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June 27, 2017

Introduction to Japanese Horror Film

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Colette Balmain - 2008
Edinburgh University Press

Dr. Balmain's book is not a historical survey. It would be a blessing to have such a book, especially one that would, as thoroughly as possible, review Japanese films of the silent and pre-World War II era. Most of the films discussed are from the 1950s, ending with films released about a decade ago. What Dr. Balmain has attempted here is put the production of the Japanese horror film within the context of Japanese culture and history.

Jasper Sharp has written about several of the weaknesses in this book. What does interest me here is the discussion of how one should approach serious appreciation of film, and to what extent does one need to acknowledge any or all contexts of film production. Part of this question comes from the more recent Japanese horror films having been marketed under the "extreme" banner, with the emphasis strictly on visceral thrills. Also, the greater part of the audiences for the English language remakes, at least anecdotally, were not always aware that Gore Verbinski's version of The Ring, for example, was a remake. I've followed cinema and its history long enough to know that there is never a final word, only a series of jumping off points for the more serious student to investigate for themselves.

Taking a break from reading, I saw the recent Sadako vs. Kayako (Koji Shiraishi - 2016). For those unfamiliar, the two characters of the title are the vengeful female ghosts from the original Ring and Ju-on: The Grudge respectively. Balmain discusses Japanese girl culture to some extent as it exists in horror films. The two main protagonists are both young females, university students. Much of Balmain's writing is about the role of females in Japanese horror films. What is not discussed is whether the audience, particularly for some of the more recent films, would be young women as well. In addition to not examining the difference between those films designed for a niche audience, often via home video, and those film getting mainstream theatrical release, there is little acknowledgment of production practices where the filmmakers often appear restricted in their careers.

I bring up this point because with the emphasis on women in front of the camera, nothing is said about the few women filmmakers who have worked in horror films. There may well be others, but Shimako Sato, Mari Asato and Kei Fujiwara come to mind. Of these three women, only Sato is mentioned in relation to here Wizard of Darkness films. For those who choose to take on Introduction to Japanese Horror Film I would suggest to glean judiciously. Definitely see what you can from the filmography, and let the films speak for themselves.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:13 AM

June 25, 2017

Coffee Break

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Alice Eve in Cold Comes the Night (Tze Chun - 2014)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:54 AM

June 20, 2017

Hell in the Pacific

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John Boorman - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

In the Fall of 1969, I was a film student at New York University. Occasionally, film directors would preview a new film, followed by a question and answer session. John Boorman came with his original version of Leo the Last, a bit different from the final release version. What I remember about that evening, verbatim, is when a student had asked Boorman about the ending of Hell in the Pacific. Boorman's response, referring to one of the producers, was, "Henry Saperstein is an evil man."

Hell in the Pacific has received a much needed blu-ray upgrade. The original ending is available not as a supplement but as a seamless conclusion to the film, in addition to the producers' approved theatrical release. What arguably improves the film for viewers who may only know the film theatrically, is that with the subtitle option, Toshiro Mifune's bits of dialogue are translated to English, making the intentions of Mifune as understandable as those of Lee Marvin. Add to that a new interview with John Boorman and Art Director Anthony Pratt, plus a commentary track by film historians Travis Crawford and Bill Ackerman.

For anyone still unfamiliar with the basic story, an American pilot and a Japanese naval officer discover the presence of each other on an otherwise small, deserted island, during World War II. The two, military enemies, first try to outwit and overpower each other before deciding to work together for survival. The film was a commercial failure, possibly too abstract for mainstream audiences use to films with more dialogue and exposition. Over the years, Hell in the Pacific has gained in stature and appreciation.

Certainly the interview with Boorman helps explain why a film with a cast of two turned out to be relatively expensive. Among the elements hampering the production were the extremely remote location of the Palau islands, and Toshiro Mifune's initial refusal to take direction from Boorman and need for an interpreter, causing delays. One of the new bits of information is that frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator, Shinobu Hashimoto had a hand in the screenplay, primarily in helping develop Mifune's character.

What has made the film hold up almost fifty years later is the visual story-telling. An early shot of Marvin and Mifune's initial face to face encounter is iconic, with the two actors standing on opposite sides of the Panavision screen. I had to re-watch those few seconds because both actors are standing still, and I thought the shot was a freeze frame. Seen again, I noticed the movement of the waves on the beach where most of the film takes place. When the film begins, there appears what looks like the body of a man washed ashore, that later is revealed to be a log fought over by the two men. Boorman also makes use of multiple shots with Mifune and Marvin within the same frame, one in the foreground, one in back. A chase through the jungle with the faces of the men partially obscured by branches, leaves or nets suggests that Boorman may have reviewed several films by Kurosawa in deciding how to film action.

The commentary track will probably be of greatest benefit the younger viewers unfamiliar with Marvin, Mifune, Boorman, or cinematographer Conrad Hall. One nice bit of information is that Hall was the son of the coauthor of Mutiny on the Bounty, and worked on the 1962 film version starring Marlon Brando. With that in mind, Hell in the Pacific could well described the difficult production of at least a couple of films.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:45 AM

June 18, 2017

Coffee Break

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Louis-Do de Lencquesaing in Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Love - 2009)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:49 AM

June 13, 2017

Hong Kong Neo-Noir

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Edited by Esther C.M. Yau and Tony Williams
Edinburgh University Press - 2017

About six years ago, there was a retrospective of films from Hong Kong and France that were considered examples of film noir from their respective countries. I've seen five of the nine Hong Kong films listed, and read about the others. If one was to do a study of Hong Kong films, be they classified as noir or neo-noir, that list would be a good place to start.

To the credit of the editors, they acknowledge that film noir may be more of a style rather than a defined genre, and that their book should be taken as the beginning of discussions on this loose survey of films. I admit to having perhaps unrealistic expectations for a book that includes such heavy hitters as Adam Bingham, Gina Marchetti and David Desser. I wouldn't have minded that several films are only mentioned in passing, such as Donnie Yen's brooding Ballistic Kiss, or not discussed at all, like Sleepless Town by Lee Chi-Ngai, about Chinese gangsters in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo. What is a problem is that the parameters for noir are so wide here that some of the chapters go into tangents make their inclusion highly questionable.

I've not seen the television series, "24", so I am unable to verify in what ways Hong Kong action films may have been an influence. What is a problem is when the author spends more time discussing individual episodes, so that any similarities to the several Hong Kong films mentioned seem secondary. And having a chapter titled, "Tech-Noir: A Sub-Genre May not Exist in Hong Kong Science Fiction Films" also seems to be shoe-horned in, discussing a handful of Hong Kong films in relation to the noir influenced The Terminator and Blade Runner.

Where Hong Kong noir ends and Hong Kong neo-noir begins isn't clearly designated. The first period would appear to be during the 1950s and 60s, at a time when the main stars were female. The one film that benefits from a consensus of opinion is The Wild, Wild Rose (1960). Inspired in part by Carmen, with one of the biggest stars of the time, Grace Chang, uncharacteristically playing the "bad girl", the film is admittedly a hybrid of noir, melodrama and musical. The production of the film is discussed in detail by Lisa Odham Stokes. The chapter by Law Kar, "Black and Red: Post-War Hong Kong Noir and its Interrelation with Progressive Cinema, 1947-57", provides a survey of films primarily made by filmmakers from Shanghai, who provided much of the behind the camera talent. One would hope that more of the films from mainland China become more easily available for study. That chapter also discusses how Hollywood films became available in Hong Kong following the occupation by Japan, becoming sources for both stories and style.

Neo-noir would primarily be the crime films most notable made around the time of the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China. Johnnie To gets the most attention with Gina Marchetti's chapter on Running on Karma and Jinhee Choi discussing Exiled. Ms. Choi's chapter also looks at Patrick Tam's After This Our Exile. Partially due to his own self-imposed exile from Hong Kong filmmaking, Tam is not as well known as he should be. Julian Stringer's chapter on the chase sequence from Ringo Lam's Full Alert is of interest in covering the legalities of film production in Hong Kong prior and after the handover, as well as Lam's reasoning for trying to document what Hong Kong looked like in 1997.

I don't know who is responsible for this error, but Ms. Choi's chapter is somewhat undermined by references to "axes of action". There is the axis of action which refers to the 180-degree rule of film making. Axes of action would more likely be found in the horror movies of William Castle.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:57 AM

June 11, 2017

Coffee Break

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Nathalie Baye in A French Gigolo (Josiane Balasko - 2008)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:47 AM

June 07, 2017

Dino - a Centennial Top Ten

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A subjective list, presented with no apologies, in order of release. If you haven't read it, check out Nick Tosches' incredible biography, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. bit be prepared to want to clean yourself afterwards. Even though Martin's career as an actor is usually associated with Frank Sinatra and "the Clan", Martin was known to love watching westerns. Westerns not only comprised a significant number of films because of their commercial viability at the time, but may have been closer to Martin's heart.

1. Artists and Models (Frank Tashlin - 1955)
2. The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk - 1958)
3. Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli - 1958)
4. Rio Bravo Howard Hawks - 1959)
5. Who was that Lady? (George Sidney - 1960)
6. Toys in the Attic (George Roy Hill - 1963)
7. Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder - 1964)
8. Sons of Katie Elder (Henry Hathaway - 1965)
9. The Silencers (Phil Karlson - 1966
10. Bandolero! (Andrew McLaglen - 1968)

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:23 AM

June 06, 2017

The Hound of the Baskervilles

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Terence Fisher - 1959
KL Studio Classics Region 1 DVD

This is what a Sherlock Holmes movie is suppose to look like. I could never embrace the Basil Rathbone series because it was updated to the then contemporary England. The Guy Ritchie version, with Robert Downer, Jr. too cool to wear a deerstalker hat, tried a bit too hard to make Sherlock Holmes a character a century ahead of his time. The Hammer production respects the original novel, keeping Holmes as he has classically been portrayed, with the pipe and deerstalker hat, in an England of the early 1900s.

With three Hammer stars, Peter Cushing, Andre Morell, Christopher Lee, and a behind the camera team of Hammer regulars, it should be a surprise to no one that The Hound of the Baskervilles looks like a Hammer horror film. The scenes of horror are more suggested than seen, but what we have the visual look of shadows, fog, and unexplained sounds. The use of color is not flamboyant as something like Brides of Dracula, but red appears quite often, in the costumes, furniture, as well as several very bright drops of blood. The story, about a family curse, originated from Arthur Conan Doyle, but it would seem that it's also a theme that would appear in most Hammer films, with their narratives of family secrets, insane relatives and uncanny events.

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In the supplement to the DVD, Christopher Lee discusses Peter Cushing's precise diction and physical dexterity while playing Holmes. And while Cushing is the top billed star, and looks has the right look to play Sherlock Holmes, he's almost a guest star in his own story, missing for almost half of a film thats less than ninety minutes long. Andre Morell, as Watson, does much of the detective work here, keeping an eye out for Christopher Lee's Sir Henry Baskerville. Watson, here, is closer to the novel, not a detective by vocation, but still smart and observant. As Sir Henry, Christopher Lee has one of his only roles where he is able to kiss the woman who enchants him on her lips, not on her throat.

The mystery is almost besides the point. I think the reason why Hammer films remain beloved in general is because of their familiarity, the above mentioned stories, the actors that appear from film to film, and often consistent pool of directors, writers, and technical support. Would it seem inappropriate to call this "cinematic comfort food"? The Hound of the Baskervilles was reportedly not enough of box office success for Hammer to continue with Cushing as Holmes, perhaps because the horror elements were played down. Another one-off film, with Sherlock Holmes in search of Jack the Ripper, A Study in Terror from 1965, would appear to pick up where Hammer left off. The Hound of the Baskervilles remains as the one film to choose as the best version of Sherlock Holmes on film.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:13 AM

June 04, 2017

Coffee Break

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Michael Fassbender and Romola Garai in Angel (Francois Ozon - 2007)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:50 AM