen any version of this film, the story is about a young lord, Asano, in the beginning of 18th Century Japan who is caught between conflicting codes of behavior. Refusing to participate in the bribery and corruption of the court, he is goaded by the older lord, Kira, who is to serve as his mentor. Frustration and anger give way to Asano's pulling out his sword, wounding Kira. Asano is forced to commit ritual suicide, while Kira's embarrassment to the court remains unpunished. The vassals of Asano exist in exile, deliberating on whether to avenge themselves, and if so, how to uphold their honor. The basic story has been done many times because it lends itself to open interpretation regarding the themes of loyalty and conflicting codes of behavior, written and unwritten laws, and the value of sacrificing one's life for an ideal.

Setsuko Hara is only seen in less than half an hour of this three and a half hour film. She plays the wife of one of Asano's leading vassals. What is curious about her performance is how she is filmed. The camera is often distant from her, so that there are times when I wasn't immediately certain that I was in fact watching Hara. There are no close ups such as one would note with the other stars. Hara was 41 at the time the film was made. Was she self conscious about her appearance, or was that decision made by Inagaki? Hara is usually seen in full shots, and the few close ups of her are extremely brief, as if it to let the viewer know that that is in fact Setsuko Hara, again keeping reserved while injustices take place around her. Maybe Hara was in this film only to fulfill contract obligations with Toho Studios. One could possibly imagine Machiko Kyo or Hideko Takamine taking the part with little appreciable difference. The effect of watching Setsuko Hara in Chushingura might be said to indicate that even before she stepped away from the cameras, she was already starting to disappear before our eyes.

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Posted by peter at 12:26 AM

June 15, 2010

Black Legion

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Archie L. Mayo - 1937
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

"He who is not for us is against us." Familiar words, and another reason why Black Legion manages to be simultaneously quaint and strikingly still topical. The words are spoken over the radio by an unidentified commentator, possibly inspired by Father Charles Coughlin, in a speech decrying the loss of America to various foreigners who have taken advantage of all the good things offered, only to take jobs and generally ruin things for "the glorious republic". While the version of Black Legion is watered down from an original scripts that was more specific about religion and ethnicity, it still contains a frisson of recognition that elements of a past era are still active in the present tense. The big difference is that not only do we not have Franklin Roosevelt when we really need him, we rarely have current Hollywood films that represent even the sometimes wobbly political convictions of Jack Warner.

In an early top billed role, Humphrey Bogart plays the part of Frank Taylor, a guy who works at a machine shop. Resentful that business acumen of a younger employee trumps his seniority when the shop foreman position is open, Taylor finds an easy target for his anger for the wrong reasons. Pump up by the radio pundit, Taylor gets invited by a coworker to a meeting of a secret society. Taylor finds himself over his head, having committed himself to an organization that does not allow its members to leave, eventually costing himself his job, his family, and presumably his life.

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The first victim of the Black Legion's campaign of terror is the man Taylor feels stole "his" position as the next foreman. Dombrowski is never clearly identified, although the name suggests someone of Eastern European origin, possibly Polish. With his "big nose" constantly reading books while on break, and attending night school when not on the job, there is the unstated assumption that Dombrowski is also Jewish. Taylor temporarily gets the foreman position after Dombrowski disappears after a visit by the Black Legion. Taking a worker off the floor to enlist him in the group, Taylor causes his own job loss when his absence causes serious, and expensive, damage to some equipment. The next victim of the Black Legion is Taylor's neighbor, the man who takes over the foreman job from the now unemployed Taylor. The neighbor, Grogan, is attacked for being unmistakably Irish.

What gives Black Legion a contemporary punch is a scene shot by the uncredited Michael Curtiz. A trio of business men discuss how much money they are making from Black Legion memberships and uniforms. One of them states that they need "bigger, better patriots". Also mentioned is how selling this form of patriotism has been more financially lucrative then an oil company business that was closed for illegalities. In a scene last only a few minutes is a reminder that there is nothing new about corporate funding of Tea Party or fake grassroots organizations, only that the people doing the financing are more sophisticated and the money involved is much bigger.

The description of the political structure of the United States could well be recycled from arguments made by the Texas School Board. While the radio pundit has described the United States as a republic, Samuel Hinds, as the judge who makes a big anti-discrimination speech near the end of the film refers to the U.S. as a democracy. That kind of distinction might put certain people of rigid political persuasions in a tizzy. Otherwise, the only thing black about Black Legion are the robes worn by this mob. In an effort not to cause offense to the kind of people who probably would have been the victims of the real Black Legion, or similar organizations, the Hays office made certain that the film takes place in a world lacking the racial or cultural diversity to be found in an average "Charlie Chan" movie. Politics aside, the generally reliable Warner Brothers house director Archie Mayo keeps things moving at a good clip, with time enough for a cutsie courtship between Dick Foran and Ann Sheridan. And if that isn't enough to convince you to see Black Legion, then consider the what was written by Graham Greene: "It is an intelligent film because the director and the script-writer know where the real horror lies: the real horror is not in the black robes and skull emblems, but in the knowledge that these hide the weak and commonplace faces you have met over the counter and minding the next machine."

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Posted by peter at 12:15 AM

June 13, 2010

Coffee Break

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Mary Astor in Other Men's Women (William A. Wellman - 1931)

Posted by peter at 12:13 AM

June 10, 2010

The Blind Menace

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Shiranui Kengyo
Kazuo Mori - 1960
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

The main reason for interest regarding The Blind Menace is that the title character provided a rough template for the Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, played in a long running series of films starring Shintaro Katsu. Already present is some of the deadpan black humor of the Zatoichi series. Suginoichi is also a blind masseur, but unlike the usually upstanding, and sometimes heroic Zatoichi, is a manipulative villain. It's not so much that one roots for Suginochi as much as their is a fascination in watching this repellent character weasel his way in and out of various situations.

Suginochi is introduced as a young boy, fully aware of how to use his blindness to full advantage. Flicking a small booger into a vat of sake, the boy is able to supply is poor, appreciative mother with a large pail of the rice wine. After all, he reasons, what's a little shared dirt between family members. I don't know if there is an equivalent Japanese phrase, but Suginochi could be be described as a manipulative little snot. Another scam involves the receipt of a letter written by a relative, with a missing gift of a coin. In response to his mother's lament about the family's lack of money, Suginoichi works his way into a guild of blind money lenders, with plans to make his way to the top.

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Along the way, Suginoichi gets involved with a criminal gang, supplying them with information those who may be traveling with large amounts of cash. Suginoichi also has his way with women, by force, blackmail or outright purchase. Mostly, it is the accumulation of cash that provides motivation.

One of the most interesting scenes is a very simply done dream sequence. Suginoichi dreams of a famed young woman, the model used for a famed artist, and the subject of very popular woodblock prints. Katsu and Mieko Kondo are filmed on a bare stage, each with their own spotlight. Katsu is seated, playing the shamisen, the three stringed instrument somewhat similar to a guitar. Kondo performs what cannot truly be called a dance, but more of a series of poses. While the scene has its place in the narrative, visually it is almost an abstract, not quite experimental interlude within a generally realist framework.

Tamao Nakamura, Shintaro Katsu's wife, plays the part of an upper class woman blackmailed into having sex with Suginoichi in exchange for a much needed loan on behalf of her family. The screenwriter, Minoru Inuzuka, was instrumental in creating the screen character of Zatoichi, from the story by Kan Shimosawa. Katsu was groomed to be a star for Daiei Studios only to see his films rejected by audiences and film exhibitors until turn as Suginoichi. The use of of what would conventionally be considered a disability, coupled with the dark humor apparently resonated with viewers. A character who murders, rapes, commits blackmail and other misdeeds could not be the basis of a series, at least not one of any significant length. As a single film, though, The Blind Menace provides interest in an aspect of Japanese culture not touched on in most other period films, as well as showcasing an earlier performance by one of Japan's most unlikely stars.

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Posted by peter at 12:07 AM

June 08, 2010

Somtum

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Nontakorn Taweesuk - 2008
Big Warner All Region DVD

Somtum is a Thai movie mostly about spicy Thai food and Muay Thai boxing, sometimes simultaneously. The film also takes some of the basic premise of The Karate Kid and turns it completely on its head. Yes, you have the novice from the west learning from the Asian master. But in this case, it's seven foot tall Nathan Jones taking lesson from little Sasisa Jindamanee. Not only is Sasisa a Junior National Muay Thai champion, she's being groomed for stardom from the studio of Tony Jaa (and probably not a moment too soon, with Tony taking time off to be a Buddhist monk).

Jones portrays an Australian visitor, Barney, in the tourist town of Pattaya. Encouraged to keep drinking by one of the local bar girls, Barney wakes up to find himself with nothing but his pants. While waiting to make a police report, he is seen sitting by himself until a little girl drops her ball. Part of the humor of this film is purely visual contrasting the outsized Jones with the Thais. The little girl is clearly overwhelmed by the sight of this giant foreigner although she gradually warms up to him, falling asleep in his arms. The scene introduces Barney as not only a giant, but a very gentle giant, too gentle for his own good.

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Barney almost literally runs into a young girl Katen, running from a gang of older boys. The boys at first are intimidated by Barney when he stands, only to see him cower in fright at the sound of motorbike backfire. Another girl, Dokya, arrives at the scene to take on the boys, sometimes using the passive Barney as a prop for her kicks and leaps. Barney temporarily stays at a temple, and is later taken to visit Dokyo's mother, who runs a small beachfront restaurant. Treated to somtum, also known as Papaya salad, Barney turns beet red, and out of control, virtually knocking down the little restaurant. Taking a variety of jobs, Barney does what he can to rebuild the restaurant while waiting to get a new passport.

Dokyo also does what she can to make money, going into the ring for a boxing match with an adult fighter. And here is where cultural differences have probably kept Somtum from getting even a DVD release in the U.S. While the film is considered the equivalent to a PG rating in Asian countries, the fight scene is mostly in earnest. The MPAA, and probably a few parents, would probably feel discomfort in watching a young girl smacked several times in the face, even with boxing gloves. Dokyo leaves the ring battered, bruised and a little bloody, as well as gipped by a shady promoter who forces a tie, even when most of those attending the match let it be known who should have been named the winner.

The film descends into a live cartoon as Barney is forced to fight a gang of foreign crooks, including the seven foot tall Mark 'Conan' Stevens. At this point, the film seems to take its inspiration directly from 'Popeye', as Barney is conveniently fed somtum, turning into a raging red madman, vanquishing the bad guys and destroying a small jet plane. Dan Chupong makes a guest appearance as a policeman, with a brief scene to show off his martial arts skills. Even better is the appearance by Kessarin "Nui" Ektawatkul, a former national taekwondo champion, seen here as a toothpick chomping papaya vendor who's ready to stand her ground. Hopefully "Nui" will be seen in more films that will use her to advantage for her martial arts ability and comic presence. Both Sasisa and Nawarat Techarathanaprasert, the girl who plays Katen, will be seen in Power Kids, scheduled for DVD release soon. Somtum is the directorial debut of Nontakorn Taweesuk after fulfilling screen writing and editing for the Baa-Ram-Ewe team. Nontakorn's flair for visual comedy is quite evident, and I've never seen Thai chillies filmed so lovingly.

One additional note: This DVD version did not have English subtitles. There is enough spoken English, about a third of the dialogue, to follow most of the story, and this in no way hindered my enjoyment of this film.

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Posted by peter at 12:21 AM | Comments (1)

June 06, 2010

Coffee Break

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Vincent Gallo in Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola - 2009)

Posted by peter at 12:20 AM

June 03, 2010

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

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Mat Whitecross - 2010
Tribeca Films 35mm film

If there was such a thing as an Academy Award for best title sequence, this winner might well be Peter Blake for Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Blake, best known for the album sleeve cover for The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper", has a peppery mix of images and colors kicking off the film. That Blake did the titles for the film was based in large part because he was Ian Dury's art teacher in the mid Sixties.

It is also appropriate that Blake did the titles, as the film by Mat Whitecross is something of a collage. There is a mix of styles, and narrative threads, with spoken word performance weaving in and out with flashbacks, music performance, and straight forward film biography. One could consider the film to be an assemblage of music video styles that comprise the length, if not the general cohesiveness, of a feature length film.

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There is a moment when Dury brings up the adage about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. Even a cursory look at Ian Dury's life is enough to hint that many liberties are taken. The film is hardly hagiography either. If one is looking for something resembling a factual account of Dury's life and music, look elsewhere. And if one is only vaguely familiar with Dury, maybe having heard a couple of his singles, or not familiar with Dury at all, this film might prove frustrating. There is a vagueness about the chronology of events, as well as uncertainty about who some of the people are, as well as their relationship with Dury. Even when the film covers some of the facts, such as Dury's contracting polio at age seven, there is no mention that their was a polio epidemic in Britain in 1949. There is no sense that Dury's early band, Kilburn and the High Roads, was critically respected, if not commercially successful. A little research indicates that the pre-teen who poses in front of a shop window with Dury in the movie was actually a four years old seen on the photo cover for the album "New Boots and Panties". Accuracy is not the reason to see Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.

Instead look for a series of remarkable images and verbal jousting. The story, as such, is about a musician who finds success, well into his 30s, with his mix of chugga-chugga rock, English musical hall, and a smattering of free jazz. Off stage, Dury's life is caught between Betty, the wife he can't live with, or without, and Denise, his live-in muse. Dury also finds himself trying to make amends to his son, Baxter, haunted by the memory of his own absentee father. A young man named Chaz Jankel proves to be offer a successful musical partnership. Dury is funny and charming, when his relationships with friends, family, band members and himself are not subject to his volatility.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the best scene in the film is the one plainly shot, with no effects of any kind. Dury pays a visit to the boarding school for disabled children that he was sent to as a youth. The intervening years have indicated that the philosophy of the school is more sympathetic than it was in the Fifties, with its emphasis on conformity and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps. Some of the children Dury meets are students at Hereward College. Dury is introduced as a former student who has come to talk about being a professional musician. The children each have a a rudimentary drum kit or some form of percussion instrument. In teaching the basic elements of rhythm, Dury encourages the kids to PLAY LOUDER.

Some of the biggest grooves in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll are the lines in the face of Andy Serkis. Nominated for several acting awards for this film, Serkis has the opportunity to show to greater advantage his capabilities undisguised by CGI as in the Lord of the Ring series. Serkis may well have been nominated for his voice impersonation, singing with the most current version of The Blockheads, Dury's backup band. As Denise, Naomie Harris has never looked more beautiful than she does in this film, making me hope that she can get bigger and better roles. Director Mat Whitecross has previously worked in different capacities with Michael Winterbottom, including 9 Songs and The Shock Doctrine. There were times when I wished even a fictional version of Tony Wilson from Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People would put some of the events of the film version of Ian Dury in some sort of context.

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Posted by peter at 12:19 AM | Comments (1)

June 01, 2010

High Kick Girl!

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Hai kikku garu!
Fuyuhiko Nishi - 2009
First Look Studios Region 1 DVD

With a remake of The Karate Kid coming soon, maybe it's time to look a real karate kid. Rina Takeda is a bit older than Jaden Smith, by seven years. She also has a black belt, and not just the kind available at Sak's Fifth Avenue. For myself, I would rather watch a skinny Japanese girl who really knows how to kick ass than someone pretending in an overpriced Hollywood film.

Any resemblance to a plot in High Kick Gir!l is comparable to the structure of a porn movie, which is to say that there is a very thin story created to string along a bunch of scenes to create something feature length. Just as a porn film is primarily comprised of scenes of various kinds of meetings and matings, High Kick Girl! is a bunch of scenes of people getting together to beat the crap out of each other, using feet, hands, and the occasional weapon.

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Kei, the title character, goes around looking for black belt karate students to beat up. Her wimpy pal, who tags along, decides to recruit her with The Destroyers, a professional bunch of thugs for hire. As it turns out, they have a fifteen year grudge against Kei's teacher, Matsumura. Even though Matsumura appears to be teaching karate at an established location, none of The Destroyers can find him. It's as if the characters live in an alternative version of Tokyo, where there is no Google, or even a phone book. Kei thinks she wants to be a Destroyer until she finds out why she's wanted by the bad guys. In the meantime, we get to watch her fighting it out with a bunch of girls in sailor suit school girl uniforms, with one small girl proving herself a tough opponent.

This might have been a somewhat better film had the martial arts been filmed better. To compare, one can look at the framing of the fight scenes in Chocolate, which also feature a young, female martial arts star. Some of the impact is lost with the more improvised shooting of High Kick Girl!. Nishi also pads the film with lots of aerial shots of Tokyo. Even more obvious, every kick, crunch and thud is repeated, as well as each whoop, yell and assorted kung-fu vocalizing. Not only do we see the action twice much of the time, but Nishi also repeats the action in slo-mo and slower-mo.

On the plus side, compared to such films as Machine Girl, Nishi doesn't exploit the women in this film as some of his peers might have done. Yes, this is a Japanese film, but not the kind of Japanese film designed for guys to watch girls flash their white panties. Nishi tries to incorporate a life lesson regarding karate's purpose for self defense, but what most viewers will remember is the petite member of The Destroyers leaping over a much taller man, and kicking him in the face.

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Posted by peter at 12:36 AM