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June 30, 2023

The Childe

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Park Hoon-jung - 2023
Well Go USA

Family relationships have been a part of the most recent films by the Korean Park Hoon-Jung. The escalating revenge between gangsters in Night in Paradise begins with the accidental murder of family members. The characters in The Witch: Subversion and The Witch: The Other One are clones from the same mother. The Childe fits in thematically with the two Witch films in that children are used as tools for the benefit of their parents. Park's protagonists often experience a sense of dislocation, both in the geographic sense as well as their own sense of selves.

Marco is a Kopino, half Korean, half Filipino, young man. He gets by fighting in the underground boxing circuit, hoping to gather enough money to pay for his mother's needed surgery. What needs to be mentioned is that Kopino children are usually raised by single Filipino mothers with no acknowledgment from their respective Korean fathers, and this is an issue of race and class being addressed by the two country's governments. Marco is contacted by men representing his unknown Korean father, and taken to Seoul. While on the flight, a well dressed young man has given Marco an ominous warning that his life is in danger.

Once in Seoul, Marco is pursued by rival gangs and assassins. A bit of patience is required on the part of the viewer as it is deliberately not made clear for the first hour why these killers are shooting each other when they do not have Marco in their sights. There are several gun battles offering visceral pleasure. There is also some humor, as when the anonymous young assassin gets his Mercedes stuck in an increasingly narrow street while chasing Marco. What begins for Marco as the long wished for family reunion has turned into his being caught in a literal battle over inheriting a family legacy.

At this time, there is very little in English available on Park Soon-jung aside from his filmography and some general information. He has made enough films available for English language cinephile to discern certain recurring themes and character types. I would say Park's two best films at this time are both gangster films, The New World and Night in Paradise. Certainly the over-the-top action in The Childe can be appreciated and enjoyed for what it is, but the cultural concerns suggest that a deeper investigation into Park's films is in order.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:44 AM

June 27, 2023

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

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Pierre Foldes - 2022
Zeitgeist Films R1 DVD

While some of Pierre Foldes' artistic choices may be questioned, animation may be the best way to render Haruki Murakami on film. Not all of Murakami's work, but in several of his novels and stories the main character goes on a journey that is dreamlike. Literal images would do a disservice to the source material. The opening shots here are of a man falling down some kind of deep, black hole into a dark, underground pathway. Several of Murakami's stories resemble Alice in Wonderland, but with a contemporary Japanese man falling down the rabbit hole.

Foldes' film takes a couple of Murakami's short stories and elements from others into crafting a feature length film. The film takes place mostly in Tokyo following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Reports of the damage and other after-effects are in the background as televised reports. The two main narrative threads in the film are from the collection, After the Quake, inspired by the 1995 Kobe earthquake. While Murakami has written several pieces in response to both natural and man-made disasters in Japan, I am not clear as to why Foldes chose to update the film's story. Only a few fragments from the title short story, about a man and his young cousin, are part of the film. The film primarily is based on "UFO in Kushiro" and "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo". The first story is mostly about the disintegration of a couple's marriage following the earthquake. The second has a middle-aged banker who is enlisted by a six-foot frog to save Tokyo from a worm that would cause an earthquake.

While I have read several of Murakami's novels, I have not read any of the source short stories used for Foldes film. It is not a stretch to see the stories as placing their various senses of displacement, both pychological and geographic against the very real displacement of the thousands of victims of the earthquake and tsunami. Where animation succeeds in a visual representation of Murakami's writing is the the more dreamlike imagery. The close-up of an ear morphs into the outline of a nude woman. Landscapes, cityscapes and rooms are temporary spaces of shape and color. Where a giant, talking frog is imagined, passengers on a commuter train are rendered as ghostly apparitions. It is the smaller moments that work best for me. I also question the narrative structure of the film for trying to integrate the two main short stories rather than presenting them as separate pieces. What is faithful to the source is there is always a search for a definitive truth or answer, but for Murakami, some things remain unknowable.

As mentioned previously, though updated, Foldes film takes place in Japan with Japanese characters. The DVD comes with two language options - the original French as well as English. There are also three very short extras with Foldes discussing how the film was made, with shots of some of the preliminary sketches and artwork, plus shots of the live action filming used for reference footage.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:56 AM

June 20, 2023

Will Penny

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Tom Gries - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Even though Charlton Heston was major star during the 1960s, there was no guarantee that his name was enough to bring in the audience. Following the success of El Cid were notably a number of high profile films that did not turn a profit such as The Agony and Ecstasy or were outright flops like The War Lord. After initially getting a perfunctory release from Paramount, enough critics took notice of what appeared on the surface to be a medium budget western of no importance.

Even among westerns made at that time, Will Penny is an outlier. More of a character study than an action film, unlike the Italian westerns that were only recently discovered by American viewers, but also unlike the more traditional westerns perhaps best represented by John Wayne and director Andrew McLaglen. And who was this Tom Gries who seemed to come out of nowhere to write and direct this film?

Although there is the persistent myth from some that Will Penny was the feature debut of Tom Gries, there was a decade and a half of work on his resume. The couple of feature films were low budget genre pieces that showed up as the bottom half of B-movie double features. There was also the steady work of television westerns and dramas. In 1960, Gries wrote and directed an episode titled Line Camp for a western series, The Westerner. Created and produced by Sam Peckinpah, the short-live series starred Brian Keith as an itinerant cowboy. In this episode, Keith literally stumbles across a dead cowboy on a trail, leading to a series of misunderstandings when he comes to the cowboy's base camp. Gries took several pieces from that episode a reworked them as parts of Will Penny, recasting Slim Pickens in a similar role, and also having Lucien Ballard serve again as cinematographer. It is also easy to imagine Brian Keith in the title role as the aging cowboy.

What attracted Heston to the role was Tom Gries demand for authenticity. The cowboys here all look appropriately grubby and unshaven. Heston has a thick mustache for the first half of the film. The film begins at the end of a cattle drive, with Will Penny left to seek employment rumored to be available at another ranch for the winter. On his way with two other cowboys, he is ambushed by the self-appointed Preacher Quint and his two sons. They are described as "rawhiders", an archaic term for itinerants who usually dealt in the trade and sales of hides. Quint is played menacingly to the hilt by bug-eyed Donald Pleasance, with Bruce Dern type cast at the time as one of Quint's psychopathic sons. Penny and company stop at a trail store where they come upon Catherine Allen and her son, taking a meal break on their way to Oregon. While there is that demand for authenticity in how everyone dresses and the weapons used, it stops with Joan Hackett. Even though Ms. Hackett fits Hollywood's idea of a plain woman, she somehow got just enough mascara and lipstick to see her though months away from anything resembling civilization.

Heston has gone on record to declare Will Penny the favorite film of his career. While he is still a man of action, Heston also displays vulnerability, and acknowledgment of his weaknesses. At age 44, the star was playing a character a few years older than his actual age, still with an athletic body, but also the face of a man who has experienced life. From giving trust to a writer-director on his first studio film, Heston worked with Tom Gries again, though to lesser artistic success, on Number One, too visibly old to portray an aged pro football quarterback, and the more interesting The Hawaiians as the self-contradicting 19th Century plantation owner. Tom Gries was able to move on to a career split between theatrical films and several high-profile television movies, best remembered for two of the better Charles Bronson vehicles - Breakout and Breakheart Pass.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by western specialists C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke with director Michael Preece. Preece served as a script supervisor on Will Penny as well as several other films directed by Tom Gries. What is probably of the most interest is the discussion of the shooting of the film on location. Two extras ported over from the 2002 DVD release feature Charlton Heston and actor Jon Gries relaying their memories of making the film. Jon is the the son of Tom Gries, making his acting debut at age 10 as Joan Hackett's son, billed as Jon Francis. The blu-ray was sourced from a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:09 AM

June 13, 2023

Ernst Lubitsch: Two films from 1919

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The Oyster Princess / Die Austernprinzessin

Meyer from Berlin / Meyer aus Berlin
Kino Classics BD Region A

The one time I had previously seen The Oyster Princess was in Berlin, November 2006. This was at the Arsenal, a truly underground theater beneath the Berlin FilmMuseum. As the film was presented with German intertitles, my ability to follow the story was limited to mostly observing the images. My ability to read German is still confined to a few familiar words.

This new blu-ray disc has two films directed by Ernst Lubitsch released in 1919. The Oyster Princess is the main attraction here, sourced from a 2012 digital restoration. The commentary track by film historian Joseph McBride helps in putting the film into context both of when the film was made and as part of Lubitsch's universe. The American Oyster King and his daughter, representative of a nouveau rich riche lifestyle, are no more realistic than the unnamed European city with its dissolute, down at the heels, aristocrats.

As in other Lubitsch films, everything is based on a misunderstanding. Prince Nucki sends his servant, Josef, to check out Ossi, the temperamental "princess", after receiving a note from a matchmaker. Ossi, in her haste to please her father, mistakes Josef for the Prince and impulsively marries him. The marriage celebration consists of Josef gorging himself on the celebratory feast, Ossi leading guests and staff in a frenetic fox trot, while Prince Nucki dines alone in his shabby apartment with a single herring before a night of drinking with his friends. The comedy is more broad than in Lubitsch's American films, even the pre-Codes.

Translation from one language to another always has a host of problems being sometimes more than finding the correct equivalent words. In the case of The Oyster Princess, an obvious bit of wordplay did get lost in translation. Attempting to consummate the marriage with Ossi, Josef tells her, in German, "Geh sag doch Schnucki zu mir". This is translated as, "Go on and call me your sweetie". I do not think the verbal gag in this case would have been lost in a more literal rendering.

Meyer from Berlin was Lubitsch's second to last appearance as an actor. A comic star at the time, Lubitsch plays the part of man who convinces his wife that he needs to go on vacation for his health. Dressed in lederhosen, wearing a cap with a yard long feather, the would-be Lothario goes to the a resort in the Bavarian Alps where he courts a woman who uses Meyer as a shield to put off her other suitors. Again, Joseph McBride provides the commentary track. While he repeats some points stated in The Oyster Princess, what is of most interest here is the discussion of Lubitsch's use of Jewish humor and his own Jewish identity. The character of Solly Meyer is also part of the tradition of clowns imagining themselves to be sophisticated lovers. The source print is a tinted Dutch version from the Eye FilmMuseum.

With some recent debate over how much a director's name means to the general public, the opening credits for The Oyster Princess provide a striking example. There is a series of filmed close-ups of each of the stars, most of them smiling towards the camera. But the very first of these portraits is of the man who is otherwise behind the camera, Ernst Lubitsch. What chutzpah!

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:55 AM

June 02, 2023

Falcon Lake


Charlotte Le Bon - 2022
Yellow Veil

Would my reaction to Falcon Lake be substantially different had I seen the film, if not theatrically, at least not as a laptop screener? The problem is that the film is so dark in several scenes, so under lit, that I was not certain what I was looking at. It took me a while to understand that Ms. Le Bon was setting up a mood throughout her film. While I have appreciated films that were more style than substance, even the style wears out its welcome.

The film takes place in a remote part of Quebec, where two families share a house in a wooded area near the titular lake. Even though it is Summer, every day appears perpetually overcast. The almost 14 year old Bastien and 16 year old Chloe spend their days together, mostly just hanging out by the lake. Chloe tells of someone drowning in the lake although the story is never substantiated. Chloe's insistence that the lake is haunted by the ghost of the drowned man informs several future scenes. The relationship between the two shifts from childish games to sexual teasing.

The film was based on the graphic novel, Une Soeur by Bastien Vives. The French title translates as "A Sister". While the two characters of Chloe and Bastien are not related, they resemble siblings or at least relatives, a point brought up by their lake side friends. Le Bon, for the most part, follows the narrative of Vives. Curiously, Vives' Chloe is a blonde. The images are clean and clear. Seeing Vives' source work compared the film adaptation again makes me wonder about Le Bon's motivation to make almost every shot look murky. Even having some idea of what Le Bon may have been striving for, a constant state of dread, fails to achieve its goal.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:36 AM