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February 27, 2009

Man Walking in Snow

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Aruku, hito
Masahiro Kobayashi - 2001
Facets Region 1 DVD

What I liked most about Man Walking in Snow is looking at the aged face of Ken Ogata. There is a vulnerability that comes with age, and at the same time one can see the man who played powerful characters, samurais and criminals, most notably for western audiences, Yukio Mishima in Paul Schrader's film. Masahiro Kobayashi films screen filling close-ups of that face so that we see every wrinkle and white hair on his head.

The story takes place over a period of three days. Nobuo, a widower, is planning the second anniversary observance of the death of his wife. His youngest son, Yasuo, takes care of his father and the family sake business. The estranged older brother, Ryoichi, works in a warehouse and is contemplating the dissolution of his band. While Yasuo's relationship with his girlfriend is troubled, based on Yasuo's devotion to caring for his father. Ryioichi contemplates returning home to establish a more stable domestic relationship with the pregnant Nobuko. Nobuo temporarily dreams of leaving the cold, snowy fishing town of Mishike for the consistently warmer Okanawa.

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The title comes from Nobuo's daily walk from his home through town where he picks up an ice cream cone, and continues his walk to a salmon fishery. It is at the fishery that Nobuo flirts with Michiko and examines the tiny salmon in their enclosed bins. The salmon serve as a metaphor for the characters, between those who accept their restricted life and environment and those who would want to escape. Nobuo's personal rituals and needs supplant those of his family and Michiko.

This is my first film by Kobayashi. A description of his working methods is found in a review of one of his other films. Kobayahsi alternates between formal set-ups with the camera at a distance, often with little or no movement, and hand held close ups and jump cuts. I'm not sure of Kobayashi's motivations but the effect might be described as an Ozu domestic drama as filmed by the Godard of Breathless. From what I have read of Kobayashi's other films, he likes to film in what is known in Japan as "snow country". At this time, there is not much available in English on Kobayashi. What is known is that he is a truly independent filmmaker, unlike most of his peers who are connected with the studios. In doing some research, while IMDb only lists one credit for Sayoko Ishii, the actress who plays Michiko, this is not her only screen appearance. The only other available film from Kobayshi for U.S. based viewers is Bashing, a film critical of Japanese attitudes. What seems to be evident is Masashiro Kobayashi is making films that reflect his own conflicts, an artist both inescapably Japanese, yet not wanting to be confined or defined by his country's traditions.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:39 AM

February 25, 2009

Four Flies on Gray Velvet

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4 mosche di Velluto Grigio
Dario Argento - 1971
Mya Communication Region 0 DVD

I first saw Four Flies on Gray Velvet in February 1973, at a Portland, Oregon movie theater, playing in a double feature with Peter Collinson's Innocent Bystanders. I was enthused by what I saw that I saw Deep Red and Suspiria soon after they opened theatrically. Since then, I've seen all of Argento's films, some of them multiple times. The good news is that after thirty-five years after its initial release, Four Flies on Gray Velvet has been made available on DVD. The bad news is that the film has not aged very well.

In retrospect, the film appears to be a trial run for ideas that would be explored both better and more savagely in Deep Red. Both films have musicians as the main characters, there is the use of large dolls that seem to appear out of nowhere, and both even have sight gags involving dilapidated cars. Whatever tension and excitement I had the first time was not found in a repeated viewing. Four Flies is for me also less visually interesting than several of Argento's later films.

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Something I missed the first time out was the "joke" of having Michael Brandon and Mimsy Farmer living on a street named after "F. Lang". While the film is not an obvious homage to Fritz Lang, it could be said to be Langian in the sense of paranoia developed by Brandon. People are observing each other or listening in to conversations. Brandon is photographed killing someone inside a theater, a kind of double joke about a murder being staged and observed. Detective Jean Pierre Marielle emphasizes the "private eye" of his trade with door knobs that look like eyes in his office. The identity of the murderer is based on creating a photo from the last image seen by the murder victim.

Unlike Deep Red or Suspiria which set up the audience to be edgy with the creepy music from Goblin, Argento used silence quite a bit in Four Flies. A maid, with incriminating information regarding Brandon, is alone in a park. We hear music, we see children playing, and a pair of lovers somewhat hidden behind some foliage. The music suddenly stops, and the maid sees that the other people in the park have disappeared. The sun fades away, and the gated park seemingly becomes smaller, with no place to escape from the unseen killer. In another scene, Brandon gets out of bed to explore his house in the dark, certain that someone may be waiting for him. Argento presents the fear from the smallest sounds emanating from unseen sources.

Four Flies also defies certain expectations by being the least graphic of Argento's films. The audience sees the maid's hand scratching against a stone wall, but her murder is otherwise heard but not seen. Not to be confused with the current so-called family friendly rating, but Four Flies was rated PG in the U.S. Were the film to be re-rated, it would be for the glimpses of Francine Racette's breasts as she shares a bath with Michael Brandon. Four Flies revisited appears as a transitional work, with Argento thinking he was to leave the giallo genre, but instead playing with certain themes and visual motifs that he would instead rework. As a genre piece, Four Flies on Gray Velvet can be seen as part of a shift that took place most notably with Psycho and Night of the Living Dead when horror shifted from what was hidden in the dark, to the revealing of things sometimes left better to the imagination.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:28 AM | Comments (4)

February 22, 2009

Coffee Break

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Claude Berri in Happily Ever After (Yvan Attal - 2004)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:33 AM

February 20, 2009

The Whole Shootin' Match

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The Whole Shootin' Match
Eagle Pennell - 1978
Watchmaker Films Region 1 DVD

Yes, The Whole Shootin' Match is the title of the film, presumed "lost", and recently found and restored to DVD. The title could also refer to the set which includes not only the movie with commentary tracks, but Eagle Pennell's short film, A Hell of a Note, a documentary on Pennell - The King of Texas, and a CD of music from the film, much of it by Pennell's brother, Chuck Pinnell. If that wasn't enough, there is also a booklet with reviews and articles testifying to the importance of The Whole Shootin' Match. It may be impossible to write about the film without discussing the surrounding legends - that this was the film that inspired Robert Redford to take over a film festival in Park City, Utah, and start workshops for independent filmmakers, and well as the legends surrounding Eagle Pennell.

Frank and Loyd are two guys, well on the other side of 30, in pursuit of the one venture that with a big payday. There's usually not quite enough money to pay the rent, but there are enough cold beers to get them through the day. Frank and Loyd are not even capable of making a go of their light hauling business, letting time slip by due to an overly casual attitude towards their work. The one time that it seems they have an invention, an electronic mop, that will pay off, they discover that they sold off all the rights for one thousand dollars. This is the story about people who try to remain optimistic about the future, even when they can barely keep their noses above water.

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For all the critical acclaim lauded on The Whole Shootin' Match, I liked A Hello of a Note better. The short film says more in about a quarter of the time, about some working class men and misplaced sense of masculinity. One scene which turned out to be prescient has one of the men, flirting with a woman at a bar, embarrassing her with his glib proposition. A similar scene would be enacted in real life by Pennell with a female producer.

The documentary of Pennell looking back at his career just two years after his debut feature played at film festivals, and had a brief theatrical run, indicates that even had he not surrendered his life to alcohol, he was not interested in a Hollywood career. Of the eight competitors at the U.S. Film Festival in 1978, Claudia Weill, Martha Coolidge, George A. Romero and Mark Rappaport have had careers of varying degrees of success, with Rappaport maintaining his status as a truly independent filmmaker. One of Pennell's unrealized projects was a Texan version of King Lear, an idea that was also entertained by Anthony Mann, and later realized by German Uli Edel as The King of Texas. It is quite possible that Pennell had really only had one or two films in him, as the excepts from his other films were of a couple of white guys sitting around drinking or talking about drinking.

While there are some who have liked The Whole Shootin' Match much more than I did, my recommendation is to see the film with the supplements. Some might share my amazement that the U.S. Film Festival chose this over Eraserhead, David Lynch's audacious debut. The supplements not only help in putting The Whole Shootin' Match into perspective of its place in film history, but also serve as a reminder of what independent filmmaking was like in a different era. Even if the quality of the film is subject to debate, the impact, even if unintended, cannot be ignored.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:48 AM | Comments (1)

February 18, 2009

So You Wanna be a Director?

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So You Wanna be a Director?
Ken Annakin - 2001
Tomahawk Press

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Three Men in a Boat
Ken Annakin - 1956
Wham! USA Region 1 DVD

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Across the Bridge
Ken Annakin - 1957
Shanachie Region 1 DVD

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Monte Carlo or Bust!/Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies
Ken Annakin - 1969
Legend Region 1 DVD

The blurbs from Julie Christie, Dorothy McGuire, Charles Bronson and Robert Wagner are testaments to the regard given to Ken Annakin. This autobiography also includes introductions by, ahem, Lord Attenborough and Mike Leigh. What was sorely missing before this book went to press was a good editor. It isn't until Annakin is in the midst of discussing one of his early films that his first wife suddenly appears without acknowledgment that he got married sometime around 1945. Walt Disney producer Perce Pierce has his name misspelled. In an interview given dated 1969, Annakin mentions Deep Throat, a film not made for another three years.

Annakin's story is one of fortuitous associations made during World War II than enabled him to become first a documentarian, and then a journeyman director. This is not to say that all of Annakin's films were routine, but that most of his films were assignments provided by others, often reshaped in post-production. If I may also be allowed a pun, what often attracted Annakin was the journey, the opportunity to film in a variety of sometimes difficult locations.

The chapters devoted to Annakin's work for Walt Disney explain the "Disney style". The first films that Annakin made for Disney were filmed based on extensive story boards personally approved by Disney. The origins of Disneyland may be apocryphal, though it is a good anecdote. It was through Annakin that Walt Disney first made his association with Peter Ellenshaw, one of the greatest special effects artists in the days before CGI. Annakin's association with Walt Disney ended following the highly successful Swiss Family Robinson, following an incident that caused personal embarrassment for Disney.

Ken Annakin's own story is about about a young man from small town England, destined for a clerical position with the tax office. Winning a bet, Annakin bluffs his way onto a ship bound for New Zealand. This early portion of Annakin's life would inform a consistent theme of his films in which a character or characters, are on a physically perilous journey, often in spite of their limited abilities. Motivations may be flimsy, and the characters remain persistent in their goals often oblivious to their own incompetence.

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A wide screen copy of Three Men in a Boat would probably not make the film any funnier. The pan and scan version is wretched, and the comedy too dry for American tastes. The story of three men who take a boat up the Thames to briefly escape from the women in their lives is consistent with Annakin's other films. The pursuit of the destination outweighs any considerations of practicality or ability. Unable to pitch a tent, keep food and clothing dry, or not get in the way of other boats, nothing keeps this incompetent trio from their destination. Of greater interest is seeing early performances by such actors as Laurence Harvey, Jill Ireland, Shirley Eaton and Adrienne Corri.

Across the Bridge was the first of Annakin's films to earn serious attention. Rod Steiger plays a financier who attempts to flee to Mexico when Scotland Yard reveals some shady bookkeeping. While the three million dollar loss is small potatoes, the basic story easily has a contemporary ring fifty years later. That Steiger attempts to switch places with a similar looking man who turns out to be even more notorious may have inspired Antonioni's The Passenger. Steiger finds himself trapped in a Mexican border town, trapped by both his real and assumed identities.

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Like several Annakin films, a dog is part of the story. In this case, Steiger eventually befriends the dog that belonged to the assassin he has impersonated. Without being either cute or sentimental, the dog brings out the previously hidden feelings of humanity. There is the suggestion that Steiger's own dog-eat-dog view of the world may be his reaction to the untimely death of his wife. Most of the psychological aspects of Across the Bridge might be summed up by Scotland Yard inspector Bernard Lee's observation that the dog, Dolores, is Steiger's only friend. Much of the tone and style of the film owe a debt to The Third Man. The original source for Across the Bridge was written by Graham Greene, and Carol Reed was a director Annakin had always hoped to emulate. To describe Across the Bridge as a classic film may be an overstatement, but there is good reason why this film has remained a favorite for both Annakin and Steiger.

Annakin's stories about the making of his films can be more entertaining than the films themselves. The story behind Monte Carlo or Bust! is about a director caught up in the power struggle at Paramount in the late Sixties. With one film shut down just as production had begun, Annakin's only option was to make a film similar to his biggest hit, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Among Paramount's impositions were the casting of Tony Curtis over an already contracted George Segal, and shooting in Rome because of agreements with Dino De Laurentiis, even though Annakin pointed out that money could be save shooting in Nice, near Monte Carlo. By the time the film was released, Paramount scuttled a Radio City Music Hall opening, demanded the running time be cut, and cynically changed the title to Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies.

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Some of the problems with Monte Carlo or Bust! can be attributed to Annakin. Too often, sped up action is confused with comedy. There are a few chuckles, too few, from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and the usually reliable Terry-Thomas and Eric Sykes. Curtis' boyish go-getter was at least ten years too old for the part, no longer lean and hungry. The animated titles by Ronald Searle and a song performed by Jimmy Durante are amusing, but still reveal the intent of hoping that Magnificent Men's magic strikes a second time. While Annakin could hardly be described as a feminist, he again allows women to be part of the adventure, primarily with a doctor and her two students, Mireille Darc, Marie Dubois and Nicoletta Machiavelli as one of the teams of racers. Annakin is unfair to Machiavelli to the extent that he seems to have been unaware that, however she was cast in this film, she came with established credits. More the most part, Monte Carlo or Bust! presents a tourist's view of Europe with stunts better developed than the characters.

Ken Annakin's career lost momentum after the debacle of Monte Carlo or Bust!. Had he been willing to forgo loyalty to a his original agent, Annakin might not have been scrambling for what were often lesser assignments with films given perfunctory distribution. Among the bits of interest to film scholarship is that Annakin dove into The Battle of the Bulge three weeks before shooting began, replacing Richard Fleischer. Annakin's own quasi-feminism might have been amplified with unrealized projects based on novels by Penelope Mortimer, Muriel Spark and Olivia Manning. Annakin last film shot, about Genghis Khan, may possibly be completed if we are to believe the official website for a production that was filmed in 1992. The casting of caucasian Richard Tyson in the title role makes the film seem like a prefabricated anachronism from its inception, and more so with the two recent Genghis Khan films released.

While I don't share the enthusiasm of Richard Attenborough or Mike Leigh, even seeing a fraction of Annakin's work indicates a better appraisal than currently exists. Many of the British films are only available on British DVDs. Conspicuous in its absence is Miranda, a film about a man and a mermaid, cited by Leigh for its "delicious nonsense". While many are already familiar with Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, I would recommend the small scale Crooks Anonymous with its nutty heist involving half a dozen Santas and Julie Christie in her first movie performance. Across the Bridge should have been Annakin's calling card to better films, and is named by Leigh as his favorite of Annakin's films. Even if one quibbles with Mike Leigh regarding how personal the films are, I would agree that they deserve a closer look.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:17 AM | Comments (1)

February 15, 2009

Coffee Break

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Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover (Robert Mulligan - 1965)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:05 AM

February 14, 2009

Happy Valentines Day!

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Guitar Wolf in Wild Zero (Tetsuro Takeuchi - 2000)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:47 AM

February 13, 2009

Epitaph: The DVD giveaway

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Almost a year ago, I wrote about the Korean horror film, Epitaph. The U.S. DVD will be available on February 24. Thanks to the fine folks at TLA, I have an advanced copy. Rather than seeing the film again, I am giving this new, unopened DVD to the first person who can answer the following question about one of the Jung Brothers:

Name the director that Jung Sik served as an Assistant Director?

In the meantime, with Valentine's Day coming right after Friday the 13th, I thought these Korean posters from the film would be appropriate. And for those wishing a glimpse of Epitaph, check out the music video at YouTube.

Postscript: In spite of my HTML glitch with this comments section, we have a winner! Congratulations to Josh Ickes.

Jung Sik was an A.D. on Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Park's short film, Cut.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:04 AM | Comments (2)

February 12, 2009

The Geisha

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Hideo Gosha - 1983
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

The Geisha won nine awards at the Japanese Academy Awards twenty-five years ago. There is little doubt in my mind that the awards were all deserved. What may be more puzzling is why it took so long to come to the U.S. without the benefit of a theatrical run. It's also saying something that Hideo Gosha won best director against the formidable competition of Shohei Imamura, Kon Ichikawa and Nagisa Oshima. 2009 is barely out of diapers and The Geisha could well be one of the best films on DVD seen for the first time this year.

The original title refers to the geisha house where much of the film takes place. The story could be said to be about family rivalries. In this case the families are not only biological, but also the family structures of geisha houses and yakuza clans. Katsuzo is a small time, independent "recruiter" for Yokiro, buying young girls to be potential geisha. His own daughter, Momowaka, has become the top geisha in the house. Momowaka has trouble maintaining long term patronage due to her apparent coldness to her clients. Katsuzo lives with a young woman, Tamako, who refers to Katsuzo as "Daddy". The film takes place in 1933, when Japan was still a mix of tradition and modernization, where the women wear kimonos and the men wear business suits. Unlike the traditional geisha, the women of Yokiro are required to sleep with the clients. This is not lost on Tamako who briefly works at a brothel rather than bother with learning how to also be an entertainer. The value of most of the characters in the film is reduced to that of a commodity.

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As he did in The Wolves, Gosha films the harshness of nature as a metaphor for the inner turmoil with his characters running in snow or rain. A rain storm almost destroys Yokiro. In one scene, the gunning down of Katsuzo by a yakuza gang is obscured by the steam of a train. Gosho begins and ends this film with shots of cherry blossoms, the traditional Japanese symbol of beauty.

I could easily gush about the award winning cinematography as well. As indicated by the screengrabs, Gosha's favorite angle in shooting close ups was with his actors facing the left side of the screen. This is a filmmaker who loves the facial beauty of his actors, especially stars Kimiko Ikegami (above), Atsuko Asano (below), and the late, great Ken Ogata. It is not only the framing of the faces of any of the characters, or the use of color or lighting, but that this is one of those few films where I could not imagine the camera's relationship to the action being improved upon.

While it is common to praise Criterion for their DVD presentations, AnimEigo may be better for what they do with their live action films. Not only are subtitles offered in standard white, but also the more easily readable yellow, which alternates with green when more than one person is speaking. There is also subtitling for songs, and signs which are often ignored in other films, as well as brief titling to explain some of the colloquialisms used by the characters. DVD notes offer more details regarding the historical background to the films as well as some of the more specific references used in the respective films. From what I have read on another site, Criterion has the U.S. rights to the nutty Japanese horror comedy, House which also features Kimiko Ikegami, but I think I would prefer if AnimEigo got their hands on this piece of cinematic nuttiness.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:25 AM | Comments (3)

February 10, 2009

The Warlords

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Tau Ming Chong
Peter Chan - 2007
Bonzai Media All Region DVD

In spite of it's recent win of the Golden Horse awards, The Warlords victory seems based more on the size of the production and the logistics involved. Better was Chan's previous film, the Golden Horse winning Perhaps Love, a self-referential musical about the making of a large scale Chinese musical. Best for me is still Comrades: Almost a Love Story, Chan's last film before his brief departure from Hong Kong. Chan's last small scale Chinese language film was about the struggles of two people from mainland China portrayed by Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai attempting to earn money and assimilate into a very different kind of Chinese society. In contrast to Chan's previous films, The Warlords is fairly impersonal.

Taking place in 19th Century China, the story is about a general, Pang, who is the only survivor when his army of 1600 men are massacred. Taken in by a gang of bandits lead by ErHu and Jiang, Pang sees the struggle of survival a small town has against a rival army. Pang convinces ErHu and Jiang that their best chance would be to transform their group of bandits into an army aligned with one of the warring forces in order to guarantee food, arms and money. The three take an oath of allegiance to each other. What follows is not only a series of large scale battles, but how three three "brothers" change internally and in their relationship with each other. Adding to the conflict is Pang's love for ErHu's wife, the woman who sheltered him following his trek from the battlefield.

Chan's film is a statement about the human waste of war. The hundreds of corpses strewn on the battlefield quickly become abstract. More successful is the more intimate part of The Warlords as an examination of the uses and corruption of power. Those with the real power are seen playing the game Go, discussing the use of pawns. While any reference to contemporary uses of military force may be indirect, the similarities are inescapable.

Chan has gone on record as saying he wanted to make a film with battle scenes that did not rely on any martial art trickery. The soldiers fight in the dirt and mud with arrows, guns and cannons. Probably the reason why this film has yet to be available by a U.S. distributor is because Jet Li does not show off his athletic ability. Li's one major fight scene is with Takeshi Kaneshiro, a brutal struggle between two former friends, one caught up in his adherence to his idealism, the other attempting to justify his consolation of power at the expense of others. Andy Lau plays the reformed bandit leader ErHu, while a very unglamorous looking Xu Jinglei takes to role as the wife torn between loyalty to her husband and passion for her lover.

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Chan's one Hollywood production was in affiliation with Steven Spielberg, and is could well be that this association may have triggered interest in making an epic. To a degree, Chinese language cinema may remind some of Hollywood fifty years ago with several competing epics, some with overlapping stories and casts, the biggest of which would be John Woo's two part Battle of Red Cliff which also includes Takeshi Kaneshiro. What makes The Warlords different is not only Chan's interest in presenting war as literally dirty business, divested of glamour or heroism, but framing the narrative with a story that is essentially found in most Hong Kong gangster films, a recent notable example being Alexi Tan's Blood Brothers. While Chan has been interested in making films for a pan-Asian audience, his next film presents greater cross-cultural challenges - Waiting will be filmed in English from the novel of the same name by Ha Jin, with Kaneshiro and Zhang ZiYi. Chan might even argue that at The Warlords is a love story. In discussing his other films, he has stated, "You cannot use rationality to watch my movies. If you use your heart, without dissecting the characters, then you will go with the flow."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:27 AM

February 08, 2009

Coffee Break

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Ghalia Lacroix and Madeleine Assas in For Ever Mozart (Jean-Luc Godard - 1996)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:43 AM

February 06, 2009

Cash McCall

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Joseph Pevney - 1960
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Sometimes I'll set aside my auteurist badge to watch a movie just because of the starring actors. My only reason to bother with Cash McCall was simply to see Natalie Wood and James Garner in a film together. That the film opened in January of 1960 confirms my suspicions that the essential function of Cash McCall was to keep various people on the Warner Brothers payroll busy, and to provide something to the movie theaters after the big Christmas releases had run their course. Mildly entertaining, the best I can describe Cash McCall would be as a romantic drama with a little comedy thrown in that has no dramatic peaks or valleys, but is more like an hour and forty-five minute plateau.

There is a modicum of entertainment in watching James Garner as a proto-Gordon Gekko, described as a vulture who buys companies cheap, sells them at a profit, and puts employees out of work. Of course this is thirty years before Wall Street, and James Garner is an unashamed capitalist with a heart of gold. Natalie Wood is the daughter of Dean Jagger, the businessman who has sold out to Garner. For James Garner, spending two million dollars to woo the woman he had a brief encounter with during the previous summer is not too high a price. Taking a page from Howard Hughes, Garner's idea of a date is to talk Wood into boarding his luxurious little airplane, and fly off to his private national park.

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In a gauzy flashback, a drenched Natalie Wood visits Garner at his Maine cabin. In a scene that should have been more erotic, we see Wood's almost flesh colored dress perfectly molded around her breasts. Joseph Pevney has big close ups of Wood's eyes, and then her lips. I had to wonder what it was like to see a shot of nothing but Natalie Wood's lips on a movie screen in a palatial movie theater. On the downside, Cash McCall seems unnecessarily cruel to Nina Foch as a mature divorcee who thinks Garner is attracted to her.

For myself, it's hard to dislike a film that has a supporting cast with Henry Jones, Edward Platt (with a toupee), and E. G. Marshall, soon to make a name for himself on television's "The Defenders", uttering the line, "I'm not a moralist. I'm a lawyer."

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As for Joseph Pevney, as seen by the many available videos he has at IMDb, I can't deny that his name have been associated with some work that is, if nothing else, entertaining.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:58 AM | Comments (2)

February 04, 2009

The Uninvited (2003)

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4 Inyong Shiktak
Lee Soo-youn - 2003
Panik House Region 1 DVD

This is one of those times when one wished for a little more imagination in choosing titles. The translated title from Korean would be "Table for 4", which might suggest for some a family comedy or romance. In fact that title is something of a giveaway regarding the plot to this film about alienation and an overwhelming sense of despair in urban Seoul. This is a ghost story which owes some debt to The Sixth Sense, but also to Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now with its sense of inescapable fate and the degree in which architecture and the environment dominate the characters.

In Lee's film, there is little solace in family, friendship, friends, pets or religion. People live in apartments in highrises that are little more than glorified boxes, coffins if you will. There is little to indicate that personal spaces have more than functional use, with bare walls and little evidence of the touches that personalize a home. Jung-won, an interior designer, lives in one such apartment that appears to be essentially a home office with a bed. While he is capable of resolving issues for others concerning the use of office space, he is at a loss regarding his own life and sense of self. Accidentally injured on his forehead, a coworker thinks he is only joking when he describes Jung-won as messed up inside. Jung-won's personal life is dominated by his fiancee, Hee-eun. A wedding is planned for the two, with Jung-won sheepishly going along with Hee-eun's plans. Hee-eun criticizes a comment made by one of Jung-won's friends that marriage and children are hell. Hee-eun has set up the kitchen space in Jung-won's apartment with a small table with overhead lights that spotlight each person. Hee-eun compares the table to a stage with actors, but the effect is one of emphasizing the separation of people while sharing the same space. The themes to be explored by Lee are also announced when Jung-won quietly steps into his apartment to find Hee-Eun in the midst of drilling in the lights, with her comparing his entrance to that of a ghost.

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Jung-won's passive existence is thrown into disorder when he wakes up at the end of the line in a subway, alone with two young girls who are seemingly left sleeping. It is later through news reports that he learns the two girls were left to die, munching poisoned cookies provided by their mother. The ghosts of the two girls appear to haunt Jung-won. Into Jung-won's life also appears Yun, a narcoleptic, who first appears as the patient of a psychiatrist, whose office Jung-won is redesigning. Yun also goes to the church run by Jung-won's father, in Ilsan, a suburb northwest of Seoul. When Yun collapses on the street, Jung-won takes her to her apartment. Yun appears to casually notice the two ghosts, appearing as though asleep in two chairs. Yun not only sees the ghosts that have attached themselves to Jung-won, but sees the part of Jung-won's childhood that he has forgotten, that determined much of his life.

In The Uninvited, children and parents perceive each other as monsters. The horror in the film is what these parents and children do to each other. Family is presented as an artificial construct, to be used or discarded as needed. It is worth noting that in this film, written and directed by a woman, that most of the men are little more than helpless observers. The women's actions are presented as reactions to a sense of hopelessness, disconnection from themselves as well as others. For Jung-won, Hee-eun represents a world of normalcy that he is part of only because he is suppose to be part of that world. Yun is both attractive and repulsive because she is able to share those parts of Jung-won's life that he has tried to hide or deny from himself.

Lee also plays with the the perceptions of sleep and death. When Jung-won wakes up in the subway, it is almost suggested that the remainder of the film is his dream. Jung-won suffers from nightmares from his repressed childhood, misinterpreted as pre-wedding jitters by Jung-won's father. The two dead girls, making this film tangentally a tale of two sisters, appear to be asleep. Yun's narcolepsy is explained as an unconscious defense against seeing too much, her ability to see the dreams of others. In The Uninvited, the characters are either spiritually dead, or attempting to rebel against a life that whether real or imagined, is overwhelmingly horrible.

The official website for The Uninvited offers some of Lee's own thoughts on the themes of truth and memory. An in-depth interview with Lee would be in order to understand more of her thoughts and intentions. Some of the religious imagery is in need of some explanation. The large, colorful swastika that appears in one scene may alarm those unfamiliar with its earlier symbolism prior to Nazi usage. There would appear to be more than meets the eye in the use of the spiral as a visual motif as well. I could find nothing of substance on Lee at this time other than that The Uninvited was her debut feature, that earned a degree of critic respect if not praise, but only modest success at the box office. There is no indication of any newer work by Ms. Lee at this time. Whatever faults one might find in The Uninvited, they are not to be found in the filmmaker's incisive eye, or an ambition that lies beyond genre conventions.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:14 AM | Comments (1)

February 02, 2009

Susan Slade

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Delmer Daves - 1961
Warner Brother Region 1 DVD

What struck me most about Susan Slade is that with genre considerations set aside, this film has the same concerns as Delmer Daves' westerns. Death and the domination of nature over everything else loom as large here as a film like The Last Wagon. Daves' recurring themes are of characters having an authentic sense of identity, and of developing mutual respect without regard to such trappings as race or class.

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The key men in Susan Slade's life are connected to nature. Her father is a mining engineer, her first lover has devoted his life to mountain climbing, while would-be suitor Troy Donohue runs a horse stable. Some of the dialogue may be a little too arch, for example when mountain climber discusses virgin peaks with Connie Stevens. The combination of a close-up of an anguished Connie Stevens, briefly frozen, and double exposed against the surging tide of a rocky beach, with a pounding Max Steiner score, may be loading the dice on the heavy side. Daves use of long shots in the several scenes with Susan Slade riding her horse wildly was probably a way of minimizing the identity of a stunt double, but it also consistent with his previous films where the characters are all but lost in their respective environments.

The weakest part of Susan Slade might be Susan herself, in the form of Connie Stevens, although I would give her credit for effort. Daves was hoping to duplicate that A Summer Place magic, and indeed, there is a scene with young lovers on a ship, with Max Steiner's famed theme on the soundtrack. In A Summer Place, teenage Sandra Dee, accused of losing her virginity, is forced to be examined by a gynecologist. Dee conveys the terror of what is both a personal and physical invasion. Connie Stevens was always better suited for television in lightly comic roles. There were times when I thought that the underrated Dee would have delivered the pathos that Daves was aiming for in several highly dramatic scenes.

There isn't much suspense when Connie Stevens is suppose to choose between Troy Donohue and Bert Convy. The set up for the climatic finish is also very obvious. Still, Steven won me over when, caught up in overwhelming despair, she rides at full gallop to the beach and flings herself into the water. Part of why Delmer Daves films were popular in their time is because he understood the pain and sincerity of young love.

For those with Netflix subscriptions, let me also advise you that The Badlanders is available on their instant viewing channel. Not available on DVD, and shown in a pan and scan version, this is a remake of The Asphalt Jungle as a western. The film stars Alan Ladd, but the ones to watch are then husband and wife Ernest Borgnine and Katy Jurado. Even though Daves does not have screenplay credit, some of his same themes regarding race and class are evident. Kent Smith, playing a less than honest businessman here also appears in Susan Slade as the kindly family doctor.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:20 AM | Comments (1)

February 01, 2009

Coffee Break

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Dorothy McGuire in Susan Slade (Delmer Daves - 1961)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:00 AM