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April 29, 2012

Coffee Break

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Elizabeth Sellars in Recoil (John Gilling - 1953)

Posted by peter at 08:38 AM

April 27, 2012

East Meets West

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Dung sing sai tsau 2011
Jeff Lau - 2011
Kam & Ronson Region 3 DVD

If any filmmaker is as obsessed about hair even more than Alfred Hitchcock poking the lens into Kim Novak's coiffure, it would be Jeff Lau. It's not just the flamboyant styles of several of his characters. Several shots are of the back of Karen Mok and Eason Chan's heads. When Mok and Chan first meet, scissor are whipped out with Chan providing Mok with a new do.

I couldn't begin to tell you what East Meets West was about. There is some story about seven good immortals and one that is evil, meeting again in this lifetime. There's also the Cantopop group, The Wynners, reuniting, with Kenny Bee rescued from his current career as the world's least scary amusement park zombie. There is also talk about body temperature and love at first sight, and a few quotations from William Shakespeare. The Chinese call this "nonsense comedy". I like to think of it as being a contemporary equivalent to the kind of comedies Hollywood use to make with the Marx Brothers at their peak, or something along the lines of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, W. C. Field's last movie which is virtually a series of visual non-sequiturs barely held together by an astoundingly incoherent narrative. Rather than frustrating one's self with logic or even the need to catch up with the fast and furious subtitles, it's better just to give in the film's many visual pleasures.

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Second only to the hair are the loving shots of Karen Mok's legs. Skinny, but still shapely. Not tall, only 5 foot, six inches. Still, if I'm going to hear that musical cliche called Pachelbel's "Canon in D", I'd rather hear it while watching Mok's slender stems bathed in golden light. Sure, the film is loaded with other Hong Kong stars, but East Meets West mostly belongs to Mok who runs, flies and basically takes over every scene she's in.

For those unfamiliar with recent Hong Kong movies or pop culture, East Meets West may prove baffling. Aside from Kenny Bee basically playing a parody of himself, Lau loads the film with verbal and visual references to other movies, including those he's produced for Wong Kar-wai and Stephen Chow. At one point, a mob's shouts consists of Hong Kong movie titles. And while several Cantopop songs are used, notably The Wynner's big hit, "Sha La La", Lau teasingly uses The Turtles' "Happy Together" when gangsters are chasing after Bee and Mok. The perfect DVD would include running subtitles to point out the various references. One the other hand, no translation or explanation is needed to laugh at the sight of Kenny Bee with an oversized Elvis pompadour.

The Chinese title translates as "Anything is possible" which pretty much sums up what goes on here. Of the Jeff Lau films that I've seen, it isn't as inspired as Eagle Shooting Heroes, the parody of Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time, which Lau also produced, made with most of the same cast members. Talk about eye candy- the film might be described as having the visual qualities of a multi colored popsicle. The heart of the film, both literal and metaphorically, is revealed at the end, giving a bit of substance to this overabundance of style.

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Posted by peter at 08:19 AM

April 25, 2012

SuckSeed!

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SuckSeed: Huay Khan Thep
Chayanop Boonprakob - 2011
Cai Chang Region 3 DVD

All I'm going to say about the title is that it reflects the sometimes idiosyncratic usage of English that I've come across while I was in Thailand, and one of the characters also explains why he's chosen it for the name of his rock band.

And while SuckSeed! is not the Thai equivalent to A Hard Day's Night, it is, by turns both funny and charming. At the heart of the film is the unrealized affection between Ped and Ern. The two form a friendship as schoolchildren. Ped, a very shy boy, is challenged to create a song for his class. Ern, with parents who run a record store, introduces Ped to rock music just days before leaving Chiang Mai to live in Bangkok. Jump ahead six years later, and Ern, now an attractive teenager, has returned to Chiang Mai to finish up high school. Ped, more or less on impulse, decides to form a rock band with his pals Koong and Ex. Ern, who has played with high school bands previously, is invited to join the group. Complicating things are Ped's continued shyness around Ern, and Koong's infatuation with Ern and his sibling rivalry with twin brother Kay, a more accomplished musician with his own band.

The film is divided into three time periods of 2000, 2006 - when most of the film takes place, and 2011, when the main characters reunite. There is a break from the live action, given over to an animated section where Koong explains the meaning of SuckSeed. The drawings look pretty much like what you'd expect from a high school age boy, scribbling in his notebook, an indication that some things don't change that much over generations or cultures. Given the opportunity, I would imagine western high school kids enjoying this film.

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One of the funnier recurring motifs is the use of Thai rock bands to act as a kind of Greek chorus. Where most films settle for using a song to express the inner feelings of a character, Chayanop has the singers appear on film for comic effect. Showing up at various points are the bands Bodyslam, So Cool, as well as solo turns by Anon Saisangcharn, and Ekarat Wongcharat, the lead singer from Big Ass. As such, these musical interludes also help serve as an entertaining introduction to Thai rock music. It could be that Chayanop was inspired by the those scenes in Rock and Roll High School where Joey Ramone suddenly appears in the most unlikely places to serenade P. J. Soles.

The film was shot in and around Chiang Mai, with a few setting recognizable from my time there. The battle of the high school rock bands, the Hot Wave Music Awards, is an actual music competition that has served as the launching pad for several popular Thai rock bands. SuckSeed! is also one of the rare Thai comedies that was popular with both critics and audiences. That this is also Chayanop's first feature indicates another reason to pay attention to the future of Thai cinema. Especially at a time when Thai films are little seen, save for a few martial arts films, SuckSeed! serves as a reminder that there is more to Thai cinema than meets most westerners eyes. Few new Thai films are available as subtitled DVDs, and like this, are made for the Chinese language market. Without getting to pedantic about it, this is a film recommended both for the Asian film scholar and the rock film aficionado.

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

April 23, 2012

Let the Bullets Fly (Again)

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Rang zidan fei
Jiang Wen - 2010
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

What? You think I'm going to send back the new DVD/BD set of what will probably be counted as one of the best foreign films of 2012?

Most of what I have to say coincided with the theatrical release at the beginning of March. And if you haven't seen Let the Bullets Fly yet, you have no excuse now. I watched the English dubbed version this time. And while it is jarring to listen to Jiang Wen, Chow Yun-Fat and the others in English, it does allow for better attention to the visuals. To some extent, the various narrative threads are easier to follow as well.

Jiang recently was honored as Best Director by the Chinese Directors Guild, along with the film as Best Picture. The very popular "everyman", Ge You, won for Best Actor. Not that awards are always the most accurate gauge of a film's worth, but this is an example of getting it right. Just don't be surprised if you see Jiang's film on a few U.S. critics lists at the end of 2012.

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Posted by peter at 08:26 AM

April 22, 2012

Coffee Break

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Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde in Road House (Jean Negulesco - 1948)

Posted by peter at 08:10 AM

April 19, 2012

Gunman in the Streets

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Frank Tuttle - 1950
Allday Entertainment Region 1 DVD

"In the middle drawer are pictures of me in nude . . . at age 2." And so Simone Signoret teases the detective looking for an escaped convict, as well as the audience. Signoret is not exactly a femme fatale in this film. As repeated by her and the convict, played by Dane Clark, everybody is playing out their predestined roles.

Gunman is in the Streets bears a strange history as the English language version of a film that was shot with essentially the same cast in a French language version with a different director as La Traque. A somewhat cut version played in Britain and Canada, but never in the United States. There are several probable reasons why the film never got a U.S. release. At the time, director Frank Tuttle, a former member of the Communist party, was dodging the blacklist. Tuttle later named names, notably Jules Dassin, and made three more films in Hollywood before retiring. Dane Clark's star was on the wane, before settling to a career of guest shots on television. While Simone Signoret had appeared in a couple of English language films prior to Gunman in the Streets, it would be several years before her Oscar winning turn in Room at the Top.

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What may have put off potential stateside distributors is the Gunman in the Streets was, by the standards of the time, a rough film. Clark kicks a wounded cop, socks Signoret in the jaw, leaves an informer to inhale the fumes of a gas stove, and does some self-surgery, removing a bullet from his upper arm. In a bit of grim humor, Clark regales the informer, an antique dealer of ambiguous motives and sexuality, with how he almost got burned alive in the police van, shooting his way out. The posters for the film tried to sell Clark's character, an army deserter turned holdup man, into someone in the tradition of the film and real life gangster of the Thirties - "Dillinger, Little Caesar, Scarface, Capone". Clark's Eddie Roback might be as nasty, if not nastier, but he lacks the charisma of his cinematic predecessors.

Eugen Schufftan has some very adoring shots of Signoret. One fantastic image is a close up with Signoret holding a very large wine glass in front of her lips. There is also the beautiful shot of Signoret, hearing the whistle of a train, that sounds almost like a scream, knowing that she has lost her final chance to get away from Clark. A good part of the film was shot at night in the streets of Paris. Some point of view shots of when Clark and Signoret drive much too fast on a foggy night through a wooded back road, must have made for tense viewing on the big screen. Signoret was game enough to run barefoot through the streets of a small French town near the Belgian border during the final sequence.

While the film on the DVD is the complete version, it's hardly pristine, as if no one bothered to clean up the print. The stray hairs, scratches and such might be considered a blemish by some, although I thought they added to a seedy kind of charm. Even with Joe Hajos wonderfully sad and dreamy score, this is the kind of film that would have been best seen in a worn second run theater on the cheap, rather than a first run picture palace.

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Posted by peter at 08:21 AM

April 17, 2012

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

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Alex Stapleton - 2011
Anchor Bay Enetertainment Region 1 DVD

I wasn't expecting to learn anything new about Roger Corman. I've been following his career on and off for almost fifty years. I wrote about Corman almost six years ago for a blogathon instigated by Tim Lucas. I had purposely not seen any previous documentaries on Roger Corman because I figured that as I had seen most of the films he's directed, read most of the anecdotes, and in some cases personally knew some of the people who began their own filmmaking careers with Corman, that there was little incentive to revisit familiar ground. My main reason for seeing Corman's World is that aside from being the most recent documentary on Roger Corman, it has become the most publicized of the bunch. But it does raise a couple of questions.

One of Roger Corman's claimed pet projects was a film about Civil War general Robert E. Lee. One of the stories I recall was that Corman couldn't get financing because the unnamed studio thought the proposed budget was too low. I have to wonder why Corman never took his own money to make the film. Was he that gun shy after mortgaging his house to produce The Intruder, one of his few financial failures? It's something not mentioned in Corman's World, and a question I think worth asking.

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There is also a nice little anecdote from Polly Platt, who also was one of the executive producers of this film. It's only been in retrospect that the best things in a Peter Bogdanovich film were often due to Platt's collaboration with her then-husband. At the time of their divorce though, while Bogdanovich was still feted as a top young filmmaker, it took a while for Platt to be recognized for her talents. Apparently Roger Corman had extended an invitation to Platt to direct a film. I don't know what Corman might have had in mind, but I would like to think that he would allow Platt to make a film closer to the artistry of Jeanne Moreau's directorial debut, Lumiere, which Corman brought to U.S. screens, than films made by such Corman alumni as Stephanie Rothman, Barbara Peeters and Amy Jones, which managed to have some kind of feminist message tuck in between shots of women displaying their hooters. Maybe Platt felt more comfortable being in more supportive film production positions, but I wish she had taken up that invitation to direct at least one movie herself.

There is also Penelope Spheeris mentioning that a younger generation of film aficionados don't know about Roger Corman. I would assume some truth to that in some message boards from people who couldn't understand why Corman received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. And while the Oscar was probably a kind of tribute to someone who gave early opportunities to a significant number of people who became Academy Award nominees and winners themselves, whatever one thinks of the films Corman himself directed, many are still fun to watch.

There's also an unintended wistfulness to this documentary in that several people interviewed have recently passed. Including Ms. Platt, there is also George Hickenlooper, David Carradine and Irvin Kershner. To the best of my knowledge, Kershner was the first of the university trained filmmakers to get his start with Corman with Stakeout on Dope Street. The big news was hearing that once upon a time, the then unknown Kershner was also working in theater, and that he directed a production of He Who gets Slapped starring an equally unknown Jack Nicholson. Jack sits back to tell stories about his time with Corman as actor and writer. Corman is shown at home and on the set of Dinocroc, possibly the most energetic octogenarian on the planet. For those who still have no idea who Roger Corman is, take the hour and a half to see the DVD. For the rest of us, there may be bits to glean, but even better are to see the films themselves.

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Posted by peter at 08:45 AM | Comments (1)

April 15, 2012

Coffee Break

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Spencer Tracy and Ketti Gallian in Marie Galante (Henry King - 1934)

Posted by peter at 08:19 AM

April 12, 2012

Derby, Baby!: A Story of Love, Addiction and Rink Rash

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Robin Bond & David Wruck - 2012
Robin Bond Media

I still have yet to see Roller Derby live. And that I love movies, both narrative and documentary, about Roller Derby, is something I can't explain about myself, nor do I think it necessary to justify such mysteries. But I jumped at the chance to see this newest documentary, currently making the rounds of film festivals.

Unlike Hell on Wheels, which I covered five years ago, Derby, Baby! tries to cover a lot of ground in a small amount of time. What may be the best reason to see this film is that it provides some historical context, presenting a brief history of Roller Derby from its introduction during Depression era America, to its time as a staple of early broadcast television. The living link to the history of Roller Derby is Jerry Seltzer, son of the founder of Roller Derby, providing stories of his father, discussing the changes over the years, and popping up at various events. One of the more eye opening bits of information is that Roller Derby founder Leo Seltzer created the rules, still pretty much in place, with Damon Runyon. What isn't explained is how a sport that began with teams of both men and women, with same sex teams alternating in each round, to a sport primarily dominated by female teams. It should be noted that there are still guys doing Roller Derby, but this film focuses on the skating women.

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The only misstep is to have a bunch of talking heads without any titling to let us know who they are until the end of the film. It's only by focusing on their published writings that the viewer can identify sports writer Vicki Michaelis, or historian Anne Enke. Especially for their fans is lack of identification until those final credits. Juliette Lewis, whose relationship to Roller Derby comes from her role in Whip It, provides narration and a song on the soundtrack.

The film jumps around from Dublin to Denver to Charlotte to Toronto, with views of various teams, players, and those behind the scenes. Included are scenes of events such as hundreds of skaters taking over the streets of Paris, and a parody of the running of the bulls in New Orleans, only with the women skaters wearing horns, whacking the rears of men on the run. In a sport that has been growing with new teams and leagues, such as this new Denver area team, there are questions about how Roller Derby will evolve, as well as questions concerning the pursuit of corporate sponsorship and playing professionally. Roller Derby as it mostly exists at this time is, as the song goes, sisters doing it for themselves. The main story of Derby, Baby! is one of female empowerment.

The use of pseudonyms, costumes, and behavior which challenges traditional concepts of what it means to be a woman are touched on here. There is also discussion on how the women put aside various differences within the teams, as well as with rival teams, although there is still some diva behavior, as would be found in any area of sports and show business. For those with a problem with women who aren't conventionally attractive, or with anything that smacks of feminism, you probably won't be moved as I was, by the closing shot of the little girl on roller skates, arm in arm with her proud father.

And, yeah, I'm home team proud for the Denver Roller Dolls. They're all beautiful as far as I'm concerned.

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Posted by peter at 08:08 AM

April 10, 2012

Thou Shalt not Kill . . . Except

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Josh Becker - 1985
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

I think for a good number of people watching this film, the thought will be that one of happiness that Sam Raimi pursued a career as a director. Made primarily with a bunch of friends and acquaintances, Raimi appears in the film as the leader of a gang modeled after the Manson family. Describing the performance as over the top is to put it mildly. Then again, Thou Shalt not Kill . . . Except isn't the kind of film that was made to be viewed with any serious intent. The ideal way to see this film is with some rowdy friends and a handy six pack or two.

Raimi had his feature debut, Evil Dead, under his belt but was still a few years before his career kicked in steady gigs. Other talent that can count on the film as an early credit include writer-director Josh Becker, Scott Spiegel and Sheldon Lettich. Bruce Campbell contributed to an early version of the screenplay, and would have been the star had he not been a Screen Actors Guild member by the time money was raised to shoot the film. Nobody says exactly how much the film cost to make by the time production was completed although through anecdotes, Becker spent under $30, 000 prior to post-production. So we're not talking Shadows here, but I've seen enough films by cast and crew with little or no experience that look a lot worse, and this includes films that had greater artistic aspirations.

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That the story can be boiled down to "Marines versus the Manson Family" pretty much tells you every thing you need to know. The main characters are a quartet of marines who survived Viet-Nam, and reunite near Detroit in 1969. A newscast pinpoints the time with the announcement of the death of Judy Garland. A gang of vicious hippie types barges into one house in Grosse Pointe, killing everyone including a baby. The gang also terrorizes a group of campers and kidnaps the girlfriend of the main character, Stryker, a wounded vet. Stryker and his pals go after the cult leader and his gang.

The entire film, including the scenes in Viet-Nam, was shot in the wilds of Michigan. And while the film wasn't made to be showcased at film festivals or win critical approval, you have to give it up for the filmmakers' tenacity in making a reasonably watchable film more or less designed for the outer edges of commercial cinema. I hadn't been aware of Thou Shalt not Kill . . . Except prior to the new Synapse release, but reportedly the film was successful both in a limited theatrical release, and as VHS release a few years later. The DVD includes interviews with several of the people involved with the making of the film, plus Becker's early version, shot in Super 8, with Campbell.

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Posted by peter at 09:09 AM

April 08, 2012

Coffee Break

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Loretta Young and Jack Oakie in The Call of the Wild (William A. Wellman - 1935)

Posted by peter at 09:04 AM | Comments (1)

April 05, 2012

The Assault

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L'assaut
Julien Leclerq - 2011
Screen Media Films

Jean-Luc Godard may, or may not, have been kidding when he dedicated Breathless to Monogram Pictures. The "Cahiers du Cinema" critics who became filmmakers expressed their love for Hollywood films, especially those that were not always getting critical love on their home turf. Based on last year's Point Blank and The Assault, among other recent French films seen over the past few years, it looks like a younger generation has really taken the lessons of classic Hollywood action films to heart.

The Assault begins with a small explosion followed by blasting guns. Taken from the true story of an Air France plane hijacked by a quartet of Algerian terrorist, in December 1994, the film alternates primarily between Thierry, a member of the anti-terrorist team, Carole, with the foreign ministry and the only one who speaks Arabic, and Yahia, leader of the terrorist gang. In an hour and a half, there's little dawdling. And while the terrorist gang is portrayed as being extremely devout in their beliefs, the viewer is given little doubt that this is essentially a group of thugs doing no favors to the Muslim community at large, even with all their spouting of the Koran.

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Julien Leclerq makes an interesting visual choice by having the film desaturated of most color to the point where the film almost appears to be black and white, save for a few touches such as the extremely muted car headlights, or Carole's blue shirt in one scene. The film is also mostly shot with a hand held camera, a technique that works within this context and for this film. Even if the incident and some of the real life characters are unknown to the viewer, it shouldn't take away from the constant sense of urgency. Another interesting choice by Leclerq is to cut between the terrorists at prayer while the anti-terrorist group prepares for attack.

What is also of interest, and perhaps alarming in retrospect, is that it is suggested that the goal of the hijackers, publicly stated to free two Muslim clerics, was actually to crash the plane into the Eiffel Tower. And again, any political bias is undisguised, but it also suggests that U.S. intelligence, at least in some quarters, had truly underestimated the kind of actions Muslim terrorists would or could take prior to the events of September 11, 2001.

Politics aside, there is the drama of various government entities trying to figure out what the terrorists will do, as well as the escalating madness of the terrorists, and the squabbles with various French government representatives on how best to resolve the situation. The final shootout is harrowing, taking place within the closed confines of the jet itself. Both the terrorists and the anti-terrorists have understood that they are on a suicide mission. This is Leclerq's second feature, and the kind of film that suggest he could well be a talent to watch for with future projects.

For a preview, here's the link to the original film website.

Posted by peter at 08:20 AM

April 03, 2012

True Story of a Woman in Jail: Sex Hell

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Jitsuroku onna kanbetsusho: sei-jigoku
Koyu Ohara - 1975
Impulse Pictures Region 1 DVD

How about if I just refer to this film as Sex Hell? It wasn't that long ago when the "Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion" series came and went. What effort director Koyu Ohara and writing partner Akira Momoi put into the screenplay seems to have been in remembering scenes from that cult series from the early Seventies. For those unfamiliar with the earlier films, they star Meiko Kaji in the title role, a woman taking the rap for some guy, standing her ground with the guards and fellow prisoners, and escaping from the joint long enough to get revenge before getting locked up again. Sex Hell bears more than a passing resemblance to Meiko Kaji's series, and Hitomi Kozue was probably cast due to her vague resemblance to Kaji.

One very obvious lift is a scene of the female prisoners forced to march naked for an inspection. I don't recall which of the Kaji films had a similar scene, with a staircase constructed so that a male guard could look up the legs of the prisoner. Sex Hell also begins with an Enka, a Japanese pop ballad that is usually sung by the star, bemoaning one's fate in life. Nikkatsu Studios "youth films" from the Fifties often began that way, with several of the young movie star establishing even longer careers as singers. Even though Sex Hell begin with just enough association with some beloved cult films, the film is neither as erotic nor as stylish as the films cribbed by Ohara. Hitomi Kozue doesn't even get the chance to wear a big, floppy hat like Kaji, either.

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Based on the evidence in this film, Koyu Ohara wasn't much interested in anything resembling a visual style. There is the need to get down and dirty, with several scenes of urination, with some of the women getting the results of trickle down liquid assets. Ohara also employs a few close ups of hands, both male and female, exploring orifices, both male and female. The gals are in stir because of their involvement with guys who should know better than to cheat on them, or perform a surgery that indicates deliberate malpractice. As is required in Women in Prison movies, some of the girls hook up, leading to jealousy and fights concerning who's wearing who's panties. There is also a scene of "chicken plucking" with pubic hairs pulled out one by one.

Just when I was about to give up, Sex Hell ends with a pretty good scene of Kozue and a pal escaping from prison and reuniting with the men of their lives. Finding some cans of gasoline in a room for no apparent reason, the two set the prison on fire, distracting everyone from their bid for freedom. The scene takes place in a snowy night, and the two women are running around the prison grounds barefoot. Anybody can get naked and have sex with whomever is convenient. It takes a truly fearless person to run outside the house without the benefit of shoes.

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Posted by peter at 08:59 AM

April 01, 2012

Coffee Break

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Derrick De Marney and Larry Burns in Meet Mr. Callaghan (Charles Saunders - 1954)

Posted by peter at 10:36 AM