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March 30, 2008

Coffee Break

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Priscilla Dean in The Wicked Darling (Tod Browning - 1919)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:09 AM

March 29, 2008

Fun Bar Karaoke

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Fan Ba Karaoke
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang - 1997
Solar Marketing VCD

The original Thai title is said to translate as "Dream Crazy Karaoke". Pen-Ek Ratanuruang's debut is a movie about dreams, and at one point a dream about movies. The influence of Jim Jarmusch's deadpan humor is very evident as well as one scene that seems inspired by Michael Madsen's deadly dance in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Pen-Ek's background in advertising is very much at play with a scene of a photo shoot for a face cream, part of the action taking place in a 7-11, and some unusual product placement for Coca-Cola. There are a couple of scenes of people dancing, not dance numbers per se, but still it suggests that it would most likely be Pen-Ek who might create the great Thai musical.

Many of the elements of Pen-Ek's future films are already in place. Characters are connected to each other in ways they don't expect while the family unit is often fractured. One of the characters, a young man named Noi, is a small time gangster whose dream is to walk away from that life. The film is in part about the clash between traditional Thai beliefs and like in modern, crowded and international Bangkok.

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That Fun Bar Karaoke is currently only available on a frequently unavailable VCD belies the film's historical importance. Pen-Ek's film was one of the first films to bring attention to Thailand by western film critics, and helped kick off the era of younger Thai filmmakers who were college educated, and often studied abroad. In terms of an era of Thai cinema that seems to have been curtailed following the 2006 military coup, to not have a better version of Fun Bar Karaoke available is almost the equivalent to not having the first feature of Claude Chabrol or Francois Truffaut.

As the title play on words indicates, this is a film about a part of Thailand that is not strictly Thai. Thailand's history is one of resistance and absorbing of Anglo-American, Japanese and Chinese influences. As such, Fun Bar Karaoke is a reflection of the changes in Thai identity. Even the soundtrack incorporates this cultural meshing with Thai pop music as well as a song by Nina Simone (an American woman with a French stage name). Pen-Ek's films reflect the push and pull of identity with characters either going further into the country, that is to say deeper into Thailand and Thai identity, or leaving Thailand altogether. Fun Bar Karaoke begins with the beautiful image worthy of a Minnelli or Donen, with two characters dancing together in a totally white studio, the first of the dreams within the film. The real life dreams that the characters achieve in the end are far more mundane. I hope that Fun Bar Karaoke gets the kind of DVD treatment it deserves. Almost in advertising fashion, Pen-Ek's first film is that of someone who developed his style before fully articulating what he had to say.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:05 AM | Comments (2)

March 27, 2008

The Unseeable

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Pen Choo Kab Pee
Wisit Sasanatieng - 2006
Innoform Media Region 3 DVD

The Unseeable was playing theatrically, with English subtitles, during my first week in Thailand. I missed it, learning the hard way that if you want to see a Thai movie with English subtitles in Chiang Mai, it is best to hit the mall multiplex during the first week. It may have been for the better that I missed The Unseeable at that time as during my four and a half months I became more familiar with the genre of the Thai ghost story. With that perspective, I could understand how Wisit simultaneously adheres to the genre while adding his own stylist touch.

Unlike Wisit's previous films, The Unseeable was written by Kongkiat Khomsiri, writer of Art of the Devil II. It was all too easy for me to imagine what The Unseeable might have looked like had a director with lesser artistic aspirations been given the script. As it is, The Unseeable has the formal excellence of Wisit's first two films, but is also their opposite. The bright colors and flashy camera work or Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog are exchanged for shades of brown, white and burnt orange. The camera framing is crucial because of what what is seen, and either off screen or not easily identifiable.

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Also unusual is that The Unseeable is a period film. Taking place in the 1930s. the story is about a rural young woman who is seeking the husband who disappeared on a business trip. The woman, Nualjan, has been given the address of a house in a remote area that offers lodging. In the main house lives the owner, the mysterious Madame Ranjuan, who is pining away for her own husband. The household is run by Madame Somjit, a strict older woman given to walking around in the daytime with an old fashioned oil lamp. One of Nualjan's housemates is a young woman, Choy, who provides comic relief with her sassiness.

At least one major plot twist can be anticipated after the first half hour if not sooner. While The Unseeable is relatively subtle and restrained by Thai standards at least during the first hour, comparisons to such films as The Haunting or The Innocent is very misleading. Wisit has stated that the look of the film was inspired by the artwork of Thai artist Hem Vegakorn. If any western frames of reference are more apt, I would consider The Unseeable closer in spirit, as it were, to Carnival of Souls with a nod towards Mario Bava's Kill, Baby, Kill. Too often, the soundtrack blares to instruct the audience to be startled. As the film was made primarily for a Thai audience, the concessions genre conventions emerge strongly during the last half hour. And yet what Wisit achieves a more genuine sense of poignancy that a less capable director could only wish for. Unlike too many Thai filmmakers who think nothing of playing down to their perceived audience, Wisit aims a bit higher. Wisit's artistic aspirations may have hurt The Unseeable at the box office, but it made for a much better film.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:28 AM | Comments (2)

March 25, 2008

Art of the Devil

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Art of the Devil/Khon Len Khong
Tanit Jitnukul - 2004

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Art of the Devil II/Long Khong
The Ronin Team - 2005
both films Media Blasters Region 1 DVD

It's been almost a year since I left Thailand. Obviously, Thailand has not left me. The two Art of the Devil films intrigued me when I saw posters at the VCD rental stores. As is common now for Thai films in Thailand, even the DVDs do not have English subtitles, so I had to wait until coming back to the U.S. to see the films. I probably would have been better off sticking to admiring the posters, but after reading that a third entry was in production, I figured it was high time to see the first two films in this series in title only. The devil is a woman in both of these films, practicing witchcraft to seek revenge. The films are for those either with less discriminating tastes in horror films, or an abiding love for Thai films made for Thai audiences.

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If the first Art of the Devil has a slight edge, it is because Tanrit Jitnukul's film has the more interesting story, and the character played by Supakson Chaimongkol has greater motivation for her mis-deeds. That the scorned woman of a philandering husband takes revenge is not new, but this is Thailand, where the pregnant and abandoned girlfriend finds out that her lover not only has a legal family, but a second family by a long-time mistress. To some degree, the film speaks to the occasionally precarious state that Thai women find themselves in. More often the film is about people coming to untimely and gory ends through Supakson's witchcraft. There is a creepy blonde girl that appears near the end for no stated reason other than that she's a less than friendly spirit with a penchant for jumping on peoples' beds. I haven't seen any of Tanit's other films, but his Bang Rajan is considered his career best. Tanit does raise the artistic stakes slightly by having the film first alternate between the black and white present and the color past. Not exactly Bonjour Tristesse, but more like "Hello Scariness".

Art of the Devil II is not a sequel but the title given to a film about another woman seeking revenge through witchcraft. Napakpapha Nakprasitte portrays the former teacher getting even with her son and his five friends. Napakpapha was nominated a couple of years ago by the Thai National Film Association as Best Supporting Actress, and almost in keeping with her character, had her nomination withdrawn as she thought she should have be up for Best Actress. There are a few interesting twists to the story about a Cambodian curse and inescapable karma. The Ronin Team is actually seven people, with the most notable member being Kongkiat Khomsiri, screenplay writer for Bang Rajan and The Unseeable. It should be sufficient to say that Art of the Devil II has earned its reputation for gross out horror of the kind that often makes Takashi Miike look tasteful.

For those interested, here is the link to the English titled preview to Art of the Devil III (courtesy of Twitch). From what I can tell, the third film includes elements of the first two films. In other words, lots of devil, but not much art.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:27 PM | Comments (1)

March 23, 2008

Coffee Break

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Cris Lankenau and Erin Fisher in Quiet City (Aaron Katz - 2007)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:07 AM

March 20, 2008

Paper Dolls

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Bubot Niyar
Tomer Heymann - 2006
Strand Releasing Region 1 DVD

Paper Dolls is the unexpected true story about two groups of marginalized people who find value in each other. The Dolls are a group of performers, Filipino men, gay or transgendered, who perform together in drag. Several of them work as caregivers for elderly Jewish residents of Tel Aviv, some of whom are extremely orthodox. Tomer Heymann, seen above with Doll Sally, originally intended simply to create a documentary about strangers in a strange land. What Paper Dolls turns out to be is an exploration about the fluidity of those parts that create a sense of identity: country, community, family and sexuality.

That there is even a Filipino community in Israel is the result of the need for worker, especially those jobs that may have been previously filled by Palestinians who have been denied the ability to cross the border. Heymann's documentary takes a dramatic turn when some of the Dolls find themselves in a legal limbo following a crackdown on illegal workers. While Heymann focuses on five of the Dolls, it is the overall dramatic arc of the film, as well as the unexpected collision of two cultures that would seemingly never intersect that continues to be of interest.

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At one point, Heymann, who is gay, helps arrange for the Paper Dolls to perform at a very large Tel Aviv night club, TLV. The more traditional type of female impersonators look askance at the Dolls. The Dolls, in turn, feel discomfort at seeing two muscle bound men groping each other as a stage act. When the show is over, the Dolls discuss how they feel more at home performing for their smaller Filipino audience. Even though the Dolls have learned Hebrew, and in some ways have greater personal expression of their sexuality than in the Philippines, they also continue to speak Tagalog to each other, and as a reflection of the influence of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, recite "The Lord's Prayer" prior to their shows.

Heymann also concentrates of the friendship between transgendered Sally, and Haim, an 89 year old man without a larynx. The relationship between the two vacillates between patient and nurse, teacher and student, and even father and daughter. The only weakness to the film is that Heymann never is quite where he should have been in filming the performances. Otherwise, Paper Dolls is a reminder that sometimes when real life is filmed, what is revealed is more original than anything Hollywood can imagine.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:20 AM

March 18, 2008

13 Beloved

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13 Game Sayawng/13: Game of Death
Chukiat Sakveerakul - 2006
Dimension Extreme Region 1 DVD

At the time I arrived in Thailand, 13 Beloved had already completed its theatrical run. Among Thai critics, this was considered one of the best films of the year. If one overlooks the misleading cover art that the Weinsteins apparently hope to woo the Saw crowd, the film, while not living up to some of the hype, is worth seeing. And while 13 Beloved isn't a horror film, it does have a few truly grisly moments.

The premise is that Chit, a failed salesman of musical instruments, has been fired from his job. A mysterious phone call promises funds to be added to his bank account if he succeeds in a variety of challenges. To begin, he just has to swat a fly. This challenge escalates to more outrageous and dangerous dares. It is also revealed that Chit's activities are part of a web broadcast operated by an underground network that seems to have eyes everywhere.

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Beyond the sensationalism is a critique of contemporary Thai culture, humorously relayed in ever darkening shades of black. Chit obsession with meeting all thirteen challenges address the question of financial neediness, when having a lot is still never enough. Quite pointedly is the jab at the Thai attitude towards family when Chit tries desperately to contact the oblivious family of a deceased man. Flashback show how many of the challenges reflect on incidences in Chit's past. The film takes place during one day, and the progression into darkness serves as a metaphor for Chit's own journey into childhood traumas.

Chit's descent into a hell more of less of his own making has some unexpected twists and turns. One of the funnier moments comes when Chit's nemesis at work gets accused of some of Chit's mayhem, simply because he fits the general description of a Thai office worker. It's the kind of overworked cliche that gets new life in the way an ever-increasing crowd gets hysterical as the accused becomes more beleaguered. The Weinsteins acquired 13 Beloved for remake rights, and I would have to imagine that such a film would lose a lot in the process. While the film can be appreciated to a good extent by those who may know nothing about Thailand, there are also parts of the film which have an added resonance to those with some familiarity with the country and its people. Considering also what I have been reading about concerning the alteration or censorship of films in Thailand in these past few months, 13 Beloved may also represent the brief period of the past few years, when creative expression flowered in Thai cinema.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:52 AM | Comments (1)

March 16, 2008

Coffee Break

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Diana Sands and Roscoe Ormon in Willie Dynamite (Gilbert Moses - 1974)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:37 AM | Comments (1)

March 15, 2008

Never Let Go

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John Guillerman - 1960
MGM Region 1 DVD

There are two reasons to see Never Let Go. The first is to see Peter Sellers. The second is to hear John Barry's score. The film isn't too bad either.

Made after his BAFTA winning performance in I'm All Right, Jack and the hit The Mouse that Roared, I have to assume Sellers was chomping at the bit to show off his dramatic side. This is not simply Sellers in a serious role, or even Sellers as a bad guy, but Sellers as a nasty, take-no-prisoners, menacing heavy. Even though the plot involves a bunch of young car thieves led by Adam Faith, it is Sellers and star Richard Todd who get ready to rumble. Sellers is armed with a crow bar while Todd swings a heavy chain. In comparison, the Jets and Sharks of West Side Story seem so gentlemanly.

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The film is about Todd as the worst cosmetic salesman in England. The car he just bought the week before gets stolen by a gang who work for Sellers. Sellers runs his own car repair shop that he loves to stress is a legitimate business, while the hot cars get recycled through a nearby chop shop. Much to the chagrin of the police, his wife, and almost everyone else, Todd becomes obsessed with recovery of his car, which unsurprisingly was not insured. Snooping around, he gets on the trail of Faith and his gang, which eventually leads to Sellers.

Sellers lives in a well appointed pad above the garage, complete with mistress Carol White who clearly would rather be with Faith. Sellers character of Lionel Meadows may have a small fiefdom, but everyone who knows him is also in fear of him. Sellers performance is of a person so fearlessly nasty, shoving women standing in his way, breaking Faith's hand, that for a moment I thought that had his career gone a little bit differently, Sellers would have become one of the all time great James Bond villains.

Which takes us to John Barry. Never Let Go features Barry's first film score. Not exactly rock but percussion based and rockish. Not quite as good as his score for his next film, Beat Girl which was good enough to be sampled by Fatboy Slim, but more fun to listen to than almost everything he did once Hollywood came calling. Coincidentally, Adam Faith and Carol White both appeared in Beat Girl as well, a film still in need of a decent, and complete DVD edition.

Never Let Go is also one of John Guillermin's better films, made in the period between I was Monty's Double through The Blue Max, with a couple of detours to make Tarzan adventures. Bosley Crother's detested this film which may be for some reason enough to see it. Released in New York in 1963, Crowther's sums up: "How come he (Sellers) was caught in this nonsense? That itch to play Hamlet, I suppose; a desire to change his pace, which Mr. Sellers has often proclaimed he likes to do.
Anyhow, this little terror was made more than three years ago. Since then, no doubt, Mr. Sellers has resolved to avoid yielding to his whim."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:46 AM

March 11, 2008

Bravo My Life

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Saranghae Malsoonssi
Park Heung-Sik - 2005
J-Bics Region 3 DVD

There are only a handful of actors I'll see in virtually anything, and Moon So-Ri is one of them. Bravo My Life is not in the same league as Oasis, A Good Lawyer's Wife or even Bewitching Attraction. Moon has virtually a supporting role as the mother of the teenage boy, the central character of the film. Bravo My Life is a flawed film, but Moon's performance is just about perfect.

The film begins on October 27, 1979, when news was published about the assassination of Korean President Park Chung-Hee. I have to assume that the date was chosen to provide something of a counterpoint, the turmoil of a nation against the turmoil of adolescence. The main character, Gwang-Ho, is a short, pimple faced youth attempting to grope with a sense of being a man, but still very much a child. His father is absent, working in Saudi Arabia, while his mother attempts to eke out a living for her son and young daughter by working as an itinerant make-up sales person.

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Park Heung-Sik fills the film with slightly colorful characters such as the class "bad boy", who may or may not have cut off his own finger to demonstrate his toughness, or the neighbor boy with Down's syndrome who appears to exist solely to embarrass Gwang-Ho. it is only Gwang-Ho's mother who emerges as more than a cipher, large part because Moon's ability to immerse herself into the character. Keeping her sense of humor while coping with an unnamed illness, the mother alternates between total plainness and being overly made-up. There is no moment of amazement such as in Oasis when one realizes that the woman seen through much of the film does not have cerebral palsy. In Bravo My Life, Moon's finest moment is of her simply sitting in a chair, laughing with affection about her son, and the neighbor boy who constantly sings one song off key.

The problem with Bravo My Life is that while there are several nice moments, there is not enough to cohere into a satisfying film. Among the nice touches is when Gwang-Ho sees the young assistant nurse, the object of his erotic dreams, dancing behind the paper screen to a tune by Ritchie Valens. Later the two are seen reading comic books together, seen first with their feet in the air as they read on the floor. The weakness of the narrative is that Park creates some potentially interesting characters and plot developments that end up being forgotten by the end of the film. The use of a character with Down's syndrome seems especially gimmicky at best, done for cheap laughs and cheaper pathos. I'm not the only writer to think highly of Moon So-Ri. Bravo My Life may be one of her lesser credits, but Moon almost single handedly keeps the film from being negligible.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:39 PM

March 09, 2008

Coffee Break

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Giancarlo Giannini and Stefania Sandrelli in Black Belly of the Tarantula (Paola Cavara - 1971)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:44 AM | Comments (1)

March 08, 2008

Oh Kei! Two films by Kei Fujiwara

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Kei Fujiwara - 1996
Synapse Region 1 DVD

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Kei Fujiwara - 2005
Media Blasters Region 1 DVD

I don't know if there is anything of substance about Kei Fujiwara in Japanese. What there is in English discusses the two DVDs here. Fujiwara is essentially sold as the maker of horror films. And the films have more than enough guts and blood to satiate the more demanding gore-hounds. Yet to categorize Fujiwara as a horror filmmaker seems to have missed the point. While Fujiwara is best known for her work as an actress for Shinya Tsukamoto, a key to understanding her two films may be a brief mention I found stating that she studied under stage directorKara Juro.

One has to go to the supplement for Organ to hear Fujiwara speak for herself. "I wanted to describe the agony of a wounded soul of someone decaying from the inside." Discussing her never completed Organ 2 there is some indication that Fujiwara's motivation is to break through limits, to be confrontational. Fujiwara has been linked by some writers with Tsukamoto, Miike and Cronenberg. The connection with Tsukamoto has been established. Miike is known for his transgressive films, while Cronenberg is cited for his early films like Shivers and Rabid. Less obvious might be a connection with Guy Maddin, both in the melodramatic performances and having narratives about physically maimed characters. The gulf between human existence and spiritual ideals made me also think of Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie.

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Fujiwara shows little interest in narrative structure. Organ begins somewhat conventionally with two detectives tracking the gang responsible for black market organs. One of the detectives is kidnapped, and is latter seen, limbs removed, connected to various tubes. The other detective makes it his mission to stop the gang, lead by the one-eyed woman, Yoko. Id is something of a continuation with references to the actor, reprising his role as the detective, finding himself in a small community of pig farmers. The introductory premise in Id is that all people are forgiven their sins by Amida Buddha.

Id makes more use of Fujiwara's theatrical background in casting an adult male as a nine year old boy, and two men in female roles, simultaneously having her characters commenting on the incongruity of the casting. Unlike a film like An Actor's Revenge which is about an actor who is a female impersonator, or Black Rose Mansion which has a female impersonator in a role clearly defined as female, Fujiwara chooses to play with gender. To describe the two characters as transvestites or impersonators would be inaccurate. Both are dressed in female clothing. The one with facial hair attempts to rape the one in a schoolgirl uniform. The rapist then complains that the intended victim has male parts. Adding to this is Fujiwara's play with the "male gaze". In Organ, a male character knocks down a schoolgirl, played by a female, and comments that her panties are showing. While we hear the comment, the audience does not see the girl exposing herself. Conversely, in Id, Fujiwara creates the almost iconic Japanese fetish image of the schoolgirl showing her panties, with a male assuming the position. Fujiwara also has her male characters exposing themselves with such things as a bed spring, or a flower, in place of the penis. With the use of certain archetypes of Japanese popular culture, Fujiwara seems to be pushing for an extreme that may have its roots in the writings of Antonin Artaud.

While the release date of Id was in 2005, when the film was actually made is questionable. Some of the footage from Organ and Organ 2 has been integrated into the film. Also, much of the main set was used in the earlier films. Much of the cast remains the same in both films. Not only did she write and direct her films, but Fujiwara also acted as cinematographer, editor, production and costume designer. In this regard, Fujiwara has more in common with the "underground" filmmakers like the Kuchars, who made narrative films with bare-bones budgets, on their own terms. It may be that Kei Fujiwara may best be considered in conjunction with other female artists who may be considered transgressive.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:48 AM

March 06, 2008

My Blueberry Nights


Wong Kar-Wai - 2007
CM Entertainment Region 3 DVD

If I may be allowed a pun, seeing Wong Kar-Wai's first English language film was a bit disorienting. The casting and language of Wong's previous films give them an exotic layer that is missing from My Blueberry Nights. It did not take too long to recognize the new work as being a continuation of the themes explored previously, love and memory, but in new settings. Even with respected mystery writer Lawrence Block sharing the screenplay credit, My Blueberry Nights, is still very much the work of the man who made In the Mood for Love and 2046.

Norah Jones plays a woman, Elizabeth, who seeking out the lover who dumped her, keeps showing up at the small restaurant of his last rendezvous. The restaurant is run by Jeremy (Jude Law), who may not remember names of his customers, but what they have eaten. The restaurant is called "Klyuch", Russian for keys. Jeremy, the keeper of keys left by his customers, develops a friendship with Elizabeth over late night blueberry pie and coffee. The pie serves as a metaphor for choices one makes. Pie, served whole or in slices also acts as a metaphor for divided identities.

Elizabeth works her way across the U.S., from New York City to Memphis, and eventually across Nevada, as a waitress. At various points, she is known as Lizzie, Betty and Beth. The theme of the divided self is made most clear in the Memphis sequence. Lizzie works during the day at a restaurant, and at night as a barmaid. Her regular customer at both places is Arnie, the upstanding law officer during the day, and the forgetful drunk at night. The bar where Elizabeth works, and where Arnie repeatedly "celebrates" his last night of drinking is also where Arnie and his ex-wife, Sue Lynne, confront each other. As in his other films, Wong examines relationships that remain stubbornly difficult for both people, and the impossibility of being free of emotional bonds, set against a soundtrack featuring Otis Redding singing "Try a Little Tenderness".

Just as My Blueberry Nights remains Wong's film in theme and subject, as well as choice of characters, so it remains a Wong film visually. Even though Wong's films are said to be improvised, random pausing of the DVD seems to indicate a precision to the visuals. Darius Khondji has become Wong's cinematographer, bathing shots in blue or red lights, opening the film with extreme close-ups of what is eventually understood to be pie a la mode. Several of the elements of My Blueberry Nights seem to be reworked from Chunking Express. One major difference is that at one point Wong breaks from the claustrophobic settings of his previous films to enjoy the wide open spaces of Nevada. The shots of the empty Nevada sky contrast with Wong's Hong Kong settings of tenements and skyscrapers. Just as Elizabeth travels around the U.S., only to return to New York City, Wong Kar-Wai has travelled to new environments, as in here and in Happy Together. The landscapes and languages may be different, but as a meditation on love, memory and food, My Blueberry Nights has everything one has learned to expect from Wong Kar-Wai's cinematic kitchen. The cherry on top is one of the best screen kisses on film.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:00 AM | Comments (4)

March 04, 2008

The Young Ones

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Sidney J. Furie - 1961
Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

After seeing The Young Ones for the first time, I had thought I had seen the missing link between The Band Wagon and A Hard Day's Night. Then I watched the film with Sidney Furie's commentary where he mentions Babes in Arms and Give a Girl a Break as inspirations, and makes the claim that he was first offered the chance to direct The Beatles' film debut. What is true about The Young Ones is that while it hardly rocks, it does have more inspired moments than I would have expected from Furie, especially with the dance numbers choreographed by Herbert Ross. Prior to his own career as a director, Ross seems to have been something of a hepcat himself, with the kind of exuberance in the choreography missing from the films Ross would make himself. Also, unlike most films from Furie, this one from his young career is actually fun to watch.

The story is that Cliff Richard and his band play at a London youth club. The property has been bought by Richard's magnate father, Robert Morley. Trying to keep his identity secret from the rest of the gang, Richard attempts to keep the club open. Money is needed to extend the lease. What to do? Put on a show! It's a bit more complicated with Morley buying out the theaters where Richard and the gang are to perform, and although the end is predictable, it is less than tidy with a couple of plot points conveniently forgotten.

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At the time The Young Ones was made, what passed for rock music was often the watered down variety from the likes of James Darren and Fabian. A couple of songs hint at Richard's claim of being the British Elvis Presley. At least on screen Richards seems more of a rock singer than Tommy Steele in The Dream Maker, but both were from a time when British rock stars were concerned with reassuring the parents that the kids were alright. The Young Ones is actually better when it doesn't try to be about rock music, and plays like a lower budget MGM musical from the Fifties, only shot in England in the early Sixties.

What makes The Young Ones watchable more than thirty-five years later is not the bland presence of Cliff Richard or the forgettable songs. What Furie did right was cast the film full of talented character actors, chiefly Robert Morley. Has Robert Morley ever given a bad performance, or not been fun to watch no matter what film his was in? Even the love interest in the film, Carole Gray, hints at talent that seems to have been underutilized since her debut here. Based on her brief filmography, Gray may have been passed over due to her unusual looks, marked by very full lips that suggests she was Joan Crawford and Mick Jagger's secret love child. Had they been born earlier, Richard O'Sullivan and Melvyn Hayes might have been part of the "Carry On" team.

Furie also points out in his commentary how he collaborated with Ross in filming the dances. A duet of Richard and Gray to a song titled "Nothing is Impossible" has the two dancing against a wall, and making a flying leap over a fence. The strings are visible. It isn't Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, but it charms nonetheless. The opening number with cast members singing about Friday night recalls Stanley Donen's forays into the urban based musicals such as On the Town. An extended musical number will remind most of half a dozen such pieces in any number of MGM musicals with a show biz setting. The dance numbers are alone worth seeing The Young Ones. While Rob Marshall and Christopher Columbus strain to prove how cinematic they can render their musical numbers, Furie and Ross get it right by placing the widescreen camera just far enough away to allow the performance to speak for itself.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:48 AM | Comments (5)

March 02, 2008

Coffee Break

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Terrence Howard and Jodie Foster in The Brave One (Neil Jordan - 2007)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:39 AM

March 01, 2008

Bigger than Life


Nicholas Ray - 1956
B.F.I. Region 2 DVD

The only previous time I saw Bigger than Life was in the early Seventies. This was on a late night black and white television broadcast, pan and scan format. Wide screen television isn't the same as a palatial movie theater with a CinemaScope screen, but it is a bit closer to the way the film was meant to be seen.

Seeing Bigger than Life on the wide screen means having a clearer sense of the physical space between James Mason and Barbara Rush. Mason would also be framed in such a way that he would constantly be bigger, or above, Rush and screen son Christopher Olson. Seeing the film in color meant seeing Barbara Rush's orange dress contrasting against the gray, blue and black clothing worn by the other characters. As is also mentioned by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Jim Jarmusch in the DVD supplement where they converse about Ray and Bigger than Life, Christopher Olson is noticeably wearing a red jacket, just like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause.

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Olson could well be dubbed the littlest rebel. It was in seeing the DVD a second time that I noticed that many of the children exiting the school during the opening credit sequence had red clothing, as if Ray was anticipating the cultural impact that would be made almost ten years later by that generation. In looking back at Ray's films it might be argued that the function of sons is to rebel against their fathers. This may not always be a biological father but a father figure. This can be seen with Farley Granger acting against his criminal "family" in They Live by Night, as well as Jeffrey Hunter's questioning and uncertain Jesus in King of Kings. The most famous scene in Bigger than Life is of Mason's attempt to re-enact the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Old Testament. Bigger than Life can also be viewed as a companion piece to Rebel without a Cause in how Ray looks at middle class families with both hope and despair. When James Dean tells Jim Backus to "pop one" on mother Ann Doran, it's the expression of wanting to believe in patriarchal, traditional roles. Similarly, in Bigger than Life is the dichotomy of the desire for the traditional male role, as idealized by Mason, the impossibility of living up to that ideal, and the fragility of alternate solutions.

Being at cross purposes is both at the core of Ray's life as well as his films. Ray's filmography suggests the conflict between the desire for artistic expression and the approval of commercial success. There is also the shift between the collaboration with political and artistic rebels in Ray's pre-Hollywood career, followed by his early development in Hollywood under the patronage and protection of Howard Hughes, a relationship that kept Ray from being blacklisted or appearing before the House of Un-American Activities. Ray was probably keenly self-aware of the contradictions in his life and work. What a film like Bigger than Life represents is Ray's own vacillation between the comfort of the established, traditional ways of living, and the exhilaration and anxiety of finding one's own direction.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:33 AM | Comments (3)