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May 31, 2015

Coffee Break

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Petra Morze in Antares (Gotz Spielmann - 2004)

Posted by peter at 09:32 AM

May 27, 2015

Cannibal Ferox

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Umberto Lenzi - 1981
Grindhouse Releasing BD Region A

Included in this new Blu-ray release of Cannibal Ferox is a genre overview titled Eaten Alive! The Rise and Fall of the Italian Cannibal Film. Among the participants discussing the genre is Ruggero Deodato, director of Cannibal Holocaust. Had Deodato's mentor, Roberto Rossellini made a cannibal movie, would it look like Cannibal Holocaust? I'm not sure I would go that far. However, it made me think, what if Umberto Lenzi's favorite director, Raoul Walsh, had made a cannibal movie. In terms of the actors, the psychotic exploiter of the tribesmen could have been played by James Cagney with the mania of White Heat, the quietly attractive young anthropologist is not far removed from the roles of Olivia De Havilland, Virginia Mayo would be the blonde bad girl, Jack Carson as the not so bad guy who realizes he's over his head, and Jeffrey Lynn as the brother of the anthropologist.
Even with regards to the story, Lenzi has traces of other Walsh films - Distant Drums with the white people on the run from the Native Americans in the Florida swamps, and A World in His Arms, with Americans exploiting the resources and people of mid-19th Century Alaska, at the time, Russian territory. And let us consider the reaction of White Heat at the time it was released in 1949, courtesy of Bosley Crowthers of the New York Times - "If that is inviting information to the cohorts of thriller fans, whose eagerness this reviewer can readily understand, let us soberly warn that White Heat is also a cruelly vicious film and that its impact upon the emotions of the unstable or impressionable is incalculable. That is an observation which might fairly be borne in mind by those who would exercise caution in supporting such matter on the screen." Not difficult to substitute Cannibal Ferox as the title referred to here, is it?

Not that any of this is of much interest to those most enthusiastic of the cannibal genre in general or this film in particular. What is also noticeable is the ambivalence several of the people involved in the making of these films, with the exception of Deodato, who is more than happy to declare Cannibal Holocaust as one of his best films. For his part, Lenzi feelings about his film seem to depend on the mood he's in at the moment. There is some mild reflection that the films, perhaps arguably seen as parables about western colonialism, were in their own way as exploitive of the indigenous people or extras portraying the cannibal tribes. Eaten Alive! includes clips for several films, including Lenzi's Man from Deep River, the 1972 film that kicked off the genre, as well as the more recent homage, Eli Roth's The Green Inferno. Roth also contributed liner notes. I'm not counting on any academic books on cannibal films, although with other serious volumes of genre studies, it's not something to be entirely discounted. The most interesting observations about cannibal movies comes from the most academic contributor to Eaten Alive!, Dr. Shelagh Rowan-Legg.

Why this is significant is that in addition to the filmmakers trying to top each other with large heaps of graphic violence, there is also much more nudity, usually involving the female actresses. One might argue that the dialogue is a reflection of the coarseness of the character, but calling a female character a "twat" several times seemed excessive. Not all viewers are discerning of the sexism of film characters versus any sexism on the part of filmmakers, but most of these films could be counted on for bare breasts if not full nudity. I don't think it's necessary for me to discuss the various notorious moments in Cannibal Ferox, but it is interesting that two of those scenes are the ones usually presented in the posters, selling the anticipation of seeing those scenes, rather than surprising the audience.

Say what you will about Cannibal Ferox, Grindhouse Releasing makes the gang at Criterion Collection look like a bunch of pikers. In addition to Eaten Alive!, the two disc set includes individual interviews with Lenzi, actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice aka John Morghen, and the still amazingly gorgeous Zora Kerowa. There's also the soundtrack album CD in addition to the overly generous supply of extras.

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Posted by peter at 04:30 PM

May 25, 2015

Invitation to a Gunfighter

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Richard Wilson - 1964
KL Classics BD Region A

In the early Sixties, Stanley Kramer produced, but did not direct, three movies. As with the films that he directed, these films were noted for their "messages" from the well-intentioned Kramer. The three films, Pressure Point, A Child is Waiting and Invitation to a Gunfighter are all more idiosyncratic that Kramer's films, with the first two known for the clashes between the producer and the directors who wanted to be more than simply hired hands. I'm unaware of any conflict Richard Wilson may have had with Kramer, and it may well be that as a more experienced filmmaker, Wilson was given more control than was allowed the younger Hubert Cornfeld and John Cassavetes.

Taking place in a small town in New Mexico following the Civil War, a professional gunman is hired to kill the town's lone Confederate soldier, Matt Weaver, by the town boss, Sam Brewster. What follows is a peeling of several layers, of the corruption in a town that has the Mexican citizens living in their own section, with most everyone motivated by their own perceived needs. The hired gun, with the exotic name of Jules Gaspard d'Estaing, hangs around town long enough to force several people that have their own reasons for wanting Weaver to be dead or alive to confront truths about themselves. It's not a Western insofar as fitting the usual genre requirements, most of the film takes place in town, and the only real action takes place during the final ten minutes.

What makes Invitation to a Gunfighter interesting is how some of the layers complicate what appears on the surface to be a set-up for a B-Western. Weaver's main reason for fighting on behalf of the Confederacy was an act of rebellion against Brewster. The Civil War here is discussed only in terms of slavery. Weaver is shown to be the least prejudiced person, with established friendship with the Mexican community. D'Estaing, as exotic looking as his name, reveals himself to be the son of a slave owner and a slave. The idealism of the Civil War is a sham used to exploit others. Not exactly a Greek chorus, but there is a trio of former Union soldiers, one blind, and one with missing his lower leg, that have nothing else going for them other that to observe what's going in town. They are the among the ones who actually fought in the war, and have nothing else except each other. For this trio, the drama of the town's leading citizens is comic fodder.

Of course Yul Brynner proved he could rock a black cowboy hat in The Magnificent Seven. This was Brynner's second Western, but not a box office success. George Segal was building up his resume at the time he was cast as Matt Weaver. There are several terrific character actors including Pat Hingle as boss Sam Brewster, Bert Freed, Clifton James, Strother Martin, and William Hickey as a blind Union vet. Brad Dexter from The Magnificent Seven appears briefly, unrecognizable behind a beard.

Richard Wilson is best known for his association with Orson Welles. Of the handful of films he directed, Al Capone might be considered the best. Pay or Die, about the early years of Italian organized crime in New York City, is reputed to have been influential for Martin Scorsese. For those who have not seen Invitation to a Gunfighter, the other high point is the score by David Raksin, the last of three films he did with Wilson. Raksin's score was included in an album from Westerns produced by United Artists, and was described as "a psychological score in that its often chamber-sized forces seem to evoke the characters' emotional anguish."

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Posted by peter at 09:06 AM

May 24, 2015

Coffee Break

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Janette Scott and George Chakiris in Two and Two makes Six (Freddie Francis - 1962)

Posted by peter at 09:05 AM

May 21, 2015

The Jester's Supper

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La cena delle beffe
Alessandro Blasetti - 1942
One 7 Movies Region 0 DVD

There is some dispute as to whether The Jester's Supper was the first or second Italian film to feature a bare-breasted actress. In any case, it was a scene that made waves in 1942, and probably would have still raised eyebrows twenty years later. Clara Calamai cemented her stardom in that brief, eighteen second moment when here blouse is torn off by Amedeo Nazzari. As it turns out in the course of the film, that scene is the cherry on top of other scenes with Calamai dressed in very low cut gown that barely cover her cleavage, as well as a diaphanous nightgown that does nothing to hide her nipples.

As for the film itself, the interest is probably more of a historical bent. The story is based on a 1909 play that takes place in 15th Century Florence. The title might seem misleading to those expecting some guy in a harlequin outfit. A feud between two rivals for the affection of a beautiful woman gets out of hand. Neri and his brother, Gabriello, toss Giannetto into the Arno River after tying him up in a sack. Neri claims Ginerva for himself. Ginerva is the subject of gossip, a commoner whose looks provided an entrance to royal society. The supper in question is hosted by Lorenzo De Medici. Giannetto tricks Neri into appearing as a madman, made worse when he beds the unsuspecting Ginverva who can't tell the difference between lovers in the dark.

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Some contemporary viewers may be put off by this combination of tragedy and sex farce, that seems closer in spirit to the theater of its 15th Century setting than an early 20th Century play. Sem Benelli's play even made it to Broadway, performed in 1919, starring John and Lionel Barrymore. A 1924 operatic version also followed, with a staging done in 1999 by Liliana Cavani.

For the more serious film scholar, this is one of the rare pre-World War II Italian films made available on home video, and with English subtitles. Alessandro Blasetti was a pioneer in Italian cinema, and this was one of his most popular films. The Jester's Supper also provides an opportunity to see Clara Calamai as a star in popular cinema, outside of her better known with Visconti, or as the murderous mother of Dario Argento's Deep Red. The other recognizable name in the cast is Valentina Cortese, eighteen at the time she made this film. Here, Cortese plays a young woman, one of Neri's casual romantic partners, who still loves Neri. Unlike her main competitor, Anna Magnani, Calamai never starred in any English language films. Even without the partial nudity, Clara Calamai reveals enough to make clear why in Italy, she was one of the biggest female stars of her time.

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Posted by peter at 08:27 AM

May 19, 2015

X

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Roger Corman - 1963
KL Classics BD Region A

Along with historian Tim Lucas, who provided a commentary track, and director Joe Dante, who discusses the film in the supplement section, I also have a vivid memory of seeing X theatrically. While I don't recall the exact date, it was sometime in the late Winter or early Spring of 1964. X was playing in a double feature with Jacques Tourneur's Comedy of Terrors at Varsity Theater in Evanston, Illinois. It was the Saturday matinee, and the theater was packed. What I remember best is the second shot of the film, a floating eyeball that looked like it had been ripped out from some unwilling victim, now bobbing around in a clear glass container. The audience, mostly junior high and high school kids, shrieked or laughed or maybe both. I was 12 at the time.

The shriek at the beginning of the film would be matched by the shriek of the audience in the final shot. While we never actually see him do it, Ray Milland rips out his own eye, leaving blood red holes in their place.

I've seen X twice theatrically, plus at least one time on a black and white television broadcast which was no less captivating. And while as an older, and more experienced viewer of film, I notice things the viewer is suppose to overlook, there are other things that my somewhat more sophisticated self also find adding to the more recent visits. Because I was more concerned about the story, I was oblivious to the difference between the second unit shots around Las Vegas, and close-ups of Ray Milland driving furiously on a highway outside of Los Angeles. Likewise, it didn't occur to my 12 year old self that Corman was cutting from establishing shots at an actual amusement park, to scenes filmed on studio sets. Conversely, what I noticed is how the story of Dr. Xavier depicts his decent into a hell of his own making in the settings of the major scenes, from the height of a large, multistory hospital, to the ground level of a carnival side show, to a lonely basement apartment, and finally to a vast, empty desert.

The Roger Corman commentary track is informative regarding the origin of X as originally to be about a jazz musician. Making it about a doctor doing medical research makes more sense. X does make an interesting companion piece to The Trip in that both films are about characters driven to look for some kind of hidden truth. Dr. Xavier in X is hoping to expand what can be perceived by the human eye, while the motivation in The Trip is expansion of human consciousness through LSD.

Tim Lucas finds connectivity through various science fiction stories and films, as well as the work of primary screenwriter Ray Russell. There are brief biographies of several of the cast members, and anecdotes about working with Corman or Ray Milland. One surprising bit of information was learning that 78 year old Allan Dwan had been considered for taking the directorial reigns. Considering the amount of information contained in the seventy-nine minute running time of the film, the Lucas commentary provides ample material for further critical and historical discussion regarding the place of X both as a science fiction film and the discussion of any symbolism, whether intentional or coincidental.

You won't find the rumored alternate ending, because there was no alternate ending. There is a prologue that fortunately was junked, and may have only been used for situations where getting the film closer to the ninety minute mark was required. Does X succeed for those who love this film in spite of the low budget special effects roughly approximating what is seen by Dr. Xavier, or because the special effects hint at things that could only be depicted in more realistic detail with the advent of computer generated effects? I'm not sure there will be any agreement. What I can say, along with others, is that more than fifty years later, and multiple viewings, X continues to be a very watchable movie.

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Posted by peter at 08:09 AM

May 17, 2015

Coffee Break

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Ana Torrent and Ernesto Alterio in Luna's Game (Monica Laguna - 2001)

Posted by peter at 12:02 PM

May 15, 2015

Stay as You Are

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Cosi come sei
Alberto Lattuada - 1978
Cult Epics BD

I have the feeling that even with the small handful of movies now available on home video, Alberto Lattuada will still be stuck with being known as the guy sharing a directorial credit with Federico Fellini on Variety Lights. Even with his far greater number of films, Lattuada had never distinguished himself as a filmmaker in the way that Fellini had, more of a craftsman than artist. Stay as You Are never changed things for Lattuada even though it was probably the closest he came to an international success.

Stay as You Are is mostly famous for thrusting the then eighteen year old Nattassja Kinksi into the spotlight. As the obituary in The Guardian points out, Lattuada had an eye for young female talent. One of the best examples for me was his segment for the omnibus Love in the City, with men falling over each other as eighteen year old Giovanna Ralli walks around Rome. Almost twenty-five years later, Lattuada was able to show what in the past could only be imagined, with scenes of a nude Kinski during the final twenty minutes.

Some of Lattuada's films revolve around men who place themselves in situations that they can not control. The fortune of a poorly paid clerk to purchase an expensive overcoat in The Overcoat leads to his early death when the coat is stolen on a cold winter night. The middle aged office bureaucrat who wins the hearts of three homely, but wealthy, spinsters in Come Have Coffee with Us is reduced to an almost infantile state following an unexpected heart attack, presumably from to much sexual exertion. For Giulio, his dilemma is how to respond to the flirtatious Francesca, who may, or may not, be his daughter from an almost forgotten affair from twenty years ago.

That Giulio is portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni, it's almost a given that the guy is more adept at being a lover than somebody's father or husband. At one point, Giulio is seen reading the novel Homo Faber, about a similar situation with a tragic ending for most of the characters. Unlike author Max Frisch, Lattuada doesn't clarify the relationship, and ends his story on a bittersweet note.

The main selling point of the film is the very young and very naked Nastassja Kinski. Arguably, Lattuada teeters on a very thin line between the tasteful and the prurient. There is also a scene of Kinski stumbling in on a party hosted by her roommate, with all of the guests undressed and in active couplings. Lattuada was sixty-three at the time he made this film, and there is the sense that he was straining to be as contemporary as the newer generation of Italian filmmakers, particularly Bernardo Bertolucci. Not so coincidentally, Stay as You Are was produced by cousin, Giovanni Bertolucci.

The blu-ray has both English and Italian language tracks. I went for the Italian track because even though Ms. Kinski is dubbed in both versions, I like listening to Mastroianni in his own, familiar, voice. A supplemental bonus is the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

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Posted by peter at 08:17 AM

May 13, 2015

For the Love of Film - The Film Preservation Blogathon: Spaceways

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Terence Fisher - 1953
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

"Space is a cold place to die!" doesn't quite grab your attention like "In space, no one can hear you scream". Back when Spaceways was produced, just the idea of a man traveling by rocket was still sufficiently the stuff of science fiction, the first artificial satellite, the Russian Sputnik still about five years in the future, with Yuri Gagarin making his historic voyage in 1961.

For most of its brief running time, people talk about space travel, but most of the action is earthbound. A coproduction of the low budget Lippert Pictures with Hammer Film Productions, Spaceways is one of several films that had a second string Hollywood star with a primarily British cast. Howard Duff is the American scientist. Stephen Mitchell, who works with a small team on Britain's space program. Also on the team are the boyishly enthusiastic Toby Andrews, the unctuous Philip Crenshaw and the obligatory smart babe of the bunch, Lisa Frank, whose also the exotic foreigner from an unnamed European country. (For those interested, the life of Eva Bartok was more dramatic than any of her films.)

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The scientists attend a party where it has been announced that funding has been approved for more experiments. We first see Stephen's wife, Vanessa, the bored with the scientific chit-chat, her pinched face suggesting that she's doing her best to keep from breathing a nearby fart. Claiming a headache, she leaves the party, followed by Crenshaw. The two make plans to run away together, and are spied upon by Stephen. Prior to going home, Stephen takes a walk with Lisa to her place. They way the two look at each other, it's obvious they would rather knock boots than shake hands. Vanessa later complains that Stephen could be making significantly more money for private industry instead of toiling for the government. As far as Stephen is concerned, he wants to see his current work completed.

Vanessa and Crenshaw later disappear. No one knows where they are, but a certain Dr. Smith suspects that Stephen murdered the lovers, and stuffed their bodies in a rocket that is currently orbiting the earth. There is also a mystery concerning missing rocket fuel. The only way Stephen can hope to clear his name is to retrieve the rocket, and coincidentally be the first man in space.

It's only in the last few minutes that Terence Fisher displays any hint of the style he would bring to the horror films that won him fame. What we have is marginally film noir for the bulk of the first sixty-four minutes, with science fiction talking over for the final ten minutes. Unlike some films from about the same time, the interior of the rocket here is hardly dazzling in its gadgetry, but mostly brutally utilitarian. Those metal chairs don't look comfortable for any kind of travel. The space suits consist of dark plastic jump suits with heavy divers helmets.

Being short of running time and money, Spaceways ends a bit abruptly, and too easily. For a few brief moments, with Stephen and Lisa adrift in orbit, the end of Spaceways could have been the beginning of Gravity.

This entry is part of the For the Love of Film - The Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod and Wonders in the Dark. The goal is to raise $10,000 for the preservation of the silent romantic comedy short, Cupid in Quarantine, with online viewing made available through the National Film Preservation Foundation. So get off your, um, duff, and make a donation.

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Posted by peter at 09:15 AM

May 11, 2015

The Evil Eye

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La ragazza che sapeva troppo / The Girl who Knew too Much
Mario Bava - 1963
Kino Classics BD Region A

Was it murder, or was it a dream about a murder? Tim Lucas, in his commentary, mostly taken from his exhaustive book on Mario Bava, lists films and books that had influenced various aspects of this film, also known as The Girl who Knew too Much. Lucas also discusses how Bava had probably influenced Dario Argento. For myself, there is an unintended connection to Lucio Fulci. Bava's "girl", Nora, is first seen as a woman in a lizard's skin, a snakeskin coat. About eight years later, Fulci made A Lizard in a Woman's Skin. Both films are about women who may have confused dreams about murder with real events, and possible drug induced hallucinations. Add to this that both Bava's film and Fulci's were both distributed in the United States by American-International. While the Bava film was retitled The Evil Eye, the initially planned English language title, and that of the Fulci film, retitled Schizoid, indicates the influence of Alfred Hitchcock, primarily has as a point of reference for capturing audience attention.

The new blu-ray provides the ability to see two variations of what is essentially the same movie. The main difference is that the English language version released as The Evil Eye has a few extra minutes of comedy, mostly with with Leticia Roman bumping head first into Rome, and an appearance by Bava, in a photograph, that recalls a similar sight gag in Sullivan's Travels. What makes this something of a challenge to traditional film scholarship is that there is no definitive version as such, but one made primarily for an Italian audience, another for American audiences. The original production was instigated by American-International following the success of Bava's Black Sunday. As was common at the time, the actors performed in their own language, to be dubbed later, so that if one is concerned about which version is in the "correct" language, it would arguably be English.

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It seems fortuitous that Bava's film would star an Italian-American actor, John Saxon, and an Italian born American actress, Leticia Roman, originally Carmine Orrico and Letizia Novarese. There may be a joke about a Saxon and a Roman here. Was Roman cast because of her big, Margaret Keane sized eyes? There are several shots that emphasize those eyes that may not coincidentally remind some of the eyes of Barbara Steele. Roman's eyes look bigger here than they appear in the stills from her other films, as if Bava somehow grafted the eyes of Steele onto an actress who could have easily passed as a California beach bunny. In any event, the casting of the two stars made the film less foreign for American audiences.

In his book, Lucas explains how Eye/Girl was not the first giallo, or even a proto-giallo. What is certain is that the film, a financial failure in Italy, given minimal release elsewhere, has developed greater interest and respect as part of the overall interest in Mario Bava's career. Like other Bava film's the narrative aspects are almost besides the point. The reason to see Eye/Girl is for the fantastic images, of deserted Rome at night, the zig-zag web that Nora creates to trap potential intruders, the ghostly image of Nora reflected on the window of an old fashioned elevator in a seemingly vacant apartment building. Lucas' commentary can be heard along with The Girl who Knew too Much, and if you haven't read his book, be sure to give it a listen. See both versions, decide for yourself if one version is better than the other. Or to put it another way, let the films speak for themselves.

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Posted by peter at 08:07 AM

May 10, 2015

Coffee Break

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Ugo Tognazzi in Come Have Coffee with Us (Alberto Lattuada - 1970)

Posted by peter at 06:12 AM

May 08, 2015

Skin Trade

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Koo Sat Antarai
Ekachai Uekrongtham - 2015
Magnolia Pictures

Admittedly, Tony Jaa's ability to speak English is stiff. Fortunately, he remains fluent in kicking ass, which he does several times throughout Skin Trade. There may not be the gravity defying balletic moves of Ong-Bak, but as far as I'm concerned, watching Tony Jaa use his Muay Thai skills to punch and kick the bad guys is a thing of beauty.

Originally conceived by star Dolph Lungren, it is an interesting choice that he chose to turn the directorial reigns over to Ekachai Uekrongtham. Most of the film takes place in a series of dark passageways and side streets, dimly lit houses and night clubs. The title refers to human trafficking, and the film is a journey through a kind of hell. The milieu also recalls Ekachai's last film to get U.S. distribution, Pleasure Factory, about prostitutes in a red light section of Singapore.

A New Jersey cop, Nick Cassidy, is in pursuit of Serbian mobster Viktor Dragovic. In collaboration with the F.B.I., there is a successful bust involving Dragovic and a freight container with about thirty young girls. When the container is opened it is enough to see the reaction of Dragovic and one of his sons, and the buzzing of flies, to know that the girls did not survive the long boat trip. Temporarily imprisoned, Dragovic is released long enough to flee the U.S. He also has someone fire bomb Cassidy's house, apparently killing Cassidy's wife and daughter. In spite of several serious wounds, Cassidy drags himself out of the hospital and onto the next flight to Bangkok, now with personal motivation for finding Dragovic.

That Lungren has a physically powerful presence, even just a few years shy of Sixty, is undeniable. His presence is more interesting with a face that is weatherbeaten, and deeply lined, providing an unstated back story of a life as a test of physical endurance, pain, and humanity. Lungren was also smart in knowing that surrounding himself with top actors is always an asset. Aside for Tony Jaa, there is the consistently reliable Ron Perlman as Dragovic, Michael Jai White as the F.B.I. agent who works with Cassidy, and a brief appearance by Peter Weller, the original RoboCop. Lungren cowrote the screenplay with Gabriel Dowrick and Steven Elder, with uncredited assistance from action auteur John Hyams.

Some of the film takes place in Poipet, a town on the Cambodian side of the Thai-Cambodian border, and reportedly a tourist trap of the worst sort. Even though it may not be intentional, Skin Trade might reenforce the popular conception of Thailand as a place for western men to come get drunk and have cheap sex with possibly underaged girls. To put it in perspective, consider the impression might get of Los Angeles or New York City from watching films like Kiss Me Deadly or While the City Sleeps, classic Fifties film noir.

Skin Trade has ends with the suggestion that there could be a sequel. I certainly hope so.

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Posted by peter at 06:46 AM

May 07, 2015

Winter Sleep

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Kış Uykusu
Nuri Bilge Ceylan - 2014
Adopt Films BD Region A

Sometimes, being a film critic is like being a gourmand at a buffet table. I am sometimes offered more films to write about than I really have time to cover. My other problem is to recognize that there are some films that I really am unable to write about. These are films that are worth watching, but that I feel I can not write about in any meaningful way. Such is the case of Winter Sleep.

I've seen several of Ceylan's previous films. I wrote a short review of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. And it's not like this is a bad film. This is not going to be a rant stating that the other film critics and Cannes jurors who liked or loved this film are wrong.

Maybe I have to come to grips with my own limited intelligence. Part of the film is devoted to a discussion about how one is to deal with evil. One of the characters is certain that the way to reform her abusive husband is to apologize to him with assumption that her act will create in the man a sense of shame. Aside from my inability to be convinced by the woman's argument, the conversation became too abstract and not very interesting. And it's not like I don't like people having philosophical discussions in movies. Most of My Night at Maud's is Jean-Louis Trintignant having a high brow discussion with Francoise Fabian, and I've seen Eric Rohmer's film several times, including television. I also liked Mindwalk with Liv Ullman discussing abstract ideas with John Heard and Sam Waterston, wandering around Mont St. Michel.

There were a few moments of interest, the scenes with the wild horses, the exploration of the rocky landscape with the hotel build within a mountain top. And I would not think of dissuading anyone who wants to see Ceylan's film. Every film worth watching usually has its own set of demands on the viewer. This was one of those rare times when I found myself unable to connect with what was happening onscreen.

Posted by peter at 01:14 PM

May 06, 2015

Kung Fu Killer

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Kung Fu Jungle / Yi ge ren de wu lin
Teddy Chan - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment

Donnie Yen recently won the Hong Kong Film Awards prize for Best Action Choreography. It's an award that is well deserved. And this is one of the few times when I would say that sticking around for the final credits is mandatory. Not only are the various guest stars given credit, but Yen and Chan seem to have crammed in cameos for many of the behind the camera crew. Above all, Kung Fu Killer is a love letter to Hong Kong martial arts movies.

The Chinese language title translates roughly as "Last of the Best", but I also like Kung Fu Jungle because it's more suggestive of the idea of fighting until there is only one clear winner. Yen plays a martial artist doing prison time for causing the death of an opponent. Made aware that someone is murdering various martial arts champions, he arranges to help the police find the killer, based on his suspicions of the identity of the killer and his methodology. The killer is man with one leg shorter than the other, who has dedicated his life to martial arts training. With the death of his wife, and seemingly nothing to lose, the killer sees his only purpose as proving himself the ultimate martial arts master.

To some degree, the setup is similar to Henry King's The Gunfighter, with Gregory Peck reflective of his past deeds, while young punk Richard Jaeckel is itching to prove himself the fastest gun in the West. Beyond the discussions of the philosophical underpinnings of martial arts, there are the action set pieces that are worth noting. One very unexpected sight is a rooftop chase, with Yen almost lost in a sea of cloth, rows of laundry lines with blue sheets. It's a painterly image that is totally unexpected. The fight scenes are filmed to emphasize the more balletic qualities of movement. Of special interest is a sword fight that displays the agility of the opponents, as well shifting to a duel involving pole fighting and a knife, so that within this scene, the distance between the opponents keeps changing as they change weapons.

Wang Baoqiang portrays the killer, and it's no surprise that his acting was noticed. The sleepy-eyed Wang usually is seen in more amiable or comic roles. Here, he's a bundle of rage against the world, ready to destroy by fist, foot or weapon, anything or anybody in his way. At the same time he works to overcome his perceived physical handicap, his wife is unable to overcome her cancer. His monomania is never explained, although the flashbacks suggest that this is someone living at the very margins of society, misguidedly attempting to make his mark in the world.

Kung Fu Killer takes place in a Hong Kong where there is always a classic martial arts movie on television. Even if the faces are not always familiar, viewers should be able to recognize some of the names of those making brief onscreen appearances, both martial arts stars from the glory days of the Shaw Brothers, to producer Ramond Chow and director Andrew Lau. The closing music is of the type from Chinese Opera, with strings and cymbals, a reminder of the genre's theatrical roots.

#kungfukiller@wellgousa

Posted by peter at 07:02 AM

May 04, 2015

The McKenzie Break

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Lamont Johnson - 1970
KL Classics BD Region A

I still have some memory of when The McKenzie Break played in New York City in 1970. I'm pretty sure that United Artists was hoping the film would make some money, but this was basically a modest production intended to keep product flowing from the studio to the theaters. Unexpectedly, some film critics took notice. It was enough to get me to hop on a subway to a neighborhood theater in Manhattan's Upper West Side, away from my usual screenings in Greenwich Village. What I also recall was that, while not up their with The Great Escape, The McKenzie Break was a good, solid film.

For any younger readers here, there was a time when movies that took place during World War II were a viable genre. Even during the time of the Vietnam war, and even without pontificating on the evils of war, such as Paths of Glory. These were essentially "adventure films". One might identify those movies about soldiers escaping from P.O.W. camps as a sub-genre. These films routinely were about Allied soldiers escaping from German camps, such as the previously mentioned The Great Escape, The Colditz Story and The Wooden Horse come to mind. The only previous English language film I'm aware of with any Germans escaping an Allied camp is Roy Ward Baker's The One that Got Away, from 1957. Baker's film was forgotten when Johnson's film was released, but part of the interest in this film was that it was about German soldiers escaping from a camp in Scotland.

The prisoners are all officers, under the command of Captain Schlueter. Not only does Schlueter and his men not cooperate with their captors, a frustrated lot of British soldiers, but he is able to intimated them to the point where he has claimed ownership of the grounds inside the barb wire fence. A tunnel is being dug with an attempted escape imminent. The Irish Captain Jack Connor is enlisted by intelligence to try and find out why there is an extreme discipline problem at Camp McKenzie. It takes someone who disregards some of the rules of military protocol to take on Schlueter.

With a career primarily in episodic television, as well as making a name for himself with the then novel concept of movies made for television, Lamont Johnson was probably initially hired for his economical filming methods. One scene that stands out is early in the film. Refusing to leave their respective barracks, the German soldiers signal each other when the British soldiers are about to enter the inner part of the camp. Johnson uses a zoom lens to catch the hand signals between buildings, zooming forwards or backwards, as required by the shot, through the windows.

The other genre flip is rooting for the escape plan to fail. As Schlueter, Helmut Griem's Teutonic good looks play against his basic ruthlessness, calling out a Luftwaffe pilot as "queer" for refusing to support his rebellion, and his disregard shown later towards the other prisoners. It seems fitting that like the director, the film's star, Brian Keith, would be an actor known for traversing between television and movies. Keith's physical build consistently projected the idea of solidity. Mostly what he does here is crack wise with an Irish accent. And that's really all he needs to do.

Lamont Johnson probably is better remembered for his television movies, controversial at the time, That Certain Summer and The Execution of Private Slovik. His handful of theatrical films are an inconsistent bunch, though not without interest, with the other critical high point being The Last American Hero, a film embraced by Pauline Kael.

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Posted by peter at 12:59 PM

May 03, 2015

Coffee Break

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Renato Rascel and Giulio Cali in The Overcoat (Alberto Lattuada - 1952)

Posted by peter at 07:58 AM