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February 28, 2016

Coffee Break

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Celeste Holm, Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds in The Tender Trap (Charles Walters - 1955)

Posted by peter at 06:33 AM

February 25, 2016

Lost in Hong Kong

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Gang Jiong
Xu Zheng - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

Since taking over the Lost series, star-writer-director Xu Zheng has indicated that should the series continue, the films will have the same basic premise but also stand alone with different characters. Lost in Hong Kong can be enjoyed by those who haven't seen Lost in Journey or Lost in Thailand, the two previous entries in the extremely popular and profitable Chinese series. As indicated in the title, Xu Zheng has misadventures in Hong Kong, although this time, Bao Bei'er inherits the shaggy wig from Wang Baoqiang, as the traveling companion who always finds a way to make a messy situation even messier.

As one who has seen almost all of the films referenced in an early sequence, the part that worked best was of Xu and Du Juan as two Chinese mainland art students in 1994, alternating between painting large posters for Hong Kong films from the 80s and 90s, with excerpts from those films. Much of the soundtrack is provided by Cantopop singers, most notably Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung. Xu provides an overload of references to Hong Kong films, making Quentin Tarantino look restrained in comparison. The precedence for this was Hollywood director Frank Tashlin, whose gags in films made in the 50s and 60s provided inspiration for Jean-Luc Godard, who in turn inspired QT. I don't know if Xu Zheng has any familiarity with Tashlin, but in addition to the basic story of an artist's ambitions being thwarted (Artists and Models), there's a subplot with Xu and Boa literally crashing into the set of a film in production (Hollywood or Bust), with Hong Kong director Wong Jing as himself, and Xu's career as a designer of brassieres (primarily Tashlin's films with Jayne Mansfield). Xu's career also recalls a very funny Hong Kong film from 2001, La Brassiere, which also is reminiscent of Frank Tashlin.

Xu plays the former art student, Xu Lai, now bra designer, under pressure from his wife and her family to father offsprings, hoping to rekindle his relationship with Yang Yi, now a world famous artist, presenting her work in Hong Kong. Xu's brother-in-law, Cai Lala, gets in the way, filming Xu at every point for a proposed documentary. I don't know who's responsible for this error, but Cai's inspiration is mis-named Paul Flaherty, rather than Robert. Along the way, there is the accidental filming of a murder, crooked cops, aging hookers in "Sailor Moon" costumes, and cameos by actors recognizable by the most hard core Hong Kong movie fan, with the exception claimed by the unmistakeable Lam Suet. The results are more frenetic than funny.

Zhao Wei's appearance as Xu's wife has some moments of humor, but mostly wastes the talents of this popular actress. Lost in Hong Kong was the most popular film in mainland China of last year, until the release of Monster Hunt. While Xu's film did relatively well in a limited stateside release, what some audiences may have found ingratiating, others may find simply grating.

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Posted by peter at 02:27 PM

February 23, 2016

Gog

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Herbert L. Strock - 1954
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Restored after a little more than fifty years to its original 3D glory, it turns out that the only way you can see Gog in 3D is with a 3D blu-ray player. Even though I didn't get the opportunity to have get virtually poke by a hypodermic needle, or have Richard Egan aim a flame thrower at my face, the "flat" version of Gog is still worth checking out for the use of color. The color scheme is made up of solid primary colors, noticeable with brown jumpsuit worn by Richard Egan, and the green jumpsuit for Constance Dowling, with the scientists in white lab coats. The red lights in the hallways of the underground laboratory, where most of the film takes place, also add to the visual qualities that may have taken their queues from comic books. While I wish I could see Gog in 3D, I don't feel like I'm missing a lot in the flat version.

Richard Egan comes to the secret, underground laboratory in New Mexico, to investigate mysterious deaths that have taken place, possibly due to mechanical failure, but seemingly caused by sabotage. Egan is from the OSI, Office of Scientific Investigation. The lab functions with a computer called N.O.V.A.C., Nuclear Operative Variable Automatic Computer. In the lab are two robots, Gog and Magog. And here is where I wish the commentary track, mostly by Tom Weaver, had been more insightful. We have a computer, with a name that is Eastern European, and two killer robots with biblical names. The cold war aspects to Gog aren't mentioned in the commentary track. Maybe William Ahearn will revisit this film in its new blu-ray glory. Not that any person or country is named here, but I'm certain that audiences of the time got the hint that Gog was about a little more than robots running amuck.

I'm not sure how much of the audience then cared about whether anything discussed was, or would be, scientifically feasible. Back during the time of production, computers were huge room sized machines, considered exotic, and operated by scientists. Where producer Ivan Tors, responsible for the original story, almost gets things right is with the gender parity, of featuring female scientists in the cast. Almost, because of a scene where a woman freaks out from the onslaught of ear piercing sounds, and Egan slaps her, immediately causing her to regain composure. Where Gog holds up best is during scenes of mayhem, when nothing can stop the various gizmos from getting out of control.

The two supplements are valuable. One discusses the restoration of Gog, which involved finding the "left-eye" version of the film in order to recreate the 3D version. There is also a video interview with Herbert Strock, shot in 2003, two years before his death. Strock, who had monoscopic vision, gives ample credit to cinematographer Lothrop Worth, and his use of the camera system used to make a 3D movie.

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Posted by peter at 02:40 PM

February 21, 2016

Coffee Break

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Melanie Laurent in The Day I saw your Heart (Jennifer Devoldere - 2011)

Posted by peter at 06:12 AM

February 18, 2016

Pieces

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Mil Gritos tiene la Noche
Juan Piquer Simon - 1982
Grindhouse Releasing BD Regions ABC

The best parts of the new blu-ray of Pieces? That would be some of the extra pieces, from the abundance of supplements found on the second disc. I loved the interview with Paul Smith, who has had an amazing career and some amusing stories. Coincidentally, both he and Pieces star Christopher George both made their big screen debuts under the direction of Otto Preminger. There's also the documentary, 42 Street Memories, with Joe Dante, Larry Cohen, and Veronica Hart, among others, telling about their adventures watching movies at that one block strip of movie theaters in New York City, back when there was sometimes as much or more action in the theater than on the screen. This was something of a nostalgia trip for me as I use to see movies there myself when I worked nearby on 38th Street. A special shout out to Lynn Lowery who shared her memories, and whom I saw at 42nd Street theaters, in David Cronenberg's They Came from Within because it was playing no where else in NYC, as well as Radley Metzger's Score and Fighting Mad, a virtually forgotten film by Jonathan Demme.

As for Pieces, there is the English language version, but I like the original Spanish language version, Mil Gritos tiene la Noche, which translates as "A Thousand Screams in the Night. The extra three minutes provides a little more flesh to the prologue. Also, the original music score by Librado Pastor is better than the library score on the English language release. Much of Pastor's score is piano driven, and sounds like something that would accompany a silent movie.

The prologue takes place in 1942, in Boston, for no particular reason. Ten year old Timmy is caught by his mom, putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a nude woman. Mom goes berserk, and chastises young Timmy, comparing the boy to his no-good father, and ordered to get a trash to dispose of his porn stash. Timmy instead returns to his room with an ax and makes like Lizzie Borden. If matricide was a school project, Timmy would get extra points for severing Mom with a saw. When the cops come calling, Timmy is found hiding in a closet, crying, and blaming a "big man" for the carnage. At this point, the narrative jumps ahead forty years, and someone is slicing and dicing the cute co-eds at a Boston university with a chainsaw and reassembling that naughty jigsaw puzzle.

Pieces is mostly about the gory murders. To complain about anachronisms in the prologue, bits of business unrelated to the story, or even how the, um, execution, of the murders defies logic, is besides the point. It doesn't take much effort to identity the red herrings among the characters. Pieces takes place in a universe where a former tennis champ works as an undercover cop, and the unnamed university has a whole department devoted to anatomy. The most believable part of Pieces is the affection displayed between real life couple Christopher George, as the chief investigating detective, and wife Lynda Day George, billed here as Linda Day, as the former tennis star.

Pieces was produced and co-written by Dick Randall, an American abroad, who specialized in low budget exploitation films that frequently featured stars a decade or more past their prime, like Sonny Tufts and Jayne Mansfield. Edmund Purdom appears here as the dean of the university. Pieces has stabbings, decapitations, and geysers of blood. But nothing could prepare me for the horror of Edmund Purdom, in his luxurious apartment with classical paintings and expensive furniture, serving Lynda Day George two cups of instant coffee.

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Posted by peter at 07:23 PM

February 16, 2016

Hitch-Hike

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Autostop rosso sangue
Pasquale Festa Campanile - 1977
Raro Video BD Region A

On the surface, there may seem to be a disconnection, with Pasquale Festa Campanile going from being one of the writers on such certified classics as Luchino Visconti's Rocco and his Brothers andThe Leopard to directing and cowriting Hitch-Hike. I have yet to see other films "Pasqualino" has directed, but if this is any indication, there is an interest in examining how men, especially Italian men, deal with masculinity, both their own and that of others.

The thematic concerns are discussed in part by the character, but the most expressive scene is that in which the man, Adam, picked up on the road by the couple, Walter and Eve, rapes Eve. Taking place in an isolated area off the highway, the three have set up a small campfire outside. The gun-toting Adam ties up Walter, and forces Eve to undress. Walter helplessly watches while Adam climbs on top of Eve. Eve at first seems to be attempting to resist Adam, but eventually appears to be a mutual participant. A close up reveals a teary eyed Walter. Is Walter crying because of what is happening to his wife, or is it a result of feeling humiliated and emasculated, especially in the presence of Eve. Is Eve really responding to Adam in the way Adam imagines, or simply taking the path of least resistance, or possibly doing what she can to control the situation?

While the reputation of Hitch-Hike is that of an exploitation film, there is more going on than the featured sex and violence. Simultaneously, some might cite the casting of Corinne Clery, an actress with no problem being filmed nude, as being exploitive. Yet I think what makes this a film of interest is that it lends itself to more than one reading. Certainly, Freudians, amateurs and professionals, would have something to talk about with one of the most potent and iconic images of Hitch-Hike - that of the nude Clery with the very long rifle.

The film begins with Walter viewing Eva from the scope of a rifle. The scene cuts between Eve walking along a path, and Walter glancing at her through his scope. Walter shoots his gun, and the film cuts to a falling deer. It is after this that it is established that Walter and Eve are an unhappily married couple. Additionally, this opening scene establishes the idea of men as predators, constantly on the hunt.

Some of the same concerns in Hitch-Hike were expressed off-screen as well in the documentary supplement, with Clery discussing her relationship with star Franco Nero. David Hess, the go-to guy for playing sociopathic killers, talk about his involvement in making the film and working with Nero and Clery. Hilly Campo Imperatore was used for location shooting for a story set in Nevada. The blu-ray also has booklet, with an essay by Bret Wood, confirming what my own research indicated - the novel that has repeatedly been mentioned as the basis for Hitch-Hike does not exist except in someone's imagination.

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Posted by peter at 02:36 PM

February 14, 2016

Coffee Break

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Anais Demoustier in The New Girlfriend (Francois Ozon - 2014)

Posted by peter at 12:15 PM

February 11, 2016

The Challenge

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John Frankenheimer - 1982
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

One of the little ironies of John Frankenheimer's career is that he made a film titled Ronin about sixteen year after making a film with the actor who personified the ronin for western audiences. Among his handful of Hollywood films, The Challenge may cause some eye rolling on the part of those viewers who at least know Toshiro Mifune from his work with Akira Kurosawa. While Mifune's reputation as a beloved star of world cinema would not be disturbed by this particular misstep, a younger audience might be baffled by the notion that for a very brief moment, top billed Scott Glenn was considered a movie star.

Tall, thin, and perpetually glum, Glenn plays a down and out boxer who's been payed to sneak a coveted samurai sword back to Japan from Los Angeles. Somehow, this guy who lives in a low rent dump just happens to have a valid passport. The film jumps to Glenn showing up at Narita Airport where he promptly gets kidnapped by some hoods who are also looking for the sword. Glenn finds a way of breaking out of the car when it is somewhere outside of Tokyo. If anyone was looking for realism, it's not here, because I have travelled between Narita Airport and Tokyo, a trip that literally takes hours. In any event, Glenn finds himself caught in a deadly sibling rivalry between two brothers, Toshiro Mifune, who runs a school for samurai, even though there have been no samurai for about one hundred years. The younger brother is played by Atsuo Nakamura, who seems to claims full or partial ownership of several corporations, but feels his life is incomplete unless he has that damn sword. Making the most of his supporting role is Calvin Jung as Nakamura's chief thug, so Americanized that he complains about not understanding Japanese thought, and familiar enough with a Yiddish euphemism that makes him the most endearing character here.

Richard Maxwell and John Sayles share writing credit, but I have no idea who did what. Probably credit should go to Leonard and Paul Schrader. Even though The Yakuza was hardly the hit that it should have been back in 1975, I get the idea that the goal was some kind of one-upmanship of Sidney Pollack's film. Instead of the relatively unknown Ken Takakura, get the almost universally familiar Toshiro Mifune. Instead of a couple of shootouts, lets get swords, machine guns and arrows! The violence ante is upped from that moment in The Yakuza where an arm is lopped off while shooting a gun.

The cinematography is by Kozo Okazaki, who also worked on, yes, The Yakuza. Okazaki's work can be seen to better advantage in his work with Hideo Gosha. One wishes the climatic fight scene was staged better, but like the rest of the film, it is entertaining to watch Toshiro Mifune run around with a gray wig, with sword and bow and arrows, in what looks like the world's most opulent office building. There are also a couple of Frankenheimer signature shots involving television screens. And read those end credits closely - the martial arts coordinator was someone named Steven Seagal. That said, it is the very wrong-headedness of The Challenge that makes it a fun trifle of Orientalism, by a group of people who should have known better.

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Posted by peter at 06:00 PM

February 09, 2016

Ostia

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Sergio Citti - 1970
One 7 Films Region 0 DVD

When is A Violent Life not A Violent Life? When it is used as the English language title for the Italian film, Ostia. Let me explain. There are three people involved here - Pier Paolo Pasolini, writer-director Sergio Citti, and actor Franco Citti. A Violent Life was originally the title of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1958 novel, made into a film released in 1962 that starred Franco Citti, with Sergio Citti contributing to the screenplay. Some of the same story elements would also be found in Pasolini's first film as a director, Accatone, which starred Pasolini's "discovery", Franco Citti, with Sergio Citti lending a hand to keep the dialogue representative of the Roman slums of that time. By the time that Ostia was made, Pasolini's filmmaking was in full gear, and he decided that Sergio Citti was ready to direct a film that they wrote, again starring Franco Citti. Also in the cast are the Swedish actress, Anita Sanders, who was briefly married to Franco Citti, and Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini's long time friend and former lover.

In the Guardian obituary for Sergio Citti, Ostia is discussed: Though Pasolini's many biographers barely mention this film, it was a script that reflected much of Pasolini's existential anguish at the time. Most of the film was shot around the very desolate area of the Roman beaches at Ostia, where the writer was to meet his come-uppance six years later. Citti did a competent job in filming it with his brother Franco playing one of two Accattone-type petty criminals (the other was Laurent Terzieff, whom Sergio himself would dub), but he couldn't give the story the autobiographical depth that it might have had if Pasolini had directed it himself.

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Setting aside the decision by someone at One 7 Films to cause confusion with the English language title, I would say that Ostia would be of most interest to Pasolini completists. The film centers on two brothers, petty thieves, whose relationship borders on the homoerotic. The are apparently not very good thieves according to the boss of their five man gang. The men discover a blonde woman asleep in a field, and bring her to the brothers home. The two brothers and the woman share stories from their lives, as well as visiting the most desolate parts of the beach on Ostia's coast. The tone of the film is mostly lighthearted, informed by Francesco De Masi's jaunty score, even in a scene of patricide by the brother when quite young. Pasolini's hand is most evident in the tragic conclusion.

The DVD transfer is decent, although what we get is the movie, with an English subtitle option, and no extras. One 7 Films periodically pulls something out of the vault that would probably get greater attention had it been given a home video release by Criterion or Kino. That the DVD is being released slightly less than a month after Franco Citti's death is coincidental.

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Posted by peter at 03:10 PM

February 07, 2016

Coffee Break

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Jake Gyllenhaal in End of Watch (David Ayer - 2012)

Posted by peter at 12:10 PM

February 04, 2016

Paolo Gioli: The Complete Filmworks

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Paolo Gioli - 1969-2014
Raro Video Region 1 DVD

It's been forty years since I took P. Adams Sitney's class at New York University on what has been called underground, avant-garde, or experimental films. I wish he was around to help me articulate what we have here. Not only does this three disc collection include all of Gioli's films, but there is also an interview, and a short documentary of Gioli trying to duplicate an experiment by Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid film, regarding color perception. There's over eight hours of stuff here, and it is a bit overwhelming to watch even over the course of two days. In Paola Gioli's case, the sometimes misapplied term of "experimental cinema" is appropriate as many of the films were made with in such a way that the results could not be anticipated.

Gioli primarily seems to be interested in the nature of film, specifically the strips of celluloid, how images are recorded and manipulated, as well as how film reacts to different kinds of elements both within and outside of nature. Gioli took up filmmaking after coming to New York City, a young painter, reacting to the explosion of the arts in the late Sixties, and how art and artists informed each other's work. The first film, Tracce di Tracce was created mostly by Gioli's fingerprints painted on the frames to create a series of abstract images. It's the kind of work that evokes Stan Brakhage or Len Lye. Gioli was unaware of Brakhage at the time, but, like Brakhage , most of his work is silent. Gioli's other films have similarities with other filmmakers. In his own way, Gioli makes me think of Ken Jacobs reworking the silent film, Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son. Taking the 1905 film, shot as a series of tableaus, with a stationary camera filming the action from a distance, Jacobs broke down the film into a series of shots, examining the the multiple bits of action within each of the original shots, stretching a five minute short to almost two hours.

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The comparison with Ken Jacobs is not to be taken too closely. What Gioli does, is take film either shot by himself, or from other sources, and in addition to closing in on parts of the original image, will create mirror, reverse or negative images. There are also smaller images inserted within the frame. There are film strips exposed through pin hole cameras, with Gioli's hand used as a shutter. Film strips are also seen traveling unmoored from the sprockets. Gioli also "animates" still photos, sometimes creating little narratives with unrelated shots, as well as using different film formats. Additionally, Gioli would build his own cameras to create films that were independent of exposing film at 18 or 24 frames per second, or restrained by the sprockets in a conventional camera.

The thirty-eight films, all of varying lengths, are grouped together roughly by theme, and techniques explored by Gioli. The DVD set comes with a booklet that includes an essay discussing the history of avant-garde and experimental films in Italy, and Gioli's place within that history, an essay by David Bordwell on what he calls Gioli's "vertical cinema", an interview with Gioli, and notes by Gioli that provide the English language translation of the film titles, and a brief description on how each film was created.

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Posted by peter at 05:14 PM

February 02, 2016

The Beauty Inside

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Byuti Insaideu
Baik - 2015
Well Go USA BD Region A

In its first incarnation, The Beauty Inside was an episodic and interactive program made for Youtube, under the direction of Drake Doremus. The main character, Alex, wakes up every morning to find that he is physically a different person, with a possible change in age, and gender. From what I read about this version, the various actors who portrayed Alex gave the role their own interpretation.

The Korean film version keeps the essential premise, but as part of a narrative story. There are reportedly twenty actors as Woo-jin, some for several scenes, others for just a few seconds, but there the character has some shared mannerisms, providing consistent traits in the various incarnations. Woo-jin is a furniture maker who lives and works alone, his only contacts with the outside world being his mother and his long time friend, Sang-beck. The embrace of the solitary life is challenged upon meeting furniture saleswoman, E-soo. Attraction turns into a few days of dating when Woo-jin appears as a handsome young man. One can stay awake and not change appearances for only a few days. Woo-jin reveals his secret to E-soo. For a while, E-soo seems to be able to live with constant change of identity.

Both E-soo and Woo-jin are 29 years old. There is no discussion, but their relationship is chaste, where sleeping together is no euphemism. The film sidesteps any controversy over such matters as age, gender and race. Woo-jin appears as a European man, a grandmotherly Korean woman, a woman of African descent, and a young boy, among his many entities. One might argue that the relationship is platonic to emphasize the idea of inner beauty. What is interesting to note is that the only versions of Woo-jin that E-soo is seen kissing are played by Koreans, with Woo-jin in female form almost, but not quite pressing lips with E-soo.

I'm not certain about the significance, but both Woo-jin and his mother have their livelihoods based on craftwork. Woo-jin makes one of a kind pieces of furniture, often for customer specifications. The mother sells yarn, and in one scene demonstrates knitting for E-soo.

This is the first feature by Baik following a career of making commercials. There is some visual play, mostly in the use of jump cuts between the different actors as Woo-jin, usually in bridges between scenes. Han Hyo-joo, as E-soo, carries most of the dramatic weight, as has a couple of Best Actress nominations for her performance here. There are some humorous moments, as well as a couple that might tug at the heartstrings. Still, I wish that there was a filmmaker brave enough to address the possibilities and implications that are shied away from here.

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Posted by peter at 06:00 AM