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January 31, 2016

Coffee Break

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Dax Shepard and Tom Arnold in Hit & Run (Dax Shepard & David Palmer - 2012)

Posted by peter at 09:48 AM

January 26, 2016

The Assassin

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Cike Nie Yinniang
Hou Hsiao-Hsien - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

For those who may not have had the opportunity to see The Assassin theatrically, rest assured that the blu-ray keeps the 4:3 aspect ratio, with the exception of the "zither scene". The extraordinary use of color is here as well. Still, there are certain moments which may be lost unless the film is seen on a relatively large screen.

The blu-ray comes with four very short "making of" vignettes which are worth seeing because Hou discusses his intentions when he made the film, as well as his method of filmmaking. Cinematographer Mark Lee, costumer and production designer Hwarng Wern-Ying, and stars Shu Qi and Chang Chen also contribute their thoughts on working with Hou. What makes these bonus features important is that The Assassin needs to be understood and appreciated on its own terms, rather than the genre expectations that usually come with a wuxia film.

Hou undercuts those expectations by keeping the fight scenes brief, and by often filming those scenes from a distance. In a sword fight against several soldiers, Hou has a couple of shots of Shu Qi and her adversaries in medium shots before cutting to a long shot where the characters are barely seen in the distance, the action mostly obscured by trees in the forest. In a duel with a swords woman wearing a gold mask, Hou immediately begins with the two women engaged, sword against sword, jumping into what would be the middle of the scene in traditional narrative filmmaking. There is a little bit of wire work, including a scene with Chang Chen chasing Shu Qi across a roof top, a small nod to the more classic wuxia film.

Hou is known for his long takes. There are a couple of shots where the the camera doesn't move, where the viewer needs to concentrate to notice the movement within the frame. Hou talks about letting nature dictate some of the shots, waiting for the wind to blow, making him akin to David Lean, but on a more intimate scale. One of the advantages of being able to see The Assassin on home video is that allows the viewer the leisure to contemplate the carefully arranged palate of colors, the silk costumes and curtains, and use of light and shadow.

This is Shu Qi's third film with Hou. Mostly dialogue free, and seemingly expressionless, Hou deliberately makes Nie Yinniang enigmatic. It's a fitting performance in a film where family relationships also have much larger political meanings, and where what is unspoken can be more important that what is said.

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Posted by peter at 05:32 PM

January 24, 2016

Coffee Break

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"Jennifer Jason Leigh" in Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson - 2015)

Posted by peter at 05:54 AM

January 21, 2016

Ip Man 3

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Wilson Yip - 2015
Well Go USA Enterainment

I'm not sure how factual Ip Man 3 is beyond the famed martial arts teacher having a school in Hong Kong, taking a young Bruce Lee as his student, and having his his wife die in 1960. The real Ip Man was born in 1893, and would have been 66 or 67 years old in 1959 through 1960 when the film takes place. The charitable thing here is to think of Ip Man 3 as a fictional film with a couple of factoids as well as a handful of facts tossed in.

That said, the pleasure here is watching Donnie Yen in what he claims to be his final martial arts film. Whether it really is or not remains to be seen. That the film is getting a wider theatrical release in the United States gives the audiences anticipating Rogue One: A Star Wars Story the opportunity to see Donnie Yen doing what he does best on the big screen. Yen, a bit past 50 years old, is still remarkable in his athleticism. There's a kind of grace in Yen's movements that makes me think of Gene Kelly. And Yen is so self-confident that he has no problem seen with the noticeably taller Lynn Hung as his wife. Overlook the gimmick that he's about to fight Mike Tyson. Prior to the fight, Yen takes a position with one leg in a crouching position, with another leg extended forward on the floor, holding that position, staying perfectly still. One of the things I like about Donnie Yen is his ability to convey a sense of concentration, of thinking and anticipating his moves, as well as those of his opponents.

Wilson Yip films the martial arts with relatively lengthy shots with two or more fighters within the shots, giving a sense of how the opponents are interacting with each other, as well as a sense of space within the scene. By lengthy, I'm still talking about seconds, but still long enough for the actors to make to make three or four moves, and give the viewer the chance to see each punch, kick or block. Yip's lengthiest shots are relatively elaborate, with the camera completely overhead and moving following Yen and an opponent fighting through hallways and stairs. One would wish that with some of the dazzling cinematography, that Ip Man 3 could be seen in 3D as in Hong Kong, and in March, in mainland China.

Mike Tyson as a badass gangster might have been somewhat more believable had someone covered that tribal tattoo. Overlooking that anachronism, Tyson is impressive punching a speed bag. Yen also gets into a fight in an elevator with a Thai boxer, played by Sarut Khanwilai. If Sarut looks a lot like the most famous martial arts star from Thailand, that's no coincidence, as he's Tony Jaa's stunt double in the film Skin Trade. As Ip Man's friend and rival, Max Zhang's performance here suggests potential for taking some of the roles that would have previously been considered for Yen or Jet Li. Zhang had previously appeared in the most critically acclaimed film about Ip Man, The Grandmaster, along with action director Yuen Woo-Ping.

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Posted by peter at 06:01 AM

January 19, 2016

Buraikan

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Masahiro Shinoda - 1970
Toho Home Video Region 2

We won't be able to see it until November, but one of the more anticipated films of this year would be Martin Scorsese's version of Silence. Will Masahiro Shinoda's version be more widely available in the U.S. by that time, for comparison? I don't have the answer. If not, hopefully those more scholarly, or merely curious, critics will get the British DVD. Will Scorsese's film encourage greater interest in the films of Shinoda? If the aftermath of The Departed is any indication, with the indifference to Andrew Lau's Revenge of the Green Dragons and the stateside absence of Alan Mak's successful Overheard series, probably not. For myself, I did a little bit of research, trying to find where Scorsese and Shinoda intersect beyond their respective films based on Shusaku Endo's novel.

There are some commonalities between the two filmmakers. The main characters are those who live in the margins of society. Discussions regarding Scorsese and Shinoda also discuss the violent content in their respective films. There might have been more similarity had Shinoda chosen to make more films about Japanese gangsters, the yakuza, but he made one, Pale Flower, with a scene that Kimberly Lindbergs cites as possibly having had an influence on Taxi Driver. I would guess that Paul Schrader, who pretty much introduced the yakuza genre to American audiences, would have been familiar with Shinoda's film. And in Buraikan, written by Shuji Terayama, a character proclaims, "I've always wanted to cut virgin skin". The distance to the Schrader penned, "You should see what a .44 Magnum's gonna do to a woman's pussy you should see", seems very close.

What also links these two lines is that they are spoken by men reacting in the most misogynistic terms to disruptions of traditional social order. In Buraikan, taking place in the late 19th Century, near the end of the Shogunate era, Lord Mizuno is trying to impose a series of "reforms", essentially an imposition of rules against various forms of entertainment and pleasure, especially those enjoyed by members of the lower castes. The ranting passenger, played by director Martin Scorsese, in Taxi Driver is not only a cuckold, but additionally resentful that his wife is with a black man. Both films are about characters navigating their way through cultural changes in their respective environments, 19th Century Edo and 1970s New York City.

There is a casual connection in how those environments are presented. New York City is seen mostly in the form of neon signs, garish lights and movie theater marquees. Shinoda's Edo is more deliberately theatrical and artificial with painting of the era appearing on the walls of buildings. There is also some overlap between the two main characters of each film, each attempting to act heroically in their respective stories. Naojiro Kataoka is a would be actor who finally gets his chance, not on the stage, but as part of the rebellion against Lord Mizuno. Travis Bickle essentially creates a role for himself - the famous monologue is like a play rehearsal, while the Mohawk haircut is part of his costume as vigilante.

I have yet to find Shinoda and Scorsese making comments on each other's films, much less discuss Silence. Where the two have some kind of common ground in their careers is that they began when the film industries of Japan and Hollywood were looking to new directors to attract a younger audience. Shinoda retired from filmmaking in 2003, following the box office and critical failure of his film, Spy Sorge. Eleven years younger, Scorsese has maintained the kind of commercial viability and critical attention to allow him to make a more truly personal film, with retirement unimaginable with several announced future projects. I would hope that even if the two directors don't engage in any dialogue, that there is the kind of discussion that brings about renewed attention to Masahiro Shinoda's films.

Posted by peter at 02:29 PM

January 17, 2016

Coffee Break

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Fernando Cerulli in Watch Me When I Kill! (Antonio Bido - 1977)

Posted by peter at 09:47 AM

January 12, 2016

Figures in a Landscape

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Joseph Losey - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

If the title evokes some kind of abstract painting, that's no accident. The two men seen running in silhouette are eventually seen, but the landscape that they are running through is an unnamed country. It takes a while before the names of the two men, apparently escaped prisoners, are revealed. The men are pursued by a helicopter, operated by another pair of men, unseen save for the back of their helmets. The relationship between these two groups of men is underlined by shots cutting between the helicopter and an eagle, another bird of prey. The helicopter/bird motif is further stressed by one of the tag lines used in the posters for the film.

That very little is explained in Figures in a Landscape may be why Joseph Losey's film was given minimal release in the United States, in the midst of Losey's peak period, commercially and artistically. I saw the film when it played in New York City's First Avenue Screening Room, a small theater with a screen often described as "postage stamp size". This was a theater that provided week long runs for artier fare that was deemed to have no commercial potential. Star Robert Shaw might have attracted a small audience, while Malcolm McDowell was still relatively unknown in his second theatrical film, following If . . .

What I was unaware at the time was that originally Figures was to be directed by Peter Medak, and star Peter O'Toole. Shaw, who also wrote the screenplay from a novel by Barry England, was probably better suited for the physically demanding role as the older prisoner. Joseph Losey is someone not thought of to take on a film involving a lot of running through mountains and beaches, with the occasional firing of guns. In between the mostly house-bound Secret Ceremony and The Go-Between, Losey was in Spain, with a film that takes place primarily out in the open.

Some of the thematic concerns that frequently appear in Losey's films pop up in the beginning of Figures. Arguments based on age and class threaten to get in the way of any plans McDowell and Shaw may have of crossing the border. The two realize soon enough that they are better off together than apart. In what is essentially a two character film, Losey keeps his two actors within the same frame for most of the story, providing the appropriate visual corollary to their shared situation.

Something that I had overlooked when I saw Figures about forty-five years ago, was how grueling the filming would have been for Shaw and McDowell. The two have their hands tied behind their backs for the first half hour, all while dodging the pursuing helicopter mostly through mountains and woods. Later, McDowell and Shaw crawl though farmland that is both flooded and on fire. The fire is caused by incendiary devices tossed for the helicopter. Briefly, Losey makes visual reference to Viet-Nam, the very real war taking place during the time of the film's production and release. Viewers who demand explanations for everything they see on screen will no doubt be frustrated by Figures in a Landscape. For myself, Losey's film still holds up well after all these years.

* * * From Kimberly Lindbergs, prior to the U.S. home video release.

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Posted by peter at 06:00 AM

January 10, 2016

Coffee Break

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Robert De Niro and Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese - 1976)

Posted by peter at 08:39 AM

January 07, 2016

Memories of the Sword

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Hyeomnyeo: Kar-ui gi-eo
Park Heung-shik - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

For the first few minutes, I had high hopes for Memories of the Sword. I'm susceptible to the charms of plucky young women clearly skilled in sword-fighting, even it's with a bamboo stick. I could even forgive a convoluted story in which three of the main characters are known by two different names as part of their particular story details. What gets in the way is how Park Heung-shik is over-reliant on acrobatics achieved with wire works and CGI.

The story involves a romantic triangle, two men and a woman, master sword fighters, fighting against a corrupt governor, during the Goryeo era, roughly the equivalent of Europe's High and Late Middle Ages. One of the men sells out betraying the other two. The narrative also includes two daughters, one of whom is trained to avenge the death of her parents, the main portion of the film. What ensues are the revealings of true identities, ending with what has lately become a cinematic cliche, the sword fight in the snow.

I've only seen one other film by Park, Bravo, My Life!, a more modest production buoyed up by the presence of Moon So-Ri. Between these two films lies the suspicion that Park's ability to tell a story is uneven at best, and that he gets by with a capable cast, whose conviction in their roles covers up Park's weaknesses.

One aspect that I did find of interest, something that is not seen but in a small handful of Asian films, is that part of the film takes place fleetingly in an Arabian section of a Korean city. There is also an Arab who is a minor character. This is the kind of moment that makes me wish that the film was more historically rooted, rather than being a martial arts fantasy.

Jeon Do-yeon is probably the best known cast member, seen here as the blind, former swords woman, and mother of Hong-ki, the young woman seeking revenge. During the very brief time that films from South Korea played in stateside art houses, Jeon was seen in Secret Sunshine and the remake of The Housemaid. Kim Go-eun, as Hong-Ki, looks much younger than her actual age. Kim is more interesting as a sometimes smart-alecky teenager, acting on impulse, than when taking her too frequent gravity defying flights in the course of a duel, or trying to outrun her pursuer. All said, the historical details, and the quality of the production should have been used for a film that too often appears to be a retread of the imitators of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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Posted by peter at 09:37 AM

January 05, 2016

The Captive City

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Robert Wise - 1952
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

"Ripped from the newspaper headlines" is how it would have been proclaimed back when Robert Wise made this film. The topicality of The Captive City is probably the main reason why Wise's follow-up to The Day the Earth Stood Still doesn't generate the kind of attention or love of the earlier work. That this film was also endorsed by Congressman Estes Kefauver, who also makes an appearance, will probably be meaningless to a younger generation of viewers. Back in the days when television was something broadcast over no more channels than the fingers of one hand, Kefauver was a celebrity politician for his hearings on organized crime, part of the inspiration for The Captive City.

As a former editor, most famously at RKO for Orson Welles, Wise takes the expression, "cut to the chase" literally here. The film opens with newspaper reporter John Forsythe furiously driving down the highway, pursued by another car, until he stops at the nearest police station. Fearing for his life, he talks the desk sergeant into letting him use the station tape recorder to tell his story about the events that have led to the threats against his life. Most of The Captive City takes place in a small town where it would seem that virtually every place of business is a front for small time betting, all secretly under the control of some guys seen wearing trench coats and broad brim hats. These out of town guys are also known to hide their Italian last names.

The narrative elements are of some historical interest, but what really makes makes The Captive City ripe for reconsideration is that visually, this is Robert Wise at his most Wellesian. There are a couple of shots where a character breaks into the frame in close-up, with the other characters positioned in the back. Several conversations are filmed as a two shot, the term used for two people within the frame. One of the actors is placed in close-up in the foreground, while the other actor is seen further back. Wise also has a few deep focus shots, such as one of Forsythe at the entrance of his newspaper office, the hallway, dark, empty, almost forbidding. That the main character of The Captive City is an idealistic newspaper journalist, and co-owner of a small town paper, albeit one who retains his idealism, seems almost too coincidental following Wise's participation on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Lee Garmes' credit as cinematographer comes with the subtitle mentioning that Garmes was using something called the "Hoge lens". Sharp eyed viewers will then note Ralph Hoge getting credit as Assistand Director. There seems to be bit of Hollywood history that requires a bit more exploration, but Ralph Hoge, with the camera lens that bears his name, was the key grip on those two previously mentioned films by Orson Welles, and would have had some practical experience in making deep focus a reality for his director.

The Captive City may well be of interest to fans of of Fifties and Sixties television. This was John Forsythe's first film where he received top billing. Ray Teal, part of the Bonanza stock company, appears here as the compromised small town police chief. Martin Milner, twenty-one at the time, but appearing like he only outgrew puberty the day before, is the enthusiastic photographer for Forsythe's newspaper. And Paul Brinegar, clean shaven unlike his grizzled, bearded cook in Rawhide, is seen as the desk sergeant who offers Forsythe safe haven in the police station.

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Posted by peter at 04:24 PM

January 03, 2016

Coffee Break

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Ashley Hinshaw and Heather Graham in About Cherry (Stephen Elliott - 2012)

Posted by peter at 05:04 PM