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December 31, 2005

My Best of 2005

Like a lot of people who love film, I spent part of the beginning of 2005 catching up with films that were released in 2004. The very first film I saw this year was The Aviator. This may not have been Martin Scorsese's best film, but I felt it was quite entertaining, at least until the end when Howard Hughes' mental illness took over. I am feeling uncertain about his forthcoming The Departed as it may be an interesting film in its own right, but I generally deplore Hollywood's current habit of remaking Asian films. Scorsese has also gone on record as stating he has never seen the original film that The Departed is based on. While I will take his word on this, one has to wonder when another one of Scorsese's announced projects is another remake.

The last new film I've seen this year was one I saw only to keep up with a current email discussion among some friends. Maybe it's the hype that got in the way, but I think Brokeback Mountain may be the most overrated film I bothered to see in a theater since Sideways. After trying to listen to Heath Ledger mumble his way through the movie I was even more baffled by the praise heaped on this film. The ideal Brokeback Mountain would have been made years ago with James Dean and Montgomery Clift, directed by George Stevens.

On to my list, which makes no claims to objectivity, and is based in part on films I actually remember seeing this past year.

Best New Film Seen in a Movie Theater: Land of the Dead. Too often I see a movie in a theater and wish I waited for the DVD or in some cases, cable. Not so with George Romero's newest zombie feast. I'm going out on a limb here to say that George Romero is to zombies, what John Ford is to the Western. Land of the Dead is Romero's equivalent to Ford's The Searchers in terms of how both filmmakers have redefined the genres they have essentially established. Eugene Clark's performance as Big Daddy is both moving and delightful, expressing anger, rage and thoughtfulness without a single word. The scene of hundreds of zombies walking across the river that was meant to be a barrier is singularly thrilling.

Best Old Film Seen in a Movie Theater: The Passenger. This was actually the only classic film that I recall actually playing at my neighborhood multiplex, the South Beach Regal 18. Still, I was glad to see The Passenger again after thirty years, in a more complete version, though still missing no one seems interested in recovering. While my current city boasts of The Miami Beach Cinematheque, the movies shown there are all on DVDs and the seating is uncomfortable directors chairs. I did get to see Away with Words by Wong Kar-Wai's cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, and a presentation of Guy Maddin's Cowards Bend at the Knees presented as a peep show with performance artists.

Best Film seen in 2005 that will be heard from more decisively in 2006: The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. This film about a gay pre-teen boy caught between his love for his family of thieves and his infatuation for a neighborhood cop is scheduled for the Sundance Film Festival. The film has already received awards in Asia. I wouldn't be surprised if Strand Releasing picks this film for U.S. release.

Best New Film seen on DVD: 2046. I can't always count on art and independent movies to show up here and when the films play in Miami Beach, it's often for a quick one or two week run. Sony took their time getting Wong's newest film into theaters. I saw this meditation on love and the future in the comfort of my own home, almost two months before its brief theatrical run here. I should also note that the critically mixed Eros did not have a theatrical run here. Runner-up: Head-on. I saw Fatih Akin's previous film, In July a couple of years ago. While the earlier film was about the geographical distance between Germany and Turkey, in this new film, Akin explores the emotional distance between the two countries. Again his characters travel through indirect routes to their respective destinations.

Best Classic Films seen for the first time this year on DVD: There are several films worth mentioning. On top of this list is Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning a film much funnier than most current comedies, with Michel Simon as cinema's messiest house guest. Face of Another is a reminder of Sixties stylization done right. Keisuke Kinoshita's Twenty-four Eyes is another Japanese classic that lives up to the praises of Donald Richie. La Parfum d'Yvonne is not quite old enough to be accorded classic status, having been made in 1994, but I am astounded that this teasingly erotic film from Patrice Leconte was not given a theatrical U.S. release, nor is available as a Region 1 DVD.

Best "Popcorn" Film of the Year: Mr. and Mrs. Smith. My significant other is a big fan of Angelina and Brad so this I took her to see this fairly soon after it opened. Doug Liman has combined the big action set pieces from The Bourne Identity with the goofy humor of Go and Swingers. The Smiths may not quite be the Nick and Nora Charles for the new millenium but the film is consistently entertaining, especially with the scenes with Vince Vaughn as a spy still living with his mother.

Best wishes to those who have taken the time to check out my site. See you next year!

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:19 PM | Comments (2)

December 29, 2005

Mimsy! Mimsy!! Mimsy!!!

Two Men in Town/Deux Hommes dans la Ville
Jose Giovanni - 1973
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

The Perfume of the Lady in Black/Il Profumo della Signora in Nero
Francesco Barilli - 1974
Raro Video PAL Region 2 DVD

The Black Cat/Il Gatto Nero
Lucio Fulci - 1981
Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

A while back, Flickhead did a piece on Mimsy Farmer. He primarily wrote about her in one of her early films, Riot on the Sunset Strip. The film has become something of a staple on the Flix cable channel. While Farmer starred in four films for American-International, I didn't become a fan until I saw her in her European film debut. I was a Freshman at New York University, and around the corner on Eighth Street near University was a movie theater that was actually named the "Art" theater. More was playing right around the corner from the dorm I was living in. I probably saw the preview which is what intrigued me in the first place. The name of director Barbet Schroeder meant nothing to me. Maybe I was lured by the combination of a Pink Floyd soundtrack and some "psychedelic" imagery. In any case, I saw the film, twice in a row. I'm not sure how I would judge More now but the film certainly impressed this seventeen year old guy. I later saw The Road to Salina. I was at an advanced screening of some other film in a theater and figured I might as well stick around to see a second free film. Best of all was Four Flies on Grey Velvet which was also my introduction to Dario Argento.

Since her turn with Argento, Farmer's films virtually stopped getting theatrical releases in the U.S. With DVDs one can do some catch-up with her career. Unlike some actors who have gone abroad, not only has she chosen to stay in Europe, but she has actually learned French and Italian. Much of the work has been with journeyman directors, although Farmer did work with Marco Ferreri, Raoul Coutard and Roger Vadim for her last performance to date. The films I saw on DVD recently are probably more representative of Mimsy Farmer's film career throughout the Seventies.

Two Men in Town is the third and least interesting of the three films Alain Delon made with Jean Gabin. Delon plays an ex-con who can not escape being under suspicion, especially when his girlfriend, Farmer, works at the bank next door to where he works. Gabin is the advocate lawyer who attempts to work on behalf of criminal reform. Farmer doesn't even appear in the film until almost the last half hour. The film is an interesting look at the French judicial system, but for a much better film with Delon and Gabin, I recommend Any Number can Win.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black is a giallo with a narrative that even within its context makes no sense, but is visually interesting to look at. The director, Francesco Barilli, has had a sporadic career as both a director and actor. That Barilli has concentrated primarily on painting is no surprise. The set design and use of color are the best aspects to Perfume along with glimpes of Barilli's artwork. Farmer is haunted by the ghosts of her past and several friends and acquaintances meet untimely deaths. The DVD interview with Barilli sort of helps explain what he was attempting to do with this film. Perfume was produced by Giovanni Bertolucci, Bernardo's cousin.

In the opening credits for The Black Cat it actually reads "freely adapted" from Edgar Allen Poe. Even with a couple of illogical plot points, this is actually one of Lucio Fulci's better films. Farmer is a photographer in a small English town that is terrorized by a killer cat. Patrick Magee is a creepy medium who goes to the village graveyard to record conversations with the dead. Fulci films lots of close-ups of eyes, but credit for the film's success should be shared with animal trainer Pasquale Martino and a very talented stunt cat. One can only hope that the rights snafu that's holding up a DVD release of Four Flies on Gray Velvet is resolved soon. Mimsy Farmer is more fun to watch as the deceptively innocent looking bad girl.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:30 PM

December 28, 2005

Some short films from Thailand

My significant other is currently in Thailand, primarily in Chiang Mai. She's gotten to know some of the younger filmmakers there and was directed towards a selection of short films available on VCD. My own knowledge of Thai film is spotty. U.S. distribution for the couple of Thai films shown theatrically is still rare. Most Thai films that I have seen have been on DVD. While I can't claim that any of the filmmakers on the VCDs that I received will be as well known as Apichatpong Weerasethakul or even Wisit Sasanatieng, there is some definite nascent talent. For those who are particularly interested in Thai film or Asian film should go to Thai Short Film. The shorts I received all have English subtitles. The translations may be a bit incorrect but the gist is there. For those who do understand Thai, the VCDs also include interviews with the young directors.

One of the better shorts is Colorblind by Banjong Pisanthankul. Somewhat similar in tone to Wong Kar-Wai's Chunking Express, the film follows a couple days in the life of a colorblind young man. Working as a freelance television repairman in spite of his inability to see red, Tum finds himself pursued by an unknown and unwanted paramour who leaves red roses at his door. To somewhat match Tum's view of the world, the color is desaturated, with reds washed out to be more gray.

Noraput Pundutecha's film Cursed Money bears some resemblance to Robert Bresson's L'Argent. The film is about money and karma. A baht bill flies out of the pocket of a young man into a small convenience store. The store owner insists that as the bill was in her store it is her money. Subsequently, she finds herself without customers, and is the victim of thief. The film follows the money and people getting karmic punishment for their ill-gotten gains. If Cursed Money gets obvious and a bit heavy-handed, Pundutecha shows a flair for visual story telling, composing shots for the best dramatic effect. Even though the VCD indicated that there were English subtitles, none were seen. The lack of subtitles in no way hindered following the narrative.

Manussa Vorasingha shows different techniques with three shorts on one VCD. Post-It follows the dialogue of a couple who communicate solely with Post-It notes on the refridgerator. Intersection mostly depend on split screen story telling with some shots that are set up to look like mirror images in an exercise in parallel narratives. Stereo has something of an O. Henry twist at the end in the story of a man who loves his old, malfunctioning boom box.

Taveepong Pratumwong's A Little Dad is a vignette about a dwarf and his young son, who is about to surpass his father in height. Look at Me by Chawalit Khanawutikarn is of a woman who does piece work to support herself and her husband and nephew. While not strongly dramatic, the films are worthwhile in showing sides of Thai life that usually ignored in commercial films.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:56 PM

December 27, 2005

The Monster who would be "King"

Ishiro Honda - 1954
Eastern Eye PAL Region 4 DVD

Peter Lemont - 1961
MGM Region 1 DVD

I was six years old in 1957. I had finally persuaded my parents that we needed a television set. One day my fellow First Graders were talking with much excitement about someone or something called "King Kong". I found out it was a movie about a giant gorilla. Since I hadn't quite understood all of the mysteries of how television worked, it was up to my mother to make sure that I made my appointment with this "King Kong". As it turned out, I missed the beginning of the film, but turned on just in time to see Fay Wray and the crew make it to Skull Island. This was probably just as well because even now, I find the set-up sequences for King Kong a bit dull. When the movie was over, I asked my mom how they were able to teach a giant gorilla to climb that really tall building. She mentioned something about "special effects", and that what I saw was not a real gorilla.

Even though I have greater understanding about how films are made, I still like to watch a good, and sometimes not-so-good, monster movie. I haven't yet seen Peter Jackson's version of King Kong, although I did see the 1976 version that almost killed Jessica Lange's acting career. Thanks to Jackson's film, studios are releasing some of their monster movies onto DVD. Among the films newly available on DVD is Gorgo. While this film does not quite answer the oft pondered question, "What would a monster movie directed by Jean Renoir look like?", the film is one of several directed by frequent Renoir collaborator Eugene Lourie. It is also quite possible that Lourie should be reconsidered for his role in popularizing the monster movie.

Even though it is often mocked for putting a guy in a rubber costume, the original, Japanese version of Godzilla is a pretty good film. Without Raymond Burr, the film just has one big guy lumbering around Tokyo. The original narrative is a straight-forward account beginning with several ship mysteriously vanishing. Without Burr, we get to see more of Kurosawa superstar Takashi Shimura as the scientist who explains the origins of the giant monster, and then, in a plot point borrowed from The Thing, pleads for the life of the creature for future studies. Memories of the destruction of Tokyo, as well as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are not far from the surface. Much of the success for Godzilla belongs to Eiji Tsuburaya. While some of the special effects are obvious, there are several reasons why the original Godzilla works better then the sequels. Much of the special effect work is disguised by having much of the film take place at night, so that Godzilla is frequently an inky black presence wandering through darkness. The care in creating the best special effects given relatively limited resources combined with the earnest story telling make Godzilla the classic Japanese monster movie. And while the film did not succeed in being the the anti-war statement that director Ishiro Honda intended, Godzilla probably introduced more people to Japanese cinema than any other movie.

On the opposite end of the quality spectrum is Konga. At the time of its initial release, this movie didn't play at a theater near me, so I settled for reading the comic book based on the film. The film was produced by Herman Cohen, a name associated with several beloved, if dubious cinematic achievements. Maybe I'm reading more than intended but Konga begins with Michael Gough vigorously stroking his monkey. As the scientist looking for a link between animal and vegetable life, you know that Gough is questionable when it is revealed his relationship with his female assistant (Margo Johns) is platonic. Even more alarming are the man eating plants Gough has brought back from Africa along with the monkey. In addition to the usual venus flytrap type plants, some other plants resemble giant black veiny penises. For reasons not made clear, Gough wants to experiment with the monkey Konga to make him larger. His lab assistant accidentally spills some of the formula and the house cat catches a couple licks. Gough grabs a conveniently placed pistol and shoots the cat, insuring that Kong will be in the PETA Hall of Fame. Gough finally tests his formula, and we witness the monkey grow into a baboon and eventually into a man in a really bad gorilla costume. Gough hypnotizes the gorilla to strangle various people that are in his way. Gough also has designs on making a young student played by Claire Gordon his new lab assistant. Gordon's feelings for her teacher are hardly reciprocal as indicated when Gough tries to swallow the tonsils of the object of his unwanted affections. Johns, the jilted non-lover, gives the gorilla a heavy dose of the growth formula only to become the first victim of the ever growing ape. Little effort is made to disguise the fact that Johns is replaced by a dimestore doll in some shots. The giant Konga bursts out of the basement lab, snatching Gough in one hand. Gordon is last seen having an arm chewed up by a man-eating plant. Gough takes on the Fay Wray role, being squeezed like a tube of toothpaste, while casts of dozens run in panic on the London Streets. King Kong has the Empire State Building, while Konga has Big Ben, not to climb on, but just as part of the scenery. The giant Konga, who doesn't appear until the last fifteen minutes, is killed by a hail of bullets after tossing down a "Ken" doll that substitutes for Gough. How bad are the special effects? Let me just say that I had a newfound appreciation for the magic of Bert I. Gordon.

If I ran Hollywood, I would immediately remake Konga with a bigger budget, but again with a mature male star. My first choice has always been Warren Beatty, with his character keeping the same name. This proposed film would end with a variation on the closing line of King Kong, with the declaration that, "It was Beatty killed the beast."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:54 PM | Comments (1)

December 26, 2005

The Best of Youth

La Meglio Gioventu
Marco Tullio Giordana - 2003
VII Pillars Entertainment NTSC Region 3 DVD

If one were to watch The Best of Youth back-to-back with Bertolucci's 1900 one could have a cinematic overview of the history of Italy in the 20th Century. There is also the possibility that Marco Giordana may be making his own prequel. What makes The Best of Youth succeed is that the longer the film progresses, the more intimate it feels. If the film is more than epic length with a running time just passing six hours for the entire film, the experience of viewing the film is less difficult and certainly more absorbing than many shorter films. If the span of almost forty years makes one think of 1900, the new film also is reminiscent of Francesco Rosi's Three Brothers as well.

Unlike Bertolucci or Rosi, Giordana's statements on the state of Italy come across more fully integrated as part of the film. More so in Rosi's film, but also in Bertolucci's, the characters seemed to exist more as symbols to express certain points of view than as people. While characters do express opposing political opinions, there is little sloganeering. The emphasis is primarily on the family dynamics with the historical activity taking a subsidiary role.

The narrative is essentially about the lives of two brothers from 1966 to 2003, there interactions with each other and other family members, and how their lives are effected by key events in relatively recent Italian history. The film is also about memory, or more precisely, the preservation of memory. The narrative for the brother Matteo involves personal and public libraries, the preservation of books, and the act of photography both as a means of documentation and as a form of artistic expression. The brother Nicola's work as a psychiatrist is to primarily heal people by addressing their memories of traumatic experiences. Nicola's daughter studies art restoration, while the mother, Giulia, works as an archivist. Characters meet and part during major events like the 1966 flood of Florence and the student strikes of 1968, and cross paths with storylines involving the Red Brigades and the Mafia activity in Sicily. None of the historical action is as important as simply wanting to know what will happen next to the family members.

Giordana uses an eclectic range of music throughout the film as well both as signifiers of certain time periods and as emotional shorthand ranging from The Four Tops, J.S. Bach, Astor Piazzola and Benjamin Britten. Giordana also refers to Truffaut's Jules and Jim by using a one of Georges Delerue's themes. There is also a brief mention of Roberto Rossellini film of tragic love, Stromboli. The title comes from a poem by Pasolini, the subject of an earlier film by Giordana.

The filmography of the woman who plays the family matriarch, Adriana Asti, includes work with key Italian directors over the past fifty years, including Visconti, Pasolini, Bertolucci, and De Sica.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:39 PM | Comments (2)

December 25, 2005

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

George Lucas - 2005
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

Even though I've seen all of the Star Wars films, I have not been a fan of the series. Of the six films, the only one I really liked was The Empire Strikes Back. I'm not sure what it says about me or the Star Wars series that the best film in my estimation was directed by one of the more interesting Hollywood directors of the Sixties, Irvin Kershner, from a screenplay originally written by a science fiction author best known for her screenplays for Howard Hawks, Leigh Brackett. One of my big problems with the Star Wars cult is that so many of the people who love the series so much refuse to acknowledge certain facts about the film that kicked off the series. For some fans I may as well be saying there is no Santa Claus when I ask them if they have seen Hidden Fortress, the film that even Lucas admitted provided much of the basic story. In Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Biskind notes that the screenplay for the first film was actually co-written with Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who were paid off so Lucas would have solo writing credit. Lucas himself is quoted by Biskind in saying that after the battles making his first two films, he wanted to make a movie that was as commercial as possible. Or to put it another way, George Lucas went over to the "dark side".

One can only speculate on what Lucas' career would have been like. If one includes the first Star Wars film with Lucas' first two films, the films share the theme of language and societies. While much of THX 1138 is purely visual story-telling, it is telling that when the robot cops trap the escapees, they repeat the question, "Are you now or have you ever been?", a variation on the infamous question posed by the House of Un-American Committee in the Fifties. American Graffiti furthered the theme by positing the teenagers against all adults and authority figures, except for the mythical Wolfman Jack who spoke in a language and with messages specifically for the teens. Lucas also showed how teenage society had its own sub-groups, hierarchies and coded language. Star Wars also emphasised language and society, with the various hierarchies and specific languages given various creatures, particularly in the cantina scene.

The further Lucas got into telling the Star Wars story, the less interesting a filmmaker he became. The technology continued to overwhelm the story telling. I never cared for the too cute Ewoks and after the advent of Jar Jar Binks, I stopped seeing the rest of the second trilogy theatrically. One of the problems with the Star Wars films was that the computer generated special effects became both state of the art and simultaneously, less special. Even worse, after The Matrix, released just a few months previously, The Phantom Menace looked hopelessly old-fashioned. Less encouraging was that when I got around to seeing Attack of the Clones, I fell asleep during the light saber battle that closes that film.

I had trouble staying awake during Revenge of the Sith. For me, if you've seen one light saber fight you've seen them all. I recognize that a lot of effort was put into the film technically, but emotionally I was not engaged. More attention should have been given to the actual acting as was given to placement in front of the green screen. Christopher Lee gives a better, more vivid performance in his few minutes than either Samuel L. Jackson or Ewan McGregor.

Lucas has stated plans to return to more personal filmmaking. We can only wait to see if he returns to his rebel roots or feels forced to maintain his empire.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:35 PM | Comments (1)

December 23, 2005

The Velocity of Gary

Dan Ireland - 1998
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

Are Dan Ireland's films too modest to be picked up by auteurist film critics? Does he have to make a few more films? Ireland has proven consistent thematically with three films in a row about impossible love. Unlike some other relatively new filmmakers that have gained attention, Ireland is neither pretentious nor a stylistic show-off. One could fairly easily apply what Andrew Sarris wrote on Frank Borzage in discussing Ireland in that both directors show ". . . a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity." Not too overpraise Ireland either, but to at least call attention to a currently underappreciated filmmaker.

The one Ireland movie that received something like a wide release was The Whole Wide World with Vincent D'Onofrio and the then relatively unknown Renee Zellweger. While the character of Conan the Barbarian was popular enough to make two movies, there was little attention paid to the movie about Conan's creator Robert E. Howard. The film is about a deep friendship between an aspiring writer and an established author that is unable to evolve into something more intimate due to the writer's battling of his personal demons and his sense of devotion to his mother. This is counter-balanced by the dichotomy of the writer's personal life, what could be called a "mama's boy" living in a small town in Texas, contrasted against the writer's works, best known for heroic characters in exotic locations.

The Velocity of Gary is carried by the bravura performances of the actors. Again Ireland is working with D'Onofrio who in this film plays Valentino, a bisexual part-time porno actor who lives with his girlfriend, Mary Carmen (Salma Hayak). Valentino is also smitten with Gary (Thomas Jane) who supports himself as a phone sex actor. Filmed in New York City, the film offers the kind of characters that have appeared on film since Midnight Cowboy. What makes Gary unique is that in addition to being a portrait of the search for love in a hostile world, Ireland shows his characters achieving their own respective states of grace. The characters are a jumble of flaws and strengths, and Ireland loves them all including those who appear briefly like the transexual vamping to Patsy Cline's "Walking after Midnight", and Ethan Hawke as a Jewish tatoo artist.

Ireland came to Passionada, his third film as director, as a hired gun. While a much lighter film than his previous films, Ireland again made a film about the challenges of romantic love. As he describes the film: "It's the most simple film I've made as far as story is concerned, but to get it right was a tough, tough thing. It has a universal message of second chances, being open to love, being open to life. The hope and the heart."

These thoughts are presented at the conclusion of Gary. Valentino dies of AIDs, leaving a pregnant Mary Carmen. A healthy baby girl is born. Mary Carmen names their daughter Hope.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:52 PM

December 22, 2005

Catching up with 2005

Me and You and Everyone We Know
Miranda July - 2005
MGM Region 1 DVD

The Beat that My Heart Skipped/De battre mon coeur s'est arrete
Jacques Audiard - 2005
Wellspring Region 1 DVD

Head-On/Gegen die Wand
Fatih Akin - 2004
Strand Releasing Region 1 DVD

We're at tail end of the year when many other critics, bloggers and others who discuss films have issued their respective lists of the best films of the year. I use to do lists myself. I won't this year for a couple of reasons. Most of the films I see are seen on DVD. The seating is more comfortable, the volume not ear-splitting, the food is better, and the picture is always in focus. Plus, for what I paid for a 60 inch screen, I'm going to make sure I get my money's worth. My other reason is that the advent of the DVD has sometimes made release dates somewhat arbitrary.

Let me explain that further: Most top ten lists are based on when a film is released in the respective critic's country. Head-On was released in its country of origin, Germany, in 2004. The film has made some U.S. lists based on its 2005 theatrical release. This works well when the only films discussed are films seen in theatrical or festival release in a given year. The release date as the only frame of reference becomes questionable when one sees a film on DVD prior to its U.S. release, as I have done with the Russian Night Moves, or when one sees a film that may not get a U.S. theatrical release or be available as a Region 1 DVD such as Spider Forest. Charles Chaplin made his film Limelight in 1952. The film was did not get a Los Angeles theatrical run until 1972. Based on Limelight's Los Angeles release date, Chaplin was nominated for his musical score against The Godfather and Napoleon and Samantha. For those reasons, I feel that creating a "2005" list would be impossible.

Nonetheless, I felt somewhat obligated to catch up with some films that have appeared on other lists of the best films of 2005. What I did like about You and Me and Everyone We Know was that the film had real looking people with crummy apartments and dead-end jobs. One scene that worked quite well was when Miranda July sees the man she's infatuated with from to far a distance to know what he is saying to his ex-wife. We see the couple from July's point of view, with each person speaking July's imagined words of romantic banter. A second shot of the couple shows us what they are really saying to each other. While I found the use of a young boy as an internet lover questionable, July did make an interesting exploration of the difference between private and public personas, and the quest for reciprocal love.

The Beat that My Heart Skipped is less of a remake of Fingers than a reworking of James Toback's film. The character of Tom, played by Romain Duris is more fully developed than Harvey Keitel's Jimmy Fingers. Audiard adds more to the father and son relationship so that the film is about more than a part-time gangster with aspirations to be a concert pianist. While Audiard repeated several scenes almost as they were in the original, one major change is that he eliminated the character of the mother who is refered to but not seen. In both films, the mother was a concert pianist who has inspired her son to pursue music professonally. The deeper exploration of the dynamics between father and son, as well as scenes showing Tom's struggle to attain professional level musicianship distinguish the new film.

Head-On is an appropriate title for a film where one of the characters drives into a wall, and characters dive into love, hate, drink and drugs, without thoughts of the consequences. The film begins with two characters meeting in a mental hospital, both Turks living in Germany. Sibel insists on marrying Cahit primarily to get out of her parents' house. As expected, the two fall in love with each other in spite of themselves. After that, the film goes in several unexpected directions. The concept of direction by indirection was both literally and humorously explored in Alin's In July. Akin discussed Head-On in Indiewire. The actress who played Sibel, Sibel Kekilli has a promising career in spite of news about her previous screen roles. I was more shocked and saddened to read that this uniquely beautiful woman used her Head-On earnings to pay for a nose job.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:23 PM | Comments (2)

December 20, 2005

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Michael Schultz - 1978
Sundance Channel broadcast

"I saw a film today, oh boy."

One of my co-contestants from the Ultimate Film Fanatic Denver group wrote to me about Sgt. Pepper. This is the kind of film that justifies having cable. Yes, it's a bad film. Not boring bad. More like, "what were they thinking?", stunning bad.

In terms of movie musicals, even those using ersatz rock, Sgt. Pepper is closer in style to Rocky Horror than to A Hard Day's Night. The longer the film progressed, the more I was convinced that this movie was designed for kids too young to do the timewarp with Brad and Janet. Trying to create a narrative out of The Beatles' album should never have been attempted in the first place. Somehow, the creation of a record album without breaks between songs convinced more than enough people that the entire album was meant to be thought of as a narrative piece, rather than what it was, a collection of songs without any distinct silent breaks.

While the film gives more than enough time to the then ubiquitous George Burns to croak and shuffle his way through "Fixin' A Hole", there is also the presence of Billy Preston doing a joyful "Get Back", providing Sgt. Pepper with the one cast member who could actually both sing and dance. Steven Martin's version of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is too broad by half. I even have to wonder if by the end of 1978, who remembered Sandy Farina as Peter Frampton's screen love, Strawberry Fields. There was also the thought that Prince may have seen Sgt. Pepper, as Stargard were performing in skimpy outfits like his future proteges.

As for the actual band, Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees stand in for The Beatles. Frampton was a big star back in 1978. I even saw him in concert. In retrospect, his voice was passable, but Frampton was a better guitar player than singer. The Brothers Gibb have improved with age. Maybe I'm more sensitive to their vocal harmony now then I was then. If their version of "Nowhere Man" is not quite as good as the version The Mamas and the Papas did on "Hullabaloo" , it's only because Cass Elliot had a voice that could soar higher and louder. Each of the brothers has a solo, but there's a poignancy when Maurice is onscreen. It's the harmonics of the Bee Gees that remain impressive after all these years, making Sgt. Pepper one of those rare movies that's better heard than seen.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:53 PM | Comments (3)

December 19, 2005

That's (German) Entertainment!

Herbert Selpin - 1943
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

Josef von Baky - 1943
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

I finally got around to seeing these two movies after reading about them several months ago. I was frankly pretty curious as to what the state of German filmmaking was like as well as what kind of propaganda would be in these films. It should be no more surprising that big budget entertainment would be produced in Germany in 1943, than in the U.S., the year of Shadow of a Doubt and Heaven Can Wait. Both films could not avoid being affected by Nazi policies in different ways.

While the essential history of the ship Titanic is well known, it still interesting to see how differently the story is told. Alfred Hitchcock was suppose to do a version as his first film for David O. Selznick, but for technical and budgetary reasons ended up doing the landlocked Rebecca instead. E. A. Dupont actually shot three versions of the Titanic story in 1929 - German, English and silent. The Nazi high command was supposed to have loved film, yet I would think that if they had seen Dupont's film, and thought about history, they would not have gone ahead with the creation of their own oversized ship. If the 1943 German version blames the catastrophe of the Titanic on British greed and speed, one could say that the British got their cinematic revenge seventeen years later.

At eighty-five minutes, this Titanic is less than half the running time of James Cameron's version, and there's no Celine Dion wailing at the end. A good part of the film is devoted to White Line President Bruce Ismay trying to manipulate While Line stocks to his advantage prior to the launching of the Titanic and while on the ill-fated voyage. The one German officer on the ship, Petersen, attempts to tell anyone who will listen that there may be a problem with possible icebergs. As if that wasn't enough, Petersen (Hans Nielsen) has his own love problems with an independently wealthy woman (Sybille Schmitz). There is also a subplot involving a young couple who meet cute, Monika Burg playing Ann Dvorak to Hermann Brix's Dick Powell. Had this been a Hollywood production, the role of the hot, garter displaying dancer in steerage would have probably been played by Rita Hayworth. Titanic features the one-time performance by Jolly Bohnert as the temptress men fight over. As it turned out, director Herbert Selpin was arrested by the Gestapo before completing the film, and died in prison. Selpin's crime was that he was overheard complaining about the German army which had caused a slowdown of second unit photography. The film was completed by Werner Klinger. Goebbels subsequently banned the film officially because of the scenes of shipboard panic. Titanic was seen in Germany after World War II after thought to have been lost. While there may be argument on which is the best version of the sinking of the Titanic, this German version offers its own particular pleasures.

The 1943 version of Munchausen also offers pleasures as well. In this case, Goebbels looked the other way after being convinced that Erich Kastner was the only writer capable of writing the screenplay. The film was also legendary German production company UFA's 25th anniversary celebration of itself, a means of showing to German's, and the rest of the world, that the Third Reich could equal Hollywood. The film isn't quite the special effects extravaganza of Terry Gilliam's Adventures of Baron Munchausen. This film about the fabulous 18th century liar is striking in other ways, primarily in it's raciness. This Munchausen is such a ladies' man that even Casanova is jealous. A scene with Brigitte Horney as a Russian princess scampering in her royal underwear was surprising. A later sequence in Turkey resembles nothing less than an Arabian nights fantasy from Universal, only with three times the extras for the exteriors, and lots of topless starlets. (Thank goodness for the ability to freeze frame.)

If Americans are familiar with Erich Kastner at all, it's as the author of Emil and the Detectives. Ideally more of his literature and films would be available. Director von Baky and Kastner collaborated again in 1950 on the film Das Doppelte Lottchen. The story is much better known in the Walt Disney version(s), The Parent Trap.

Kastner also was a poet. Most of his writings are currently unavailable in English, so to make up for this gap, I will share a short poem from the anthology, Let's Face It.

The Light-hearted Muse

Slick art;
Sick art.
Pure art:
Poor art.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:46 PM

December 17, 2005

Two Angels of Death

Der Mude Tod
Fritz Lang - 1921
Image Region 1 DVD

Black Angel
Roy William Neill - 1946
Universal Region 1 DVD

Both of these films are linked by death and love. One of the stars of Black Angel, Peter Lorre first gained fame in Fritz Lang's M. Black Angel, being classic film noir with the cockeyed camera angles, downbeat subject matter and fatalism is in some ways more Germanic than the made in Germany Destiny. Both films share plots involving women who will do anything on behalf of the men they love.

Lil Dagover, a bit mature at age 36, portrays a newlywed on a honeymoon trip with her husband, played by Walter Janssen. Death hops on board the stagecoach they are traveling in. Death in this film is a no-nonsense guy with no time for chess games. Stepping away briefly during lunch, Dagover discovers that Death and Janssen have disappeared. Realizing her husband has prematurely died, Dagover is about to commit suicide. She finds herself in an othewise impenetrable place with Death who takes her to a room full of candles. As obvious as the symbolism may be, the image the two characters surrounded by candles is still impressive.

Continuing with the flickering candles as lift metaphor, the film continues with three stories of characters represented by three candles. Taking place in renaissance Venice, and extremely imaginary Persia and China, Dagover portrays three women trying to change the fate of her doomed lover, again portrayed by Janssen. Co-scripted by Thea von Harbou, the two latter episodes remind one of how, for better and worse, Lang was the Steven Speilberg of his time. The Persian episode has a proto-Indiana Jones character wooing the Caliph's sister. The Chinese episode is uses the most special effects including a miniature army emerging from a box, a scroll that takes on the characteristics of a snake, and a flying carpet. While Dagover is motivated by the biblical phrase that "love is stronger than death", the lesson learned is not the one expected. Destiny is both cornball and moving, made a year before Lang started making his best silent films, starting with the first Dr. Mabuse.

Black seems to have been a favorite color for Cornell Woolrich. The film Black Angel may not have been true to the novel, but there are still recognizable elements such as an innocent man accused of murder, the search for the real murderer, and a character suffering from amnesia or alcoholism or both. Universal cupcake du jour Constance Dowling is the victim. Dan Duryea and June Vincent are the pair trying to prove that bit player John Phillips is innocent.

Black Angel was the final film for Roy William Neill who died at age 59. Mostly known for directing the series of Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone, Black Angel demonstrates an artistry that never had the opportunity to fully develop. Still there are enough unexpected twists and turns, plus humor, intentional and not, with Broderick Crawford as a laidback police detective, perennial creep Lorre plus professional lug Freddie Steele. Constance Dowling's role in Black Angel is brief, as was her career. Dowling's relationship with Cesare Pavese is certainly the stuff of legend. Dowling may have been a victim in Black Angel but she also proved to be a real life femme fatale.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:42 PM

December 16, 2005


John Farrow - 1953
Paramount Region 1 DVD

If the commentary for Hondo is not quite as informative as I would want, there are still nuggets of information that make one wonder about how the film would have been different. Film historians Leonard Maltin and Frank Thompson discuss the film, with former child actor Lee Aaker piping in. The big new that may have some film scholars scrambling to re-examine and revalue Hondo is the information that in addition to second unit work, John Ford directed the closing sequences while John Farrow went to direct another movie. Certainly some of the compositions look similar to Ford's work, particularly shots panning up along the desert mesas with the Apaches gathering for battle. I'm not familiar enough with Farrow's films to recognize his visual style, but one has to also assume that visual choices were also dictated by working on behalf of producer Wayne, in a Western in a region somewhat like Monument Valley, and with the cumbersome 3-D camera. That Hondo was originally photographed using the two camera 3-D system, yet virtually only seen as a standard 35mm movie also raises some questions about seeing the film its makers intended.

In one-eyed Andre De Toth's House of Wax, Vincent Price would throw a chair towards the camera, and a character would play with a paddle ball. Such were some of the first 3-D films that would make a point of virtually attacking the audience. Only a couple of shots were done in Hondo that were obviously created to exploite 3-D, particularly in a knife fight where John Wayne and Rodolfo Acosta "stab" the audience, and later when a rifle is shot aiming toward the camera. Jack Warner had initially mandated that important films be shot in 3-D. While John Farrow notes that filming would have taken a week less using a standard camera, one has to wonder if Hondo would have looked different.

To describe the story risks making the film sound less interesting than it is. Hondo Lane, a horseless cavalry scout, stumbles upon the ranch of Angie Lowe and her young son, Johnny. The ranch has fallen into disrepair, and Hondo assumes that Angie's husband has either died or deserted her. The ranch is in Apache territory where there is a tentative peace. Hondo finds himself attracted to Angie and feeling somewhat paternal to the boy. The Apache chief, Vittorio, is also concerned about Angie and offers her several Apache suitors. At less than ninety minutes the film doesn't have the sprawling narratives of Ford or Hawks. Neither does it have Ford's vistas or Hawks' clubbiness. Would Hondo be memorable had Glenn Ford taken the role as originally offered? My own feeling is: probably not. No less than Bertrand Tavernier will sing the praises of Delmar Daves, Cowboy, 3:10 to Yuma, and Jubal, three westerns starring Glenn Ford. John Wayne in one of his lesser films (Big Jake) springs to mind more clearly imagined than Glenn Ford in a great film (The Big Heat).

One other bit of casting news was that Geraldine Page was the third choice to play Angie Lowe. In the commentary, it's mentioned that the first choice was Katherine Hepburn. The commenary also mentioned that there was concern about her politics. What would have made this casting interesting is that Hepburn and Wayne were the same age. They would eventually work together in 1975 in Rooster Cogburn, a weak follow-up to True Grit. Dorothy McGuire was considered as well. Page was even less conventionally attractive than the other two actresses. In part of the dialogue, Angie and Hondo discuss Angie's "plainess". I'm not sure what Wayne and Farrow had in mind in their search for an actress although Page did get an unexpected Academy Award nomination for her first major film role. Page also ended up working with Glenn Ford eleven years later in Dear Heart, as well as a film directed by John Farrow's unofficial son-in-law.

The DVD also contains a short documentary on the Apaches which mentions that they were a matriarchy. There are also short documentaries on screenwriter James Edward Grant and Ward Bond. Leonard Maltin diplomatically notes that Bond was very outspoken about his political beliefs. I'd love to see a biographical film that told the real Ward Bond story, but more likely, as John Wayne said in The Searchers, "That'll be the day."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:26 PM

December 15, 2005

Thoughts on Christmas Movies

First a little about myself. I don't formally celebrate Christmas. I never have and I probably never will. I grew up in a Jewish household and converted to Buddhism when I was twenty-one. While we did have what was dubbed a "Hannukah bush" growing up, I have no such shrubbery or lights in my own home. The only bush or Bush I have is a CD by Kate Bush named after a beloved classic film.

Because of my own mixed feelings about Christmas in particular and the holiday period in general, the films I like that are holiday related are usually not the traditionally cited films. And as a long-time observer of films and filmmakers, while I can make sense of Frank Capra making It's a Wonderful Life and John Ford's Three Godfathers, I have to wonder what was going on in the minds of directors with Jewish heritage like Mark Rex Goldstein, Michael Curtiz, and Joe Roth. Lately I have been pondering about that scene near the end of It's a Wonderful Life when one of James Stewart's kids states that according to a teacher, when a bell on the tree rings, an angel get his wings. What kind of school is Stewart sending his kids to?

One of the films I use to enjoy catching on television many years ago is titled The Cheaters. This film stars Eugene Pallette, the millionaire father in several screwball comedies and Billie Burke, best known as Glinda, the good witch. Joseph Schildkraut is the homeless man invited to dinner who teaches Burke, Pallette and their family about the real meaning of Christmas. Another dinner guest, Erland Josephson, saves Christmas in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. Christianity plays a key part in many of Bergman's films, but what was interesting for me is that Josephson's character is specifically Jewish, and within the context of this film seemed to have a sense of freedom some of the other characters lacked.

Until I saw it again a couple years ago, I forgot that Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's takes place primarily on Christmas Eve. Little did I know when I first saw the film soon after it's initial release that watching a couple of French intellectuals talking all night would be so thrilling. As it turns out, Francoise Fabian, Rohmer's Maude is one of several stars in the French Christmas movie, La Buche. This is the dysfunctional family comedy done right, very dark and very funny. Also in the cast are Claude Rich, Emmanuelle Beart and my current favorite French actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg. I found La Buche by chance at Netflix, one of my happier film discoveries.

I don't know if I had anything to do with it, but after mentioning Die Hard at Cinematical, it was listed in the IMDb poll of favorite Christmas movies. This is a film that almost always grabs me, even if I'm channel surfing and I catch the film in progress. Between Bruce Willis going, "Yippee ki yi yay!", and the song "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow" as the film closes on the never going to snow Los Angeles, this has always been a fun film for me. Certainly a film about killing "terrorists" on Christmas is more timely than ever.

While there is some question as to whether Jesus was actually born on Christmas Day, there is no question about it being the birthday of Leon Corledo, portrayed by Oliver Reed in Curse of the Werewolf. With that in mind, I can more easily explain my own tradition of watching several horror movies on Christmas day. Of course my significant other will argue that as far as my watching horror movies, every day is Christmas.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:59 PM | Comments (1)

December 14, 2005

The Coming of Sin

La Visita del Vicio
Jose Larraz - 1977
Pagan Films PAL Region 0 DVD

Have you ever read a film book and had your attention caught by a particular still? Has that particular image captured your imagination enough that you felt like you HAD to see the movie that particular still illustrated. I felt that way when I saw this image in the book Immoral Tales. (Sorry I haven't quite figured out how to do screen capture for Mac.) In any event, I finally saw this film on DVD. The Coming of Sin is not quite as strange as that one image.

The film lies somewhere between art and soft-core exploitation. A wealthy artist, Lorna, takes in an illiterate gypsy girl on behalf of her friends. The gypsy, Triana, has been bothered by nightmares involving a man riding naked on a horse. Her dream image is manifested in the form of Chico, a handsome young man with a horse, who shows up the morning after Triana's arrival. What little narrative exists is punctuated with seens of lesbian and heterosexual coupling as well as a menage a trois. It's kind of like Cinemax only with characters who can name drop Goya. Having seen John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye with Marlon Brando undone by the site of Robert Forster's nude horseback riding, I knew these characters would come to a bad end.

I have only seen two films by Larraz at this time, with the other film being Vampyres. Even if one questions his subject matter, what has made Larraz a favorite with some critics is his imagery. His talent can be seen in the comic strips that first gained Larraz attention. Larraz opens The Coming of Sin with the camera panning over paintings of nude and semi-nude women in Lorna's house, and also has a scene with Lorna and Chico viewing similar paintings in a museum. Larraz emphasis on the image was in part due to making this film with a very small budget and non-professional actors. In Immoral Tales, Larraz is quoted: "It was really like an album of pictures. Just beautiful frames." It should be noted that Larraz did get the opportunity to make a mini-series on Goya for Spanish television, one of his few artistically satisfying films.

The DVD includes an interview with Larraz conducted by Cathal Tohill which covers not only The Coming of Sin, but also some of Larraz' other films, plus his meeting with Josef von Sternberg. Hopefully more of Larraz' films will be made available on DVD, especially is earlier English language films. Among his countrymen, Larraz may not in the same league as Bunuel, but given what he can with limited resources, he is certainly a more cohesive and artistic filmmaker than Jesus Franco.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:34 PM

December 13, 2005

Richard Widmark Double Feature

The Street with No Name
William Keighley - 1948
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

To the Devil a Daughter
Peter Sykes - 1976
Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

For those you missed the news, Richard Widmark received a Career Achievement award from the Los Angeles Film Critics recently. The choice of Widmark is interesting because, while many would agree on the quality of his work, Richard Widmark is probably remembered better for a handful of films that he appeared in, such as Kiss of Death and Pickup on South Street. And while he co-starred with some film's biggest icons such as Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne, Widmark never had that mythic aura. In examing his filmography, Widmark was usually top billed in lower to middle budget films, while frequently taking second bill in bigger productions. With the exception of his debut film performance as Tommy Udo, the giggling killer of Kiss of Death, we usually remember the film before we remember Widmark.

In his second film, The Street with No Name, Widmark plays a slightly less sociopathic gangster. Widmark's character shares the same last name, Stiles, as his character in his last film, True Colors. Bland and beefy Mark Stevens plays an F.B.I. agent who infiltrates Widmark's gang. The film is part noir, very dark, high and low angle photography, and part police procedural. The film begins with a teletype message supposedly from J. Edgar Hoover himself warning audiences that they were potential victims of crime. We next see an attempted heist at a roadhouse. From the voice-over setting up the story, we get the idea that the victims are partially to blame, drinking and dancing at an hour when good citizens are home sleeping. This first scene opens with a literal bang when a nervous woman screams and gets shot by Widmark. The film then cuts to a scene in a crime lab which could be called C.S.I., B.C. where we see a couple of technicians comparing bullets.

While the film takes place in a fictional city, it was shot literally on the streets of Los Angeles as part of the trend of documentary style crime films. Director William Keighley was a house director at Warner Brothers making crime films with Bogart, Cagney and Robinson. The film is brightened by character actors Lloyd Nolan, Ed Begley, John McIntire, and Barbara Lawrence as Widmark's eye candy and punching bag. Harry Kleiner's screenplay was reworked by Sam Fuller for House of Bamboo. While The Street with No Name is entertaining, my favorite early Widmark performance is in Jules Dassin's Night and the City with its consistently dreamlike and sometimes nightmarish view of London.

London was where Widmark filmed part of To the Devil a Daughter, his last theatrical film with top billing. Perhaps Widmark thought being in a horror film would be as good for him as The Omen was for Gregory Peck. The film also carries the distinction of being the last Hammer horror film to be made for theaters, afterwhich the studio eked out a few productions for television. Widmark plays a writer with an interest in devil worship. Denholm Elliot seeks out Widmark to rescue his daughter, Natassia Kinski, from the clutches of the evil Christopher Lee. The film is sort of like Rosemary's Baby until the end when the film gets a bit more graphic. As bloody as the film gets, the most horrifying bit of this movie is that Christopher Lee has a nude scene. The then sixteen year old Kinski is also seen to full advantage. Pussy Galore, also known as Honor Blackman stays dressed throughout her performance. The documentary on To the Devil indicates that Widmark hated making the film and almost walked out on the production. For all the problems with the production, including a constantly re-written script, the film looks good thanks to cinematographer David Watkin. The expected payoff at the end never comes, undermined by a perfunctory ending. It's a frustrating way to close a Hammer movie, as well as the Hammer studio.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:56 PM | Comments (2)

December 10, 2005

Hong Kong "Girls Kick Ass" Double Feature

Naked Weapon
Chek Law Dak Gung
Tony Ching Siu-Tung - 2002
Hart Sharp Region 1 DVD

The Inspector Wears Skirts
Ba Wong Fa
Wellson Chin - 1988
Universe Laser & Video DVD

Say what you will about Tom Cruise, if you need a reason to look forward to Mission Impossible 3, her name is Maggie Q. Not only is she cute, but as an Asian-American, Maggie Q speaks fluent English, unlike some of the stars of a big budget Hollywood film about Japan. The film she is in, Naked Weapon is actually better than what would be expected by the title, and was actually shot as an English language production primarily with Chinese and Asian-American actors.

I'm almost surprised this film wasn't made by Luc Besson. Part of the film also owes a debt to Kinji Fukasaku. The premise is that young girls are kidnapped by the mysterious Madame M to be trained as highly paid assassins. A young C.I.A. agent has been on the trail for the past six years. The action sequences are all post-Matrix with much wire work involving the kind of leaping around that Nijinsky probably dreamt about. While there are a lot of weapons, there isn't much nudity, except for a discrete shower seen involving Ms. Q and Anya, her assassin "sister".

The director, Ching Siu-Tung was the action choreographer for Zhang Yimou's Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. As a director, Ching also had a hand in all three of the Swordsman films. With his credentials, one has to wonder why he wasn't asked to direct any of the Hollywood female action movies that have come and gone. Ching, the son of Hong Kong director Gang Cheng also includes pioneer Hong Kong action heroine Cheng Pei-Pei as Maggie Q's mother. Cheng was widely seen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film that introduced Zhang Ziyi to the world. Maggie Q and Zhang appeared together in a film that is unspeakable in any language.

Further research indicates that The Inspector Wears Skirts was actually directed by the most popular Asian actor in the world. One would wish the film was as funny as the similarly titled The Lieutenant Wore Skirts. The film is about Sibelle Hu's organizing and training of a squad of policewomen. Cynthia Rothrock also is on hand to show Hu's trainees some real martial arts. The lowbrow humor and slapsticks are less amusing than a scene that takes place in a roller skating rink. Several policemen and policewoman perform a song and dance number that looks like a scene from Grease as directed by Corky St. Clair. The Inspector Wears Skirts managed to get less interesting as it progressed, but I had a nice little nap during the end of the film.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:18 PM | Comments (1)

December 09, 2005

A Town of Love and Hope

Ai to kibo no machi
Nagisa Oshima - 1959
Panorama Entertainment Region 0 DVD

"No matter what political system we live under, people at the bottom stay there."
- Nagisa Oshima

Thematically, the debut film,A Town of Love and Hope anticipates Nagisa Oshima's future. In some ways this film serves as a companion piece to Boy made ten years later in depicting the extremes families take for financial survival. Unlike Boy which had the family exploit the son, in Town of Love and Hope, the young man makes choices on behalf of his family. Of the Oshima films I have seen so far, this is his most conventional. This is understandable in that Oshima needed to prove to his studio that he was indeed worthy of elevation to the director's chair. Within a couple years, Oshima would make the decidedly uncommercial Night and Fog in Japan and establish himself as one of Japan's first true independent filmmakers.

This first film is about a junior high school student, Masao, who sells pigeons on the street as pets to make money on behalf of his ill mother and young sister. The family lives in a shack, lacking sufficient heat. What makes Masao's enterprise marginally worthwhile is that the pigeons usually fly back so he can sell them again. One of Masao's customers, the daughter of an industrialist, takes interest in Masao and attempts to get Masao hired by her father's electronics factory. Masao's teacher also tries to help Masao seek a better future, ideally by continuing on to high school, the dream of Masao's mother. While Masao understands that he may live a better life with more education, his sense of obligation to his mother and sister determine his choices.

The poverty Oshima depicts is in contrast not only with the comparative wealth of the industrialist's family, but against a backdrop of a post-war Japan that still held onto old prejudices. Masao, his family and neighbors represent those whose lives were not improved by the financial recovery of Japan. As he would do so in the future, Oshima would examine and criticize aspects of Japanese society. This was also the first of Oshima's films to feature Fumio Watanabe who would appear in several Oshima films including the aforementioned Boy.

While only a handful of films representing Oshima's forty-five year career are available on tape or disc, one can also explore his writings. Oshima not only discusses his own films, but looks at the filmmaking process in Japan, as well as a critique of film critics.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:24 PM

December 08, 2005

On the Street with Fuller and Fukasaku

Street of No Return
Samuel Fuller - 1989
Fantoma DVD

Street Mobster
Gendai yakuza: hito-kiri yota
Kinji Fukusaku - 1972
Home Vision Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In the entertaining "Making of" documentary that accompanies Street of No Return, Samuel Fuller discusses how the history of humans consists of violence and action. He could well be describing some of the films of Kinji Fukasaku. The character of Isamu, played by Bunta Sugawara is not too different from Cliff Robertson or Richard Widmark in his nihilism. Fukasaku's film was made when he was re-defining the Yakuza genre, while Fuller's film was his last film made for theatrical release.

In his autobiography, The Third Face, Sam Fuller notes that the film was re-edited by the producer, Jacques Bral (not to be confused with Jacques Brel). I'm not sure if Fuller's version would have been significantly better. The story, from a novel by David Goodis, involves a pop singer involved with a gangster's girlfriend, and a Chinatown plot involving race riots, crack and a real estate scam. I don't know if this was a coincidence but along with using a writer associated with Francois Truffaut, Streets was photographed by Truffaut cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn. Filmed in Lisbon, the film takes place in an American city. In The Nakes Kiss, Fuller would film a couple, with just a couple pieces of furniture, and manage to transcend his sparse sets to convey a dream of Venice, Italy. In Street, everything looks like it was shot on a phony set, even when it wasn't. Fuller, who witnessed race riots as a young reporter, has staged what looks more like a large street fight on a paper strewn set. One could either be generous and say that Fuller did the best with his available resources, or view the film as the misguided imagining of America by someone who's lost touch with his country.

Even if the film is disappointing, it is still fun to see Fuller talk about it in the documentary. Sam Fuller was one of Hollywood's great raconteurs. Even if his logic seemed faulty or he got his facts wrong, Fuller was always fun to listen to, rattling one story after another with his ever present cigar. One wishes that Fuller had been able to do the commentary as well, instead of Keith Carradine who seems to have trouble remembering the film. Carradine's singing and songwriting don't seem to have improved much since Nashville. Street also has the dubious distinction of having the title song co-written by Fuller. Fuller's wife and daughter have cameo performances. Sam Fuller's appearance is like a comparison of Street with his past films: he is reduced to a shadow.

Street Mobster begins somewhat like Street with No Name with street fighting. The main character, Isamu, is a thug who lacks interest in rising in the ranks of the Japanese underworld and has contempt for the elaborate rules regarding Yakuza life. The film can be viewed as a warm-up for Fukasaku's five film series, The Yakuza Papers: Battles without Honor and Humanity. Isamu and his small gang are caught up between the larger "families". In prior Yakuza films, emphasis was placed on characters living within the code. Fukasaku's gangster films are Darwinian excercises where characters continually change alliances, break promises and take whatever action is needed for self-preservation. Fukasaku undermines the genre tradition of the Yakuza cutting off his pinky finger as a form of great apology.

As Fukasaku's Yakuza films are also examinations of the cultural shifts in Japan following World War II, this quote is instructive in explaining his view: "I was working in a weapons factory that was a regular target for enemy bombing. During the raids, even though we were friends working together, the only thing we would be thinking of was self-preservation. We would try to get behind each other or beneath dead bodies to avoid the bombs. When the raid was over, we didn't really blame each other, but it made me understand about the limits of friendship. I also had to clean up all the dead bodies after the bombings. I'm sure those experiences have influenced the way I look at violence."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:54 PM | Comments (1)

December 06, 2005

Inner Journeys with James Mason

Journey to the Center of the Earth
Henry Levin - 1959
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

Lord Jim
Richard Brooks - 1965
Columbia Region 1 DVD

Between 1959 and 1962 I lived in Teaneck, New Jersey. Pat Boone, at the height of his stardom, also lived in Teaneck. I never got to see him although some of my elementary school friends reported sightings. I didn't see Journey to the Center of the Earth because I was still restricted by my parents to only seeing movies with the name "Walt Disney" attached to the title. Once again, thanks to the miracle of the DVD, I can fill in those gaps of childhood.

The man who made Fats Domino and Little Richard safe for the suburbs has two semi-nude scenes, one with a sheep! Of course the couple of songs don't sound like anything from the late 19th Century. James Mason is on hand mostly to provide a bit of gravitas to a film that co-starred the ephemeral Arlene Dahl and Diane Baker. Mason was previously in the Disney version of 20,000 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but it was after this film that one could expect at least one Jules Verne film adaptation every year in the early Sixties. Journey was also the last screenplay written by Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch. A couple of wisecracks slip in to remind us that former collaborator Billy Wilder didn't write all the jokes.

Although the film special effects and sets were considered state of the art at the time, the years have been less than kind. There is one set which looks like a maze of twisted white roots that still looks good. One set looks like it was constructed with Bloomingdale's gift boxes and aluminum foil. The dinosaurs appear to be lizards photographed with extreme close-up lenses. It probably wasn't mean to be symbolic, but there is also a shot of Pat Boone hammering a big spike into a dinosaur's tongue. Bernard Herrmann brought the heavy brass and woodwinds for his score. By Herrmann standards it's O.K. but one is easily reminded of memorable music and a far better movie, as Pat Boone's character has a fear of heights and his own version of vertigo.

A little research shows that forty years before Richard Brooks' version, Victor Fleming made a much shorter, silent version of Lord Jim. It probably was no more successful than this big budget flop that was probably Brooks attempt to meet or beat David Lean with a "thinking man's epic". Joseph Conrad has always been a challenge for filmmakers, but Lord Jim, with its narrative made up of multiple viewpoints and chronologies is the least filmable. Even at two and a half hours, Conrad's novel is pretty much reduced to an adventure movie with philosophical moments. Peter O'Toole looks somewhat like the character that Conrad decribes, but Brooks' filmic language to convey the psychology of Jim is awkward at best and more often heavy handed. James Mason shows up quite late in the film as Gentleman Brown, the character who forces Jim to face himself. Brooks also proved capable as anyone else in miscasting a foreign actress by having Israeli Delilah Lavi as "the girl" from Southeast Asia. The final word on this filmed version of Conrad should go to Orson Welles, who stated: "If I were police commissioner of the world, I would put Richard Brooks in jail for what he did to Lord Jim."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:30 PM

December 05, 2005

The Passenger

Professione: Reporter
Michelangelo Antonioni - 1975
Sony Pictures Classic 35mm

Last night I was checking in at Metacritic just to get a sense of the critical reaction to some of the newer films. I noticed that The Passenger was one of the highest rated films. What struck me, though, was in looking at the reviews by some of the Metacritic "users" were extremely negative, although everyone agreed that the film was well photographed.

I finally saw The Passenger today in it's official re-release. The only time I saw it theatrically that I recall was in its initial release in 1975. I also caught part of the end on television one night. In his book, The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris refers to "Antoniennui". While The Passenger was always a demanding film requiring an active viewer, I am not surprised if it even more challenging for a younger audience. The stripped down dialogue and camera that replicates the gaze of a somewhat distant observer are what distinguish this film. Essentially, The Passenger is the opposite of most current Anglo-American filmmaking which is usually talk heavy, with an emphasise on visual technique, and ear-splittingly noisy.

When visual and verbal underlining are the norm, a film like The Passenger must be even more frustrating for some audience members. Minutes go by with people not talking to each other. Attempts at communication are often undermined by language barriers. Even exchanges in English are uncertain if words or names are codes understood by one but not the other. One of the key scenes is when Jack Nicholson is filming an interview with an African identified as a Witch Doctor. The question is posed that that there must be a contradiction to be both Western educated and be a Witch Doctor. The Witch Doctor turns the camera around to focus on Nicholson. Antonioni is reminding us that all observation is subjective, and that observations made through a cultural lens are the least objective. Throughout The Passenger, relationships and motivations remain unexplained. The film can be seen as a kind of compliment to Blow-Up by deliberately leaving unsolved mysteries.

From an interview in the bookEncountering Directors, Antonioni stated: "You know what I would like to do: make a film with actors standing in empty space so that the spectator would have to imagine the background of the characters. Till now I have never shot a scene without taking account of what stands behind the actors because the relationship between people and their surroundings is of prime importance. I mean simply to say that I want my characters to suggest the background in themselves, even when it is not visible. I want them to be so powerfully realized that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space."

I'm not certain if Antonioni has quite made the film he's discribed. Certainly his own filmic journey has gone from a symbolic Red Desert to stranding Jack Nicholson in the very real red and white deserts.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:58 PM

December 04, 2005

As Tears Go By

Wong Gok Ka Moon
Wong Kar-Wai - 1988
Kino Video DVD

It was impossible for me not to think of Martin Scorcese during the first brawl in Wong Kar-Wai's debut film, As Tears Go By. As the film progressed, I kept on thinking of Mean Streets. After doing a bit of Googling, I found that other critics saw similarities as well. Wong has even spoken of his admiration for Scorsese.

Andy Lau plays Harvey Keitel to Jacky Cheung's Robert De Niro. Maggie Cheung has an easily treated lung disease compared to Amy Robinson's epilepsy. There is none of the conflicted Catholicism of Scorcese. While Lau and Cheung talk about leaving the gangster life behind, it would be a few years before Wong would present characters exploring their existential delemmas, such as Tony Leung's cop in Chunking Express. While Keitel's relationship with Robinson was fragile because of her illness, the biggest problem Lau has with Cheung is primarily geographic. The emphasis is on Lau's relationship with Cheung, and their relationship with the local "Godfather" and another small time gangster. The volitility of the male characters is more characteristic of Scorsese than Wong.

Visually the film hints at the future stylization of Wong's films. Cinematographer Lau Wai-Keung, also known as Andrew Lau, later worked on Chunking Express. Much of the visual influence here is Sam Peckinpah by way of John Woo, with a slow motion bullet ballet. The music used was contemporary 1988 Canto-pop, featuring a Chinese language version of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away".

There was a shock in seeing Maggie Cheung look almost embryonic. She was 24 at the time, with several films to her credit. She looks not quite formed, her face appearing like a blank slate yet to be better defined by the roles about to come her way. At 27, Andy Lau was still somewhat babyfaced, and sometimes looked too delicate to be a street hood.

1988, the year that the Scorsese influenced Tears was released, was also when one of Martin Scorsese's most personal projects, The Last Temptation of Christ his theaters. While it is something of a generalization, one could argue that Scorsese, who has mentioned John Cassavetes as an influence, would make films that tended to be less personal and more stylistically classical in his films following that date. Conversely, Wong took up Cassavetes' mantle to make films with greater degrees of improvisation and less regard to the traditional narrative.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:58 PM

December 03, 2005

Cowards Bend at the Knees

Guy Maddin - 2003
Video/Performance Installation

Cowards Bend at the Knees is unusual, even in comparison with the other works of the idiosyncratic Guy Maddin. Although this silent film has been presented as a traditional narrative film, it has also been presented as an installation piece. Additionally, while the installation pieces have taken the motif of a peep show, no two installations are the same.

In my case, I was able to watch excerpts at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. A square area inside the cinematheque was blocked off on three sides with black plastic sheeting. Every few feet there were eye holes at different levels for viewing either standing or kneeling. The different viewing angles of course altered how much of the film was viewable, but also recreated the experience of viewing a movie through a kinetoscope or similar, hand cranked viewing device from the very early silent era. In addition to Maddin's film projected on the screen, the inner area included a nude performance by Julie Atlas Muz, with a partially dress actor and a manniquin. Muz, with a blonde wig of puffed up hair, looked somewhat like some of the women who have appeared in Maddin's pastiches of old movies. Because the performance moved around within the area, this meant the viewer would occassionally have to choose between viewing the performers or the film.

Given that the setting and situation was different than that for traditional passive viewing, I would not be able to discuss Cowards in the same way that I could discuss Maddin's other films. The biographical information in Senses of Cinema, plus naming the main character Guy Maddin, indicate autobiographical elements. Even as part of an installation, I am not certain if Maddin's intention is for the viewer to watch the entire narrative, or to view excerpts at will. In my own experience, a little bit of Maddin usually is best, which is why my favorite work of his is his short Heart of the World. Even though I am mixed about Maddin, viewing Cowards as an installation piece could not be passed up.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:36 PM | Comments (1)

December 02, 2005

Two by Joe Dante

Joe Dante - 2005
Showtime Channel

Looney Tunes: Back in Action
Joe Dante - 2003
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

This much I am certain about Homecoming - George W. Bush will probably never see it because 1. Showtime's broadcast his past his reported 10:00 pm bedtime, and 2. From the response to Hurricane Katrina, we have learned that the President's advisers don't seem to watch television either. Not that it will make a difference in that Homecoming will probably be dismissed as a liberal's fantasy.

Joe Dante clearly has an agenda. Even when the President of the United States is not named, no one should be confused when the gun toting blonde's license plate reads "Bsh Babe". Given some of the writings and declarations of Ann Coulter and Jerry Falwell, nothing that their counterparts say or do in Homecoming seems like an exaggeration. While satire isn't new for Dante, this is his warmest film that I've seen. Between the mayhem is a lovely scene, something of a digression from the story, in which a middle aged couple provide shelter and familial warmth to one of the zombie soldiers. Throughout the film, the zombies maintain greater dignity than some of the humans.

Unlike some of Dante's other films, his references to other films and filmmakers is limited to not distract from his message. One scene, with Jon Tenney at the grave of his brother, is a parody of the opening scene from Night of the Living Dead. Where Dante has his fun is in making sure the attentive film lovers note gravestones for Gordon Douglas, John Gilling, Jean Yarbrough, Jacques Tourneur, and G. A. Romero. It should be noted that Showtime is being offered free this weekend giving more people an opportunity to see this film, and it is scheduled on Scream Television in Canada.

Less obviously political is Dante's previous film, Looney Tunes: Back in Action. The story concerning the rivalry between Bugs and Daffy, and Brendan Fraser in search of a legendary diamond are merely the framework for a film crammed full of cultural references. This is a film by and for those of us who spent Saturday mornings watching as many Warner Brother cartoons as possible. It's not only a matter of having Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales discuss the problems of being politically correct, but also taking the time to mimic animator Robert Clampett's Daliesque Porky in Wackyland. The jokes, many in the background such as in a Richard Lester film, are continuous. This is a universe where humans and cartoon characters co-exist, as well as characters and creatures from 50s science fiction movies. While the film was marketed for children, Dante has called it "the anti-Space Jam". With scenes of Bugs Bunny singing along Elvis Presley's Viva Las Vegas, and taking a shower, this Looney Tunes is truly for boomer parents and film lovers.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:08 PM | Comments (3)

December 01, 2005

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros
Aureus Solito - 2005

In today's news was mention of The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. I had also noticed that this film made the cut for Sundance 2006 in the Dramatic Film category. There is no U.S. distributor for Maximo and I don't know if Sundance will change that, but it seems like the kind of film that Strand would possibly pick up. I happened to see this film totally by chance. My significant other and I decided to go out of town rather than sit through Hurricane Rita and another power shutdown. We decided to visit Toronto, more or less on impulse. Looking through Toronto's alternative weekly, my SO noticed the ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival was taking place. The scope of this film festival is films and video work by indigenous people. If Maximo seems to fall somewhat outside of the declared parameters, the film was included as Solito has made short films dealing with Philippine indigenous culture.

The film can be viewed as a gay themed coming of age story. Prior to the screening I attended, Solito noted that he wanted to depict the realities of the poor in the Philippines. Shot digitally in Manila, the film represents part of the newer generation of Filipino films that more frequently are examinations of life and culture, rather than the horror and action films that were more frequently exported in the past. For most Anglo-American viewers, including myself, the cinema of the Philippines remains an unknown country.

The film follows Max, a twelve year old boy who is clearly both effeminate and quite secure about his sense of identity. He is the youngest son in a family of thieves, living with his father and two brothers. Max provides the "female" roll in the household chores - cooking, cleaning and food shopping. Max's father is the neighborhood "Godfather" for the neighborhood they live in, where the police look the other way. A new neighborhood policeman, the incorruptable Victor appears, announcing to all his plans to clean up the neighborhood. Victor, who has saved Max from being beaten on the streets, becomes the object of Max's affections. One could almost view this film as being a variation of the old Hollywood chestnut where the girl is caught in a the proverbial web of love and loyalty between a gangster and a cop.

Where the film succeeds is in the presentation of the humanity of its characters. While Max is sometimes teased by his brothers, there is the sense of family love, particularly from his father. Without editorializing, Solito depicts the daily life of slum living with its filth and corruption. The criminal activity of Max's family is seen as a mode of survival when there are no other viable options. One very funny scene is of Max and his other young friends raiding a costume shop and putting on a beauty pageant with lip sync singing and dancing. Underlying the humor is the contrast between the childrens' lives in the slums of Manila and their aspirations for media created glamour and beauty.

While Maximo is a modest film, especially by Hollywood standards, the interest in this film may hopefully help make Filipino films better known for more serious film viewers. As Solito has stated: "The recognition of this film has empowered and will inspire digital filmmakers from the Philippines, digital filmmaking has equalized the expressions of third world countries to first world countries. We are poor but not in spirit."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:28 AM | Comments (1)