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December 30, 2011

Hunger

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Sult
Henning Carlsen - 1966
New Yorker Video Region 1 DVD

Seen forty-five years after its initial release, Hunger looks and sounds like the very definition of a mid-Sixties art film. Aside from the basic story about urban alienation, there is the stark black and white cinematography, the score by Krzysztof Komeda, sometimes discordant and atonal, and a scene of Per Oscarsson and Gunnel Lindblom alternately trying to seduce each other when not hold each other at arms length, with the kind of intimacy that English language films at the time could barely hint at. One could call Hunger an art film with a capital A. The film was Denmark's entry for the Oscar for Foreign Language Film in 1966, but didn't make the final cut. Consider also that another very serious Scandinavian film didn't make the cut either, Ingmar Bergman's Persona, and Henning Carlsen's film would be in good company.

Hunger is the film that won Per Oscarsson the Best Actor award at Cannes. Oscarsson lost weight prior to shoot, walking a distance of about 300 miles from Copenhagen to Oslo, the location of the film. And while Oscarrson never lacked for work, appearing in character roles in English language films, and starring in films in his native Sweden, he would never appear in a film that would seem to make the most of his abilities as in this film.

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Not having read Knut Hamsun's novel, I can't discuss in what ways the film honors or strays from the literary source. In opening scene, Oscarsson's character, the writer Pontus, is scribbling some notes, tears off part of a sheet of paper, and stuffs it in his mouth, almost choking himself before spitting it out. It's a scene that was improvised, but it provides a powerful visual sense of the title. There is the other kind of hunger as Pontus stares at hanging sausages, looks longingly at plates of some kind of stew (the 1890s version of a fast food meal), as well as the hunger for respect and recognition. Pontus also is in self-denial about his circumstances, literally giving away what little money he has, making up fantastic stories about his life, even when reduced to trying to sell his suit buttons for some pocket change. There are several shots of Pontus' extremely scuffed shoes to indicate his extreme poverty.

There is a sense of Oscarsson begin totally immersed in his character with the unkempt hair, the unshaven face, and especially the stained teeth. That Pontus and the woman he is obsessed with, that he calls Ylajali, briefly get together is in a conventional sense astonishing considering Pontus' lack of grooming or basic hygiene. Ylajali is an ambiguous character as well, by all appearances the resident of one of the better neighborhoods. Yet in one scene, looking at the menu of a restaurant, she and her sister agree that they can afford to treat themselves to coffee. When Ylajali tells Pontus to leave her apartment because the maid is scheduled to return, there is the possibility that it is Ylajali is the in fact the maid of the house. While never obviously stated, the film suggests that whatever attraction Ylajali may have for Pontus may be based on her own unstated appetites.

The DVD includes Henning Carlsen discussing his interest in making a film from Knut Hamsun's novel, and the various twists and turns in the production, noted also for being the first pan-Scandinavian coproduction. A different actor, Per Myrberg, was the intended star, bowing out to perform in a play directed by Ingmar Bergman. Carlsen talks about the conflicting acting styles of Oscarsson and Lindblom, actors who spoke different languages, and trying to make the film appear to take place in overcast weather during the sunniest Fall season in memory. There is also some insight to be gleaned in a discussion by writer Paul Auster and Hamsun's grand-daughter Regine Hamsun.

The main attraction is Per Oscarsson's performance. This may open the eyes of a younger audience who might only know Oscarsson as Lisbeth Salander's guardian angel, Holger Palmgren, in The Girl who Played with Fire. There is much to like about Hunger, but Oscarsson's performance is enough reason to rescue this film from its status as an almost forgotten classic.

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Posted by peter at 08:06 AM

December 28, 2011

Rickshaw Man

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Muhomatsu no issho
Hiroshi Inagaki - 1958
Toho DVD

While most of Rickshaw Man seems to indicate that Hiroshi Inagaki hasn't quite figured out how to make use of the TohoScope screen, there is one brilliant moment. The following scene is done in a single long take, in a full master shot. The rickshaw driver, Matsu, is carting a man who appears to be British, or perhaps it is a Japanese businessman dressed in the British style, complete with the bowler hat. Matsu sees the young boy, Toshio, whom he looks after on behalf of the boy's widowed mother, struggling with a kite string. Matsu stops the rickshaw, seen on the left hand side of the screen, and goes to help Toshio who is approximately in the center. While Matsu is quietly assisting Toshio unravel the kite string, we see the business man knocking the ground with his umbrella, soon hopping around the abandoned rickshaw like an angry rabbit. The scene is shot in the simplest way possible, and while it forces the viewer to glance between two points on the wide screen, it is also quite funny to watch. Were that the rest of Rickshaw Man were as good as that one scene.

The main reason for seeing Rickshaw Man is that it is the only film pairing two of Japan's golden age stars, Toshiro Mifune and Hideko Takamine. One the down side, the film is more Mifune than Takamine. And setting aside that Inagaki was never the visual stylist on the level of Kurosawa, neither is he a director of actors, too often letting Mifune worst excess dominate. Maybe the character of Matsu is mostly bluff and bluster, but too often I was thinking of the difference between John Wayne directed by John Ford in The Quiet Man compared to John Wayne as a parody of himself in something like Andrew McLaglen's McLintock!. Takamine seems to be in the film mostly for her star power, in a role that probably could have been filled as easily by any of her peers. Considering that there are so few of her films available on subtitled DVDs, it's a matter of grabbing whatever is available. Chishu Ryu appears in a couple of scenes as well. Most of the pleasure of watching these actors has less to do with their respective performances in this film than what they represent in the history of Japanese cinema.

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The film takes place initially in 1905, at the end of the war between Japan and Russia. Except for a policeman in uniform, and the one previously mentioned gentleman in modern dress, one would think that the film takes place in an earlier era. In a scene where Matsu causes a ruckus in a theater, it is explained about the change in status of rickshaw drivers, where certain considerations were part of a now forgotten tradition. Matsu encourages a young boy, egged on by his friends, to climb a tree. When the young boy hurts himself, Matsu, feeling guilty about causing the situation, takes the boy home. Refusing any form of financial compensation, Matsu takes the boy to the doctor, and develops a friendship with the boy's parents, an army officer and his wife. The officer prematurely dies, and Matsu is entrusted by the widow, Yoshiko, to act as a masculine role model for the boy, Toshio. What follows is primarily a story of unstated love between Matsu and Yoshiko.

Rickshaw Man is one of those films that works more often in spite of itself. Where Inagaki really goes wrong is the too frequent use of shots of rickshaw wheels spinning to indicate the passage of time. There is also a scene with Matsu reflecting on his life, with the flashback primarily consisting of previously seen shots seen as color negatives, almost as if the Fifty-three year old Inagaki, whose directorial career began in 1928, needed to prove he could be as avant-garde as the new kids from rival studios. Somewhat more successful is a flashback of Matsu as a boy, alone in a forest, imagining himself to be pursued by some malevolent flying spirits.

As the title indicates, this is mostly Mifune's show, and Inagaki proved himself to be compliant enough to be Mifune's director of choice in between the star's projects with Akira Kurosawa, and after his final break with the star filmmaker. Kurosawa may have been a hard taskmaster, but he also brought out a range in Mifune that isn't as apparent in other films. No sword fights here, but Mifune gets to show his "musical" talents, beating on a giant drum, demonstrating different kinds of percussive beats. Inagaki goes a bit wild here with a series of quick panning shots of the admiring audience, and a visual non sequitur of ocean waves. Rickshaw Man was one of six films starring Mifune in 1958, a year that included Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. Hideko Takamine would not make another film until 1960 with what some consider a signature role in Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.

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Posted by peter at 08:56 AM

December 26, 2011

The Reluctant Debutante

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Vincente Minnelli - 1958
Warner Archives DVD

I don't know why it took me so long, but I just realized that both of Vincente Minnelli's films from 1958 centered on preparing young women for their "introduction" as it were, to society, or at least a specific society. Gigi is the film with the box office and Oscar glory, but I prefer the less appreciated The Reluctant Debutante. What I mostly like are the two female stars, Kay Kendall and Sandra Dee.

There is one great shot of the two actresses together. They are listening to young drummer John Saxon tell about his time in Africa, recounting his witnessing of a tribal wedding dance. Both women are wide eyed. Dee looks on in fascination, while Kendall looks on in shock. That they are able to express themselves with their eyes only, without the need to verbally explain their feelings, is both tribute to their abilities as well as that of Vincente Minnelli.

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In retrospect, it seems fitting that Kay Kendall and Sandra Dee would be in a film together as neither had the opportunity to fully manifest their respective talents. Kendall made one more film - the title is painfully ironic as Kendall had died in 1959 of leukemia at age 33. My favorite moments with Kendall involve her falling out the door, discovered eavesdropping on Rex Harrison and Sandra Dee. Between the pratfalls in this film, and her seemingly impromptu turn on the trumpet in Genevieve, I always felt that had she been given the opportunity, Kay Kendall could have excelled in a role calling on physical comedy.

As for Sandra Dee, I suspect that she is primarily dismissed by people who haven't bothered to actually watch any of the films. I also think Dee's signing on with Universal at a time when the studio system was crumbling may have hindered her potential. Still, whatever was involved in the casting process, Dee is good when she worked with good directors. The high point is A Summer Place, especially a strong scene when Dee is force to undergo an unwanted and unneeded gynecological exam following a chaste night with Troy Donahue. A hint of what was to come a year later is in a scene in The Reluctant Debutante when Dee fights off the unwanted advances of a would be suitor. Maybe it was her age, and perhaps she was playing off of her own emotions, but Sandra Dee could make the plight of a misunderstood teenage girl as real as anything done by any method actor.

As for the film itself, the years have made London society and debutante balls seem more remote. This is a world where men dress in tuxedos and the women wear long gowns. There is a brief tourist eye view of the changing of the guard, but otherwise everything takes place either in the apartment home of Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall, or in a ballroom. Only in a shot of a tea room is there a glimpse of multi-culti London with some Indians also enjoying their afternoon tea. If I place what may seem like inordinate emphasis on that shot, it reflects Vincente Minnelli's own world view of racial inclusiveness which would extend to his films where possible. While the story ends with the American in London girl, Sandra Dee, dancing the night away with the American in London boy, John Saxon, the final shot has some poignancy as the last screen kiss of onscreen and real life husband and wife, Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall.

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Kay Kendall, Rex Harrison and Vincente Minnelli

Posted by peter at 08:15 AM

December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

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Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg - 2009)

Posted by peter at 08:07 AM

December 22, 2011

Norwegian Wood

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Noruwei no mori
Tran Anh Hung - 2010
Soda Pictures Region 2 DVD

Probably the biggest problem with translating Haruki Murakami's novel into a film is that it is bursting with imagery. And the film that I imagined wasn't the film that Tran Anh Hung made. Which in turn leads to the questions of what is a filmmaker's responsibility when adapting a novel to film, and also what should the expectations be of the audience, especially those who have read the source novel.

If you haven't read Murakami's novel, I can't recommend it enough. It is, of the several novels I have read by him, his most conventional in structure and most realistic. A look back at the end of the Sixties, it is about a young man, Watanabe, trying to navigate his way though the turmoil of the times, with student protests and concurrent cultural shifts, and his personal relationships from the past. Those past relationships are in the form of his best friend, Kizuki, who committed suicide during their last year of high school for no apparent reason, and Kikuchi's girl friend, Naoko, who unexpectedly shows up in Tokyo, where Watanabe is now studying. Losing her virginity to Watanabe on the night of her 20th birthday, Naoko's attachment to the memory of Kizuki is so great that she withdraws from life, living in a secluded psychiatric facility in the mountains. Watanabe attracts the attention of Midori, a fellow student who's willing to give Watanabe the space to figure a few things out for himself.

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The title is from the Beatles' song, perhaps chosen by Murakami because its brief narrative is about an awkwardly handled relationship. What the film doesn't convey, and what makes Murakami's novels fun to read, are the loaded cultural references. Not just music, but also the many literary references. There is a very nice passage in the novel, relayed in the first person by Watanabe, about bonding with a friend over their share enthusiasm for F. Scott Fitzgerald. For me, the biggest loss in the film version of Norwegian Wood was the lack of cultural references, especially knowing that when I went to college at about the same time that the film takes place, all we would talk about is film, literature and music, especially music.

Even though the film comes across as a stripped down version of the novel, there are still reasons to appreciate what's on the screen. It is also worth remarking that the film stands as a very coherent work considering it was made by an international cast and crew, under the direction of French-Vietnamese Tran. Barely speaking above a whisper, Rinko Kikuchi, is who imagined as Naoko. Kikuchi has never failed to command audience attention, especially since her role in Babel, and convinces as a younger woman, just out of her teens, totally vulnerable, only able to protect herself by withdrawing into a shell that offers little protection. The other nice discovery is Asian-American model Kiko Mizuhara as Midori, with her expressive eyes and full lips. As can be expected from his previous work, cinematographer Mark Lee is unerring in his choice of compositions. Certainly, if the opportunity arises, see this film theatrically, but one of the highlights of the "Making of" DVD supplement shows Lee setting up an elaborate tracking shot in the snow. For a film with the title of a Beatles' song, much of the period music is from Can, with also a Doors' song, "Indian Summer", all integrated with a score composed by Jonny Greenwood, that ranges from guitar solos to full orchestral soundtrack. For those interested, I very much also recommend another adaptation of Haruki Murakami, Jun Ichikawa's film of Tony Takitani.

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Posted by peter at 07:46 AM

December 20, 2011

Things I Don't Understand

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Molly Ryman

David Spaltro - 2011


I'm in a bit of an unusual situation here, writing about a film isn't readily available to be seen publicly. You might not be able to see Things I Don"t Understand at any theater remotely near you. If you are lucky, you might be able to see this film at one of the better film festivals, one that doesn't have the words "Sun" or "Dance" in their name.

Unlike what sometimes passes for independent films, Things isn't chock full of the kind of quirky characters that seem to only exist in movies, nor is it the work of someone clueless regarding where to place a camera. Most of the characters are original enough that they had their own foibles, yet I didn't feel like they existed in some alternate universe. One of the reasons I disliked Blue Valentine is because I could never believe that scene where Michelle Williams is tap dancing outdoors to the song, "You Always Hurt the One You Love".

The best reason to see Things is for Grace Folsom's performance as Sara, a young woman with cancer. Sharp and sarcastic, never for a moment allowing anyone to feel sorry for her, yet revealing her own vulnerabilities near the end, this is one great character and performance. What makes Folsom's performance more remarkable is that most of her acting is from the neck up, while sitting in a wheel chair or in bed. It's in her eyes, her facial expressions, her voice. Hopefully others will take notice.

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Grace Folsom

We discover Sara through Violet, the film's main character, a graduate student who attempts to find meaning for herself by chronicling the near death experiences of others. What begins as research evolves into a bonding experience that forces Violet to confront aspects of herself during the course of her friendship with Sara. While most of the film is centered on Violet, her two artist roommates, and the young bartender that she may, or may not, be in love with, it is the scenes of Violet and Sara that comprise the heart and soul of David Spaltro's film.

Even though Spaltro takes on the big subjects of life and death, it's neither grim nor pretentious here. There is one very funny scene of a feminist performance piece going disastrously and hilariously wrong, and the brief moment when Violet, played by Molly Ryman, wakes up from a night of too much dreaming, with the look of horror when she discovers she did not go to bed alone. The only "name" actor here is Lisa Eichhorn, seen here as Violet's psychiatrist. Those of us with long memories best recall Ms. Eichhorn from Yanks and Cutter's Way.

One hope that as the 2012 film festival season gets underway, that David Spaltro's new film will be given the kind of showcase it deserves, and the kind of consideration more high profile films are given at year's end.

Posted by peter at 07:18 AM

December 18, 2011

Coffee Break

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Robert Young and Claudette Colbert in I Met Him in Paris (Wesley Ruggles - 1937)

Posted by peter at 08:53 AM

December 15, 2011

Rider on the Rain

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Le passager de la pluie
Rene Clement - 1970
Optimum Home Entertainment Region 2 DVD

At one point in Rider on the Rain, Marlene Jobert tells Charles Bronson that he has a smile like a Cheshire cat. The description is apt as most of their relationship is of a cat toying with a little white mouse. Also, the film begins with a quote from Alice in Wonderland, with Jobert's character plunging down a rabbit hole of troubling past memories and a mystery that's over her head.

Bronson's smile is simultaneously friendly and threatening, insinuating himself on Jobert, first spying on her as a wedding guest at a church, dancing with her at the wedding party, and making mention of facts that should be unknown to anyone. This cat plays a series of games of catch and release with his presumed prey. Even when the mystery of how Bronson's character is revealed, what is never explained is why his real object of pursuit, the title character, showed up in the small seacoast town in the first place.

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Rene Clement and writer Sebastian Japrisot pay light tribute to John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock, with Bronson as the mysterious stranger, Dobbs, and another character named McGuffin. Marlene Jobert plays the woman, Mellie, short for Melancholy, who first spots the rider, a stern bald man clutching a small red bag. That the rider is never actually seen stepping of the bus that normally doesn't stop through the small town, but appears as the bus leaves adds to the mystery of his presence, as does his walking through the rain storm towards some unknown destination in the otherwise empty town. Ultimately, Clement and Japrisot are more interested in Dobbs and Mellie than they are in the person who inadvertently brought them together.

I usually don't talk about clothing in film, but one of the visual constants in Rider on the Rain is that Mellie is seen only wearing white, white mini-dresses and a white raincoat. The she is wearing white clothing, with lengths well above her knees, there is the simultaneous projection of innocence and sexuality. Even though Mellie is a married woman, the white dresses almost make her appear as a bride. In a way these conflicting images are fitting for someone who is both the possessor of certain knowledge and at the same time someone who puts herself in danger due to mistaken assumptions. There is a running gag involving the throwing of walnuts against glass windows that indicates if someone may be in love. While the relationship between Mellie and Dobbs remains chaste, the sexual tension is apparent from the moment that the two meet.

The Optimum DVD comes with both the original French language version and a somewhat shorter English language version. Even dubbed in French, Charles Bronson's presence is unmistakable. The film was made at a time between the end of the Sixties and beginning of the Seventies, when Bronson was a bigger star in Europe than in the U.S., where he was mostly relegated to supporting roles or television guest shots. There is one scene where Bronson demonstrates his physicality, getting into a fight with a bunch of gangsters, but mostly this is a more thoughtful person who can simply look intimidating and still get his way. According to IMDb, Bronson wanted to revisit the character of Dobbs over ten years later, although that project never came to fruition. Bronson had collaborated with writer Japrisot previously on the film, Farewell, Friend, against top billed Alain Delon. Rider on the Rain also features Bronson's wife, Jill Ireland, in a small role of Nicole, the owner of a dress store, Mellie's best friend, and a woman with some secrets of her own.

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Posted by peter at 08:43 AM

December 13, 2011

Don't Open Till Christmas

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Edmund Purdom - 1984
Mondo Macobro All Region DVD

The most fascinating part about Don't Open Till Christmas is the "Making of" supplement. What makes this of interest is that there are bits of deleted scenes and a scrapped song, suggesting that there could have been alternative versions of the film. The song, a vocal by an unknown female, has lyrics about being insane, and actually is pretty good, better than much of the pop vocals one would usually find in a low budget horror film. One of the scenes involves some rats who are actually fatter than most of the guys wearing Santa Claus outfits. Another scene, that didn't quite work out, had one of the victims electrocuted by Christmas lights. There is also one scene that was reshot with different actors, although why that scene needed to be redone is never explained. It's to Mondo Macabro's credit that no one tries to disguise the fact that no matter what was originally intended, Don't Open Till Christmas is in their words "a patchwork".

This bit of cinematic Christmas cheese is a holiday themed slasher movie, based in London, with the victims all men in Santa Claus suits. The killer, as a young lad, saw Mommy schtupping Santa Claus. Variety being the spice of life, the killer employs various means each time - gun, straight razor, knife, garrote, among other implements. That's not chestnuts roasting in an open fire, it's Santa's face!

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The best scene in the film, and one that almost appears to have been inserted from another movie, was shot on location at The London Dungeon. Santa is chased around by the unknown killer, surrounded by various displays of horror, torture, depravity and some brazen sexuality. If I ever visit London, I'm going to visit this place. It's not that the scene is any more suspenseful, as much as it is more elaborate and more atmospheric. I can't say for certain, but I'm assuming this was one of the parts of the film not directed by Edmund Purdom.

For those too young for the name to mean anything, Edmund Purdom's Hollywood star shone as bright and as long as a Forth of July sparkler. For overviews of Purdom;s career, there is this fairly respectful obituary, and a view that further explains the unintended humor to be found in his films. Purdom probably shouldn't have taken all the blame for the failures of the films he was expected to carry, and the guy was nothing, if not tenacious enough to make a lifelong career of acting, taking what appeared to be anything that came his way, big or small, big budget or no budget. As it turned out, Purdom's one shot at directing turned out to be so bad that even though he is given solo credit, about half of the released film was actually shot by Alan Birkenshaw under the name of Al McGoohan, given screen credit for writing and directing additional scenes.

Caroline Munro appears briefly to strut her stuff, and show off her singing ability, cut shot when a dead Santa appears on stage. One of the other DVD supplements covers the career of producer Dick Randall, the kind of show biz character from a time when movies could be made for a few dollars and lots of promises.

Don't Open Till Christmas is more curio than classic. Drink enough spiked egg nog and I'm certain several of the plot holes and incongruities will be easily overlooked, providing the viewer a mildly scary little Christmas.

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Posted by peter at 09:40 AM

December 11, 2011

Coffee Break

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Nina Hoss in Jerichow (Christian Petzold - 2009)

Posted by peter at 09:38 AM | Comments (1)

December 08, 2011

Turning Gate

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Saenghwalui balgyeon
Hong Sang-soo - 2002
YA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

A line repeated three times in Turning Gate is, "Even though it's difficult to be a human being, let's not turn into monsters." It's a line that is initially mocked by the main character when he first hears it, only to be repeated by him to the two women with whom he has thorny relationships.

It's not just difficult to be a human being, but often times awkward. Turning Gate is a movie about things said and unsaid, and the conversations between people that take often substitute for meaningful dialogue. While riding in the back of a cab, Kyung-soo receives a phone call from Sung-woo. It takes a few moments for Kyung-soo to realize who he is talking to, as the two men have been out of touch for about five years. Having just been told that his anticipated acting job will not happen, and with nothing else planned, Kyung-soo goes to spend time at the small town outside of Seoul where Sung-woo lives. The relationship between the two men is cemented by eating and drinking, but little else. For the two men, about 30 years old, there is not much else going in their lives as Kyung-soo's acting career is stalled, and there is no evidence regarding Sung-woo's description of himself as a writer.

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What limited fame Kyung-soo has as an actor is parlayed, with mixed results, with with his relationship with women. Sung-woo introduces Kyung-soo to Myung-suk, a dance teacher. While the three get together for dinner and many bottles of beer, Sung-woo steps outside for a moment. Myung-suk invites Kyung-soo to kiss, to "break the ice" between them. The invitation is expressed in a fragmented sentence, and to kiss, the two need to contort themselves with the small dining table between them. The two get together, spending the night in a hotel. For whatever physical passion is expressed, Myung-suk also declares her love of Kyung-soo, a feeling not reciprocated. Not only is Myung-suk angry that Kyung-soo is not in love, but her attempt as revenge, a night with Sung-woo, fails to elicit any jealousy.

While riding on the train back to Seoul, Kyung-soo strikes up a conversation with another passenger, Sun-young. Gradually, Sun-young reveals that she has seen Kyung-soo on stage. Kyung-soo gets off the train before reaching Seoul, to follow Sun-young to her home. Even when the two get together, it becomes clear that a real relationship will probably never happen.

The title comes from a legendary gate serves as a tourist attraction. The actual gate is never seen, and reportedly doesn't turn either. The legend is that a commoner, in love with a princess, was transformed into a snake that wrapped itself around the princess. The princess was free only when she departed at the gate to get food for the snake. The princess never returned. The legend is one that may well be incompletely told. Hong's film chronicles a series of unkept promises of return, of love and relationships that prove to be one-sided.

There is some kind of color scheme that takes place that I cannot explain. Sun-woo gives Kyung-soo a red t-shirt which is worn through the rest of the film. The same shade of red appears at various points in the film. There is a similar use of color noticeable when Sun-young wears a camel color jacket contrasted against other shades of light brown. Again, I can't point out any kind of specific meaning to the use of color other than that Hong manages to sneak in a painterly visual scheme to some of the shots.

The lives of the characters turn no more than the gate. The four either wait for something, or someone, to change their lives, or simply choose not to leave a life that may be unsatisfying, but also comforting in its familiarity. In the case of Kyung-soo, no matter where he goes, or what he does, his life is one of getting caught in the rain.

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Posted by peter at 08:00 AM

December 06, 2011

Point Blank (2010)

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A bout portant
Fred Cavaye - 2010
Magnolia Pictures Region 1 DVD

Yes, I've read the grumbling of those who think only one film can have a title, and understand their point of view, and yes, I've seen and loved the John Boorman film of the same title. Still, as far as I'm concerned, this newish French film could well have been titled Breathless.

The first shot of the film comes like an unexpected punch in the gut and doesn't really let up. There's a little bit of space between the action and suspense to help tug the story along, but with a running time of less than an hour and a half, there's no dawdling, no padding of running time. And whether you want to call this film by its English language title or not, it's still a good thriller by any name.

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A guy, clutching his stomach crashes into a metal wall, and is chased by two other guys with guns. The running guy, Hugo, runs into a tunnel and, whamo, gets hit by a motorcycle. Hospitalized, Hugo is almost killed by someone dressed as a doctor. The male nurse, Samuel, who saves Hugo gets beat up by some intruders who kidnap his very pregnant wife, Nadia. Samuel gets in over his head making all sorts of bad decisions in his attempt to rescue his Nadia, more so because the Cavaye deliberately makes things unclear until near the end. Suffice to say that there are some good bad guys and some very bad bad guys. And this is one of those few times when I truly wasn't certain what would happen next.

Cavaye's debut feature, Pour Elle was remade by Paul Haggis as The Next Three Days. I'd certainly like to see Cavaye's film. Cavaye was previously a fashion photographer, but what he has here is a stripped down visual style that doesn't call attention to itself, concentrating on the story. There is no wasteful imagery, no need to underline anything, but it does demand that you pay attention to what's happening on the screen. The action takes place in the Paris of someone who knows the city so well that any of the usual tourist sites are avoided. This may reflect an idealistic viewpoint, looking beyond race and gender with the mix of characters, and having the protagonist be a male nurse. Maybe having Samuel caught between Hugo, with his stomach wound, and Nadia, who's about to give birth at any moment, is too much of a parallel setup. What works better is the integration of how electronic communications are used, especially in a very surprising, and sometimes amusing, set piece. Having worked with images as a photographer, Cavaye reminds us that no matter what we are looking at, we may not be seeing the full story.

Posted by peter at 08:00 AM | Comments (4)

December 04, 2011

Coffee Break

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Maria Onetto in The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel - 2008)

Posted by peter at 08:17 AM

December 01, 2011

10,000 Ways to Die

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Hellbenders (Sergio Corbucci - 1967)

10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western
Alex Cox - 2009
Kamera Books

The Good: A chronological look at Italian westerns, as well as a few similar films of the same period, with discussions of some unfamiliar, but very intriguing titles.

The Bad: Discussing a producer making two films from the same novel, Cox writes, "Why does a producer do such things? Why does a dog lick his balls? Because he can.".

The Ugly: Not that I'm a fan of IMDb, but Cox gets some basic facts wrong, like attributing Joe Kidd to 20th Century-Fox, when it was produced by Universal.

For myself, I was a little slow in discovering spaghetti westerns. My first exposure was For a Few Dollars More at a drive-in. This was definitely the "Summer of Love" for me, and I wasn't paying attention to what was happening on the screen.

Like others, I thought that the only films worth watching were by Sergio Leone. My first film was Once Upon a Time in the West. I caught up with the Dollar trilogy later. I also wrote a review of Duck, You Sucker! for the University of Colorado newspaper that supposedly boosted that film's run from one week to two. The only other films I recall seeing theatrically were Death Rides a Horse and My Name is Nobody, which I saw twice in two different double features.

The range of films that Alex Cox writes about range from the mostly good and great, to some bad, and some ugly. Where he brings his own experience as a filmmaker has more to do with the performance of the film actors. There is some discussion of the visual aspects, as when he describes one film as being lit like a television comedy. Most of the films analyzed were made between 1963 through 1969, with a few titles from the Seventies. Cox outlines the narrative, followed by his thoughts about both what happens on screen, and various aspects of the making of the film.

From a historical perspective, what are most valuable are the essays on the inspirations for the Italian western, including a look at the writings of Dashiell Hammett, Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks. and Akira Kurosawa's period films. Cox also discusses at length the ways in which Sergio Leone helped upend the Hays Code, as well as the give and take between Hollywood and the Italian filmmakers. Cox also humorously includes quotes to begin each chapter, including those by Burt Kennedy and Jean-Pierre Melville bemoaning the popularity of the then popular genre. Cox is one who capable of simultaneously embracing both John Ford and the directors named Sergio.

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Fernando Rey, Iris Berben and Tomas Milian in Companeros (Sergio Corbucci - 1970)

As for the films themselves, some of the are available on DVD, some good, some bad, some very ugly. More often then not in cut, English dubbed versions. Best of all, but also frustrating, is to read about some of the less celebrated films that might require further research, and possible bootleg versions, for possible viewing. Among the more obscure, for me, films is Carlo Lizzani's Requiescant, with Pier Paolo Pasolini as a priest. There's also the Shakespeare inspired Johnny Hamlet. Cox also writes about a film, Closed Circuit, a murder mystery where the person sitting in a certain theater seat may have been shot dead by an onscreen cowboy.

Cox puts in a few words about a couple of his own films, as well as his own assessments of various actors and directors. Clint Eastwood is a notable target for Cox's barbs as both actor and filmmaker. On the other hand, Cox delights in the performances of Klaus Kinski, an actor infamous for putting down most of his own work. The title, by the way, is inspired by a line from John Webster's play, The Duchess of Malfi. Cox spends some time comparing Italian westerns with Elizabethan era plays, both as popular entertainment and for the often violent stories. Best of all, what Cox accomplishes, as any good cinema book should do, is make you want to see films you might not have thought of seeing before.

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Dennis Weaver and James Garner in A Man called Sledge (Vic Morrow - 1970)

Posted by peter at 08:30 AM | Comments (2)