August 30, 2016
Wo de te gong ye ye
Sammo Hung - 2016
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A
Jackie Chan was the first actor approached to play the part of Ding, the former elite security officer who finds himself losing his memory. Chan wasn't available, so Sammo Hung was tapped for the role. Hung probably should have been considered in the first place. Even at his peak, Sammo Hung never looked anything like the kind of guy who could seriously kick ass. In this film, extra padding on the stomach, with an awkward gait as he walks, Hung projects the kind of vulnerability needed for this role. Hung also directed, his first credited gig in seventeen years, where the influence of younger filmmakers shows up.
I do wish the English language title was still My Beloved Bodyguard to help distinguish Hung's film from the several other films with the same, generic, title. Also, I did have some problems with the screenplay which is somewhat lazy, simply explaining Ding's memory loss as dementia, as well as giving the disappearance of one of the characters a too easy explanation.
The film begins with a brief introduction of the Central Security Bureau, the army of guards that protected the top officials of the Chinese Communist Party. There is a montage of documentary footage that concludes with some photos and footage of Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972. A photo of the guards includes one with the young Ding standing near the President. Later, Ding discusses his unhappy marriage, and describes his former father-in-law as a "bourgeois capitalist". Both of these moments made me think of films that I'd really like to see - Nixon's visit to China from the Chinese point of view, and a film about an unreconstructed member of the Red Guard who is appalled by the changes in contemporary China.
The film takes place in a town in Northeast China, near the Russian border. The story here has the retired Ding finding himself as the guardian of the young daughter of a gambler. The gambler, in order to pay back his debts, goes to Vladivostok, where he steals a bag full of jewels from a Russian gangster. The jewels are stolen, but the gambler finds himself caught between rival Russian and Chinese gangs. Protecting the daughter, Ding finds himself caught battling both gangs.
Grady Hendrix wrote about how Hung films fights in "Film Comment". Whether it's a refection of Hung's age, or a concern of safety, the main scene with Hung fighting both Chinese and Russian gangsters is filmed in a way that is similar to the overly edited fight scenes in Hollywood films. The difference is that there is still a visual logic to how the fight is edited. Essentially the fight is broken down to one or two movements per shot. We see hung and his opponent, or a pair of opponents. Hung also has chosen to digitally enhance close-ups of fingers or legs broken and in pain. The overall effect seems like a compromise over the kind of sloppy editing favored in some Hollywood films with the misguided idea of how to visually convey on-screen chaos.
Not that it was necessary, but Hung called in several friends for supporting roles. Andy Lau, who was also one of the producers, plays the gambler. Tsui Hark, Dean Shek and Karl Maka play a trio of oldsters who sit out by the railroad tracks, observing the action. While watching The Bodyguard, I was struck by the idea that at age 64, Sammo Hung may well be transitioning away from appearances as an action star to be a character actor, and perhaps spend more time behind the camera. That the final action scene features Eddie Peng, previously seen with Hung in Rise of the Legend, suggests that Sammo Hung is making way for a new generation of martial arts stars.
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:56 PM
August 28, 2016
Aniello Arena in Reality (Matteo Garrone - 2012)
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:13 AM
August 23, 2016
3 Bad Men
John Ford - 1926
KL Studio Classics BD Region A
One of my favorite moments in this silent western is the introduction of the character, Dan O'Malley, played by George O'Brien. A large wagon train of settlers is traveling to Dakota in 1876. The movement on screen is from left to right. O'Brien is on horseback, very casually, with his left leg down in the stirrup, while his right leg is draped around the saddle horn. And he's playing his harmonica. The title card reads, "Dan O'Malley had come from Ireland at a smile-a-minute pace."
What is charming about 3 Bad Men is that, except for the land rush, there's an easy going spirit to much of what occurs in the film. O'Brien has no problem appearing goofy, as he does when he first encounters the petite Olive Borden and states the obvious when he sees that the wheel has fallen off the wagon belonging to her father. And what may strike some out of of context as being racist is, to my eyes, John Ford's casual sense of inclusiveness of a frontier with "Dagoes" and "Chinks", as well as a budding entrepreneur who addresses a pastor as "rabbi". Consider that that the film takes place less than ten years before the publication of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
While Ford's characterization of a multi-culti America might raise some eyebrows use to only understanding art through a contemporary prism, the one possibly gay character may indicate a more forward thinking filmmaker. The title characters are looking in a bar for a possible husband for Olive Borden. A couple of the men survey a well dressed and well scrubbed dandy who is ruffled caught between two ruffians, not known that their intentions are harmless. One of the bad men states, "If a man's heart is in the right place, it don't matter what sex he belongs to."
Having Joseph McBride provide commentary provides an extra bonus to this blu-ray upgrade from the previous "Ford at Fox" DVD set. McBride discusses both the making of the film, as well as some general observations about John Ford from his own interviews and research. McBride also shares information on the making of 3 Bad Men from interviewing Priscilla Bonner, who's role in the film, the sister of one of the "bad men", was severely cut by the studio.
I wish there was more information regarding what had been cut from Ford's original version. The three bad men of the title, wanted for robbing a bank, inexplicably come to the aid of Olive Borden, discovering her following an ambush by an outlaw gang. That gang works for the sheriff of Custer, the ramshackle Dakota town that passes for civilization. The sheriff, played by Lou Tellegen, is the real villain here, trying to bully a prospector into revealing the location of gold found in protected Indian territory, as well as riding roughshod over the townspeople. While Ford's heroes here are a trio of outlaws who function independently, Ford has no sympathy for the outlaws protected by the sheriff's badge. Whatever makes the three men "bad" is considered lightly, with more emphasis placed on their idiosyncratic sartorial choices.
Tellegen's sheriff is notable for his fancy suit, and his white had with a very wide brim. The hat looks very similar to the one worn by James Stewart in Ford's last western, Cheyenne Autumn. In that film, Stewart plays a comic version of Wyatt Earp. Cheyenne Autumn also marked the last screen appearance of George O'Brien.
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:31 PM
August 21, 2016
Amber Heard in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine - 2006)
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:07 AM
August 16, 2016
Italian Horror Cinema
Edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter
Edinburgh University Press - 2016
Presented by and primarily for academics, this is a collection of essays that should have some value for those interested in Italian genre films and also Italian film history. What I like is that the editors position their book as part of an on-going discussion of film studies, and none of the authors act as gatekeepers, demanding agreement as to the worthiness of specific filmmakers. Rather than a chronological history or survey of filmmakers, we have a collection of thirteen essays on different aspects of Italian horror films.
Two of the essays are devoted to Dario Argento. No surprise as Argento is the best known, and most commercially successful filmmaker, with several English language books discussing his work. These are also the most academic of the essays. Marcia Landy quotes Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Antonin Artaud and Gilles Deleuze, making me think I was reading the work of a Ph.D. candidate desperate to justify Argento to a group of professors who wouldn't be caught dead watching a film titled Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Landy points to various markers in Deep Red as pointing to Italy's fascist past, but fails to mention that Clara Calamai, in her final film role, was a top star during that era. Karl Schoonover's essay discussing Argento in terms of neoliberalism and global capitalism goes into area that Argento probably hadn't intended. Schoonover writes about sexual ambiguity in Tenebre without mentioning the presence of transgender actress Eva Robin's (sic) in the key flashback scene. If there is a second edition, I hope someone correctly names the editor of Four Flies, the Oscar winning Francoise Bonnot.
Better are the essays devoted to Mario Bava. I'm tempted to say that Tim Lucas should be getting some kind of co-author credit as his epic study of Bava is referred to repeatedly. Peter Hutchings uses Lucas' study as an argument both for and against Bava as an auteur. Adam Lowenstein details the relationship between Bava's Bay of Blood and Friday the 13th, as well as examining the significance of the location where the Bava film takes place. Several times, it is discussed whether the genre of the giallo film really began with Bava's The Girl who Knew Too Much or Blood and Black Lace, especially linking the latter film with the fumetti, adult comic books that featured extreme violence carried out by disguised assailants, or the German krimi films that were adapted from the books by Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Edgar Wallace. Blood and Black Lace was co-produced by a German company that made krimi films, but what is not mentioned are several other giallo films by Italian filmmakers that also adapted Edgar Wallace.
Of interest is a look at Italian cinema during the silent era, with its elements of horror such as the cinematic versions of Dante's Inferno, and a since lost adventure film featuring the Frankenstein monster. What is also notable is the pointing out that the genre known as the horror film was not named as such until several years after the advent of Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula.
A look at contemporary cinema by Johnny Walker is primarily devoted to Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio and the two giallo inspired films by Helen Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Italian cinema is limited to Emanuele De Santi's Adam Chaplin and the films by Ivan Zuccon. Not mentioned are several other younger Italian filmmakers like Domiziano Cristopharo and Luigi Pastore, who were not only inspired by Argento, but also the less critically esteemed Rino Di Silvestro and Joe D'Amato.
Mark Bernard's look at the cannibal films reviews the arguments for and against these films and especially their use of animal cruelty, their roots in the Mondo documentaries of the Sixties, and the changes in how contemporary audiences view these films.
Certainly, there is more excavating to be done as films continue to be rediscovered and made more widely available in home video formats. What is gleaned from the introduction, and the look at the Italian film criticism at the time the films were made, is that film genre studies are continually evolving, and that there is sometimes more than meets the eye regarding films dismissed at the time of initial release.
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:49 PM
August 14, 2016
Shirley MacLaine and Anita Ekberg in Woman Times Seven (Vittorio De Sica - 1967)
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:54 AM
August 11, 2016
Joseph Sims-Dennett - 2015
Artsploitation Films BD
A man is hired to observe a woman, photographing her and listening to her phone conversations, in a run down townhouse directly across from her apartment. Nothing seems to happen. The woman doesn't leave her apartment. From the phone conversations, there seems to be some kind of relationship with a man, and a possible connection to a murder that took place a couple decades ago.
Cinephiles will not be surprised to see echoes of Rear Window and The Conversation. What is unexpected is the turn towards body horror. Not quite Cronenberg territory, but close enough as the investigator, Parker, wakes up to unexplained bruises and abrasions. There is also a nod to Polanski when work and dreams collide into a nocturnal nightmare.
There is also the influence of the so-called "experimental films", Impressionistic close-ups of water dripping from a faucet, a jar collecting some kind of black liquid, rust stains (or is that blood?) on the wall.
The film open with shots of a shoreline on a rocky coast. There are several overhead shots of the ocean. What are eventually understood to be flashbacks are rendered subjective with surreal touches, when Parker remembers his recently deceased young son.
As several critics have noted, Observance is notable for the feeling of dread. As in The Conversation questions are raised as to what exactly is being seen and heard, for what purpose, and to whose benefit. One scene that initially begs credibility is when Parker sneaks into the apartment of Tenneal, the woman being observed. At first glance it might seem that Tenneal is oblivious to Parker's attempts to hiding from her, walking right past him as he crouches in a corner. The film hints that Parker's subterfuge may not have been a secret.
Especially at a time when studio productions hit budgets that are nearly impossible to recoup, Observance shows that you can make an effective, professional film for the cost of a Honda Civic.
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:38 PM
August 09, 2016
Park Hoon-Jung - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A
The tiger is best seen in the first half of this film. Fleetingly and short bursts, the viewer is kept from seeing the animal in full form. It's not like Track of the Cat, where the audience never sees the mountain lion pursued by Robert Mitchum, but during that time that the tiger is barely seen, it works best as a metaphor for Korean resistance during the occupation by Japan. Once the tiger is seen in full view, one is conscious that this is a computer generated creature. The mystery and suspense are lost from that point.
I suppose some of this may be due to audiences that hate ambiguity and are literal-minded in their demand to see rather than imagine. Some of this may also be because of the requirements of the story, about the hunt for the last wild tiger in Korea. For myself, the film worked best during the moment when the tiger was only seen in brief glimpses in the forest.
Taking place in 1925, the capturing and killing the tiger is the goal of the Japanese governor in the Korean region where the film takes place. The pursuit has dual purposes, as the governor is a collector of big game animals displayed in his office, and because the tiger has killed Japanese soldiers pursuing resistance fighters hidden in the mountains. Eventually forced to participate in the hunt is the former hunter, Man-Duk, because of his knowledge of the mountain area. Eventually it is shown that Man-Duk and the tiger have a symbiotic relationship.
Symbolic stories of men hunting for legendary animals, goes at least as far back as Moby Dick. The historical aspects give The Tiger an extra twist. Park also makes the story something of an ecological fable showing the extreme measures taken as part of the hunt. The Korean title translates as "Great Tiger". Historically, the last Korean tiger was killed in 1921.
There are recurring moments of the tiger outwitting the hunters. As might be expected, some of the hunters become the hunted, shredded and tossed like so many rag dolls in the jaws of the tiger. The scenes of strategy are reminiscent of Park's previous film, the impressive gangster film, New World. This is a simpler film, one that was written by Park earlier, but produced following the success of New World. There is a thematic thread regarding the uses of power and manipulation of others.
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:54 PM
August 07, 2016
Aaron Kwok and Gordon Lam in Cold War (Sunny Luk & Longman Leung - 2012)
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:38 AM
August 05, 2016
Naomi Kawase - 2015
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD
Perhaps because it was adapted from a novel, Naomi Kawase's newest film is also her most accessible. Those most familiar with contemporary Japanese films will also note the presence of two well-established actors in the lead roles, Kirin Kiki and Masatoshi Nagase. Coincidentally, both actors were Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera.
A man, Sentaro, operates a small, one person restaurant, serving dorayaki to junior high girls and the occasional passerby in a suburb in the outer part of Tokyo. An elderly woman comes, inquiring about the post for part-time work. She has no work experience but convinces Sentaro to give her a chance after badgering him to try her bean paste, the ingredient that is placed between the two pancakes that are part of the dorayaki. Word of mouth brings customers in due to the the sweet bean paste. It's also word of mouth that drives customers aware when it is revealed that the woman, Tokue, has had leprosy, indicated by her gnarled hands.
Tokue is a woman who seems especially in touch with nature, stopping to admire the cherry trees in the neighborhood, or viewing the moon. The first time she cooks for Sentaro, he is put off by her eccentricities of "talking" to the beans, or demanding that when sugar is added to the bean paste, comparing the mix to a first date that requires two hours of the ingredients to know each other.
Being a Kawase film, time is taken for a montage of the preparation of the bean paste and the cooking process. The visual lyricism, with shots of cherry trees waving in the wind, and a walk through a heavily wooded area, is similar to Terrence Malick, though it doesn't dominate the narrative as it does in something like Malick's To the Wonder.
As in other Kawase films, there is the focus on outsiders, especially women. In addition to Tokue, and Sentaro, who is revealed to be an ex-con working in the restaurant to pay off a debt, part of the narrative is about Wakana, a junior high student. Unlike her fellow students, Wakana is unable to pay for "cram school" and her diet partially consists of the rejected dorayaki Sentaro has at the end of his day. Mention is made of the 1953 law that forced Japanese with leprosy to be housed in special facilities. That law was repealed in 1996. In a later scene, Sentaro and Wakana visit the run-down housing where Tokue and several other equally aged residents, also with leprosy, live.
The more cynical may treat the conclusion as a bromide about living in a way that is true to one's self. Low-key, muted and very humane, Sweet Bean may also be the perfect antidote to a summer of movie and real-life events marked by lots of sound and fury.
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:01 PM
August 03, 2016
Basket Case 2
Frank Henenlotter - 1990
Synapse Films BD Regions ABC
For those who may not have them in their collection, or are interested in the upgrade, Basket Case 2 and Basket Case 3 are now available in blu-ray editions. I wrote about Basket Case 3 at the time of the DVD release.
For those not familiar with the trilogy, the films are about two brothers, originally conjoined twins. The physically normal Duane looks after the extremely deformed Belial. The homicidal Belial is essentially a head on body resembling a short tree stump, with two muscular arms and claws. Belial is kept inside a wicker basket, hence the title.
Filmed about eight years following the original film, Basket Case 2 takes up where the first film left off. Duane and Belial have fallen from the window of their seedy Times Square room. Where they are seemingly left for dead in the first film, it turns out the two survive after being taken to a hospital. The two escape and in a case of fortuitous timing, are rescued by Granny Ruth, a family friend, who has a house full of misshaped freaks.
Jumping from a budget of $35,000 to about $2.5 million allowed Henenlotter to make a slicker film with a more professional cast. The blu-ray probably makes Basket Case 2 look far better than it did during its theatrical run. Much of the budget went to the foam rubber masks worn by the freaks, as well as some gloriously gory special effects. I think Caryn James pretty much summed things up for the New York Times when she wrote, "As cheap horror spoofs go, this one isn't all bad."
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:19 AM
August 01, 2016
Saving Mr. Wu
Jie jiu Wu xian sheng
Ding Sheng - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A
I wish there was more information available on actor Wu Ruofu, the subject of Saving Mr. Wu. Aside from the vague description of Wu being a popular television actor in China, the only films I've seen listed for Wu are The Big Parade (1986) by Chen Kaige, and this film where Wu plays a senior police officer. There's a moment when the film's Wu, played by Andy Lau, is trying to buck up the spirits of the man who was kidnapped the day before by the same gang. There's a reference to God of Gamblers, but that was a film with Lau in the cast.
The actual kidnapping of Wu Ruofu took place in February 2004. As it turned out, Wu was kidnapped by chance, simply because he was seen standing outside a karaoke bar, near his pricy car, and looked to be someone who could bring in a significant ransom. The identity of Wu was only discovered later by the kidnappers. It is possible that Wu's celebrity may have helped save his life.
The film takes place during a period of about twenty hours, from One AM, when Wu is grabbed by a trio posing as cops investigating a hit-and-run accident supposedly involving Wu's car, ending about Nine PM, when the cops rescue Wu. The narrative is fractured with flashbacks of the kidnappers prior activities. Most of the scenes include a superimposed title with the time. Similar titles are used to introduce the main characters.
Ding Sheng wrote, directed and edited the film. As the outcome is already known, there isn't much suspense. What does keep the film going are the police procedural aspects, with the Beijing cops figuring out fairly quickly the identity of the lead kidnapper. There is also watching Andy Lau as Wu negotiate with his kidnappers, saving the life of his fellow abductee by offering to pay his ransom, trying to find ways of reasoning with some unreasonable men. Ding Sheng gives the film some documentary flavor with hand-held camera work, without overdoing the shaky-cam.
This is something of a change for Lau who is usually seen as a man of action. For most of Saving Mr. Wu, he is chained to a chair next to Cai Lu, his fellow victim. Most of Lau's acting is through his voice, small hand gestures, and nodding his head in the direction of Cai. Wang Qianyuan plays Zhang, the lead kidnapper, a real-life counterpart to the cheerful, psychopathic thug of so many crime films. Favorite supporting player, Lam Suet, appears as Wu's trusted friend, sent to deliver the ransom. The film ends with some documentary footage of the rescue of Wu, intercut with Andy Lau singing the theme song, first heard sung faintly by Lau and Cai when their respective characters are facing certain death.
Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:32 AM