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July 30, 2005

American International Pictures

Fast and Furious: The Story of American International Pictures
Mark Thomas McGee - 1984
McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishing

The Fast and the Furious
Edward Sampson and John Ireland - 1954
Goodtimes Region 1 DVD

Hot Rod Girl
Leslie H. Martinson - 1956
Alpha Video DVD

When I was a film critic for a student newspaper at New York University, I grabbed the opportunity to interview Roger Corman. Not only was this my first chance to interview a film director, but one who made films that I found that I enjoyed in spite of myself. The interview was in conjunction with a Roger Corman retrospective sponsored by American International. Growing up, I knew Corman's films weren't "good" films on the level of To Kill A Mockingbird or A Man for All Seasons. But I also knew that I had to see X - The Man with the X-Ray Eyes in a double feature with The Comedy of Errors. I was also able to see older A.I.P. films on television, like Teenage Caveman. I was a Teenage Werewolf was seen several times very late at night with sound tweaked to a minimum level, enough to catch most of the dialogue, but not loud enough to awaken my parents. I was a junkie for the trashy thrills of American International Pictures.

I stumbled upon Mark McGee's book while doing a library search for something else. This slim volume is composed of press releases copied verbatim, anecdotes from various actors and production staff, and unsubstantiated conversations between people. Because of the casual writing style, I wasn't clear on who McGee was writing for. The serious scholar would be frustrated by this book due to inconsistencies in the information and the apparent absence of a proof reader. Executive Producer and co-founder James Hartford Nicholson is listed as James Harvey Nicholson on one page, while in the biography section, Pam Grier's birth year is listed as 1925. The filmography section lists films in alphabetical order rather than production year, and fails to distinguish between A.I.P.'s productions and independent or foreign acquisitions. Most peculiar about the filmography is that McGee lists the music composers first, before the producer(s), director or actors. While Sisters was Brian De Palma's first film to get wide distribution, McGee's assertion that De Palma got his start at A.I.P. is blatantly false with six features previously released.

The stories relayed by Corman collaborators Charles Griffith, Beach Dickerson and Paul Blaisdell are fun and illuminating. Corman comes off as rather churlish in his efforts to get the most out of cast and crew for the least amount of money. Blaisdell had arguably the biggest challenge, creating rubber monsters that needed to somewhat resemble the movie's posters, on a budget of a few hundred dollars. What should be noted here is that a title and advertisting campaign were approved before the film was actually made. Griffith, author of Little Shop of Horrors, is interviewed to better effect in the web magazine Senses of Cinema about his fractious relationship with Corman.

While some A.I.P. films from the Sixties appear occassionally on the cable channel Flix, I was able to see a couple of older films on DVD. The Fast and the Furious is not particularly fast or furious. It is the second film produced by Roger Corman, and the first film released by American Releasing Corporation, the company that became A.I.P. The story of prison escapee John Ireland and rich girl Dorothy Malone moves along fitfully. What was probaby fast and furious was the shooting schedule as the screenplay defies logic. Given the status of American Releasing Corporation films in its first couple of years, the ambitions of this film were clearly to be no more than the cheap bottom half of a double feature.

By 1956, American Releasing Corporation had changed its name to American International Pictures. While McGee doesn't attribute the decision to anyone, it was probably James Nicholson who determined that films would be released in "combinations" of pre-packaged double features. This change kept A.I.P. solvent while RKO and Republic Pictures went bankrupt. Hot Rod Girl is representatvie of the niche market, teenagers, that A.I.P. targetted successfully. Pre-Rifleman Chuck Connors is the police detective who runs a race track to keep the hot rodders off the street. Bad guy Mark Andrews tries to goad the kids into street races. You know he's bad because he wears a black leather jacket. Frank Gorshin, in his second film, commits petty theft by stealing the movie from the rest of the cast with his animated expressions and body in constant motion. The score was the first composed by Alexander Courage, most famous for the Star Trek theme. Among the musicians for the somewhat jazzy score were Maynard Ferguson, Bud Shank, Barney Kessell and Georgie Auld, the man who taught Robert De Niro how to "play" the sax for New York, New York.

For myself, my favorite A.I.P. films are Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films, especially Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia. Maybe there was something about working in England that brought out a more accomplished craftsman. I saw The Trip on television a couple of years ago and still admire the film for the circular tracking shots. At a time when every other new American film is a lame remake, my dream is of a remake of X - The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. The story of drugs, obsession, and seeking the truth of the universe is perfect for Darren Aronofsky. Here is a film begging to be remade with the kind of special effects that could barely be imagined, much less rendered, in 1963. The scientific pursuits and eventual descent into a hell of self-distruction make Corman's Dr. Xavier a kindred spirit to Aronofsky's mathematician in Pi and the junkies of Requiem for a Dream.

Maybe I'm just being a nostaligic boomer here. I admit a lot of what A.I.P. made and released was junk. But it's junk that I'll have a certain affection for.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:14 PM

July 29, 2005

Solomon and Sheba

King Vidor - 1959
MGM Japan Region 2 DVD

One of my favorite scenes in Frank Tashlin's Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) is of Marilyn Maxwell as an actress starring in a Hollywood costume epic of ancient Egypt. Tashlin's best moments were usually loving bites of the Hollywood hand that fed him. In this case, the Maxwell and cast are singing the title song to the film she is making, The White Virgin of the Nile. Within the span of a few minutes, Tashlin had satirized the costume epics of the Fifties that followed success of The Ten Commandments.

I was reminded of Tashlin's spoof by a scene in Solomon and Sheba. Gina Lollobrigida, as Sheba, presides over a "pagan ceremony". Her cloak removed, she is wearing an outfit from Bellydancers 'R' Us. Moving her arms and hips like a hootchie kootchie dancer, she is joined by a cast of men and women who leap and shout in what looks like a parody of Cecil B. De Mille or is the worst Broadway musical number ever choreographed for film. The scene comes to a, ahem, climax, when Yul Brynner, as Solomon, and Lollobrigida, along with the other men and women, get to know each other (in the biblical sense).

Between Solomon and Sheba, and his previous film, War and Peace, King Vidor must have felt more like a general than a director. For the second time in a row he was dealing with what must have been extraordinary logistics, with literally hundreds of people on screen in several wide screen battles. Some of the shots of riders and chariots were similar to his work on Duel in the Sun. Compared to the older film, Yul Brynner and George Sanders are even less convincing as brothers than Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotton. As voluptuous as she is, Gina Lollobrigida is a less compelling love interest than Jennifer Jones. Having original lead Tyrone Power die before the completion of filming probably took its toll on Vidor. As it turned out, this was Vidor's last Hollywood film, although he made himself available to mentor some younger directors.

At 141 minutes, the film starts to feel overlong until the final battle. The Egyptian soldiers and charioteers are blinded by the sun reflected in the shields of Solomon's army. In their zeal to attack Solomon, the Egyptians cannot prevent themselves from going forward towards the canyon that separates them from Solomon's army. Hundreds of soldiers and horses are seen hurling into a literal valley of death. For a few minutes, one is reminded of what "spectacular" meant in the days before computer generated special effects.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:35 PM

July 28, 2005

Tigrero: A Film That Never Was Made

Mika Kaurismaki - 1993
Fantoma Region 1 DVD

The title of this film is misleading. Tigrero is not quite like It's All True with its recovered footage shot by Orson Welles, or The Epic That Never Was which documented Josef Von Sternberg's aborted attempt to film I, Claudius. Tigrero is an amiable, though clearly staged, documentary of Samuel Fuller returning to a remote part of Brazil where he visited almost forty years previously.

The Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurimaki shows Jim Jarmusch gamely tagging along with Fuller to a remote indian village where Fuller shot test footage in 1954 for a film to star John Wayne at the request of Fox production chief Darryl Zanuck. Fuller insists that the villagers will remember him. Jarmusch is doubtful. In what is the best moment of Kaurimaki's film, we see the villagers watching the old footage, eyes lighting up at the recognition of some of the people on screen. Some of the indians thank Fuller for bringing their relatives and friends temporarily back to life.

Some of the footage shot in Brazil is familiar to anyone who has seen Shock Corridor. Shots of a fertility dance and waterfalls were incorporated by Fuller, with the cinemascope imagery distorted to reflect the madness of the characters. One of the extras of the DVD shows the original footage in the correct aspect ratio, which includes shots of Fuller on horseback as well as chopping his way through the brush with a machete. With his ever present cigar in his mouth, Fuller always looks ready to take charge.

One of the other extras on the DVD is of still shot by Jarmusch. There is a shot of a villager playing with a tripod, with his head where the camera is normally placed, pretending to be a cameraman, or even, perhaps, a camera. The shot made me think of Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie. Samuel Fuller played the part of a director shooting a movie in a remote village in South America. After the production crew leaves the village, the villagers re-enact the production process with mock cameras.
I have to wonder if Jarmusch was thinking of The Last Movie when he took the photograph, or if any of Fuller's anecdotes were the inspiration for Hopper's meditation on film and reality.

Fuller's story of his not making Tigrero is also recounted in his autobiography. In addition to John Wayne, Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power were set to go to Brazil. Due to the remote and sometimes dangerous location, production was cancelled due to exorbitant costs of insuring the stars.

I had the opportunity to see Sam Fuller in person in Denver, in 1982. Denver briefly had a cinemateque. The person in charged vetoed screening Fuller's version of his little seen White Dog in favor of the more familiar Pick-Up on South Street. Until I saw him in person, I did not realize how short Fuller was, standing barely more than five feet tall. He graciously autographed my copy of his novel 144 Picadilly. I normally don't seek autographs from anyone. The exception is this fireplug of a man who whether on film, in print, or in person, always had a story to tell.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:52 PM

July 27, 2005

Robot Monster

Phil Tucker - 1953
Image Region 1 DVD

It's summer, it's hot, and sometimes I have the need to sit back and enjoy some Grade A cheese. For those who are unfamiliar with Robot Monster, this is the movie in which Earth is threatened by a guy in a gorilla suit wearing a deep sea diver helmet. Even though it's listed at #55 of the Internet Movie Database's Bottom 100, this film is actually not without merit. The story is pretty silly with plenty of head scratching moments. What makes Robot Monster worth watching, or at least listening to, is a terrific score by Elmer Bernstein early in his career.

My favorite Bernstein scores were mostly those done in the early to mid Sixties. The influence of mentor Aaron Copland is very clear, most memorably in The Magnificent Seven and To Kill a Mockingbird. Bernstein's film scores fit in a time when movie composers were incorporating jazz tempos and dissonance, in general breaking away from the patterns set by traditional film composers like Max Steiner. Bernstein ended up doing the score for Robot Monster, as well as Cat Women of the Moon, during a time when he was temporarily gray listed for suspected left wing activities. The music for Robot Monster seems influenced by the jazz age French composers like Poulenc. The ultimate disappointment of Robot Monster is that within the confines of an extemely low budget science fiction film, only Elmer Bernstein demonstrated his creativity and soon established his very distinguished career.

The movie was written by Wyott Ordung, a sometimes actor and director as well as writer. His best known credit was for directing the first film produced by Roger Corman, Monster from the Ocean Floor. Like Ordung, director Phil Tucker has had a sporadic career with very low budget films that would usually appear on the bottom bill of a double feature. Tucker's other film of note, Dance Hall Racket, featured the young Lenny Bruce. While the most famous image of Robot Monster is of the creature, Ro-Man, carrying off starlet Claudia Barrett, a chord may have been struck with star George Nader. A minor beefcake star of the Fifties, Nader was also a closeted homosexual. After coming out in the mid-Eighties at the time of colleague Rock Hudson's death from A.I.D.S., Nader wrote a science fiction book titled Chrome. Nader's book is about homoerotic love between man and robot. Unlike Robot Monster, the reviews for Chrome have been generally positive. And yet I wonder it there was a mad moment when Nader had dreamt that it was he who was carried away to the cave instead of Claudia Barrett.

For me, Robot Monster is likeable enough for some its nuttier ideas of science fiction. Ro-Man's cave features a Salvation Army dresser that's suppose to be some kind of intergalactic television. There is also an old table with what looks like old audio equipment, a reel to reel tape deck, a television antenna, and a bubble machine. The scenes of revived dinosaurs include the creaky animation of special effects pioneer Willis O'Brien, as well as shots of two lizards playing Twister in extreme close up. Much of the lack of logic can be charitably explained by the twist ending.

Robot Monster ends with the image of Ro-Man walking towards the camera. The image is repeated three times. It is during these last few seconds that Robot Monster achieves its moment of goofball cinematic poetry.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:56 PM

July 25, 2005

Casque d'or

Jacques Becker -1952
Criterion Region 1 DVD

In the supplement to Casque d'or, Claude Dauphin comments on how the film should have been shot in color because the opening scene resembles paintings by Pierre Auguste Renoir. Dauphin was correct. One can see echoes of The Boating Party and The Seine at Asnieres in both subject matter and framing. The resemblance to Renoir's paintings is no coincidence as Jacques Becker began his career as the assistant to Renoir's son, Jean Renoir on several films including Grand Illusion. The Renoir connection did not stop there as Becker's films were edited by Marguerite Renoir, Jean Renoir's partner.

Taking place in the 1890s, Casque d'or is about a prostitute (Simone Signoret) who falls in love with a carpenter (Serge Reggiani). Marie, the prostitute, is distinguished by her casque d'or - her "golden helmet" of hair. The carpenter, Jo, is set up by the local crime boss, Leca (Claude Dauphin) to fight Marie's pimp for the right to be with Marie. The fight between Jo and the pimp is done without music or dialogue. For just a few minutes, the characters are reduced to animal instinct for survival.

I am just starting to get acquainted with Becker's films. While I read a little bit about him as an influence on the Nouvelle Vague directors, I can not recall his films every being shown while I lived in New York City during the early 70s. I saw Le Trou on DVD a couple of years ago and strongly recommend that film. The acclaimed Touchez pas au grisbi has recently been made available on DVD as well. While there are those who love Casque d'or, I can only say I liked it. Of the two films by Becker I have seen, it lacked the impact of Le Trou.

What made the film interesting was the presentation of France during La Belle Epoque. Gangsters were better dressed and had somewhat better manners, but otherwise were not to different. Leca's front is as a seller of wine. He also has a police inspector on his payroll. Especially compared to American films of the same time, Casque d'or is especially frank in showing Signoret and Reggiani in bed together, as well as the peripheral sight of a carriage driver relieving himself by a tree. Becker was a filmmaker who loved to tell stories of society's outsiders. As Becker himself stated: "I am French; I make films about French people; I look at French people; I am interested in French people."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:42 PM

July 23, 2005

The Mind Benders

Basil Dearden - 1963
Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

The Mind Benders is one of those films that struck my curiosity in my youth and never let go. I was eleven at the time it was released. Something about the title and the advertising struck a chord. The title, if not the film, seems to have made an impact on an older bunch of British youth as there was the British band that followed in the wake of The Beatles, modifying their name as The Mindbenders.

The film was directed by the British film maker Basil Dearden during his topical phase. After touching such subjects as racism (Sapphire - 1959) and homosexuality (Victim - 1961), Dearden has made a film "inspired" by reported experiments with brain washing and isolation chambers, pointedly in the United States. A distracted appearing Oxford professor is seen traveling by train, followed by a man who later reveals himself to be a government agent. The professor hurls himself out of a moving train. The government agent, Major Hall, knows that the professor had been involved with experiments with isolation tanks. Now dead, with one thousand pounds in his possession, did the professor sell scientific information, or was he brain washed?

In order to discover if being in the isolation tank caused the professor to be brainwashed, Hall convinces the professor's colleague, Longman (Dirk Bogarde) to duplicate the experiment. To determine how easily influenced someone is following isolation, Longman is to be told something counter to his belief system. The physically and mentally weakend Longman is made to believe that his happy marriage is a sham.

Maybe it's general British good manners of the time, but The Mind Benders suffers from not being more dramatic. I'm not familiar with James Kennaway's novel, but brainwashing in a domestic setting lacks the tension of something like The Manchurian Candidate with its war hero turned political assassin. There is one nice visual touch with a scene of Bogarde, immediately after being brainwashed, with his wife Oonagh (Mary Ure). The couple are sitting in an old open top car, parked by a stream. Ure's face is completely lit in full view, while Bogarde's face is half in shadow to indicate that the brainwashing has taken effect. While not an artist, Dearden's films have revealed him to be a consistent craftsman.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:03 PM

July 21, 2005

Les Belles

Qian jiao bai mei
Doe Chin - 1961
Celestial Pictures Hong Kong Region 3 DVD

I was seriously intrigued by the excerpts of older Hong Kong films included with the Criterion DVD version of In the Mood for Love. Just as seeing the films of the Nouvelle Vague sent me scrambling to see more American films from the forties and fifties, Wong Kar-Wai has me looking at the cinema of Hong Kong past. Certain historical aspects to Les Belles were for me more interesting than the film itself.

The film is an attempt to be a Hollywood style musical with Mandarin elements. Plot elements are from American movies or in some cases, the memory of musicals from various eras. The title is a variation of George Cukor's Les Girls (1957). The main story, about an antagonistic couple who are also unknowingly romantic pen pals, can be figured out faster than you can say Shop around the Corner (1940). A scene with the entire troup practicing a tap dance number looks so much like something from an early Busby Berkeley Warner Brothers musical that I almost expected James Cagney or Dick Powell to make an appearance.

The many musical numbers are more interesting as a presentation of popular culture in Hong Kong in the early sixties. The first numbers have a South American Carmen Miranda type flavor. A more modern dance had a large spider web on stage. I wasn't sure whether the dancers were flies or spiders though. There was also versions of Chinese opera which had the most elaborate staging. One scene also attempted to be abstact in the style of Singin' in the Rain. Instead of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse alone on an undefined set marked by changing colors, Les Belles has a solo pianist on stage with images of ancient China superimposed on screen. The featured musical number from the posters shows star Linda Lin Dai dressed as a Can-Can dancer suggesting that the film Can-Can (1960) had been a popular success in Hong Kong. All of the musical numbers are done on stage and director Doe Chin is unable to work around his budgetary and spacial limits.

More interesting than Les Belles is the story of star Linda Lin Dai. The closest comparison I can make is to say that she was the Hong Kong equivalent to her contemporary, Doris Day. Lin also won four Best Actress awards. According to the DVD commentary, Lin made over forty films from 1953 until her death by suicide in 1964 at age 29. Lin's death was as devastating to Hong Kong film fans as the death of James Dean in the U.S. with both stars dead at the height of their fame. That Maggie Cheung's hair in In the Mood or Love is done somewhat in the style of Lin's is hardly coincidental. At the very least, seeing Les Belles helps me deepen my appreciation of Wong Kar-Wai while I scratch the surface of Hong Kong film history.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:46 PM

July 20, 2005

The Island

Michael Bay - 2005
Dreamworks-Warner Brothers 35mm

"Michael is actually an abstract artist in the way he uses time, space, light and color. He's almost an experimental filmmaker in that regard. He uses the medium in the fastest, sharpest way that it can be used, and if you don't like it, tough luck."
Wesleyan University Professor Janine Basinger discussing former student Michael Bay

I'm one of those people who is not convinced by Professor Basinger's hyperbole. I was more convinced by the arguments of a couple of critics in Art Forum that John Woo's Face/Off was comparable to action painting. While I would like to see Bay make a film with the severe restrictions of Dogme '95, the cinematic vow of chastity created by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, I recognize that Bay is a talented director of action movies with a recognizable style.

As it turned out, Vinterberg has made a film not in the Dogme '95 style, but in subject matter almost a twisted sister to Bay's new film. Vinterberg's It's All about Love (2003) is in part about lovers on the run, with Claire Danes fleeing from her clones and a sheltered environment into a world that is in a new ice age. Bay's film is in part about two clones (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson) who become lovers, running in the desert, seeking the man who generated one of the clones. Still both films touch on some of the same questions of identity and memory. One should note that McGregor's character is named Lincoln, as the man who freed the slaves, while Johansson's character, Jordan, shares the name of the symbolic river crossed to the land of freedom.

Part of the visuals of The Island seems to have the DNA from Japanese films like The Ring with the kinetic montage of quick images suggesting some unexplained horror. One of the first shots introducing Los Angeles of the future are the wide screen and color version of the almost identical image Fritz Lang used in Metropolis almost eighty years ago, back when Lang was the Steven Spielberg of the silent film era. It takes a while to set up the story, but once it moves you have a couple of high speed chases, bullets, car crashes and explosions, pretty much the Bay template since the first Bad Boys. The Island is a hybrid of plot points and scenes from such films as The Matrix, Terminator 3 and (alas) The Village. The film could even be McGregor's second to be titled Attack of the Clones.

What gripe I have with the film is the dialogue. The original screenplay was written by Caspian Tredwell-Owen who wrote the thoughtful, underappreciated Beyond Borders. The screenplay was redone by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to Bay's specifications. While Bay has stated that he wants his films to be understood and appreciated by the average person, I got the feeling that the dialogue was dumbed down. The Island is both admittedly entertaining and unoriginal.

It may be a while before we can better evaluate Bay's films, but I suspect that Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer of Bay's films before The Island, will be seen as a more positive influence.
Maybe he has more confidence from having made films for over twenty-five years, but most Bruckheimer films treat the viewer as being kind of smart. Bay is at his best with his smart Rock, rather than his somewhat silly Island.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:47 AM

July 19, 2005

The Castle of Sand

Suna no Utsuwa
Yoshitaro Nomura - 1974
Panorama Entertainment Region 0 DVD

Once again, taking a chance on a film and film director I wasn't familiar with paid off. I noticed The Castle of Sand listed with Nicheflix. The DVD is from a Korean company that has several Japanese classics made available under the grouping "One Hundred Year of Japanese Film". It wasn't until I saw this film and did a little research that I found that The Castle of Sand was one of the top critical and commercial successes in Japan at the time of its release.

The main narrative is a mystery. An unidentified man is found murdered. Two tenacious detectives try to make sense out of two clues, the regional dialect that was overheard from the victim, and a name spoken. Nomura introduces clues indirectly. People and events that first seem to have no relation to the story are explained later. Even when the viewer knows who the murderer is, the motivation is kept until near the end.

The Castle of Sand is the English language title. The film is also known as The Last Symphony. Either title works. The first title is more symbolic of the characters. Like sand castles, public image and false stories easily fall apart. Nomura has many long shots of people dwarfed by nature. Just as the connections between characters seem distant, the story takes place in several remote beach and mountain areas of Japan, far from the density of Tokyo. The visual message of the film is that people may try to fight against nature in its many forms, but nature will always win. The alternate title of The Last Symphony refers to the symphony composed by one of the characters. The symphony, if acclaimed, will be a stepping stone for the composer's future. The inspiration for the symphony lies in the composer's past. The symphony written for the film is unfortunately less than inspired. Titled Destiny for Piano and Orchestra, it sounds more like the overture destined for a Universal melodrama starring Lana Turner.

The film won the prestigious Kinema Jumpo award for Best Screenplay of 1975. It should be noted that the screenplay was co-written by Shinobu Hashimoto and Yoji Yamada. Hashimoto, who also produced this film, is probably best known for writing several of Akira Kurosawa's classic films from the Fifties. Yamada is still actively writing. His best known recent credit is Twilight Samurai. Tetsuro Tamba, the persevering detective, is still active into his eighties. A smaller part is played by Chishu Ryu, the father in several Ozu films. Nomura, who died last April, was a second generation director. After seeing this film, I am looking forward to seeing his newer films that are available on DVD and hope that his earlier work will be available soon.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:15 PM

July 18, 2005


Wong Kar-Wai - 2004
Mei Ah Region 0 DVD

Rumor has it that Wong's newest film, 2046, is scheduled for a U.S. release next month. No reason is given for why it's taking so long to be shown here. Maybe there's a quota on Chinese films shown within a given period. Additionally, here in Miami Beach, the showing of art and independent films is somewhat inconsistent, with many films playing a quick week long engagement. In any case, I decided to take advantage of Netflix already carrying the Hong Kong DVD.

The film is a loose sequel to In the Mood for Love. What is interesting about the Criterion DVD of the older film is that the several of the deleted scenes were of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung consumating their relationship. Had those scenes been included in the final version of In the Mood for Love, the dynamics of the relationship would have been totally different. That relationship was platonic, as opposed to the relationship of their characters' spouses. The narrative of 2046 is initiated by Tony Leung's memory of Maggie Cheung.

Leung continues with the character of Chow. No longer a journalist, Chow writes a column for a newspaper. He also writes a science fiction erotic serial. 2046 is both the room number he has had a brief encounter in, and the year people travel to in order to regain lost memories. 2046 also refers to the year that the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese is completed.

Unlike the cautious relationship Leung had with Maggie Cheung, much of the new film is of the sexual and mercenary relationship with Zhang Ziyi. Leung also acts as a go-between for a young Hong Kong woman and her Japanese suitor. Finally Leung encounters Gong Li, a gambler with the same name, Su Li Zhen, as Maggie Cheung's character. Most of the events take place during several Christmas eves, beginning with 1966, a time Leung notes when people seem to need each other more. The characters speak to each other in their native language or dialect - for example the Cantonese Leung has dialogue with the Mandarin speaking Gong. Perhaps we are to view the film as an allegory of Hong Kong's place in pan-Asia, especially as most of the action takes place at the Oriental Hotel.

Wong uses scope wide screen for the first time. Shots are partially blocked by walls, doors and windows. While many of the visual elements are as elliptical as in earlier films like Fallen Angels, the main portion of the narrative is easier to follow. Even if the historical references are lost on viewers, one cannot help but be awed by the cinematography, again primarily the work of longtime Wong collaborator Christopher Doyle. In keeping with spirit of erotic longing in In the Mood for Love, 2046 is punctuated with shots of Gong Li seen from her waist to hips, in a black form fitting dress with a black glove. Wong is said to be working on a film titled Lady from Shanghai with Nicole Kidman. Any relationship to the Orson Welles film of the same title remains unknown. One thinks that given his several films of romantic longing, that one can easily use the title "Cherchez la femme".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:33 PM

July 17, 2005

The Red Shoes

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - 1948
Criterion Region 1 DVD

A couple of days ago, there was a news item regarding Martin Scorsese. As part of the promotion of Philips' ambient light plasma television, Scorsese created a list of his favorite color movies. The article only listed a few of the favorites: Singing in the Rain, Duel in the Sun, Jean Renoir's The River, and The Red Shoes. I was unable to find a complete list of films cited by Scorsese. It did make me wonder if his list would inspire more people to see some of the classic films on DVD.

I happened to have a copy of The Red Shoes. My memory is that I saw the film theatrically at a revival house in Denver in either the late 70s or early 80s. I know I also saw The Red Shoes at least once when it was a staple on Bravo, back when Bravo actually showed "art" movies. Between The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and Peeping Tom, I have developed what I call "The Michael Powell Theory of Color in Movies". Simply stated, the theory is that Technicolor was invented to photograph red-headed women. Moira Shearer's presence in The Red Shoes is the main justification for shooting in color.

There is some exaggeration here. One of the benefits of the DVD is that we get to see Hein Heckroth's pre-production paintings for the title ballet. In addition to the commentary contribution by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, we understand how much planning was put into every visual aspect of the film - the photography, the costumes, the set design. One clear difference between the paintings and the realized film was that Heckroth's costuming of Shearer indicated the possibility of more translucent dressing and a greater suggestion of nudity on stage. Aside from production codes prevailing in 1948, the paintings allude more directly to the sexuality of Shearer's on-stage and off-stage character.

Frankness in sexual matters is what undid Powell's career. It took about twenty years for Peeping Tom, a film with several red-headed women, to be regarded seriously. One of Powell's last films, The Age of Consent took Kubrick's Humbert Humbert, James Mason to Australia to romance the teenager played by a young Helen Mirren. Still, based on Heckroth's paintings, it is interesting to speculate on what The Red Shoes would have been like had Powell been able to follow his more avant-garde instincts. Which is not to take anything away from co-writer-director- producer Emeric Pressburger, but the commentary confirms that Powell was primarily responsible for the visual side of films by The Archers.

While The Red Shoes was one of the first British films shot with three-strip Technicolor, the last film done with this process was Dario Argento's Suspiria. Both films are linked in having ballet dancers as the protagonists. The basis of the earlier film is in a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Suspiria begins with a voice over introduction suggestive of a fairy tale. Those familiar with the unexpurgated fairy tales of Andersen and Grimm, for example, know that these are violence filled stories with the female protagonist usually coming to a bad end. In Tenebrae, Argento has a key character who very pointedly wears red shoes. More so in Argento, than in Powell, but both filmmakers have artists as their main characters in several films. In an interview in videoscopemag.com, Argento is asked about his tendency to go over the top, something Powell is sometimes accused of. Argento's response shows him to be not too different from Powell: "I'm loyal to the dream, the fantasy. It's like a painting, no?"

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:30 PM | Comments (2)

July 16, 2005

Lady Snowblood

Toshiya Fujita - 1973
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

A few days ago my significant other decided I should read some magazines she had bought in order to get a bit more acquainted with current culture. In the July 2005 issue of Wired, the magazine has several articles devoted to remixes and what they call cut and paste culture. One of the articles was on the movies that Quentin Tarantino used as basis for for his own films. I was already familiar with City on Fire as the inspiration for Reservoir Dogs. What was news for me was learning about Kill Bill's origins in Lady Snowblood. By coincidence, Lady Snowblood was way up on my Netflix queue, and I had the opportunity to view it, followed by Kill Bill Volume 1 on cable.

Lady Snowblood is similar to yakuza films of its time with its scenes of lopped off body parts and geysers of blood, and carefully composed wide screen and color imagery. One of the elements that makes this film unique is that it clearly refers to its manga origins by breaking from live action to black and white graphic drawings. Director Fujita also plays with color with scenes of red snow, as well as using wide screen composition in unusual angles as a way of referring to the manga source material.

The title character is a female assassin with the goal of killing the four people who raped her mother and her mother's husband. As is found in many genre films, the story is not particularly original, but the way the story is told makes it interesting. In this case it is Fujita's use of color, composition and editing that drive the film to its satisfying conclusion. Both Fujita and Tarantino break up their films with titled chapters. One could say Tarantino double dipped from Fujita, using the basic narrative of Lady Snowblood for both the character of The Bride, the avenging female assassin, and for the back story of O-Ren, the girl who kills her parents' murderer. Both films have sword fights in the snow. Tarantino also used the Lady Snowblood theme song at the conclusion of Kill Bill Volume 1.

I have yet to see other DVDs from AnimEigo. If Lady Snowblood is any indication, this is a company that has gone beyond other companies in presenting Japanese genre films. Not only are the subtitles colored to make for easier reading, but the subtitles change colors in conversation so that one characters lines will be green while the response will be red (no pun intended). Sur-titles will appear on the screen to briefly explain cultural or historical references. The DVD also includes a chronology of general Japanese history as well as notes refering to how Lady Snowblood relates to the history of Meiji era Japan.

The only other film by Fujita currently available on DVD is the inevitable sequel to Lady Snowblood. Still, based on the first film I would take the time to see the second.

While there has yet to be a definitive annotated Kill Bill, those interested in checking out Tarantino's inspirations should check out www.geocities.com/lost-highway.geo/.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:12 AM

July 14, 2005


Gokudo kyofu dai-gekijo: Gozu
Takashi Miike - 2003
Pathfinder Region 1 DVD

Like many U.S. film viewers, my first encounter with Takashi Miike was with Audition. I was both horrified and fascinated by the finale that I viewed the ending scenes twice to verify what I had seen. While I saw Audition on DVD, I took advantage of seeing The Happiness of the Katakuris durings its brief theatrical run in Denver. The second string Denver Post critic indicated a total ignorance of Miike. The review was more of a list of scenes that upset this man's delicate sensibilities. I figured that any film that got an alleged film critic this offended was worth checking out. Since that time, I have learned to expect the unexpected with the transgressive films of Miike, and to know that he has a way of pushing people's buttons.

Gozu goes in several unexpected directions. The opening scene is of a yakuza, something like the Japanese equivalent of a wise guy, telling his boss not to take anything he is to say seriously. The yakuza, Ozaki, than states that the teacup size dog held by a woman outside the restaurant meeting place is actually a trained attack dog. Ozaki steps outside, grabs the dog, and swings it against the sidewalk and restaurant window to its death. In the next scene, another Minami is driving Ozaki from Tokyo to Nagoya with the assignment of disposing of the deranged gangster.

Once we are in Nagoya, reality and fantasy collide. Minami loses Ozaki, and encounters a burly transvestite, eccentric brother and sister inn keepers, and a man with a cow's head - the Gozu of the title. As explained in the DVD notes, a Gozu is a mythological creature from Buddhism, a guardian to the entrance of hell. Miike constantly undermines our expectations of what will happen from scene to scene. Characters are not always who or what they seem to be. What begins as a yakuza film veers into black comedy and horror before concluding into a trio of elliptical shots reminiscent of the Nouvelle Vague.

Miike has given much of the credit for Gozu to screenplay writer Sakichi Sato. Sato is best known to U.S. audiences for his role as Charlie Brown, the hapless restaurant owner in Kill Bill Volume 1. Sato appears in Gozu as the transvestite coffee shop manager. Much of the supporting cast is made up of veteran actors, the best known being Tetsuro Tamba, still active at age 82.

The DVD includes interviews with Miike which help explain the genesis of Gozu and give one a somewhat better understanding of Miike. Best are the discussions with fellow filmmakers Eli Roth (Cabin Fever) and Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy). Interestingly, the interviews touch on the possibility of Miike working in the U.S. While not on the scale of Takashi Shimizu remaking The Grudge as an English language film, Miike is to contribute an episode to the anthology Masters of Horror for cable channel Showtime. The results should be worth watching. Miike will both return to his straight-to-video roots and reach a larger, unsuspecting audience.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:17 PM

July 12, 2005

Zero Kelvin

Kjaerlighetens kjotere
Hans Petter Moland - 1995
Kino DVD

While his newest film, Beautiful Country, appears to have his strongest distribution in the U.S., I first heard of Hans Petter Moland from his earlier film, Aberdeen. That film was a dark comic road trip from Scotland to Norway, about the reluctant reunion between a materially successful daughter and her disolute father. Made five years before Aberdeen, Zero Kelvin is an even darker film of a simultaneous inner and outer voyage.

The film takes place in about 1925. Larsen is a struggling poet who goes to an isolated part of Greenland for one year. His job is to help trap animals for the fur trade and write a journal for eventual publication. Prior to his leaving Norway, we see him with a woman, Gertrude. While they express love for each other, their mutual sense of committment seems uncertain. At the outpost in Greenland, Larsen is assigned to be with a scientist, Holm, and a trapper, Randbaek. The film follows the uneasy relationship of the three men. In particular, Randbaek and Larsen have the strongest dynamic, bringing out the best and worst in each other.

What I especially liked about Zero Kelvin is the sense of wonder conveyed about Greenland. The rocky beach and vast plains and mountains of ice are a landscape that one doesn't see to frequently in films. The sense of maddening isolation is palpable. There are scenes where the only sounds are the wind and the cracking of ice. One image of surreal beauty is of a partially sunken ship, frozen in the ice, with one end sticking up and sideways.

Moland indicates an interest in people in alienated from their environment and each other. Based on the two films I've seen to date, I am looking forward to seeing his first film, The Last Lieutenant, as well as his newer work.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:14 PM

July 11, 2005

Twenty-four Eyes

Nijushi no hitomi
Keisuke Kinoshita - 1954
Hong Kong DVD Region 0

Keisuke Kinoshita was a contemporary of Akira Kurosawa. Both began their directorial careers in 1943. While Kinoshita was a more prolific filmmaker and more commercially successful in Japan, he now seems only known through the writings of film scholars like Donald Richie. Maybe I wasn't paying attention, but I can't recall any of Kinoshita's films playing in the New York City revival houses when I lived there in the early 70s. While I still have admittedly large gaps in my knowledge of Japanese film, I took advantage of being able to see Twenty-four Eyes on DVD.

The film is about a young teacher portrayed by Hideko Takamine. She is assigned a First Grade class at a poor village in one of Japan's islands. The year is 1928, shortly before the militarization of Japan. Takamine causes a stir in her introduction to the community with her western style clothing, riding a bicycle. The villagers all wear kimonos and live according to traditions handed down through succeeding generations. The twenty-four eyes of the title refers to the twelve students that are Takamine's first class. The film follows the relationship between the teacher and students over the course of almost twenty years.

While the film takes place in Japan over fifty years ago, Kinoshita's critique of nationalism is still quite relevant today. A teacher is accused of being a communist for having his class read writings that have anti-war sentiments. Patriotism is equated with unquestioning nationalism. Takamine's fears that her male students and husband will die in the war come true. One of Takamine's sons asks why she does not see the glory of having someone die in battle. She responds that she wants to be an ordinary mother. Later, when asked by her son if she will cry because Japan lost the war, Takamine states that she has cried enough for the dead.

The film also portrays people trapped by poverty or tradition. By the end of the film we have seen some of the children able to manifest their dreams. One student even becomes a teacher. Several other of the children have their dreams thwarted by the needs of their parents to help in family trades or take care of even younger children. Three of the boys die in combat while one returns blind. One of the girls dies of tuberculosis. This is not to say that Twenty-four eyes is bleak. Kinoshita's viewpoint might be described as cheerfully stoic. While there is much crying and sentiment, there is also a sense of pragmatism.

The print used for the DVD looked a bit worn and scratched. The subtitles had some mispelled words. This is the complete film at 155 minutes. When Twenty-four Eyes had its original U.S. theatrical run, the version shown was 116 minutes long. The film is also a fitting showcase for Hideko Takamine, one of the biggest stars of Japan who was both the girl next door and a very independent woman.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:07 PM

July 10, 2005

Le Peril Jeune

Cedric Klapisch - 1994
French Region 2 DVD

I have to wonder why Cedric Klapisch wasn't introduced to U.S. audiences earlier. I also have to wonder why his earlier films aren't available in Region 1 DVDs. Le Peril Jeune is a very accessible film, very much in the tradition of I Vitelloni and Diner.

The young men in this film are younger than their cinematic predecessors, being Parisian high school seniors. The film has been given the English title of Good Old Daze which is somewhat suggestive of the general confusion encountered by the characters. The film's title literally translates as The Young Danger which may be more representative of how the characters see themselves.

The majority of the film is told in flashback. Four men meet in the maternity ward awaiting the birth of the child of their friend, Tomasi, who has recently died of a drug overdose. Except for a barely remembered reunion three or four years previously, the four had last been together in school, in 1975. In the days leading up to the baccalaureate exams required to graduate and to qualify for possible college, the five confront the conflict between the ties that keep bind the friendship, and the needs to take responsibility for their future selves.

One of Klapisch's little jokes that while the friends meet ten years after high school, the film's main musical theme is by the band Ten Years After. The song used, I'm Going Home suggests a headlong rush to the past. The songs used in the film, by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Steppenwolf were all from the late sixties. One of the scenes shows the students involved in a strike that is broken up by police with tear gas. With the scenes of political discussions and activities of the students, the film seems to convey a sense of nostalgia for 1968, when rock music truly seemed to matter, students and workers were unified against the government, when being a hippie was considered a career option. The youthful nostalgia based on a previous generations' experience is echoed when one of the characters mentions having seen Amarcord, Fellini's fanciful recreation of his own childhood.

Klapisch is clearly a filmmaker who loves his characters no matter whether they are smart or stupid, funny or boorish. While his films are lighter than than those of his contemporaries, Klapisch has been thematically consistent in his stories of families or a group of outsiders that bond as a temporary family. With acknowledgment to Truffaut and Godard, Klapisch continues the youthful spirit of the early Nouvelle Vague.

For those who can read French or wish to trust computer translations, Klapisch has his own website

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:49 PM

July 07, 2005

War of the Worlds

Steven Spielberg - 2005
35mm movie

Is there a good reason why no one has yet to do a faithful version of War of the Worlds? Why is there no one willing to make a film based on H. G. Wells' vision? It's not like no one knows the story. Still, I think that it would be interesting, and perhaps more fun, to see Victorian era Londoners attacked by creatures from outer space.

The film, written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, while keeping to the basic Wells story, also has bits from Orson Welles' radio play and the 1953 movie produced by George Pal. I would have no problem with this except that Spielberg managed to make one of the grimmest movies of his career.
This is the least fun I've had watching a Spielberg film since I was battered with the history lesson titled Amistad. It's not simply a matter of telling the story with a straight face. By the time the film was over, I felt no cheer or excitement, but exhaustion.

I liked the last Spielberg-Tom Cruise collaboration Minority Report because it had several elements lacking in War of the Worlds. The story about future crime detection was interesting and engaging. The film moved briskly, combining Philip K. Dick's bleak vision with an equally dark streak of perverse humor.

In this new film, the first hurdle was buying the idea of Tom Cruise as the father of a teenager. Not that he's not old enough, but Cruise's boyish good looks work against taking him seriously here. This is also the first film I've seen with Dakota Fanning, the little girl with big blue eyes. She's a talented young lady, but my ears still hurt from hearing her shriek and scream multiple times. The aliens are a disappointment once you see them out and about. They look like E.T. crossed with a green chili pepper on steroids.

Where the film gets somewhat interesting is on touching on the theme of humans losing their sense of humanity in the face of disaster. There is a scene where Tom and his kids are attacked in the SUV driven from New Jersey to Boston. Everyone else is walking. A mob forms around the SUV, breaking windows and draging Cruise and his son (Justin Chatwin) out, leaving Dakota Fanning inside. Cruise tries to stop the mob by shooting a couple bullets in the air with the gun he brought for emergency situations. Another man points his gun at Cruise, forcing Cruise to drop his gun and give up his SUV. We see Cruise, Chatwin and Fanning sitting inside a diner, while outside we see, but mostly hear, the mob surrounding the SUV, shooting the carjacker, and driving off. It's not explained how Tom Cruise and the military are the only ones with motor vehicles that work, which is one of the film's most glaring plot holes. The scene made me think of a small film written and directed by David Koepp, The Trigger Effect, which was about people losing control during a power outage.

Spielberg deliberately chose not to be mindlessly entertaining like Independence Day or as supremely silly like Mars Attack. Schindler's List sobriety seemed to be hinted at, but Spielberg seems to be hedging here, perhaps to make sure he doesn't scare off the audience put off by A.I. Artificial Intelligence and The Terminal. War of the Worlds is neither entertaining, silly or serious. Just big and loud.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:09 PM

July 06, 2005

Gambling City/Almost Human

Gambling City
Sergio Martino - 1974
No Shame DVD

Almost Human
Umberto Lenzi - 1974
No Shame DVD

What I like best about what has happened since the advent of DVDs is that I can see more foreign films and older films than I could when I was dependent on theatrical revivals or television showings. Additionally, I like that I am able to fill in gaps of knowledge of various filmmakers and genres. Conversely, I do sometimes feel certain frustration that while some films are now available, others are not. Nonetheless I feel that the DVD release of various Italian genre stylists is beneficial not only for cultists, particularly of Italian thrillers or gialli, but also for film historians. One can regard the release and critical re-evaluation of Italian thrillers from the 70s as being somewhat analagous to the re-evalution of American film noir films.

Sergio Martino established his reputation with gialli. A contemporary of Dario Argento, Martino worked as an Assistant Director on Mario Bava's The Whip and the Body. In Martino's best moments, he bathes dramatic shots with a prime color, red or green, in the style of Bava. Martino makes use of framing devices and well as positioning characters for dramatic effect.

Gambling City shows Martino taking a break from thrillers to make something lighter. The film follows a professional gambler, Luca, played by Luc Merenda. Luca crosses a casino owner, known as "The President" as well as the casino owner's son, Corrado. Luca runs off with Corrado's girlfriend, Maria Luisa. Luca plays father against son until the son takes over the casino and his father's gang of enforcers.

My favorite moment in Gambling City is during the scene when the son of the casino owner is abandoned by his father's business partners. Martino frames the actor, Corrado Pani, sitting alone at his desk, a small character seen through an open door seen on the left of the screen - a diminished person, isolated, surrounded by vast blackness. An earlier scene shows Luc Merenda, his face partially obscured by a glass room divider, looking at Dayle Haddon from across the casino. We see Haddon as Merenda sees her. We can see but not hear Haddon arguing with Pani.

Gambling City isn't as visually dynamic as Martino's earlier thrillers or his Western, Manaaja. Martino does keep a sure hand on the proceedings so that the action never lags.

* * *

The first time I saw anything by Umberto Lenzi was at showing of Orgasmo at the University of California - Berkeley. The film was shown under the title of Paranoia. While Carroll Baker was the star, I spent most of the time wondering how Lou Castel had gone from making Fists in his Pockets with Marco Bellochio to a film with lesser aspirations. Lenzi is best known for his cannibal movies which have a devoted cult as well as his thrillers. Of the handful of Lenzi films I've seen to date, Almost Human is his strongest achievement.

Almost Human is about a small time thief, Giulio, who attempts to go big time by kidnapping the daughter of a millionaire industrialist. The thief is portrayed by Thomas Milian. As Almost Human was made the year after Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, I had to wonder if Milian had seen that film. Milian's bravura performance seems modeled on Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy. Milian has the same shaggy haircut and a similar manic grin. Giulio is a more psychotic and dangerous version of Johnny Boy. As counterpoint to Milian's nervous energy, we have the expressionless Henry Silva as the detective attempting to make sense of a series of seemingly random murders.

Almost Human was written by Ernesto Gastaldi, the prolific writer frequently associated with Sergio Martino. The film was produced by Luciano Martino, Sergio's older brother for the Dania Film company. Is it coincidental that Lenzi's association with Dania has made Almost Human one of his better movies?

It should be noted that No Shame makes sure that their films are seen correctly and understood not only within the context of the work of the respective filmmakers, but also within the context of Italian film history. In addition to seeing the films in their correct aspect ration, one can choose English or Italian, with optional subtitles. Keep in mind that these films were all shot silently and dubbed later, a traditional practice in Italian filmmaking made necessary with international actors speaking lines in their native language. The interviews with select cast and crew members is sometimes informative, although I got the feeling that Dario Argento is the object of much envy. I especially enjoy the clips of Ernesto Gastaldi. Even if his memory fails him, he comes off as a jolly uncle with funny stories. Gambling City also has a commentary by Luc Merenda that is so casual, this may be the only DVD commentary to be interrupted by a cell phone call. The enclosed booklets are contain information and filmographies for the director and principal star. What I liked about the booklet for Almost Human was the first section placing the film within the context of Italian events following the late 60s, as well as an overview of the Italian film industries peak and decline.

While I can't share the enthusiasm that some people have for Umberto Lenzi, I am intrigued enough to see more films by Sergio Martino. At his best Martino's use of color, composition and montage editing are the work of a genre stylist worthy of more serious evaluation.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:06 PM | Comments (2)

July 05, 2005

The Maltese Falcon

John Huston - 1941
Warner Brothers DVD

Last Saturday I decided to take a break from watching some Italian thrillers from the 70s to re-see something more classic. I usually make a point of seeing The Maltese Falcon about once a year, and had finally gotten around to replacing my old VHS copy with the DVD version. Otherwise, this is The Maltese Falcon that most everyone is familiar with, with Bogart as Sam Spade.

Most of the time when I see The Maltese Falcon, I forget that I'm watching a remake. The reason I bring this up is because remakes are popping up on screen more frequently, and I'm often one of those people who complains that someone is trying to cash in on a good, if older film, with something that is not as good. Maybe the lesson of The Maltese Falcon is that if you are going to do a remake, make a point of doing something better than before.

The Maltese Falcon DVD contains the trailer for the second version which was titled Satan Met a Lady. Bette Davis starred in this 1936 version, directed by William Dieterle. From what I could tell from the trailer, the Dashiell Hammett story was reworked to have the same comic tone as The Thin Man, also based on a book by Hammett. There is also the original film version, made in 1931 by Roy Del Ruth which I have yet to see. The third version is the one most people think of as the only version of The Maltese Falcon, and perhaps that is how it should be.

Another example of a remake that may perhaps be the definitive film version is The Age of Innocence. If you read my bio, then it should be obvious that I have a bias for Martin Scorsese. There is a silent version made in 1924 by Wesley Ruggles. I did try to see the first sound version, made in 1934 with Irene Dunne in the Michelle Pfeiffer role. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I actually tried two times, and turned off my TV two times. Maybe the problem with this version is that it is faithful to the play be Edith Wharton and comes off as stiff and talky. The version Scorcese made is both dialogue rich and sumptious visually, and as watchable as anything Scorsese has made.

While I haven't seen it since its initial release, I may have to reconsider Brian De Palma's version of Scarface. In 1983, the Howard Hawks version was largely unseen and unavailable for television or home video. The copy of the Hawks film I saw was a 16mm version that I managed to see through one of my contacts at NYU. This version is now more easily available, yet most people now associate Scarface with Al Pacino. I'm one of those people who would never have guessed that a film trashed by critics in 1983 would be revered twenty years later. Of course living in Miami Beach I can't avoid Scarface. T-shirts and posters of Pacino as Tony Montana are displayed in stores on Washington Avenue. Even my dentist has a painting of Pacino as Montana in the room where he drills my teeth!

I may be meandering here. I guess my point here is that remakes in and of themselves aren't automatically bad. It's more that those who choose to do a remake to frequently fail to make a film that is as good or better than the original film, as John Huston did with The Maltese Falcon.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:52 PM

July 04, 2005

Essential Cinema -

On the Necessity of Film Canons
Jonathan Rosenbaum - 2004
Johns Hopkins University Press

What I mostly like about Jonathan Rosenbaum is that he discusses films that I may not have heard of or have thought of seeing. A couple of examples of the former are Kira Muratova's The Asthenic Syndrome and Li Shaohong's Blush. Among the later, I will make a point of seeing The Decalogue as well as any films available by Joris Ivens.

The book is primarily a collection of articles Rosenbaum wrote for The Chicago Reader. While it is organized under headings such as "Classics" and "Disputable Contenders", this book is less formally organized as compared to Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema. Rosenbaum ends this book with a personal list of films that is extremely subjective. Because of his articles, I can understand the inclusion of A.I. Artificial Intelligence as part of Rosenbaum's canon, as well as why Rosenbaum doesn't rate Taxi Driver as highly as that film's admirers. Rosenbaum's personal canon is based on "pleasure and edification". I won't argue with the premise. Rosenbaum's canon is subjective enough that I can allow his enthusiasm for Don Weis and Peter Bogdanovich as long as I am not begrudged my enthusiasm for Dario Argento and Tsui Hark.

What I would hope Rosenbaum's writing do is encourage readers to take full advantage of the DVD rental outlets like Netflix and GreenCine. For me, the point of my maxed out rental queue is to see an international array of films that I have read about, as well as play some catch up and fill in gaps to see films I've missed by favorite directors. I read in article a couple of years ago by someone writing for Landmark Theater's magazine in which she felt she had seen all that Netflix had to offer. My conclusion was that this person's love of film is extremely limited.

I would also hope that studio executives that decide on DVD releases would read this book to understand better that there is an audience waiting for more older films. My favorite article was on Frank Tashlin, the virtually forgotten director of the two best Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedies. Tashlin's representation on DVD has improved lately with more titles, including the Lewis vehicle The Disorderly Orderly. Available in the U.K., but not in the U.S. is The Girl Can't Help It which was lovingly excerpted in Bertolucci's The Dreamers. Also missing totally are Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter and Bachelor Flat. Hopefully 20th Century Fox will make Tashlin's best films available soon. Considering that this is the studio that kept their Sam Fuller films on the shelf until they saw how well Criterion was doing with Pickup on South Street, I'm not holding my breath.

At the very least, what one gets from Rosenbaum is a reminder of writing about film with a truly critical eye that attempts to convey the vastness of cinema beyond the multiplexes and box office lists.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:09 PM

July 01, 2005

Ocean's Twelve

Steven Soderbergh - 2004
Warner Brothers DVD

There are two reasons why I like getting DVDs from my local public library - 1. It opens up my Netflix list. 2. I have the benefit of seeing movies for free.

This second point is important for something like Ocean's Twelve in that I at least have the consolation of knowing I never paid to see it.

In some ways, Ocean's Twelve comes closer to the spirit of the original Ocean's Eleven. The older film was primarily an excuse for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the other members of the "Clan" to hang out together. Even though Lewis Milestone was credited for direction, it was really Sinatra who called the shots. As a caper film, it's mildly diverting. What made that film a box office hit was the goodwill of the stars. Of the films that Sinatra and company made together, Ocean's Eleven is a much lesser film than Some Came Running or even Robin and the Seven Hoods.

Ocean's Twelve likewise has a plot involving an impossible heist as do both versions of Ocean's Eleven. However, the film comes off as a collection of improvised scenes strung together primarily for the amusement of the participants. George Clooney, Brad Pitt and the others have the goodwill of their precendants to have drawn a substantial audience for an alledged good time at the movies. By the end of the film I felt like I was sitting with someone constantly nudging me, reminding me that what was on the screen was hip and funny, when all I could feel was a sense of annoyance that not only did I see too many scenes that made no sense, but that I didn't really care anymore.

At this time, the film I think is Soderbergh's best, King of the Hill, is only out on tape. Made in 1993, this is a truly heartfelt story from writer A.E. Hotchner about growing up poor during the 1930s. The film was one of several films Soderbergh made following Sex, Lies and Videotape that did not achieve anything close to the financial success of his debut. King of the Hill is sad, funny and warm -hearted, sometimes all at the same time. Jesse Bradford, who was 13 at the time the film was made, conveys intelligence and care as the young Hotchner. Hopefully a DVD version of this film will appear in the near future.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:32 PM | Comments (1)