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October 17, 2023


Anna May Wong - Piccadilly (1929) Cafe de Paris 2.jpeg

E.A. Dupont - 1929
Milestone Film & Video BD Region A

I had seen Piccadilly once before, as a British DVD, roughly twenty years ago. The first thing that struck me, that I had totally forgotten, was that actress Gilda Gray had top billing, her name larger than anybody else in the cast. Gray was originally known as a dancer, credited with inventing "The Shimmy", and had starred in about half a dozen films prior to Piccaadilly. The evaporation of her screen career coincided with the transition to talking pictures. By what appears to be a cruel coincidence, Piccadilly has also been the artistic peak for director E.A. Dupont, and the actress more notably remembered with the film, Anna May Wong.

Gray and Cyril Ritchard play a dance team that is the featured entertainment at the oversized Piccadilly nightclub, run by Jameson Thomas. Ritchard is in love with Gray who is in love with Thomas. After firing Wong for distracting the other scullery workers with her own dancing, Thomas re-hires her to be a novelty performer. Wong is to perform a Chinese dance in an authentic costume. The dance and the costume are both as authentic as chop suey. All eyes are on Anna May Wong with her large helmet, exposed midriff and bare legs. Between that costume and a dance that is mostly arm waving, Wong does not have to do much to make Gilda Gray yesterday's news. While Thomas falls in love with Wong, who knows just how to get what she wants, there is Jim, a Chinese man whose relationship with Wong is the subject of speculation. Two different but connected love triangles made more complicated by race and class.

Director E.A. Dupont was known at the time for his creative camerawork, especially for his 1925 film, Variety, with its unmoored camera mimicking the point of view of being on a trapeze. That film brought Dupont to Hollywood for one production, followed by working in England for a few years. Notable are several traveling shots, one of the hands of bartenders and the hands of the customers, culminating with the camera resting on the hands of Wong and Thomas taking their drinks. Also a shot taken on a bus moving past the various theaters in Piccadilly Circus. Shadows across faces are used for artistic effect. For all the stylistic flourishes, my favorite shot is a tight close-up of Gilda Gray's face as she nibbles on a cookie, satisfied that she has put would-be lover Cyril Ritchard in his place.

The blu-ray is taken from the British Film Institute restored print. Most of the film is in sepia tone with some night scenes tinted blue. While commentary tracks are usually expected to cover information on the stars, the director and other top crew members, Farran Smith Nehme shows exceptional research in her information on the virtually forgotten Gilda Gray and Jameson Thomas. There is also discussion on Arnold Bennett's standing as a novelist by his contemporary, Virginia Woolf. Of interest is that Piccadilly was Bennett's only filmed screenplay. A possible collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock in 1930 collapsed reportedly because Bennett wrote specifically for a silent film at a time when that was no longer commercially viable. Composer Neil Brand has a supplement explaining his musical choices for creating a score that in part was influenced by jazz and popular dance music of the time. The excerpts of a 2004 panel discussing Wong's life and career, featuring actress Nancy Kwan, is marred by the echoey audio. Of more interest is the sound prologue that was added after the initial release, with Jameson Thomas as a bartender of a small, rural pub about to tell about his time as the owner of a nightclub in London. Although his scene does serve a narrative purpose, the prominently billed Charles Laughton appears briefly as the most belligerent gourmand at the Piccadilly Club.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:20 AM

October 10, 2023

7 Days in Heaven

7 days in heaven.jpeg

Fu hou qi ri
Essay Liu & Wang Yu-Lin - 2010
Cheng Cheng Films

In 7 Days in Heaven, the weeklong preparations for a funeral get in the way of the closest remaining family having time to remember the deceased. The film takes place in a rural village in Taiwan, where there are traditions as part of the period of mourning, although some have idiosyncratic twists under the auspices of a ceremonial priest, Yi, with a flexiblilty to lead ceremonies that are recognizably Buddhist as well as more folk practices and a professional funeral arranger, Chin. The film is adapted from Essay Liu's writing, "Seven Days after Father", available online, about the absurdities she noted in her own experience.

The film opens with the delirious scene of Yi wearing his priest's robes in front of a family altar, dancing to Harry Belafonte singing, "Hava Negila". Chin is a woman whose main profession is that of professional mourner, flinging herself in front of coffins, wailing loudly. The character of Mei is Liu's stand-in in the film as the source writing was done in the first person. Chin has Mei and the others follow a script every day determining when and how they should be expressive of their mourning. Part of the ceremonies includes a memorial service at a tent with two very tall stacks of canned drinks arranged to resemble the Eiffel Tower, and a brief musical interlude from a high school marching band. Prior to being sent off to the crematorium, the father's favorite cigarettes and girlie magazine with be with him in his passage to the afterworld.

The narrative breaks for flashbacks, memories of the father. It is not until the various ceremonies are over that the family members experience their own sense of grief. Mei tries to effect an escape not only from rural Taiwan, but also Taipei, by taking a job involving international travel throughout Asia.

A curious change from Liu's original piece in its conversion to film is that her original story references only Buddhism, while in the film there is a hodgepodge of religious expression. Since there is virtually no available information on Liu, my guess is that she has chosen to express a sense of skepticism towards religious and folk beliefs in general. Curiously, Liu's previous film work was co-writing the film Mailie (2005), also about the Chinese tradition of of the seven day period between death and cremation. While Liu's career has been in writing screenplays, co-director Wang Yu-Lin has directed three more films.

7 Days in Heaven is available on DVD and on several VOD platforms.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:53 AM

October 04, 2023

The Storms of Jeremy Thomas


Mark Cousins - 2021
Cohen Media Group DVD Region 1

It was probably a given that Jeremy Thomas would work in the film industry. His father was Ralph Thomas, best known for making Dirk Bogarde a star in the Doctor series and a handful of more serious efforts. Uncle Gerald Thomas made a career of directing the Carry On series. There was also the more distant connection of grand-uncle Victor Saville, remembered mostly as the producer of Kiss Me Deadly. What was not a given were the films that Jeremy Thomas chose to produce. Nothing could be described as mainstream British cinema. Thomas managed to make a career out of producing films that garnered attention based as the work of very individualistic directors that were more likely to earn awards and critical praise than make a dent in the box office. The one major exception was early in his career with The Last Emperor, the first of five collaborations with Bernardo Bertolucci. It is perhaps not insignificant that while Thomas has produced several films by British directors, he has done more work with filmmakers from outside the United Kingdom.

Film historian Mark Cousins' film is part biography, filmography and road trip. With Thomas at the wheel, the two drove to Cannes for the 2019 festival where Takashi Miike's First Love was to premiere. The title was inspired by Thomas' reaction to a sudden rain storm at Cannes that caused others to flee for shelter while Thomas marveled at the change of weather. The storms would also be the reactions to some of the films such as the controversy over Crash (David Cronenberg - 1996) with its depiction of sex. While Thomas is a producer who gets the money and support but generally sees his job as supporting his directors, Cousins does find some thematic connections with several of the films, particularly with sex and violence.

Cousins does make the odd choice of having two actresses, Tilda Swinton and Debra Winger, discuss working with Thomas, both remarking on his intelligence. I would have wanted this insights of the directors he has worked with more than once like Matteo Garrone, Takashi Miike or Jerzy Skolimowski. The road trip depicts someone who likes to drive fast when he can, sing along with the Grateful Dead, and is also thoughtful to have stopped at the Drancy Memorial outside Paris, infamous as the site where French Jews were rounded up prior to being placed in cattle cars bound for Auschwitz. Cousins does appear to like some of his actors praising Theresa Russell, Jack Nicholson, and Marlon Brando, while offering a little anecdote about Tony Curtis.

Even with the brief exploration of thematic concerns that connect the films, only the surface of Thomas' life and career has been touched. Perhaps a film with a longer running time than an hour and a half would have been better. For myself, I would have liked to have known more about the making of that first production, Mad Dog Morgan when the Australian government was helping prop up the local film industry for an international market, with novice filmmakers shooting a film starring a perpetually inebriated Dennis Hopper. There is also the three years that it took to make The Last Emperor and the logistics of shooting Little Buddha in Nepal. What is understood is Mark Cousins' interest in Jeremy Thomas as a kind of unicorn among film producers, truly independent, going against the grain with films marked in varying degrees by their artistic aspirations.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:48 AM

October 02, 2023

Creepy Crawly

creepy crawly.jpeg

Chalit Krileadmongkon & Pakphum Wongjinda
WellGo USA BD Region A

I admittedly have not been keeping up with Thai cinema as I had in the past. It has been a while since I last wrote about any films and even longer since I have seen any Thai horror films. I would think the most ideal way to watch Creepy Crawly would be in a full Thai theater with an audience there to scream and laugh, usually in that order. I should note that the film's original English language title in The One Hundred, which is how the film is known outside the U.S.

There may be a bit of eyeball rolling at the initial set-up. The story takes place soon after the Covid-19 lockdowns begin in Bangkok, March 2020. A group of travelers are required to quarantine in a second rate hotel for two weeks. When cleaning a room, a staff member discovers an infestation of centipedes. We are talking about bugs the size of small mammals, not the insects found in somebody's garden. Dead bodies appear in odd places have met gruesome fates. The hotel manager has everyone locked in. When you are stuck in a crummy hotel with people killed by someone or something, somehow a pandemic hardly seems terrifying.

While none of this is to be taken seriously, there are more than enough glaring plot holes that were either overlooked in constructing the screenplay or were edited out. Much of the potential suspense is dissapated by a major reveal that comes too early. Some of the publicity also mentions that the story was inspired by Battambang, a city in Cambodia. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any online information about this source of inspiration. Does any of this matter? As a creature feature, Creepy Crawly probably comes closest to resembling John Carpenter's version of The Thing, but lacks the older film's attention to detail.

While this may sound condescending, Creepy Crawly is a Thai movie made for the mainstream Thai audience, meaning not to expect more than a diverting hour and a half of entertainment. One of the nicer performances is by Chanidapa Pongsilpipat as one of the hotel maids. At one point, her face is in close-up. There is no cutting to what she is looking at but Chanidapa conveys the sense of horror with her eyes slowly widening. The Thai television star with the anglicized name of Mike Angelo provides a few martial arts moves. The most information I could find on the cast and crew was under the title, The One Hundred at themoviedb.org.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:42 AM