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May 30, 2008

What's wrong with this picture?


Something tells me that this is not what Franklin W. Dixon had in mind.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:48 AM

May 29, 2008

Noriko's Dinner Table

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Noriko no Shokutaku
Sion Sono - 2005
Tidepoint Pictures Region 1 DVD

The genesis for Noriko's Dinner Table was developed from Sion Sono's best known film, Suicide Club. Originally a novel by Sono, the film is literary in structure, beginning with its division into chapters. I have not read the novel, but the film seems like a blend of Ryu Murakami in the examination of the contemporary Japanese family, with Marguerite Duras's shifting of viewpoints and memories that can not always be trusted. The origin of one of the characters could well be a deliberate lift from Murakami's novel, Coin-Locker Babies. In the DVD interview, Sono discusses the influence of John Cassavetes which can be understood in how Sono's film is about dysfunctional families.

Noriko is an unhappy 17 year old high school student, looking for life beyond the small town of Toyokawa, that her father considers paradise. The sense of belonging missing at school or with her family is found online with a small group of girls, moderated by someone with the handle Ueno 54. Noriko runs away from home to seek out Ueno 54 in Tokyo. Under the guidance of Kumiko, the young woman known as Ueno 54, Noriko sheds her former identity, becoming part of a group who rent themselves out to act as family members for the lonely and alienated.

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A constant theme throughout the film is the idea of connection. Characters ask each other if they are connected to themselves. Even if the premise of the film is preposterous, the idea is that of discovering one's true self among the several false identities. The idea of connection is literally manifested by the screen of the Suicide Club, the members indicated by colored dots, a play on the concept of connecting the dots. In pretending to be someone's daughter or grand-daughter, Noriko finds herself feeling more emotionally attached to the strangers she is with for an hour.

There are several scenes of characters having dinner together, the acted dinners in contrast with those of Noriko and her family. The acted family gatherings have the appearance of warmth as well as more conversation than those that Noriko experienced at home. There is also a scene with Kumiko discussing how stray cats create there own families. What Sono is examining is the not unusual situation of people feeling closer to chosen families. Additionally, there is the question of how one defines one's self in relation to other people, and who chooses the roles we play (literally and symbolically) with each other.

More obvious symbolism may be found in the use of the tangerine. The fruit that needs its outer skin to be peeled off is a motif repeated with the characters shedding identities and costumes. This is repeated with one of Noriko's school friends, nicknamed Tangerine, who wears a costume while advertising for a sex club. That some of the symbolism may be a bit heavy handed is still preferable to those filmmakers for whom there is nothing beyond the surface. That Sono is interested in visual representations of his thoughts makes sense in viewing his filmmaking as an extension of his background as a poet. While the narrative of Noriko's Dinner Table is tangentially related to Suicide Film, one does not need to have seen the earlier film. For those looking forward to a heaping helping of J-Horror, Noriko's Dinner Table will defy those expectations. What Sono is more interested in, at least with this film, is the horror of an inauthentic life.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:06 AM | Comments (1)

May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack: 1934 - 2008


Being at odds with much mainstream filmmaking, it is probably no surprise that my favorite film by Sydney Pollack was also one of his least successful films commercially. Pollack lucked out on getting the assignment due the a chain of events that began when the film was set to star Lee Marvin, with Robert Aldrich to direct. Marvin dropped out, and Robert Mitchum was signed to star. Mitchum, who famously did not get along with virtually every director he ever worked with, still had a grudge against Aldrich dating back to at least the time they made The Angry Hills almost fifteen years previously. Aldrich dropped out and Pollack came aboard. At the time The Yakuza was filmed, Pollack's reputation was based primarily on two box office hits with Robert Redford, Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were. Redford was almost considered to star in The Yakuza but fortunately everyone realized he was too young to play a World War II veteran. Aside from introducing most Americans to the yakuza genre, the film also introduced one of the top Japanese stars of the day, Ken Takakura.

It is probably not coincidental that the authorship of The Yakuza is only less convoluted than that of what may be Pollack's best film, Tootsie. What I remember best about The Yakuza is Mitchum's quiet sense of authority, the shot of the chopped of arm firing a pistol, and the final image of Mitchum and Takakura with bandaged hands - symbols the yakuza form of apology by cutting off the pinkie finger. The reputation of Pollack's film has grown to the point where a remake has been listed among future Warner Brothers productions. I have seen all of Pollack's films from They Shoot Horses, Don't They, and some of his earlier work. As much as I have enjoyed some of the films with Robert Redford as well as Tootsie, it is Pollack's journey to Japan that I continue to revisit.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:30 AM | Comments (2)

May 26, 2008

The Louis Hayward Memorial Day Double Feature

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Fortunes of Captain Blood
Gordon Douglas - 1950
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

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Captain Pirate
Ralph Murphy - 1952
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

Several months ago, I was reading a biography about Ida Lupino. That in itself was interesting in learning about her theatrical heritage as well as her life and career. One section affected me unexpected. Lupino was married to Louis Hayward, an actor I had seen in a few films, but generally shrugged off as a low budget Errol Flynn, based on his starring in several movies featuring swordfights. What I didn't know about Hayward is that, a British citizen, he enlisted in the Marines the day after Pearl Harbor. As a Marine in the photographic unit he was on the ground directing the filming of the war including the battle at Tarawa, one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater. A portion of the footage from Tarawa considered palatable for public viewing was edited for theatrical release. That 18 minute film, With the Marines at Tarawa won the 1945 Oscar for Best Documentary short subject. Two marines in the photographic unit died filming the battle, while Captain Hayward, who was on the beach as well, was awarded the Bronze Star. For me, it seems more appropriate to remember Louis Hayward on Memorial Day, than to watch war films starring actors who chose to stay at home.

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As for the movies, they represent the waning years of a era when pirate movies were considered a viable genre. What would have been a major film from Warner Brothers in the Thirties, with Flynn, or from Fox in the Forties with Tyrone Power, was now a B picture from Columbia. Of the two films, Fortunes of Captain Blood is the better. There is nothing unexpected about the story of the physician turned pirate who proves his honor and honesty, winning the love of a lady of high station. What there is to enjoy about Fortunes of Captain Blood is the craftsmanship of Gordon Douglas. What I liked about the first film is that Douglas demonstrates how to film a scene in a single deftly composed shot. Early in the film, Blood goes to the house of a man who may hold important information. Inside, he discovers the man hanging from the ceiling. Blood hears some men entering from another part of the building. Douglas films the shot so that we see Blood on the right, in close up, next to the open door to the room which is on the left side of the screen. Within that same shot we see the two men enter the room to take down their dead victim and search for a missing item. It's only a small part of the film, but it is the kind of scene that a filmmaker with less visual imagination would do with multiple shots.

Gordon's visual panache is missed in Captain Pirate. The film, shot in Technicolor that seems fairly well reproduced on DVD, is prettier to look at, but the energy of the first film is missing. An fake Captain Blood is on the loose, sullying the reputation of the real Captain Blood. The second film has some of the actors from the first film, as well as scenes that attempt to duplicate some of those from from that film, including the discovery by Blood of an incriminating item found clasped by a dead person. Footage from the first film is also included, placed in a different context while Patricia Medina narrates the background story about about the pirate hero for the new set of villains, and presumably those audience members who never saw Fortunes of Captain Blood.

What is certain is that the on screen adventures of Louis Hayward pale compared to his own life. A more complete documentation of Hayward's life may be in order, as well as the opportunity to re-see With the Marines at Tarawa. If Louis Hayward made being a movie hero look easy, it may have been because he experienced the struggle of true heroism when the camera was focused on others.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:17 AM | Comments (57)

May 25, 2008

Coffee Break


Lori Nelson and Dean Martin in Pardners (Norman Taurog - 1956)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:00 AM

May 24, 2008

Ghost of Mae Nak

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Mark Duffield - 2005
Tartan Asia Extreme Region 1 DVD

I was saddened by the news first relayed by Wise Kwai that Tartan USA had closed down. Even though not all of the titles were worth seeking out, I especially liked the Tartan Asia Extreme label because of its dedication to bringing some good and even great Asian films to the U.S. Not only were there films from the usual countries such as Japan and Korea, but also Thailand and even Singapore. The Denver Public Library has fifteen films, and I have two more titles to go before I have seen their entire collection. The are questions regarding what is going to happen to the 101 films listed with Tartan USA. I might be wrong, but considering that the label was distributed by Genius Entertainment, which is owned in large part by the Weinstein brothers, and that the Weinstein's launched their own Asia Extreme label, it is possible that an agreement was in the works well before the official announcement.

Mark Duffield's film makes for complimentary viewing to Nonzee Nimibutr's Nang Nak. The oft film story is a Thai legend that takes place in a past time, when newlyweds Mak and Nak are separated after Mak is drafted to fight in a war. A year or so later, Mak and Nak are reunited. The townspeople try to explain to Mak that Nak and their baby are dead. Furious at the thought of being anything coming between her and her beloved, the spirit of Nak haunts and kills some of the neighbors. Not long after this, Mak realizes that he has been living with a ghost, and that he is a ghost himself. The legend of Nak is so popular that there was even an animated version released recently in Thailand. While Nonzee's version, written by Wisit Sasanatieng, is considered to be the best filmed version of this story, Duffield uses the same story as the background in a contemporary setting.

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To minimize confusion, the ghost is named Mae Nak. A young man, Mak, and his fiancee, Nak, declare their eternal love for each other. There plans for marriage go unimpeded even though Mak is frequently disturbed by nightmare images of a female ghost with a hole in her head. As is usually the case in these kinds of films, the ghost has some unfinished business requiring some human assistance. What makes The Ghost of Mae Nak better than the usual Thai film is that Duffield treats the material seriously. There are no characters inserted for comic relief, nor does this follow the frequent Thai pattern of punctuating the scares with laughs. There is a certain reverence towards the original legend that makes The Ghost of Mae Nak unexpectedly moving. There is also a twist ending that, while not totally unexpected, still manages to be quite unsettling.

Parts of The Ghost of Mae Nak are devoted to scenic shots of Bangkok. Mak and Nak unknowingly buy the home where the original Mak and Nak lived, the oldest remaining house in Bangkok. While this particular plot point is more unbelievable that the existence of lovelorn ghosts, what concerns Duffield is the persistence of folk beliefs in contemporary Thailand. Even with shiny skyscrapers, the sky train, and all available modern technology, the characters seek solutions with mediums and fortune tellers. For those familiar with Thailand, this makes sense where the miniature "spirit house" is given space with the buildings used by the living.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:24 AM | Comments (2)

May 22, 2008

Day of Wrath

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Adrian Rudomin - 2006
Screen Media Films Region 1 DVD

A remake of the Carl Dreyer classic starring Christopher Lambert? Fear not, you purists, although the idea that may strike some as heresy might hit others as hilarity. What both films share, besides the title, is an examination of how faith is used and misused. In the Dreyer film, alleged witches were pursued and punished. Rudomin's film is about the pursuit of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. Too top it off, this newer Day of Wrath is actually a pretty good film. What this version may lack in profundity it makes up for simply as handsome entertainment.

On the very basic narrative level, this is a mystery film featuring a hard-drinking cop, in Sixteenth Century dress. Lambert plays the sheriff of the town where a series of unexplained murders have taken place. Like almost all good mysteries, this one involves a conspiracy that involves almost every character, knowingly and unknowingly, from the sheriff who discovers he is a pawn in someone's game, to the highest reaches of Spanish society. Like many good mystery stories, this is also a parable about the corruption of power.

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While watching the film at about the time of what would have been my mother's 80th birthday, I wondered what she would have made of Day of Wrath. Some of the gore and violence would have appalled her. She might have raised her eyes a bit at some of the gratuitous nudity. But the essence of the story would have been of considerable interest as she had spent some time studying the history of Spanish Jews, particularly the descendants in New Mexico who had only recently become aware of their heritage of Conversos. This is the kind of historical information that deserves more serious treatment than is given here.

History aside, there is another reason to put this Day of Wrath in the rental queue. We may not have Orson Welles or Charles Laughton, but the outsized Brian Blessed continually amuses as the governor who has appointed Lambert to his post. A dinner scene with all manner of fancy dishes easily recalls this image of Laughton as King Henry VIII. Lambert, in contrast, remains dour through most of the film, making the memory of his manic performance in Subway more distant.

Is this version of Day of Wrath more deserving of respect than its straight to DVD fate might suggest? Maybe just a little bit. One has to at least admire how good the film looks, shot in Hungary with an international cast, and a budget at least one tenth of the summer blockbusters. Visually, Rudomin and his cinematographer Tamas Lajos have lit some of the interiors to resemble paintings of the era. Even if this Day of Wrath may remind no one of that master of film, Carl Dreyer, I have to give some credit to a film that, even though anachronistic, will remind me of that master of painting, Rembrandt.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:20 AM

May 20, 2008

Letter from an Unknown Woman

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Yi ge mo sheng nu ren de lai xin
Xu Jinglei - 2004
Dragons Group All Regions DVD

Adapted from the same novel by Stefan Zweig, Letter from an Unknown Woman can easily be enjoyed by those who have not seen the more famous film by Max Ophuls, or have, like myself, not seen that film in many years. If, for no other reason, this satisfying version should be seen as a showcase for the multi-talented Xu Jinglei. With its setting of China in the Thirties and Forties, and glancing nod to the so called "Women's Pictures" of that era, with a poster of Now, Voyager featured at a movie theater, Xu's film is a reworking of the classic genre. At the same time, Xu makes the man who is the object of unreturned love almost peripheral to the story.

As one familiar with Ophuls' version, it was easy to accept Xu in the role associated with Joan Fontaine. What is jarring is the exchange of dashing Louis Jourdan for doughy Jiang Wen. Xu addresses this casting choice in an interview about the making of her film. This casting may not conform with reel life as much as real life where the heart beats faster for reasons often incomprehensible to others. Additionally, Jiang is filmed in such a way that his image is fleeting or obscured, the visual compliment to his being the frequently unseen and unobtainable lover.

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What also makes this version of Letter from an Unknown Woman almost radical among contemporary films is Xu's comfort with near silence. There is a scene when Xu is getting dressed after a reunion with her forgetful lover. What is barely heard is the sound of Xu putting on her necklace and earrings. Another moment shows Xu gently caressing the books in her lover's library. What Xu understands is that romance is not just the grand gestures or even the physical act of love, but often the solitary thinking of that other person.

Xu also sees the humor of the situation, first by naming her characters, Miss Jiang and Mr. Xu. In their last time together, the frequently self-absorbed male comments to the woman he has loved and forgotten before, about his feelings of deja vu when the couple has breakfast, ascribing his feelings to a past life rather than events that occurred about eight years ago. It is also worth noting that Xu's film ends in 1948, the year of release of Ophuls' version.

Certainly, a more detailed comparison should be made of these two films, not only in the changes in content but also in examination of visual style. Like Ophuls, Xu makes use of tracking shots that move with and around her actors. Xu's version of Letter to an Unknown Woman can easily stand on its own merits making it that rare remake that actually honors the source of inspiration.


Speaking of Ophuls and remakes, I realized that due to a schedule change I made this week, I will be able to see a double feature of The Reckless Moment and The Deep End.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:51 AM

May 18, 2008

Coffee Break

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Monica Cervera in 20 Centimeters (Ramon Salazar - 2005)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:00 AM

May 17, 2008

Too Bad She's Bad

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Peccato che sia una Canaglia
Alessandro Blasetti - 1954
Ivy Video Region 1 DVD

I took a class on Italian film history, and have read a couple of books on the subject. At no time was Too Bad She's Bad mentioned. The importance of this film has less to do with director Allesandro Blasetti. More importantly, this was the first film to bring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni together. Too Bad She's Bad is in itself, a cute film, no more and no less. It is in the iconographic significance of the pairing of Loren and Mastroianni that makes this film more important. It is not simply that Loren and Mastroianni teamed up for several films, many of them international hits, but that the two, more than any other actors, represented the face of Italian cinema.

Too Bad She's Bad is reputed to have been the film that brought enough attention to Loren in its U.S, release at the end of 1955, that by 1957, she was starring in three Hollywood films. Certainly she got the attention of Bosley Crowthers at the New York Times: "One striking point in its favor is the luxurious Sophia Loren, who is something to look at from any angle or any side. As the heroine who acts as a potent decoy for the professional activities of her father and brothers, who are thieves, she displays such a full and shapely figure that she makes it a pleasure to consider being robbed. And don't think the lady doesn't know it. With her, ambulating is an art. Leaning over is an esthetic maneuver. The signorina racks up quite a score."

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That Bosley was quite the wit, because speaking of racks, Loren looks like she is about to burst out of her form fitting costumes at any moment. While it would hardly merit a second glance today, it is easy to imagine the excitement of the suggested nudity while Loren changes into a swim suit behind some bushes. Even Marilyn Monroe could not compete against the outsized hips and breasts that made the barely adult Loren seem less like a screen actress and more like a force of nature.

The story is hardly worth mentioning. Mastroianni is a struggling cabbie, attempting to pay for his cab. Loren is part of the team that unsuccessfully attempts to steal the cab at a beach location, where Loren distracts Mastroianni. Through a series of coincidences, Mastroianni meets up with Loren, and her father, played by Vittorio De Sica, where it is revealed that theft is the family business. De Sica feels sympathetic towards Mastroianni, while Loren finds herself falling in love. The film not only offers something of a tourist's view of Italy, but a tourist's view of Italian film comedy.

A redone version of the film might well be in order. I only know a few words in Italian but I suspect that Herman G. Weinberg's subtitles are more polite than what is actually being said. Additionally, there are sizable bits of dialogue that go by without translation. The source print also appears to have seen better days. That said, if one is going to watch Loren and Mastroianni in one of their screen pairing, this is more watchable than Blood Feud. At the very least, Too Bad She's Bad offers an inauspicious beginning to a series of films that virtually defined popular Italian cinema.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:02 AM | Comments (4)

May 15, 2008

Day of the Outlaw

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Andre De Toth - 1959
MGM Region 1 DVD

To coincide with what would have been Andre De Toth's 96th birthday -

Day of the Outlaw is more noir then western. Much of the action takes place indoors in small spaces. When the action moves outside during the last sequence, the whiteness of a snow storm closes in on the characters. The film was shot in black and white, emphasizing the starkness of the almost desolate Wyoming town, the snow and the surrounding mountains. Some of the characters could be described as being in shades of gray, Robert Ryan, the nominal hero, is motivated at least as much by self-interest as he is in protecting neighbors he doesn't care for, while chief outlaw Burl Ives maintains discipline over his disparate and desperate gang, keeping the potential for mayhem in check.

It may be a cliche at this point to discuss De Toth's films as being about shifting loyalties, but Day of the Outlaw is another clear example of De Toth's themes. The film begins with Ryan riding into town with Nehrmiah Persoff. Ryan's ranch foreman. At the general store, it is established that cattleman Ryan is in conflict with farmer Alan Marshall due to barb wire restricting the grazing space. Additionally, Marshall's wife is Tina Louise, with a past relationship with Ryan that is still unresolved. The hostility between the rancher and the farmers, as well well as any romantic entanglements are forgotten as soon as Ives and his gang barge into the town's saloon. On the run from the cavalry for steeling a shipment of gold, the gang plans to stay for the night before heading out again.

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The day of the outlaw is actually a weekend, beginning with Ives getting treatment for a bullet in his chest from an animal doctor, and his seeming recovery from what appeared to be a fatal injury. Ryan tries to keep the peace between the townspeople, who are temporarily held hostage, while making sure that Ives' gang stays in control.

As a film that takes place mostly indoors, De Toth uses visual motifs of mirrors, windows, and doors. The use of mirrors is, of course, a literal device for the characterr' own self-reflection. Tellingly, the barroom mirror is broken by one of the outlaws who finds it difficult to behave within the confines of Ives' orders to not drink or be with the town's four women. The windows and doors, as well as stair railings, serve as framing devices, again emphasizing the confinement of the characters. The indoors is suppose to be the minimal oasis of civilization, or at least civilized behavior, while the outdoors is wild and beyond the control of anyone.

When the outlaws are allowed to dance with the women, the women are treated like human sized rag dolls, swung and pulled along in what is less of a dance, than a gallop to music. The way the rest of the gang dances is contrasted with Ives' courtly waltz with Tina Louise. The youngest member of the gang, played by David Nelson, is shown as being perhaps too sensitive to really be an outlaw, but attempts to continue the sense of discipline ordered by old man Ives. (And now home viewers can delight in double features of the Nelson brothers in their respective westerns.)

In the relatively brief 92 minute running time, De Toth has filled the cast with vivid character actors like Elisha Cook. Dabbs Greer and Frank DeKova. DeKova plays a half-Native American outlaw named Denver, which at least for me, hilariously links him to Rio Bravo's Ricky Nelson's character of Colorado. A professional link worth noting is that about six later, David Nelson directed Burl Ives in the short lived comedy series O.K. Crackerby. In Day of the Outlaw, Burl Ives may try to steal the gold, but succeeds in stealing this film.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:00 AM | Comments (3)

May 12, 2008

Meme, me, and other odd obsessions


There's a meme going around that I am certain others may have seen. I've been tagged twice by two distinguished residents from the left coast, Kimberly of Cinebeats, and Michael of The Evening Class. Aside from the fact that she tagged me first, I'm not going to say no to a woman who loves all manner of cinematic mayhem, and may love the films of my youth even more than I do.

The meme is this:
) Pick up the nearest book.
2) Open to page 123.
3) Locate the fifth sentence.
4) Post the next three sentences on your blog and in so doing...
5) Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

The book is Voices from the Japanese Cinema by Joan Mellen. Page 123 is her interview with Kon Ichikawa. Here are the three sentences starting with the fifth, from Sensei Ichikawa -

"I wonder if I can get this across to you in Japanese via an interpreter. I'll try. These three people are representatives of the human without possessing human souls."

Taken completely out of context, Ichikawa could well be speaking about some candidates for the President of the United States. I'm sorry. It's a cheap shot I couldn't resist. Actually, the three people are characters from Kagi, also known as The Key or Odd Obsession. Here's is a film from Ichikawa, based on a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki, starring Machiko Kyo and Tatsuya Nakadai, and it's only available on VHS! I can't be the only one who wants to see this on DVD with English subtitles.

I'm not tagging anyone because I think everyone has been tagged, and I'd rather not impose myself on anyone. If you want to join the "fun", consider yourself tagged.

In the meantime, today is the birthday of Burt Bacharach and Steve Winwood. Aside from sharing the same birthday, they both worked with Clive Donner. Bacharach did the songs and music for Donner's most famous film, What's New Pussycat?, while Winwood, with his then new band, Traffic, did some of the songs for one of Donner's lesser known films, Here We go 'Round the Mulberry Bush. You might not be able to see the film, but the soundtrack album is still available, also with songs from the band Winwood was formerly with, The Spencer Davis Group.

My favorite song from What's New Pussycat? is "My Little Red Book". Some consider it heresy but I prefer the version by Love. As for Mulberry Bush and Steve Winwood, here are the opening credits and song.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:46 AM | Comments (2)

May 11, 2008

Coffee Break

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Halle Berry in Things We Lost in the Fire (Susanne Bier - 2007)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:09 AM

May 09, 2008

Invitation to the Dance Blog-a-thon: Flower Drum Song

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Flower Drum Song
Henry Koster - 1961
Universal Region 1 DVD

One last contribution to the Invitation to the Dance Blog-a-thon, a more traditional kind of musical, and a choice made more timely by a posting over at Edward Copeland's by Josh R.

There is so much both right and wrong with the film version of Flower Drum Song. The film and original play were made with good intentions, and yet . . .

Having a virtually all Asian cast in a mainstream Hollywood film was admirable, but having them portray Chinese or Chinese-Americans seems to emphasize the idea that all Asians look alike. I also have a problem with the casting of American-American Juanita Hall as a Chinese matriarch, no matter that Rogers and Hammerstein loved her. Even when the older characters do not speak pidgen English, there is still the taint of Hollywood stereotypes. Had Anna May Wong not died, and played the part filled by Hall, that may have been another reminder of how little had changed for English speaking Asian actresses since the release of Picadilly. Flower Drum Song works best in not looking too deeply at what may be wrong, and enjoy what is best in the film, primarily Nancy Kwan.

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There were times when watching and listening to Nancy Kwan that her energy and attitude reminded me of Ann-Margret. Kwan never achieved the career of Ann-Margret which is yet another example of Hollywood's lack of imagination. Not that things have changed that much in the fifty years since the Broadway show opened, and the forty-seven years since the film's release. Flower Drum Song took advantage of Kwan's dance training. That ability was ignored until the end of the decade when Kwan appeared in The Wrecking Crew with the dance transposed to martial arts.

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The other standout scenes involve talented Patrick Adiarte as the very American young man who loves baseball and rock and roll, dancing with Kwan as well as showing his solo abilities. The show's best song, "Love, Look Away" is part of a ballet on an abstract set, performed by Reiko Sato, with the singing voice dubbed by Marily Horne.

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As one whose interest in Asian films has directed me to seeing some of the recently released DVDs of Hong Kong musicals made during that time, there are questions on how Flower Drum Song would have been perceived had there been awareness of the musicals that usually starred Linda Lin Dai. The Shaw Brothers produced musicals were Hong Kong versions inspired by the musicals Hollywood produced at the time. Of course the only people aware of Linda Lin Dai would be the residents of the real Chinatowns. That the dance sequences are reasonably filmed documents of the performances probably has more to do with choreographer Hermes Pan, than director Henry Koster. Serious thoughts get pushed aside when one considers that the best reason to bother with Flower Drum Song is the sight of Nancy Kwan's legs.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:54 AM | Comments (2)

May 07, 2008

Invitation to the Dance Blog-a-thon: Carmen comes Home

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Karumen kokyo ni Kaeru
Keisuke Kinoshita - 1951
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

The song heard at the beginning of Carmen comes Homes is a tribute to the small mountain town where the film takes place. The elegiac feel to the song reflects a part of Japan that Keisuke Kinoshita must have known would eventually disappear. What I was not prepared for is that while Carmen comes Home is about the cultural shifts in Japan after World War II, the film also brings up points about art and culture that are still being discussed.

Hideko Takamine plays the small town girl who ran away to Tokyo, and returns to visit as a celebrated artist known as Lily Carmen. Even before she shows up, the head teacher of the village school, Chishu Ryu, talks about the importance of art and culture, with the opening scene being of the school children performing a circle dance. One of the other characters, a former teacher, blinded in the war, is known for his musical compositions, and his loss of his beloved harmonium sold to pay for expenses. Added to this mix are the town's entrepreneur, who will always find an angle at making money, Lily Carmen's best friend, a dancer who almost immediately misses Tokyo, and Lily Carmen's parents who try to make sense of their very westernized daughter.

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The joke is that Lily Carmen, for all her pretenses at declaring herself an artist, is a stripper. One of the high points of the film is that her act is filmed in such a way that it while there is nothing graphic, it is clear to what extent clothing has been removed. And yet, even Kinoshita suggests that while being an ecdysiast may not have anything to do with conventional notions of high culture, there is a certain talent and even art involved in removing clothing onstage. And here is where Carmen comes Home remains quite relevant in that it asks who determines what is art, what and what has cultural importance, and how does one decide community standards?

The main claim to fame for Carmen comes Home is that it was the first Japanese film shot in color. What makes the film more interesting is that it was shot on location near Mount Asama, in the Gunma Prefecture of Japan, out in the farm country and literally one-horse town. With the songs that border on the melancholy, and comedy that is more wistful than laugh inducing, Carmen comes Home could almost be described as a neo-realist musical, closer to De Sica than Minnelli.

But beyond the topicality of Carmen comes Home remain the questions about the role of art and society. Dance is presented both in terms of its use as personal artistic expression through Lily Carmen and her friend, but also in its social form, in the group dance at the school. Lily Carmen's performance based dance emphasizes her difference from the community and her particular individuality. The group dance is to bring people together, to socialize, to reenforce the cohesion of a particular community. It is not a matter of one form of dance being better than the other, but appreciating the differences, and finding comic possibilities in both. As Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie wrote about Kinoshita: "He is quite in love with his characters and he admires their faults no less than their virtues."

More singing and dancing is to be found at Ferdy on Films.

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

May 05, 2008

Invitation to the Dance Blog-a-thon: Mesa que Mas Aplauda

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Rene Cardona III - 2006
Laguna Productions Region 1 DVD

I'm combining Marilyn Ferdinand's blog-a-thon with Cinco de Mayo today. This is a major holiday not just in my town, but especially in my neighborhood. Mesa que Mas Aplauda is about a small town restaurant without customers, that becomes an overnight success when Las Vegas showgirl Liz Vega shows up to introduce pole dancing. Rene Cardona III's film is closer to a Mexican version of Coyote Ugly than Showgirls, with fewer pretenses. The film was inspired by the Latin hit song recorded by Osskar Lobo y Grupo Climax, performed at the end of the film. Mostly Mesa que Mas Aplauda is an excuse to have close ups of jiggly parts of the voluptuous cast. Viva La Vega!

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:38 AM | Comments (1)

May 04, 2008

Coffee Break

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Howard Marion-Crawford and Jesus Franco in The Castle of Fu Manchu (Jesus Franco - 1969)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:42 AM | Comments (1)

May 02, 2008


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Anna Biller - 2007
Anna Biller Productions 35mm film

Is it possible to create a parody of a film that was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place? Or can one make fun of a movie that may have been unintentionally comic? As one who has seen some of the films that served as inspiration for Viva, my reaction was that audiences might be better served by another viewing of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Camille 2000, perhaps topped off with a bit of Jesus (Franco) and Venus in Furs.

I feel bad in that Anna Biller totally put herself into the film as writer, director, costume and set designer, animator (!), song writer, producer, editor and star. Biller not only stars, but allows her beautiful and naked self to be exposed. The only multi-hyphenate that I can think of that came nearly as close was Clint Eastwood offering a posterior view in Space Cowboys. The best thing I can say for Viva is that Biller and co-star Bridget Brno have gorgeously fleshy bodies, rather than the stick figures that usually parade on screen.

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The basic story of a married woman who ventures into prostitution after being ignored by her self-absorbed husband may remind many of the basic premise of Belle de Jour. The film ends with a very clear homage to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with a Biller penned song titled "Two Little Girls". A gay hair stylist resembles a subdued version of John LaZar, the immortal Z-man of BVD. Viva also succeeds in creating sets and colors that resemble "Playboy" pictorials of swinging bachelor pads. I must be getting old - I had lust in my heart not for any actor, but one the Eames chairs used in the film.

Except for a comment by one of the women that the "Playboy" playmates were skinny, any intended feminist critique of early Seventies exploitation films were not noticeable. More obvious were the reworkings of elements from the films from that era, some of which are available on DVD for comparison. I saw some of these films at the time of their initial theatrical release, and even recall interviews with some of the male filmmakers who insisted that their films were cries for sexual equality. For myself, I liked the films by Radley Metzger for the scenes of cunning linguistics. I have to think that had Anna Biller made films in the early Seventies, she might have had Roger Corman in her corner. There are part of Viva that make me think that what Biller created works better as a stage play rather than as a movie. What ever Viva was suppose to be in theory, the final film is a less than lively sum of its many parts.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:49 AM | Comments (3)