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October 29, 2021

New York Ninja


John Liu - 1984/Kurtis Spieler - 2021
Vinegar Syndrome Pictures BD Region A

A film like New York Ninja was probably never intended to undergo anything resembling serious film criticism in its originally intended form. The history of the film and its presentation does bring up some serious questions, even when the film itself is risible.

Taiwanese martial arts star John Liu had an acting career that began in 1977. He wrote and directed his first film in 1981. From what I gathered from IMDb, all of his films featured international settings. New York Ninja was Liu's fourth film as writer/director. At some point, the film production was abandoned. Liu's career both in front of and behind the camera seems to have evaporated. The footage to New York Ninja was found, with no available soundtrack or script. Kurtis Spieler edited the film first, then created a screenplay, followed by dubbing by some well known genre character actors. The question then is how much of this film what John Liu intended, followed by wondering if Spieler could have or should have done something different with the recovered footage?

The enterprise reminds me of two other films. For those with long memories, there is What's Up, Tiger Lily?, in which Woody Allen and his friends dub in their voices in a re-edited version taken from two Japanese spy films. This was done purely for laughs, although some of what was funny in 1966 has frankly aged badly. And Vinegar Syndrome, if any film is truly in need of rescue, it would be the original International Secret Police film by Senkichi Taniguchi and the source of Allen's spoof. I have to wonder if Spieler should have leaned a bit more into the silliness of the action with a more comic screenplay. The other film I am reminded of is Shark Tale due to Vinegar Syndrome selling New York Ninja based on the voice talent. Somebody at Dreamworks knew that kids in the lower rungs of elementary school would be clamoring for an animated spoof of The Godfather featuring the voices of Robert De Niro, Renee Zellweger and family favorite, Martin Scorsese. For New York Ninja, Vinegar Syndrome enlisted Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Leon Isaac Kennedy, and Michael Berryman, among others to voice the characters as the stars of this film.

Liu plays a television sound technician turned avenger when a gang murders his pregnant wife on the streets of New York City. Liu seems to have been inspired in part by Walter Hill's The Warriors only with street hoods wearing masks, along with William Lustig's Vigilante and its presentation of lawless New York Streets. Liu dresses all in white, appearing at just the right alley or tree, performing acrobatics and even roller skating, taking down various criminals. Most of these criminals are small fry working for a guy with deformed hands that are radioactive. The street gang is not very bright because no one thinks to steal the camera from the two news reporters that follows them, even after the pair has been caught and cornered. Just on a visual level, Liu has actors entering the screen from the side of the frame, with death scenes that are protracted, and fights scenes that are unconvincing. Liu's facial expression of determination might be confused with painful constipation. Most laughable is the obvious waving of the rubber knife while stuck in a victim's stomach.

The voice work makes the acting, or more accurately over-acting, appear to be high school level. And this gets tricky to evaluate fairly because I have no idea what skills the original cast had, or if Spieler intended for the voice work to be part of an elaborate joke. My own impression is that even if Liu had been able to complete New York Ninja, it would still not have been even a "so bad it's good" movie. To put it in perspective, it lacks even the professionalism of Sho Kosugi's Cannon films, or the sense of its own absurdity as in a Troma production. On the other hand, I will not begrudge the audience that has its own reasons for enjoying New York Ninja. For this film, perhaps it is best not to ask too many questions.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:20 AM

October 15, 2021

Bergman Island

bergmn island.jpg

Mia Hansen-Love - 2021
IFC Films

Tony and Chris are introduced driving with the aid of their car's GPS to the Swedish island, Faro. While the couple may have a sense of their physical destination, the are stuck professionally, hoping to find some inspiration in the place best known as the home and sometime shooting location for Ingmar Bergman. This is one bit of humor as the husband and wife are both film directors, recieving direction from a computerized voice. While Tony is methodical and mostly serious, Chris tends to be more playful and spontaneous. There is a sense of foreboding when the local caretaker points out that their rented cottage was where Bergman filmed Scenes from a Marriage.

There is irony that the filmmaker considered to be intellectually and artistically intimidating has a legacy of also being a tourist attraction. A Bergman Safari bus takes visitors to various shooting locations. Chris visits Bergman's grave, conspicuous in its distance within the cemetery as well as being marked by the smallest stone. Chris and Tony even make a point of watching Cries and Whispers in Bergman's screening room. Counter to this is discussion of Bergman's personal life, with wives, lovers and children of less importance than the prolific work on screen and stage.

The film breaks from being about Tony and Chris to scenes of the film Chris is writing, about a younger couple reuniting for a few days at a mutual friend's wedding, also in Faro. Hansen-Love cuts between Chris telling her story to Tony with the scenes of her characters, primarily Amy who is still in love with Joseph after several years of not seeing each other. The film cuts again from Chris uncertain about how to end her story to a scene indicating that her story has been made into a film. Through Chris, Hansen-Love appears to be saying that one can admire Ingmar Bergman as a filmmaker, but a film exploring happiness can be just as artistically meaningful as one that is dark and serious.

As Tony and Chris, Tim Roth and Vickie Krieps appear relaxed with each other, as a couple who have lived together long enough to know each others idiosyncrasies. Mia Wasikowska appears as Amy, both as Chris's imagined protagonist and then as the actress portraying her. The film, like Hansen-Love's other work is partially autobiographical, here in its broadest outlines of the filmmaking couple and the director's own visits to Faro. The references to Bergman's films are hardly esoteric although familiarity with key titles is useful. Rather than using an original score, much of the sweet soundtrack is from instrumental music by Robin Williamson, best known as a member of The Incredible String Band.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:17 AM

October 08, 2021

Suzanna Andler


Benoit Jacquot - 2020
Icarus Films

Now into his Seventies, Suzanna Andler represents Benoit Jacquot returning to his roots as a filmmaker. This is a filmed version of a play by Marguerite Duras written in 1968. Jacquot's early career as an assistant director included work on Duras' Nathalie Granger, Woman of the Ganges and India Song (1972 - 1975). With the exception of one briefly imagined moment, there is no attempt to disguise the theatrical source. Jacquot's previous films, with screenplays written or co-written by the filmmaker, are all dialogue heavy. Those familiar with Duras' works, whether on film or in literature, will note the difference in the use of spoken language, more pared down and direct.

Most of the film takes place in the very large living room of a palatial villa on the French Mediterranean coast. The title character, Suzanna, is the wife of a millionaire. She is considering renting the villa. Left alone by the rental agent, her lover, Michel, meets her at the villa to discuss the future of their relationship. What I assume attracted Jacquot to adapting this play is his continued exploration of the fragility of relationships between men and women. In several of Jacquot's films, the main characters will find themselves isolated either by choice or circumstance.

Even though the film takes place during the time it was written, the late 1960s, it could well have been a contemporary story. The only signifiers of the past are the Yves Saint Laurent mini dress worn by Charlotte Gainsbourg, references to the villa rental cost in francs, and conversations on a landline phone. Not to be intentionally flippant, but for Duras, the past is always present, which is to say that memories always have a way of dictating the actions of her protagonists' actions. The same can be said even if the past is imagined or misremembered.

Unlike Jacquot's previous films which explored relationships between older men and much younger women, Suzanna is noted as being 40, while Michel appears to be approximately ten years younger. But was is also striking in thinking about when the play was written is that not only is Suzanna presented as alone and possibly adrift, but that she, Michel, and the two other peripheral characters seem untouched by the social turmoil that was taking place in France in 1968. The New York Times review of the play, staged in 1984, indicates that there were some political references, topical of the time the play was written, that are not in the film. This in turn brings up questions about the importance of the social context of the play. The small revisions to make the story thoroughly contemporary might not have made a difference.

In spite of his productivity, the films of Benoit Jacquot have received inconsistent release in the U.S. One reason could well be the mixed reviews of his work following the relatively commercial and critical success of Farewell, My Queen. I have done a bit of catching up with a surprising number of Jacquot's films available for streaming. Suzanna Andler is more cerebral than Jacquot's other films, though for some critics and audience members, it is enough as a showcase for the formidable acting talents of Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:18 AM

October 06, 2021

Denver Film Festival - The Line-Up


I believe it is only a matter of another decade or so before the idea of a film festival being held solely in a theater will be considered as a relic from the 20th Century. While film festivals were either conducted virtually or not at all due to the pandemic, this year has seen film festivals held hybrids - both in person and online. This is the case with this year's edition of the Denver Film Festival. Strict protocols are in place with all festival staff vaxxed. Denver theaters require mask wearing, but to attend the festival in person also requires proof of vaccination or a recent Covid test. Doing a home version of a film festival has its advantages, such as flexible scheduling.

One change that I am looking forward to is the change of the additional venue in addition to the Denver Film Society's Sie Film Center. Moving from the Denver Pavilions theater downtown, the festival will take over part of Denver's newest (March 2021) theater, the 9+CO 10. A little explanation about the theater name - it is near the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and 9th Avenue. The theater has been my go-to place for mainstream films as well as indies - A24 films get booked there. My favorite coffee shop is across the street. On a personal note, it is also closer to home, a factor that's important when you get around by public transportation.

Regarding some of the films to be presented, Denver's festival will run from November 3 through the 14th. By this time, the major film festivals are over, giving way to studio blockbusters and prestige releases, with year end awards from various entities. There is also a shorter gap with more films that premiered in Cannes, Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York getting theatrical play or availability streaming on a major platform. Films that might have been programmed such as Tintane are already at the artplexes, Mia-Hanson Love's Bergman Island opens next week, with Wes Anderson'a The French Dispatch to follow.

As for what will be at the festival, the opening film will be Spencer, Pablo Larrain's film about Lady Diana, while the official curtain closer will be King Richard, about the father of the tennis champion Williams sisters. In between, the other big ticket films include C'mon, C'mon and Jockey. Among the 140 features will be Belfast, Memoria, Parallel Mothers and A Chiara, screened at earlier film festivals with Belfast touted as a certain Oscar nominee following its screening in Toronto. Most, if not all, of these films will be discussed more widely during award season.

My own coverage of the festival will be a bit selective. Most of the films I plan to cover will be seen at home through the festival's virtual theater. The handful of films I see in person include a couple from my "wish list", Ryƻsuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car and Radu Jude's Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. As there will probably be some in person critics screenings as well as screening links for critics, my coverage will include some of those films. One of the other films I look forward to seeing is After Blue, Bertrand Mandico's first feature following The Wild Boys. Kier-La Janisse's documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is on my list. Severin Films is also presenting three related horror films cited by Janisse as part of the festival's late night programming. While most films will be screened theatrically, several will be available both in person and online, with a small number online only. For myself is the advantage of seeing some late night films at an earlier hour at home rather than spending very late evenings waiting for infrequent buses.

The film festival runs from November 3 through 14. The link to the full schedule is here.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:16 AM

October 05, 2021

The Last Sunset

last sunset.jpg

Robert Aldrich - 1961
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Seeing The Last Sunset within days of Vera Cruz, I was reminded that the films share similarities beyond director Aldrich, cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and the brief presence of villainous Jack Elam. Both films take place in Mexico not long after the Civil War, with men still wearing the remains of their respective uniforms. Some of the locations in The Last Sunset, with stone buildings in ruins, resemble those in Vera Cruz. It is not hard to imagine Burt Lancaster or Gary Cooper from the older film crossing paths with Kirk Douglas or Rock Hudson. Douglas' outfit of black hat, shirt and pants may well have been taken from Lancaster. As his own producer, Douglas was canny enough to also give himself second billing to Hudson, not only the biggest star at Universal at the time, but also the top male star at the time the film was released.

For the first several minutes, Aldrich is able to present a grubby, unshaven Hudson in pursuit of Douglas across an unwelcoming landscape of rocks and desert. Grittiness gives way to glamour at the first shot of Dorothy Malone, lounging against the porch of the glorified shack she calls home. It's hard to detect that Malone's frontier wife has had a hardscrabble existence with her carefully windswept hair, eye shadow and lipstick. As Malone's daughter, Carol Lynley could pass easily for any teenage American girl of that era in her blue jeans. Filmed before Lynley's starring role in Return to Peyton Place, but released approximately a month later, Lynley had rounder cheeks making her look slightly younger than her actual age. Hudson is clean shaven after that introductory scene, as is Douglas. Only Joseph Cotton, as Malone's alcoholic husband, joins the other men in supporting roles, the cowboys, war veterans and wanderers with only a passing connection to the frills of civilization like a bath, a shave and a change of clothes.

The Last Sunset is mostly remembered now for the final gunfight between Hudson and Douglas, and its influence on Sergio Leone. And it is a bravura piece of filmmaking. The majority of the film is not as visually dynamic as Vera Cruz. I suspect that contractually, Aldrich had to shoot a specific number of close-ups of his two leading stars. Where one sees Aldrich's hand is when he is able to film his actors together within the frame. The first scene of Malone alone with Douglas provides the back story of their relationship. The camera moves within lengthy two-shots, as Malone and Douglas simultaneous move around each other as in a dance. Because they are visually contained together within the frame, but we also see how they react to each other, Aldrich shows the combustibility of their relationship. I am not familiar with the source novel, but narrative is crammed with revelations of family relationships suggesting an attempt at something like Greek tragedy with an ending that may be too Freudian for its own good. The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, the second of three written for Douglas in between Spartacus and Lonely are the Brave.

I had never gotten around to reading Alain Silver and James Ursini's study, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, but it is quoted quite heavily in Nick Pinkerton's commentary track. I bring this up as the book delves more deeply into Aldrich's visual style and use of unifying characters within the camera frame. Along with the usual overviews of the main stars and some of the supporting actors, Pinkerton reads from news items posted at the time of production. Pinkerton also quotes from Bosley Crowther's New York Times review, equally dismissive here as he was towards Vera Cruz six years earlier. Ultimately, Pinkerton positions The Last Sunset as a transitional film, both in the way Aldrich would choose to shoot films where he would favor using two cameras simultaneously, and as a work representing some of the shifts in the American western.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:46 AM