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May 28, 2014

Two by Alain Robbe-Grillet

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The Man who Lies / L'homme qui meant
Alain Robbe-Grillet - 1968

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Eden and After / L'eden et l'apres
Alain Robbe-Grillet - 1970

both Kino Classics / Redemption Films BD Region A

I feel mixed about Robbe-Grillet's films. I'm glad that they are available to be seen again, theoretically by more people than had the chance to view these films theatrically. At the same time, I think what is on screen is more interesting as an idea for film. What may have seen interesting on paper works better in one's imagining of a scene than what is played on film.

Not surprisingly then, the high points of both The Man who Lies and Eden and After aren't the films, but the supplementary interviews where Robbe-Grillet discusses how the films were made. It is surprising that both films actually are the results of chance in differing degrees. For The Man who Lies, the invitation to make a film in Czechoslovakia leads to the discovery of a small castle in disrepair, followed by the inspiration of Borges' short story, "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero", where the two are actually the same person. Adding Jean-Louis Trintignant allowed for French production money. As for the film, what we see and what Trintignant says are two different things, such as claiming to go to an empty bar, when we see it full of men. We see enough to known not to trust anything that Trintignant's character says. And other films have employed the same story telling mode, though not as an entire feature. As such, it brings up a very valid discussion about uses of film narrative, but in practice, this doesn't quite work in the same way as Hitchcock's Stage Fright where the viewer gets absorbed by Marlene Dietrich's extended flashback, and the rug is pulled under the viewer when it's been revealed that her story is a lie.

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More astonishing is to learn that Eden and After was made without a script, and that Catherine Jourdan was cast only three days before shooting. Jourdan's double who appears near the end of the film was the fiancee of one of the actors, and a quick addition to the narrative in progress. In a very abstract way, the film is a reflection of that time of student rebellion. And certainly it is easy to see why Robbe-Grillet would end up creating what exists of a story around Jourdan, very watchable in her very short minidresses, very high red boots, and flash of panties. In his interview, Robbe-Grillet points out a visual joke, a literal rendering of Duchamp's painting "Nude Descending a Stairway". And I agree with the interviewer that the film is visually stunning. There is also some sado-masochistic images that probably seemed more shocking in 1970. For all that, the parts don't add up to much, making me think of two better films of women losing themselves in North Africa, The Sheltering Sky and Gavin Lambert's Another Sky. I have not seen the supplement, Robbe-Grillet's reworking of the Eden and After footage titled N. Took the Dice, but if I was a gambling man, I would guess the "Sky" is the limit.

Posted by peter at 08:04 AM

May 26, 2014

The Max Linder Collection

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"Max Wants a Divorce"

Four films directed by Max Linder
Kino Classics Region 1 DVD

Done in conjunction with Serge Bromberg's Lobster Films, this collection of four films might be best understood as representative of Linder's late Hollywood period, from 1917 through 1922. What is not explained to anyone coming in cold to Linder, like myself, is that the films here are from a period mostly of commercial and critical decline. Which is not to say that this set should be dismissed, but that these films do not represent Linder at the height of his fame, prior to World War I, when he was one of the most popular, and well-paid comic actors in the world, and a serious rival to Charles Chaplin who looked at the few years older Linder as his "professor".

Three of the films feature Linder's on-screen persona, also named Max Linder, a man about town, wealthy, and not a little foolish. My favorite of these films is the earliest, from 1917, "Max Wants a Divorce", where the just married Max gets a letter informing him that he stands to inherit three million dollars if he is still single. He convinces his wife to get a divorce with a promise of a string of pearls, and remarriage once he gets the loot. This agreement only follows the after the wife has thrown some vases and several hard bound books at the flummoxed Max before stomping away in her wedding dress. Made before the existence of no-fault divorces, the pair concoct an elaborate scheme involving Max being caught with another woman by a detective. Things get more complicated when Max rents a love nest and it's on the same floor as an apartment used by a psychiatrist with half a dozen extremely eccentric patients. Max's plan to get caught cheating on his wife fails when the detective is assumed to be yet another lunatic patient. "Max Wants a Divorce" is another example where shorter, in this case under half an hour, is funnier.

"Seven Years Bad Luck" from 1921, features two scenes that may have proved inspirational for other screen comics. Early in the film, a butler canoodling with the maid, accidentally break a very large mirror. Instead of admitting to a hungover Max that the mirror is broken, the butler arranges for the cook, who faintly resembles Max, to pose as his reflection in the mirror. It wouldn't surprise me if some brothers named Marx caught a showing of this film. Max almost catches on to the fact that he's not looking at his own reflection, when the mirror is, unbeknownst to him, replaced. Thinking he's about to bean the impostor, Max instead breaks his new mirror. A later scene involving Max in a cage with a friendly leopard and a couple of equally amiable lions might well have inspired Chaplin to create a similar kind of scene in The Circus, although in the latter film, the lion is less than hospitable.

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"Be My Wife"

Linder sometimes made use of silhouettes for comic effect, and one of the nicest sight gags of "Be My Wife", also from 1921, is that of Max watering a flower pot. As a silhouette, it appears that Max is pouring water on a woman's head. There is also a gag involving a doorbell that triggers a series of moving walls and a trap door. With his career waning, Linder jettisoned his usual cast, crew and on-screen image for the parody, "The Three Must-Get-Theres". Taking some of the basics of the classic Dumas store, the film gets some laughs from some deliberate anachronisms, such as a jazz band in King Louis' court, as well as telephone lines seen in exterior shots. Linder's last ditch attempt at regaining commercial viability in Hollywood also failed, although the parody was reportedly appreciated by the object of Linder's spoofing, Douglas Fairbanks. What is apparent here is Linder's own athleticism and acrobatic skills. Some of the gags here may not have aged well, but the ability to take a tumble never goes out of style.

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"Be My Wife"

Posted by peter at 07:27 AM

May 25, 2014

Coffee Break

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William Demarest and William Campbell in Escape from Fort Bravo (John Sturges - 1953)

Posted by peter at 10:32 AM

May 24, 2014

Blue Movie

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Alberto Cavallone - 1978
Raro Video Region 1 DVD

Maybe it will take more, ahem, exposure, to the films of Alberto Cavallone, but I'm not convinced of anything other than a talent for creating a pastiche of other films from some better filmmakers. There's the disillusioned photographer from Blow-up encountering a psychologically disturbed young woman form Repulsion. The photographer collects urine in empty soda cans, and feces in cigarette packs. He also prefers to photograph empty soda cans rather than attractive young women, dressed and undress, because he thinks it's more honest. As the notes in the booklet mention, this is also one of two movies Cavallone made with a title previously used by Andy Warhol.

The film open with the sound of a clicking camera and gunfire. The photographer also has flashback's of various scenes of violence in Vietnam. A young woman that he rescues, and keeps in his house, has flashbacks of being raped, with her attacker reappearing in various unlikely places. Maybe Cavallone thought he was saying something radical with piss in Coke cans, and shit in Marlboro packs, and perhaps for some audience members, he was. My own reaction is that following in a path set by others does not constitute transgressive cinema.

There is not much in English on Cavallone. Short of the DVD booklet, there is also this piece in Mubi. The DVD was taken from a 16mm print. Extras include some excerpts from an 8mm version including some hard core sex. This is one of those rare times when I find it hard to put a positive spin on what I've seen, other than to say that the film may be of some historical interest. The DVD includes interviews with some of the crew members and the lead actor, plus excerpts from an audio interview with Cavallone. As long as Raro Video is going to bring back the work of forgotten Italian filmmakers, I say that Ugo Gregoretti should be given attention. Who's that, you ask? He is the G of the omnibus film RoGoPaG, the other guys being the still revered Rossellini, Godard and Pasolini.

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Posted by peter at 06:22 AM

May 22, 2014

Eastern Bandits

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Pi fu
Yang Shu-peng - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

My first encounter with a film by Yang Shu-peng, and what a bravura piece of filmmaking. The film opens with a Strauss waltz, and a traveling camera that introduces several of the main characters within a room where a formal reception is taking place. It takes a few visual clues to realize that the scene takes place during World War II, with Japanese soldiers in China. The seemingly good natured, but also pointed banter, between an officer and a man identifying himself as a reporter, ends with a quartet of people with guns discretely aimed in each others ribs. The film's Chinese title is translated as "An Inaccurate Memoir", and most of the film is an extended flashback on how this gang of Chinese bandits made their way into a Japanese fort.

There are several other notable traveling shots in the film. Yang composes these shots to give a sense of the space where the gang is operating, and their relationship to each other within that space, such as the scene where the gang leader is busted out of prison and onto the street. One of the more amazing shots takes place in the gang's underground hideout, a labyrinth of tunnels, where the camera snakes around while various gang members engage in a shootout with Japanese soldiers. The camera follows the a gang member or two in action, while moving through the various pathways, giving a sense of the depth and pathways, similar to an ant farm.

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The memoirs are those of Gao, a man on his way in the desert to be married, kidnapped by the bandit gang. Infatuated with the sister of the gang boss, Gao decides to join the gang, proving his worth when he saves the surviving members following a robbery gone wrong. Based on the gangs gumption and guns, mostly the guns, Gao decides that the gang should use their talents to take on the Japanese, and makes a plan to assassinate the brother of Emperor Hirohito, visiting a remote fort in the desert.

Some other writings about Yang, specific to his previous film, The Robbers, mention the influence of Akira Kurosawa. What I see in this newer film is the influence of a couple of Kurosawa's cinematic heirs, primarily Sam Peckinpah, with a bit of Walter Hill. Walter Hill? This is the first Chinese movie I've seen with slide guitar as part of the soundtrack, and I kept anticipating seeing Ry Cooder's name in the credits. The Peckinpah influence is a bit more obvious with sense of absurdity and nihilism that inform the final shootout.

The big difference is that unlike Kurosawa, Peckinpah and Hill, if you discount The Warriors, women have the place in the gang. The one known as Lady Dagger shows off her sex appeal in distracting a soldier, and shows why she's known by that sobriquet, when doing her part to get gang boss Fang out of jail. Gao's relationship with Fang's sister, Jen, alternates between hostility and affection, with humorous results.

I have to assume that Eastern Bandits looks spectacular on an actual movie screen. There are several shots of the characters in the distance, riding horseback through the desert. The exuberance of the opening scene eventually settles into a steady pace, but between the audacity of the characters, and Ynng's visual stylings, the film remains intriguing. And when was the last time you saw a Chinese movie end with Mandarin heavy metal song?

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Posted by peter at 08:02 AM

May 20, 2014

Gang War in Milan

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Milano rovente
Umberto Lenzi - 1973
Raro Video BD Region A

I have to admit that this may be the prettiest Umberto Lenzi movie I've seen, due in no small part to some very nice Blu-ray mastering that help emphasise the bold colors. The deep sea blue of Antonio Sabato's apartment, the light blue cityscape of Milan, the red railings in a subway station, and the pop art dresses worn by Marisa Mell and Carla Romanelli are part of the visual charm here. The other advantage of seeing this film in its new home video release is that it is probably more complete, with a running time of one-hundred minutes, four minutes more than what's listed in IMDb - and it's not hard to guess what might have been cut.

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A French gangster who specializes in the drug trade tries to move in on Sabato, a Sicilian who controls prostitution in Milan. Nothing is really made of it, but the rivals both operate out of clubs named after animals, The Scorpion and The Red Turtle. One of Sabato's girls is found dead in his club's swimming pool, incongruously with sea weed in her mouth. From there, the two gangs work to disrupt each other's businesses while Sabato and Philippe Leroy try to find ways to blackmail each other. Lenzi's not been one to shy away from violence with the prostitutes scarred on their faces and breasts by Leroy's thugs. These same guys kidnap Sabato's lieutenant, with electric shock treatment where it hurts the most.

There is one scene which begs for some cultural explanations. Sabato and this closest gang members are having dinner at a restaurant, the classic Italian kind with the red and white checked table cloths. They are eating some kind of meat on a skewer, what appears to me as some kind of regional dish, but what is it and from what region, I don't know. The gang gets together to sing what the accompanying booklet only describes as a "folk song". As happens too often, the song lyrics don't get subtitles, so I have no idea if this might be a Sicilian song or what the song might be about. What makes this particular scene of interest is that it is cross-cut with a scene of one of Leroy's guys getting killed in the restaurant bathroom. Explanation aside, this is one part of Gang War in Milan that makes the film of more than casual interest.

Lenzi has previously stated that Raoul Walsh is one of his favorite directors. While not played out in the same way as White Heat, Sabato's character is characterized as something of a mamma's boy, doting on his ailing mother who dreams of returning to Sicily. One can push the comparison with Walsh's films further with the men, especially Sabato and Leroy, using their hyper-masculine personas to hide the more sensitive aspects of their natures which are reserved for very private moments. (And am I the only one who would like to see Lenzi's earliest films like the female pirate movie, Queen of the Seas get some Blu-ray love?)

Posted by peter at 08:17 AM

May 19, 2014

Martial Arts Movie Marathon

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Manchu Boxer / Qi sheng quan wang
Wu Ma - 1974

The Skyhawk / Huang Fei-hong xiao lin quan
Cheng Chang-ho - 1974

The Association / Yan ku shen tan
Cheng Chang-ho - 1975

The Dragon Tamers / Nu zi tai quan qun ying hui
Wu Yu-shen - 1975

Shout! Factory Region 0 Two disc set

For those who have some degree of nostalgia for the kind of stuff that played in theaters about forty years ago, or who are curious about what was usually dismissed by critics as "chop-socky", the four movie set may be of interest. All four films are from Raymond Chow's production company, Golden Harvest, notable for the films that made Bruce Lee a star. For some, it may be hard to imagine that there was a time when movies that were mostly about the rivalries between different martial arts schools were commercially viable, usually with indifferent English language dubbing, often presented by fly-by-night distributors looking to make a quick buck. Nothing here is of the quality of something like King Hu's influential A Touch of Zen, but three of the four are worth a look for various reasons. Also, all four films are dubbed in Mandarin and have very readable yellow subtitles.

From a critical and historical perspective, one can view these films with the kind of appreciation given to a Warner Brothers movie from the Thirties or Forties. There is something of a house style, yet as one can see stylistic differences between a Warner movie directed by Raoul Walsh or Michael Curtiz, one can also discuss some of the differences between the directors represented here. Other recognizable elements are some of the names in the credits, music by Joseph Koo, as well as recurring cast members such as Sammo Hung, listed as Hung Kam-bo, and Carter Wong.

Manchu Boxer is the most generic film in this collection. Liu Yung wants to be a high minded practitioner of martial arts, but where ever he shows up, he's challenged by one badass after another. He feels sorry for one guy he's killed, and decides that he's going to donate his match winnings to the guy's family, claiming it's a debt he owes. This is the kind of film people probably imagine most kung-fu movies to be like, with lots of fighting, and a forgettable plot. Even when the scripts are questionable, the other three films display varying degrees of visual imagination.

There's a story waiting to be told about Cheng Chang-ho, born as Chang-hwa Jeong. A Korean filmmaker whose best known films were Hong Kong productions, signed with a Chinese pseudonym, gives his two films here some visual panache. Mostly this is in the form of canted angles, but in The Skyhawk Cheng finds ways of letting the picturesque scenery and architecture of Thailand do much of the work. Sixty-nine year old Kwan Tak-hing is the star, playing, as he did for most of his career, a fictionalized version of Wong Fei-hung. The basic story is one about rival martial arts schools trying to beat Wong and his students, while Wong always tries to take the high road in avoiding fighting if possible. There's a sub-plot involving the bad guys cheating the owners of their restaurant through gambling debts. Sammo Hung tags along while Carter Wong exchanges glances with Nora Miao.

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The Association

Cheng's The Association is the high point of this collection, where he lets his imagination run amuck. The film opens with a female agent shot by a firing squad. The backdrop is a very pink sunrise. From there things get progressively nuttier as a Chinese cop, Huang, with a modified Afro discovers a secret sex club with some very wealthy patrons and corruption in the police department. If there was ever a movie that seemed to be designed for exhibition at New York City's grind houses in the Seventies, this is it. Finding a young dead female, Huang, pokes at her exposed breasts before carting the corpse around accusing several people of murder. At the private club, supposedly a charity organization, two blondes engage in a lesbian sex show, followed by the men making high dollar bids for bedmates. One of the blondes also does some kind of dance wearing a very sheer red nightgown for an audience of other women, with a mostly nude female victim on a table. In order to catch a criminal, Huang hides in the wardrobe of a wealthy young widow, who has a dream about being ravished by the cop who makes clear that his intentions are strictly honorable. And that woman who gets shot in the film's opening? She has an identical sister, with Angela Mao looking cute dressed as a boy with a plaid newsboy cap.

There's a brief scene of sex in The Dragon Tamers, but unsurprisingly for a film by John Woo, bromance is the more palpable relationship here, between two guys who are both friends and temporarily romantic rivals. The second film by Woo, it seems to promise a bit more than what is delivered with the setup of rival groups of female martial artists. No doves fly here, but there is a flock of pigeons. Again, we're back to the trope of martial arts school rivalries, with domination by the baddest of bad guys in cahoots with the baddest of bad girls. Anyone who would have watched this film when it was released would never have guessed that the director would go on to define a new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers with films like The Killers or Hard-Boiled, or become internationally acclaimed for Hollywood and mainland Chinese films. At the time the film was made, Woo lacked the discipline to realized that there is such a thing as too many zoom shots. He seems to have been under the influence of Sergio Leone with close-ups of eyes, and the placement of characters, especially in the last two fight scenes. There is also the use of rack-focusing in a conversation between the two chief villains. While mostly of historical interest as an early example of John Woo's work, the film serves as a reminder of a time when young filmmakers were allowed to practice their craft before evolving into artists.

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The Dragon Tamers

Posted by peter at 08:18 AM

May 18, 2014

Coffee Break

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Eleanor Parker and William Holden in Escape from Fort Bravo (John Sturges - 1953)

Posted by peter at 08:45 AM

May 16, 2014

Back in Crime

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L'autre vie de Richard Kemp
Germinal Alvarez - 2013
Kino Lorbeer Region 1 DVD

The English language title, not the cleverest of puns, might not have been the best idea, although it does indicate the time travel aspect of this film, unlike the French title which translates as "The other life of Richard Kemp". The premise is familiar, in this case a cop goes back in time to solve a case he wasn't able to resolve twenty-five years earlier. What might be considered audacious is that the time travel is accomplished with a simple conk on the head, with present day Richard Kemp falling off a bridge and into the water, only to find himself in 1989 when he swims back to shore. Sometimes not providing an explanation is better than trying to make sense out of a nonsensical premise.

Several scenes take place on bridges. It's a great visual metaphor for a film about connections between past and present, or present and future. All of these bridges are above bodies of water, also a familiar symbol for the passage of time. It's not quite Alphaville but the 1989 Paris looks faintly futuristic, especially the curved exterior of Kemp's apartment building, and the interior with the checkerboard pattern walls that play with perspective. The bridges tend to become abstract images, where the more functional aspects as structures providing connections or as paths are only suggested.

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The big question is whether the future Richard Kemp is able to stop a crime he knows is about to happen. There is also a twist when Kemp returns to the present day involving his relationship with a woman he encounters, a psychologist. This is the kind of narrative that depends on taking the basic set-up on faith without too close an examination. As such, the 1989 Kemp crosses paths with the contemporary Kemp without any sense of recognition. A greater leap might be required for a scene where Kemp shows a series of photos stored on his yet to be invented cell phone.

Alvarez also has a color scheme at work with contemporary France on the cold side with various shades of blues and grays, while the past is dominated by shades of brown. Just as the film requires the viewer to glide past various aspects of the story that don't quite make sense upon closer examination, most of the pleasures to be found here are on the surface, with the use of color, shadows and images. Sometimes, that's really all a film needs.

One goof that bothered me, that could have been fixed with a couple minutes of research, is when a lecture on serial killers refers to Bob Bundy, instead of Ted Bundy. Or it could be that Bob Bundy is a serial killer in an alternate reality.

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Posted by peter at 07:35 AM

May 14, 2014

Countess Dracula revisited

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Peter Sasdy - 1971
Synapse Films BD Region A / Region 1 DVD Combo Pack

Most of what I have to say about Countess Dracula was covered about four years ago. The screen cap about is from the new DVD, but the way to go is to see this film on Blu-ray. Most striking is the use of shimmering reflective light in several scenes. Still the sexiest of Hammer films, with the cleavage generously spilling out. There's, of course, Ingrid Pitt, as well as big breasted gypsies, bar maids and chambermaids, and the future second Mrs. William Friedkin, Leslie-Anne Down. The brief biographical supplement about Miss Pitt is worth watching, especially for the glimpses of an early film, The Sound of Horror (and nobody's kidding about that title, either). In any case, this film is my idea of what a PG rated movie is suppose to look like.

Posted by peter at 07:35 AM

May 12, 2014

Special ID

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Te shu shen fen
Clarence Fok Yiu-leung - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In Special ID, Jing Tian plays Ginger Rogers to Donnie Yen's Fred Astaire. Maybe not the best analogy, and while Jing isn't dancing backwards in high heels, she shows herself as up to the task of high kicks and bruising stunts. Jing leaps from a bridge onto traffic, and during a high speed car chase is kicking bad guy Andy On, stretched out inside the car, while On is trying to push her out of the passenger side which is missing a door. She shoots, she hits, and has no qualms about arresting a gangster who's taking a piss in the men's room. I don't know what's planned for the future, but as far as female action stars go, I would hope Jing is provided with more opportunities to show what she can do, and yes, she did most of her own stunts. And as far as that Fred and Ginger comparison is concerned, Donnie Yen and Jing Tian do start off on something of an adversarial relationship that evolves over time to one of mutual respect.

Yen plays a Hong Kong undercover cop with a desire to get back into uniform. He's been undercover for so long, there are questions about whether he could even function again as straight policeman. Based on his past associations, Yen works with mainland police in Nanhai, China, most directly with the female cop played by Jing. There's also the usually rivalry between several Triad gangs, plus Yen's struggle with both his identity pretending to be a gangster, and making sure his cover isn't blown. The narrative aspects are not the most compelling here, much of it is familiar, but the action set pieces are often impressive.

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There is some unusual use of color here, such as Jing's red car, or Andy On's watermelon red shirt worn on a rooftop basketball court, contrasting against shades mostly of gray and brown. There's also this shade of green that pops up, on that rooftop basketball hoop, and a car that appears in the big chase, blocking traffic. I can't think of a film with cinematography by Peter Pau that wasn't visually interesting. Pau is also listed as a producer, and I think of this film mostly as his work with Yen, credited as Action Director, rather than the work of director of record Clarence Fok (and I write this with affection for Fok's The Iceman Cometh).

And back to the Fred Astaire comparison, as Yen is not handsome in the conventional leading man sense, but has that charismatic smile. Playing somewhat against type, he's a bit grubbier in this film, unshaven. In the "Making of . . ." supplement, Yen discusses some of the types of martial arts used in the fight scenes. And for many viewers, Donnie Yen would be the big draw, but when Jing Tian decides she can't wait for backup and takes on a few dozen triad members for a street fight, it's clear that Donnie Yen has found his distaff match.

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Posted by peter at 07:11 AM

May 11, 2014

Coffee Break

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Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama (George Stevens - 1948)

Posted by peter at 07:47 AM

May 03, 2014

Far East Film Festival - Day Nine

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The end is here. And yesterday, I briefly got to meet Ross Chen of the website Love HK Film which contains some very uncensored views mostly of Hong Kong film but also from the rest of Asia. Ross also works for Yesasia.com, a company that I helped personally subsidize, although with the increased number of screeners I currently get, plus the Asian films streaming at Netflix, I've been less dependent on them for getting those Asian movies I felt I needed simply see, if not write about on this site.

Lack of sleep and a three hour running time proved to be no problem with a 9:30 am screening of the Taiwanese baseball movie, Kano. Based on a true story, it's about a high school baseball from a farming village that went from losing every game, and never scoring, to making it to the Japanese finals in 1931. An experienced coach steps in to instill discipline on a team made of Japanese, Han Chinese and native Taiwanese students. It's a beautifully made film, with underdog heroes and a rousing musical score.

And while Coach Kondo reminds a couple of characters that the ability to play baseball has nothing to do with race, questions regarding Taiwan as a Japanese colony are avoided. For those more curious, there are some academic essays on the subject, but Kano would appear to be one of a handful of films that look at the period of Japanese rule in Taiwan with nostalgia. Kondo, by the way, is played by Masatoshi Nagase, a face that should be familiar, even if you don't know the name. Is this the best baseball movie, ever, as one critic has put it? Could be. One part of the film that I wish could be fixed would be to add subtitles at the end when there are small paragraphs about the real life coach and players. A brief history of the Kano team us available here.

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Getting down to the final stretch began with the debut film of Siege Ledesma, Shift. I don't know her exact age, but it is somewhere above twenty-five, but not a lot more than that. Film Festival president Sabrina Baracetti mentioned that Ledesma is the youngest director with a film presented at Udine. The story is mostly about the relationship between two call center employees, a young woman who gets criticized for acting masculine, i.e., assertive, and her mildly effeminate male friend. Estela considers herself straight, although her relationships with men are non-sexual and ambivalent. Her friend, Trevor, has left one boyfriend and is involved with another, yet is questioning what he thought was certain about his sense of sexual identity. And without sloganeering or underlining of any kind, Ledesma brings up the fluidity of sexual identity, in all of its possibilities.

What I also liked is that the scenes taking place in the call center are similar to my own work experiences, from the frustration of escalated calls, to the various speeches by management, and the ephemeral nature of such work when done as a third party on behalf of a corporate client. It's hard to imagine that anyone would not be attracted to Yeng Constantino, the actress who plays Estela, with her fire engine red hair, and her T-shirt that defiantly displays the word "Boy". Unlike some of the Filipino films that get festival play, the characters here are middle class, with the twenty-somethings connected by smart phones and social networks. The challenge is usually to be found when actually speaking to each other.

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There are also language, and cultural barriers in Thermae Romae II, when the bath house architect from ancient Rome, Lucius, pops up again in contemporary Japan, reunited with the perky would be manga artist, Mami. I saw the first first a couple of years ago. The new film is more of what was in the first film, but with what appears to be a bigger budget, but again with Lucius trying to adapt his discoveries of contemporary life to fit the then current technology of Second Century Rome.

Without the surprise of the first film, the continuation isn't as funny, but there are some good comic moments, especially in the beginning when Lucius pops up in a bath occupied by sumo wrestlers who are amused by this relatively thin foreigner who can't speak Japanese. There is also a cute scene involving a tiny elderly woman, delighted at introducing Lucius to the wonders of ramen noodles. It is fitting, though, that a film festival in Italy devoted to Asian films would feature a film that links Japan with Italy, even though the scenes in ancient Rome were shot in Bulgaria.

The festival ended with awards. I ended up not being able to take advantage of my status as a Black Dragon as I misplaced my ballot. The winning Black Dragon film was The Attorney which I will be seeing shortly in its DVD release. My choices are teetering between Aberdeen and Einstein and Einstein. I haven't seen the audience award winner, The Eternal Zero, and from what I've read, is a film that covers some of the same ground as The Wind Rises, but could court greater controversy.

Posted by peter at 07:24 AM

May 02, 2014

Far East Film Festival - Day Eight

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There's some kind of continuity at work when Chinese director Cao Baoping follows The Equation of Love and Death with a film titled Einstein and Einstein. And Cao's newest film is certainly set up for jokes about the theory of relativity in that the film is about relatives, the junior high school girl, Wan, and her family. Except that Einstein is that name of her dog, a ginger cocker spaniel, actually two dogs, and some of the common dog metaphors aren't difficult to identify.

Very much at the heart of all this is 16 year old Sophie Zhang as Wan. And Wan is not too different from any other teenage girl, something of an underachiever who's never really certain about the rewards for fulfilling her potential, ambivalent about her future. Wan lives with her grandparents. Wan's career centered father makes has a history of unkept promises to Wan, while keeping secret that he's the father of a baby son. One might make the case that this is almost the equivalent to Rebel without a Cause.

The film was shot in central China, the home of screenwriter Mia Jiao, in the city of Xi'an. There is one scene with a group of businessmen trading classic Chinese aphorisms. Cao and Jiao are smart enough to avoid cliches as Wan learns to make peace with her family and herself.

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Bilocation poster

Not making peace with themselves are the characters in Bilocation. Mari Asato continues with the horror genre, although this is more psychological horror than her more graphic earlier films. While some of the effects were done through editing tricks, it also appears that Asato had a bigger budget to work with. I'm not sure if the source novel by Haruka Hojo would make any more sense, but the story is about doppelgangers, twins that manifest from a small group of internally convicted individuals. Not only do these doubles look the same, but the "originals" and the doubles sometimes get confused about their own identities.

What worked quite nicely is when the artist Shinobu first meets her new gift bearing neighbor, Masaru, it appears that the young man is clumsy, accidentally dropping the gift box in the rain puddle that seems always to be in front of Shinobu's door. The next scene indicates that the two are now married,and Masaru accidentally knocks over a glass of milk. It is only when we see Masaru leaving with his white cane that the viewer realized that he is blind. The painting Shinobu is working on, a view outside her window, also becomes the subject of an unexpected plot twist. The film manages to remain reasonable intriguing even if making any kind of sense out of the plot might be an exercise in futility.

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The Face Reader poster

Kim Hye-su, one of my favorite Korean actresses, was my primary reason for seeing The Face Reader (Gwansang). And she's the lure for the title character, as the madame of the largest courtesan house, opening her shirt a bit, showing off her legs. Lately, it's been the Korean costume films that have been of interest both with the various plottings in the royal court and opportunities for some boisterous humor. The story does have have historical elements as well, taking place in 15th century Korea. The face reader, Nae-kyung does follow the courtesan against is better judgment where his reputation eventually gets him involved with the royal family, and a prince who will do what he can to gain the throne of Joseon.

The film might be best described as a story about a man who can observe the futures of others by looking at their faces, but misses seeing his own fate. One very funny scene has the Nae-kyung, disguised as a doctor, performing surgery to make the prince have what are suppose to be the facial markings of a traitor. Things do end badly for almost everyone, with Nae-kyung contemplating his short time in the court with the much longer play of history.

Posted by peter at 04:05 PM

Far East Film Festival - Day Seven

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I started the day by attending the "FEFF Talk" for Thursday, a brief roundtable with four newer directors - Roh Deok, Chiu, Derek Kwok and Panjong Pisanthanakun. Spoke a bit with Panjong afterwards about Alone, and my experience of getting contacted by the "godfather" of Hollywood remakes of Asian movies, Roy Lee, about that film, and how the bottom fell out on the "Asian Extreme" market at almost that same time. I also got to be Darcy Pacquet of Koreanfilm.org., who I once wrote to back when there was a special showing of Korean films at the Starz Denver Film Festival in 2011.

Panjong's Pee Mak was the only Thai film to be shown in Udine. It also has been a critical hit, as well as the most financially successful Thai film ever made. I wish I liked it better. The basic story is of a soldier, Mak, in some past 19th century war who leaves his pregnant wife, Nak, and comes home. Mak is the last one to figure out that his wife and child are dead and that he's been living with ghosts. What may be considered the best film version was made by Nonzee Nimibutr in 1999. There have been a few more versions since, including one in 3D.

Panjong begins with the original premise but has created a more comic version, aiming towards a youthful audience with popular star Mario Maurer. Even though the film takes place in an unclearly defined past, there are relatively contemporary references to Rocky and Ang Lee. Those unfamiliar with Thai films might be taken aback by some of the humor which is hardly politically correct. There are also sight gags making fun of some of the conventions from Thai horror movies, such as the upside down hanging ghost and the arm that seems to extend infinitely. Goofiest of all is a scene at a carnival haunted house where those in costume are scared by the real ghost. Panjong is good in creating a creepy atmosphere, and could well have made a straight horror film if he wanted to. Too often though, the film depends on how funny it is to see grown men shrieking like little girls. Pee Mak starts off well enough but after a while was closer in spirit (pun intended) to something like Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein.

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The lure of Venus Talk (Gwanneungui Bubchik) was seeing my favorite Korean actress, Moon So-ri, on the big screen. The film is about three friends, women "of a certain age" trying to navigate their respective ways through satisfying relationships. Moon's character, a housewife who seems sexually demanding of her husband once again shows how fearless she is onscreen, including taking on the role of a woman a few years older than her actual age. The title literally translates as "The Laws of Pleasure".

Jo Min-su, better known as the mysterious "mother" in the Kim Ki-duk film, Pieta, turns a poignant performance as the coffee house owner who faces cancer. There is also Uhm Jung-hwa as a television executive, dealing with a relationship with a man in his Twenties. Uhm is considered the "Madonna" (the singer, not the religious icon) of Korea. At age Forty-four, she looks great. Venus Talk is entertaining, and touching at times, but I also starting to nod out . . .

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. . . and then I saw Boy Golden: Shoot to Kill. Director Chito Rono stated in his introduction to the audience that the film was his homage to Filipino action movies of the Seventies and Eighties. Be that as it may, it's a finely calibrated piece of work, and far better than anything I've seen from Cirio Santiago, probably the best known filmmaker of that time to get films released stateside. The story, which takes place in 1960, was inspired by real life criminal Arturo Porcuna.

This film is lovingly and unapologetically lurid and unsubtle. Everything is big, from the bloody gunfights to the displays of love and hate. In one of the many wonderful scenes, the showgirl on the run played by KC Concepcion gets into a no holds barred cat fight with a gangster's moll. The two tumble down a flight of stairs and into a casino. The moll tears open the top of Concepcion's shirts, stopping the fight long enough to let the men in the casino gawk at Concepcion's overly generous cleavage. The top billing goes to the seemingly unstoppable Eddie Garcia, still busy at age Eighty-five, and by busy, this includes a bit of lovey-dovey with Gloria Sevilla, just a few years younger. Sevilla may look like a grandmother in appearance, but a scene that brought spontaneous applause showed her character to be far from matronly. I do hope that Boy Golden will have the chance to shine on US screens.

Posted by peter at 02:25 AM

May 01, 2014

Far East Film Festival - Day Six

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Like opening night, three film in a row during the late afternoon, past Midnight. But first, a few minutes with French freelance photographer/documentarian Fred Ambroisine, who is in Udine doing coverage of the festival. Fred is also working on a project of video greetings for Hong Kong star Gordon Liu. Most people may be familiar with Liu from his appearance in both Kill Bill films, if not the classic Shaw Brothers martial arts films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Liu has had a stroke which explains why this action star has more recently been seen acting from a chair, as in Kill 'Em All. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in Fred's project.

First up for viewing was the debut film by Korean Roh Deok, Very Ordinary Couple (Yeonaeui Wondo). Putting this on-again, off-again, on-again couple on a very twisty roller coaster ride is probably too obvious a visual metaphor for this young couple. There may be some who will view the relationship between Young and Dong-hee as a cautionary tale about co-workers in love. It is, for the most part, a very likable film. The Korean title translates as "Temperature of Love".

Roh has her couple speak directly to the camera about how they view their relationship, as well as alternating parallel situations that the two find themselves in. Attempts to be civil disintegrate quickly, when Dong-hee gets his destroyed laptop returned in a collect shipment. The comic high point would be watching Young and Dong-hee takings steps to subvert each other at work. Nothing is secret at the bank where they both work, neither about themselves or anyone else, with havoc spilling over to their coworkers at a special employees retreat. The two try their best for a reconciliation after wandering away from the hotel where they have disrupted the team building activities. It's a relatively modest first film, and as such, should be enjoyed on those terms.

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Far more ambitious is Derek Kwok's film about firefighters, As the Light Goes Out (Gow for ting hung). Things do get a bit stacked when you have an abandoned warehouse that should have been dismantled decades ago, close to the gas pipeline that helps keep Hong Kong functioning, which is barely a hop, skip and a jump from the power station where the son of one of the firefighters is lost. There are also old and new rivalries between old and new firemen. A monsoon is coming. And it's Christmas Eve.

What really makes this different from something like Backdraft is that it is based on the premise that it is the smoke, not the fire, that is the most dangerous part of firefighting. While Kwok goes about too heavily into the hallucinatory effects of smoke, where the film is best is in depicting the uncertain sense of space when trying to find your way through a thick, black cloud.

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Best of the evening was The Snow White Murder Case (Shirayuki hime satsujin liken). This is a murder mystery for the Twitter era. Not having read the novel by Minato Kanae, I don't know how much of the film owes to the source novel, or where to credit director Yoshihiro Nakamura or screenplay writer Tamio Hayashi. The film begins with the discovery in a national park of the charred corpse of a woman, stabbed multiple times before being burned. A youngish reporter, essentially a slacker who seems to have drifted in to television news is contacted by a female acquaintance who worked with the victim, and is pretty certain about the identity of the murderer. The reporter, who mostly kills time with quickie reviews of ramen joints in Twitter, interviews his friend as well as others who knew the victim and the alleged killer, both employees at a company that makes "Snow White" soap. The reporter has a very tenuous grasp on the concept of confidentiality and lets loose with various clues on Twitter, while the tabloid news show he works for takes his footage at face value.

What we see are various incidences replayed from two or more points of view. Sometimes the changes are minor, though there are sometimes huge differences in details. What makes the film fascinating is that part of its structure resembles that of the French novelists like Duras and Robbe-Grillet in which there is no objective history but only the way people recall specific events, but done within a recognizable genre framework. The Twitter messages are like an ongoing Greek chorus of people ready to make certain judgement behind their respective pseudonyms. There are also subplots involving a classical music trio of young men who look like members of Asia's ubiquitous boy bands, and two young girls who bond over the book, Anne of Green Gables. A very clever film, and one of my favorites of this festival, so far.

Posted by peter at 02:34 AM