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May 31, 2009

Coffee Break

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Maggie Q, Sammi Cheng and Nicola Cheung in Magic Kitchen (Lee Chi-Ngai - 2004)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:28 AM

May 29, 2009

Cinema Q Film Festival: Two Chinese Feasts

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Soundless Wind Chime
Kit Hung - 2009
TLA Releasing Digital Film

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Drifting Flowers/Piao lang qing chun
Zero Chou - 2008
Wolfe Video 35mm film

If Soundless Wind Chime and Drifting Flowers, as well as The Amazing Truth about Queen Raquela, are any indication, the Q Film Festival would do best to rely on films and filmmakers who have been cited by the Teddy Awards. What the winning and nominated films prove is that GLBT content is not enough, but that the films in question should be held to standard of artistry as would be applied to films seen in other film festivals. It is unfortunate that two of the better films in this particular film festival would play opposite each other, and advertised with falsely assumed gender bias. Both films are worth seeing for their own merits. Drifting Flowers is currently available on DVD, while a certain DVD release of Soundless Wind Chime has yet to be announced.

Soundless Wind Chime may be too elliptical rather than poetic as filmmaker Kit Hung may intend. Nonetheless, the succession of images and sound overcome whatever lapses there may be in the narrative. The film primarily alternates between present and past. A young man from Hong Kong, Ricky, in Switzerland for reasons he might not be able to clearly identify. Shaving himself, Ricky remembers a time when he shaved the head of his Swiss lover, Pascal. Eventually a chronology of how Ricky and Pascal first met on the streets of Hong Kong contrast with Ricky's visit to a small Swiss town where he encounters Ueli, a young man who could have been Pascal's twin.

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Hung's film is about both geographic and emotional dislocation. Ricky is apparently recent to Hong Kong from Beijing, working as a delivery boy for a neighborhood restaurant. Sharing a cramped apartment with his aunt, who works as a prostitute, a brief comment suggests that his ill mother back home thinks Ricky is working as a stock broker. The apartment he shares with Pascal is even smaller, denying this couple either emotional or physical space. Unlike Pascal who manages to get a part-time teaching job based on his limited abilities in English, his increasing abilities in Cantonese, and his easy acceptance within Hong Kong's gay scene, Ricky is the perpetual outsider no matter where he is.

One of the filmmakers Kit Hung acknowledges in the credits to his feature debut is openly gay Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan. The location of a pedestrian bridge reminded me Tsai Ming-liang's use of the skywalk in What Time is it There/. Also, the themes of love, loss and memory would bring to mind Wong Kar-wai. The major difference is that in his film, Hung makes the audience work a bit more to connect the various dots. Little is spelled out either visually or verbally. There is very little dialogue in Silent Wind Chime, and even when the characters are talking to each other, more often the conversation consists of unanswered questions. Even though there is one relatively explicit scene, of Pascal and his former lover, what Hung's interest is in the tentative relationships people make with each other, whether based on an emotional bond or an immediate need.

Hung also puts in what may seem like a visual nonsequitur in the proceedings when an elderly customer does a song and dance number. Ricky gazes around her apartment. Old photos seem to indicate that the woman was perhaps a now forgotten movie star. The musical number that the woman lip synchs to is "Atchoo Cha Cha", as done by Grace Chang, a popular Hong Kong musical star from the late Fifties though the early Sixties. IMDb being useless again in matters of Asian cinema, I am not certain if the old woman is in fact the same Wong Siu Yin who appeared in Hong Kong films fifty years ago.

While some knowledge of Chinese culture may not a requirement to for viewing Soundless Wind Chime or Zero Chou's Drifting Flowers, they may certainly add to appreciation and understanding. As in her previous Spider Lilies, Chou is interested in the conflict between forms of expression of lesbian identity against the traditional roles and expectations of Chinese tradition.

Drifting Flowers is comprised on three loosely connected short stories. In the first story, a seven year old girl, May, who becomes infatuated with the older, boyish looking Diego. Diego is the lover of May's blind sister, Jing. The conflict with tradition is illustrated by Jing's work as a masseuse, versus Jing's open relationship with Diego. May's inarticulate jealously causes her to live traditional foster family, coming to grips with her feelings only after she becomes older. The second story is about an older couple, male and female, who had a marriage of convenience. Lily is starting to get Alzheimer's while her feminine looking husband, Yen, has been diagnosed with AIDs. Lily also confuses Yen with her female lover, Ocean. The two are reunited after years of being apart, perhaps more out of necessity than love, yet there is clear mutual affection between the two. This segment is the most poignant, reminding that love of any kind is not only the provence of the young. In the third segment, a younger, high school age Diego bounds her growing breasts, and falls in love with a girl who is part of a competing street performance troupe. Diego finds self-acceptance as a boyish looking girl in love with the more obviously feminine Lily. The three segments are tied by having the main characters appear as passengers on a train, a literal symbol of life's journey.

It should be noted that Lu Yi-Ching, who frequently plays a mother in the films of Tsai Ming-liang, portrays the older Lily in Chou's film. Unlike fellow Taiwanese Tsai or Hou Hsiao-hsien, Zero Chou's films are more easily accessible though no less artistic. I would describe Chou as classical in her style of filmmaking, not to be confused with conventional. Her visual sense is usually unerring, especially in some her shots of two people within different parts of the same frame. Part of the credit would go to Chou's cinematographer and partner, Hoho Liu. Chou even has a self-referential moment when her character, Yen, walk by a wall with posters for Spider Lilies. Sexy, sad and sometimes quite funny, Spider Lilies is Chou's best film to date. Drifting Flower doesn't quite work in total, a problem that may be inherent in features created from vignettes. Still, there is no reason why Chou should not be considered one of more talented younger filmmakers to emerge in the past ten years.


Soundless Wind Chime and Drifting Flowers will play Sunday night at 8 pm.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:57 AM

May 27, 2009

Cinema Q Film Festival: Two Spanish Souffles

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Chef's Special/Fuera de Carta
Nacho G. Velilla - 2008
TLA Releasing 35mm Film

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Chica busta Chica
Sonia Sebastian - 2009
Wolfe Video

Chef's Special is a good natured comedy with some dramatic moments about a Spanish chef trying to deal with his full plate called life. In addition to taking on the two children he had abandoned years ago from a failed marriage, there is also his new lover, a closeted former soccer star, and his dream of getting a Michelin star for his restaurant. If making sure the food in his restaurant isn't just right, Maxi also has to deal with the personal problems his staff bring to work. Home and work overlap with a female Maitre d' whose in love with the soccer player, Horacio, unaware that he is gay and Maxi's lover. Father and children have a difficult time getting to know each other, with the teenage son especially resentful about having a father that ignored him most of his life.

Nacho G. Velilla's debut feature is pleasant enough. Some of the best moments are incidental to the narrative, such as when Maxi's daughter, demanding of a fairy tale read to her every night, wants to know how, when read "Puss 'n Boots", a cat is able to take the boots on and off. While many of the characters seem to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, there's nothing in the more farcical aspects to the film that would be unfamiliar to the more frankly sexual films of Pedro Almodovar or Bigas Luna. Chef's Special is as light, sweet and quickly digestible as the pancakes Maxi cooks for Horacio's breakfast.

Chica Busca Chica isn't a movie but four television episodes strung together. The title means "woman seeking woman", as these chic chicas in Madrid look for love, usually in the wrong places. The women are quite pretty, but the show itself is hardly the Spanish equivalent to The L Word beyond beyond a show with a several lesbians, a possible bisexual, and a self-declared newbie who happily and naively decides it's time to experience sapphic love. There are a few chuckles, but I suspect that the show which can be seen online with or without English subtitles, works better seen in weekly segment. Writer-director Sonia Sebastian has also made a couple of short films.

Chef's Special will be shown Saturday, at 5 pm. Chica busca Chica is scheduled to follow at 7:30 pm.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:25 AM

May 25, 2009

Cinema Q Film Festival: The Amazing Truth about Queen Raquela

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Olaf de Fleur Johannesson - 2008
Regent Releasing 35mm film

This week will be devoted to five of the films showing at Denver's Cinema Q Film Festival.

What I like about The Amazing Truth about Queen Raquela is that the film, like the title character, defy expectations or easy explanations. That may also explain why, in spite of the critical praise and festival awards, why this film has not been more of a commercial success in the U.S. I am glad that it has been included in the Cinema Q Film Festival. One of the aspects I like about the festival itself is that the selection of films is international, with narrative films also from Spain, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Too often, GLBT films, at least a number of the English language films, seem bent on reinforcing assumptions regarding sex, gender, gender roles, and society at large. While the Filipino ladyboys of Queen Raquela share some of the same problems as transexuals in the U.S., what may be eye opening to some is the way aspects of Filipino culture are a significant part of their lives, such as the goal of contributing financially to their families, as well as their very sincere Catholic faith. The film is documentary in style, though more a combination of some real events recreated and imagines events in the life Raquela.

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Part of Raquela's life follows the path of prostitution, followed by being a web cam performer. Raquela also appears simultaneously naive and savvy when she interviews, in her male persona of Earvin, for a nursing school. When the admission officer notes that nurses often use their degrees to get jobs in other countries, Raquela response as if that thought never crossed her mind. When asked why she wants to be a nurse, Raquela describes the job as that of an airline stewardess, only in a hospital. Raquela proves to be both resilient and adaptable when the opportunity comes for her to visit Iceland. Not only is she not deterred by the cold weather, but she takes on the job of working in a fish factory with other members of Iceland's Filipino community, in spite of the unfashionable work clothing or her inability to speak any Icelandic. A would-be suitor brings Raquela from Iceland to Paris, a city she has dreamt of visiting. In one scene, Raquela defiantly walks through the cool Paris streets in only her dress while everyone else is in coats and jackets.

What may be the best scene in the film is when Raquela and Michael, her host in Paris, part ways. Raquela enjoys Paris by herself, appreciating all that Michael had found to criticize. Additionally, the scene is about the pleasure of being alone, of setting aside the expectations demanded by oneself or others. What Queen Raquela is partially about is being Filipino and transexual, but the film could also be said to be about one person's quest not to be totally defined only by those labels, but to discover for herself her own sense of self and purpose. Looking beyond a beauty that has little to do with Hollywood standards, or the strained high pitch voice, the amazing truth about Raquela is that she is a human being with hopes, dreams and vulnerabilities, just like the rest of us.

Queen Raquela will be screened on Friday, May 29 at 8:00 pm.

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Of additional note: taking exception to the identity of ladyboy, poet Sass Rogando Sasot prefers the geographically specific transpinay. For an appreciation of Queen Raquela, I recommend this posting by Filipina activist Pau Fontanos. For a different look at the lives of some transpinays, consider the documentary Paper Dolls.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:07 AM

May 24, 2009

Coffee Break

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Dean Martin in How to Save a Marriage (and Ruin Your Life) (Fielder Cook - 1968)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:24 AM

May 21, 2009

Motive and Chicken

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Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind
John Gianvito - 2007

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Mississippi Chicken
John Fiege - 2007
both Watchmaker Films All Region DVD

I was not expecting to receive new DVDs from Watchmaker Films and was in no way prepared to write about them. Nonetheless, my feeling is that if someone is going to send me DVDs, the least I can do is watch them, and hopefully write something thoughtful.

What these two documentaries have in common is that they are about the pursuit of the American Dream. Mississippi Chicken is the more traditional film, about immigrant workers from Mexico who have come to work in a Mississippi poultry processing plant. Profit Motive is a more abstract film of shots of the gravestone and historical markers of the famous, and the almost anonymous, who in fought on behalf of the oppressed or marginalized from the days of Colonial America to more contemporary times.

The combination of the two films made me think back to the Fall of 1973 when I was taking a course on documentary films from George Stoney. While I don't remember the title of one of the films we saw in class, what I do remember is that it was about migrant workers, black workers from "the South" who came to do seasonal work in Long Island, the supposedly more liberal, enlightened "North". Whatever they thought they would earn got eaten up from the costs of their contracted housing and the company store that was the only one allowed as their source for buying food and other needs. Between that documentary made about forty years ago, the general overview of those who were killed campaigning for workers' rights in Profit Motive, and the more specific portrait of a community in Mississippi Chicken, there is the impression that nothing has changed all too much, that there are the exploited and those who will abuse their power.

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What both films share is they can be called documentaries, but that description is only a starting point. Mississippi Chicken started off as being about workers in a chicken processing plant but evolved into a story primarily about Mexican workers in Canton, Mississippi, and primarily about one extended family. The first person narration by workers' rights Anita Grabowski is at times self-reflective, discussing what her role should be in regards to the lives of the people she's encountered, as well as discussing whether the film as veered from its intended mission. Profit Motive is an extended montage of shots, with the narrative coming out of the historical chronology of the various gravestones, markers and monuments.

What aesthetic or political value these films might have might be nullified by the audience most likely seeing these films, preaching to the choir as it were. If Mississippi Chicken has any effect, it is most likely to convince a few more people to not buy Tyson's chicken. As for Profit Motive, it is a visual compliment to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. What value these films have has less to do with filmmaking, that as acts of reminders that the more shameful aspects to American life are not not closed chapters of the past, but remain stubbornly part of our present.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:17 AM

May 19, 2009

Wandering Ginza Butterfly

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Wandering Ginza Butterfly/Gincho Wataridori
Kazuhiko Yamaguchi - 1971

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Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler/Gincho Nagaremono Mesuneko Bakuchi
Kazuhiko Yamaguchi - 1972
both Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

The Wandering Ginza Butterfly films introduced Meiko Kaji and her onscreen persona as Toei Studio's new female star. The shot in which she introduces herself, as her character Nami, is astonishing. For those not familiar with the conventions of the yakuza film, might I suggest this essay by Paul Schrader. In both films, Nami introduces herself to another character with the introductory stance of the yakuza. What is significant is that this stance, with one hand extended outward with the open palm, could be read as a masculine stance. While Nami is never less than feminine in appearance, always wearing a kimono in 1970s Tokyo, this introduction serves to indicate that of a professional gambler, and as a person unafraid to assert herself as necessary. Additionally, when she introduces herself to a crime boss, it is implied but not stated, that she wants nothing less than to be treated as a man.

Although these are pulp films that play in both ways, with bits of nudity or glimpses of panties thrown in, the Wandering Ginza Butterfly series, and Kaji's followup "Scorpion" series, both act as criticisms about the role of females of then contemporary Japan. While not articulated as such, the films express the conflict between a nascent feminism fighting an ingrained sense of masculine domination and entitlement. In the first films, one of the bar hostesses comments about the lack of benefits or a retirement package. Some of the concerns voiced are the same as those almost ten years previously by Mikio Naruse. The difference is that unlike Hideo Namamine, Mieko Kaji is willing to punch, slice or shoot in righting wrongs. One could almost retitle the first of the two film, "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs with a Samurai Sword".

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It may be worth pointing out that even though she was hired by Toei Studios to replace the then popular, but retiring, Junko Fuji, Paul Schrader does not mention Kaji. The character of Nami, was also known as the Red Cherry Blossom in contrast Fuji's Red Peony Ryu. More striking is that Nami has no romantic interests, acting as an independent agent. When Nami works with men, it is often with a degree of reluctance, and only when they are in battle against a common enemy. The men that Nami allies herself with also choose to work independently rather than be part of any yakuza association, and act as support for Nami rather than as equals or rivals. This would contrast with Nami's enemies, yakuza gangs which have very clear hierarchies. In the Wandering Ginza Butterfly films, even the best intentioned of men have their weaknesses exposed, while some of the women prove to be more reliable as friends. The relationship that Nami has with men is a transient partnership based on revenge against a common foe, and a fleeting, platonic friendship.

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The stories for the two films are almost interchangeable. Fresh out of prison for the murder of a yakuza boss, Nami gets a job as a bar hostess. For reasons never clearly explained, her release is hastened by the yakuza boss's widow. We only know that Nami killed the boss as an act of revenge when she was part of an all female gang. The proprietor of the bar is subjected to a potential takeover by another yakuza boss. Nami intercedes on behalf of the warm hearted proprietor, who is given the honorary name of "Mama" by the young women who work for her. The yakuza boss and his gang prove to be less honorable, even when promising to forgo a debt if Nami wins a game of billiards. Nami forms a friendship with another loner, Ryu, the man who helps get Nami her bar hostess job. In the second film, Nami seeks out the man who murdered her father, discovering him to be a former gambler who disguises his criminal activities with a respectable front. In a sequence of coincidences, Nami saves a young woman from prostitution, the young woman's father was a good friend of Nami's father, and is the one who can identify the murderer. Nami also develops an initially reluctant friendship with Ryuji, a would be entrepreneur, whose businesses spark the ire of the yakuza boss controlling the Ginza section of Tokyo. Again, attempts are made to mediate a dispute with a game, in this case the hanafuda card game. Nami and Ryuji again are forced to settle things with guns and swords.

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The man difference between the two films is that there is a more comic tone to the second film. Sonny Chiba adds some star power as the stuttering Ryuji, more adept at martial arts than in handling cards. Otherwise, whole chunks of dialogue are lifted from the first film, markedly the words Nami uses to introduce herself, as well as her final words that close out the films. One might think of this as reworking a successful motif, such as in music when a band like The Kinks redid "You Really Got Me" as "All Day and All of the Night". What makes the films of interest, as many of the exploitation films of the time, is not the formula, but what the filmmakers would do within the restrictions of that formula.

The DVD for the first film also has commentary by Chris D. which adds to some of the context of the film and filmmakers, as well as discussion of the yakuza genre For those who haven't read his book, I recommend Outlaw Masters of the Japanese Film. Both DVDs have the same video interview with Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, a gallery of posters, and original Japanese trailers. The second film also has a brief discussion of Meiko Kaji and Japanese films of the early Seventies with J-Taro Sugisaku, co-author of a book on the genre known as Pinky Violence. While the films are more conventional in story and style than the "Female Prisoner Scorpion" that came next, they serve well to explain why Meiko Kaji became an iconic star in Japan.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:11 AM

May 17, 2009

Coffee Break

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Albert Dekker, Ray Milland and Gary Cooper in Beau Geste (William Wellman - 1939)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:06 AM

May 14, 2009

Red Sun

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Terence Young - 1971
Evergreen Entertainment All Region DVD

Seeing Red Sun almost thirty-seven years after its U.S. released, my thoughts are almost the same as when I first saw this film. The casting of Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune and Alain Delon seemed to offer so much promise. And while Red Sun is fairly entertaining, this more literal melding of the western with the samurai film falls short, perhaps needing the visual dynamics offered by Sergio Leone or even John Sturges.

Taking place in 1870, Bronson and Delon lead a gang of train robbers who find the Japanese ambassador in a private car. Delon takes a specially designed sword, a gift to the President, for himself. One of the ambassador's samurai escorts is shot down by Delon. The other samurai, Mifune, promises to track down Delon and recover the sword in a week's time. Meanwhile, Delon has also turned around to ambush Bronson, leaving him behind while he and the gang run off with their loot. Bronson and Mifune form an uneasy alliance, tracking down Delon for their own reasons, gradually, and sometimes grudgingly, developing mutual respect.

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One of the four writers credited for the screenplay was William Roberts, the man responsible for envisioning an Akira Kurosawa film with a motley band of cowboys instead of ronin. One of the Magnificent Seven was Charles Bronson. One of the other writers, Denne Bart Petitclerc, wrote the pilot for the television series, Then Came Bronson, pretty much suggesting that his participation in this film was someone's idea of a joke. Writer Lawrence Roman's best known film is McQ, the John Sturges directed attempt to re-invent an aging John Wayne in the mold of Clint Eastwood's character, "Dirty Harry". And Eastwood became an international star taking on the role originally done by Toshiro Mifune in another samurai film by Akira Kurosawa. One of Delon's most noted roles was as star in Le Samourai. Red Sun, to a certain degree, reflects some of the cultural give and take of that time between filmmakers.

As has been widely repeated, Red Sun was a hit almost everywhere except the United States. Toshiro Mifune and Alain Delon had already cemented their status as cinematic icons of Japan and France, respectively. Charles Bronson was still a couple of years from realizing major stardom in Death Wish. Red Sun also proved to be the last starring role for Ursula Andress, almost appropriately guided by the director of her first starring role in Dr. No. Maybe it was the heavily accented English that got in the way for most U.S. viewers. Mifune and Bronson's scenes are the best in part because they were unafraid of having their characters look foolish. Delon, in contrast, never looks like he's comfortable away from his more usual urban surroundings. As the prostitute Delon loves, Andress displays just enough skin to titillate the teenage boys in the audience, but she has often been an aloof presence on screen. Mifune's direction seems to have been to "play the gruff samurai", but he's game enough to be caught in his fundoshi, taking a cold water bath outdoors, and getting caught without his clothes or his sword by Bronson. Bronson, in turn, sees his abilities at bare knuckle brawling reduced to being Mifune's oversized rag doll, an introduction to Japanese martial arts consisting of Bronson tossed several times to the ground. Especially as Charles Bronson allowed himself to be typecast as a humorless agent of vengeance following the later films after Death Wish, Red Sun is one of the few times to see Bronson's comic side.

Terence Young probably got the job as director as he was Bronson's favorite director at the time. Too often, there are shots of the sun, sometimes with filters, as if Young, or his screenwriters, felt the intense need to justify the title of the film. There are enough scenes taking place in the desert to convey the heat and dust where much of the action takes place. The most visually interesting work is in the last twenty minutes when all of the principle characters converge. Especially striking is Bronson and Mifune barely seen, hiding in tall wheat, staking out the rendezvous point. Red Sun came at a time when interest in Italian westerns had tapered off. Somewhere, there must be some interesting stories regarding the making of, what on the surface, was a great idea for a film. Even if Red Sun isn't the film one might imagine, in no way does it diminish its team of legendary stars.

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Red Sun is available from HK Flix

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:15 AM

May 12, 2009

Trumpets, Westbound

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A Distant Trumpet
Raoul Walsh - 1964


Budd Boetticher - 1959
both Warner Brothers Archive Collection DVD

Growing up in the mid to late Fifties, the first movie studio I became aware of was Warner Brothers. This was not through there movies but through their television series, westerns such as Maverick, Sugarfoot, Bronco and Cheyenne. Each show was marked by a theme song performed by a male chorus, line drop title cards, and a stock company of actors who would periodically appear on one of the other shows. Warner Brothers studios were always seen in an overhead shot of the studios that appeared like giant barns. Growing old enough to see movies that weren't preceded by the words, "Walt Disney presents", I noticed that Warner Brothers actors not only would appear on a revolving variety of television shows, but also starred in movies. Immersing myself more in older films, I learned to recognize that certain actors frequently appeared in Warner Brothers movies.

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Part of whatever pleasure is to be had by watching films like A Distant Trumpet and Westbound has as much to do with seeing contract players, as much, and sometimes more, than viewing films by Raoul Walsh and Budd Boetticher. Boetticher may have directed the film as a favor to Randolph Scott, but his hand was in some of the casting with then-wife Karen Steele and Andrew Duggan among the actors he had previously worked with. In comparison, while A Distant Trumpet has a screenplay by sometime collaborator John Twist, the casting seems more imposed on Walsh with the young stars of the time.

The characters utter a "damn" and "hell" a few times, the violence is more graphic, and the treatment of Native Americans is marginally more enlightened, but A Distant Trumpet could have easily been made twenty years earlier by Walsh and Twist, with a score by Max Steiner. I tried to imagine the film with Errol Flynn as the heroic young West Point graduate sent out west, as in They Died with Their Boots On. Olivia de Havilland and Virginia Mayo would vie for Flynn's attention. I have no idea what Walsh thought of Troy Donahue or Diana McBain, but I suspect he might have liked Suzanne Pleshette. Donahue was big, boyishly handsome, and not much of an actor as he even admitted. Still Walsh treats him like most of his stars with frequent shots of his actors with the camera looking upwards against the sky. Walsh's visual motif in this film is as recognizable as Yasujiro Ozu's view of the world from a tatami mat.

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A Distant Trumpet probably needs to be seen on a large screen to be best appreciated. In color and wide screen, Walsh also frequently shoots expansive vistas with small characters seen in the distance, or considerably dwarfed by their environment. Much of the film was shot on location in New Mexico. One of the subplots involves Troy Donahue's officer's quarters, something of a makeshift oasis of civilization in an otherwise physically hostile environment. Walsh's red desert may be more literal than Michelangelo Antonioni's, but both filmmakers are interested in having the environments stand in for the emotions and viewpoints of their characters. In the final image of Raoul Walsh's last film, their is an overhead shot of Donahue, newly married to Pleshette, being saluted with raised swords by his troops. One could view this shot as one of resolution of unity, of the man with the right woman, a captain with his troops, but also of the characters with their environments of the fort and the surrounding desert.

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Claude Akins, the mustached villain of A Distant Trumpet also appeared in Budd Boetticher's Comanche Station. Virginia Mayo, appearing in Westbound no doubt as Scott, to fulfill contactual obligations, starred in several of Raoul Walsh's films, most notably White Heat. In his list of motifs to be found in Boetticher's films, Michael Grost lists "curved shapes". The curved shapes Boetticher seems most interested in belong to Virginia Mayo and Karen Steele. Mayo wears dresses that reveal the beginning of cleavage, while the form fitting shirts and dress of Steele speak for themselves. The story is virtually from the Scott template, taking place during the Civil War with Union officer Scott officially asked to take over his stagecoach line, which also serves to transport gold from California to "the East". Getting in the way is former partner Andrew Duggan who has bought his way into controlling the town of Julesburg, and has married Scott's old flame, Mayo. Some of the story is suggested by the real history of Julesburg, Colorado. That there was a Colorado town with sympathies towards the Confederacy would be pure fiction. The point of seeing a film like Westbound is not to see anyone doing anything different.

The fun is in seeing Duggan's weasel of an entrepreneur discover that while his claimed ideals might excuse his villainy, his henchman simply revel in villainy for its own sake as they increasingly are beyond Duggan's control. Michael Dante is affecting as the one armed war veteran who reclaims his sense of masculinity after being called "half a man". I don't know how much of their real life relationship was replayed on film, but Steele, Boetticher's muse at the time, is shown ready to jump in where the action is, even getting into a fist fight with a loudmouthed bad guy. A shot of Steele in form fitting jeans also says all that is needed about why Steele was Boetticher's favorite actress. The supporting characters' names provide a sense of the familiar with Michael Pate as the evil Mace, and Wally Brown as a stagecoach driver named Stubby. That Westbound is considered one of Boetticher's lesser films also suggests that screenwriter Burt Kennedy was a more significant collaborator than might have otherwise been acknowledged. The film is titled Wesbound, and sometimes it's nice to watch or rewatch a film that has no surprises, and follows a familiar path.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:22 AM

May 10, 2009

Coffee Break

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Katrin Cartlidge in Claire Dolan (Lodge Kerrigan - 1998)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:23 AM | Comments (3)

May 08, 2009

Chadni Chowk to China

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Nikhil Advani - 2009
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Even when I'm not intentionally contrarian, the films that I usually like are the ones that pass by the radars of the general public, or the critics who just cover the wide release movies. Could Warner Brothers have been more effective in selling their first Bollywood film, or are American audiences simply too xenophobic to take the time to see a Hindi Kung Fu musical comedy? I don't feel like being the scold here, but will instead alert the adults reading this post that there is indeed a movie with comedy that is actually funny, with musical numbers featuring singers and dancers at least several years out of high school. For those puzzled by the title, it refers to the Dehli neighborhood that is home to the "hero" Sidhu.

Akshay Kumar's performance is full of the kind of physical comedy that might remind some of Peter Sellers work with Blake Edwards, along with the kind of work Steve Martin did in films like All of Me. Looking further back, some of the gags may even recall Bob Hope. Sidhu, a cook on a street side restaurant is so inept that he accidentally burns his winning lottery ticket with the oversized flame at his personal shrine. His strong Hindu faith also leads him to believe he has seen the image of Ganesh, the elephant god, on a potato. Meanwhile, the citizens of a village outside of the Great Wall of China are convinced that the reincarnation of their legendary hero lives in India. Two emissaries set to seek their their new savior stumble upon Sidhu, who goes along with what he thinks is a joke until he finds out he's in more trouble than anticipated.

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Sidhu is also in love with Sakhi, the star of television commercials for a Chinese company called TSM. The most popular product offered by TSM is a set of ankle bands that allows the most arrhythmic person to dance any popular style. Other items include an umbrella that is both bullet proof and serves as a parachute, and a device that translates any language. Sakhi tricks Sidhu into taking his place in the long line for visas to China. From there the plot becomes more complicated with the story of twin daughters separated at birth, a father with amnesia, and a gangster who's best know for having a bowler hat as deadly as the one belonging to Oddjob in Goldfinger.

Someone better verse in Bollywood than myself would be able to identify some of the parody elements. Even those with some general knowledge should at least identify takeoffs on Rocky and The Karate Kid, or laugh when Sidhu complains about some missing subtitles. The best parts of the film, like most Bollywood films, are the musical numbers, especially those of China as Sidhu imagines it, with a nod to The Last Emperor, that morphs into a dance featuring old time gangsters with their girls in cheong-sam dresses. A movie starring Amitabh Bachchan is briefly seen on television. Chadni Chowk to China not only as Gordon Liu, known by many for his roles in Kill Bill, but also that films martial arts coordinator, Ku Huan-Chiu. A music video shown during the closing credits features several dancers dressed at Kill Bill's The Bride.

Credit should also be given to Deepika Padukone, who takes on dual roles as Sakhi and twin sister, Suzy. Not above some mugging for the camera, Padukone fearlessly is also up for some of the films sight gags and dances. Almost any actress can look good while lip synching, but there are few that look this good while making the audience believe they have two left feet.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:09 AM

May 06, 2009

Ong Bak 2

Tony Jaa & Panna Rittikrai - 2008
Keris Video Region 3 DVD

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One of my favorite movies is The Bad and the Beautiful, a fictionalized story about Hollywood with characters modeled after several real life people both in front of, and behind the camera. There are satirical elements best recognized by those well versed in Hollywood history. I bring this classic film up only because I hope that a Thai filmmaker, ideally Wisit Sasanatieng or Taweewat Wantha, would make a film that was inspired by the making of Ong Bak 2. Nothing on screen has as much drama or comedy as the real life events of a young martial arts star given the opportunity to write and direct a big budget Thai film, going over budget and schedule, and walking off the set of an incomplete film to meditate in the jungle among the elephants. For those of us following the making of Ong Bak 2, there was a question about whether Thailand's biggest movie star had undone a career and lots of goodwill that began about three years ago when Jaa first burst upon the world scene.

There is a certain amount of difficulty in fairly evaluating Ong Bak 2 because it is not a sequel nor clearly a "prequel" to the first Ong Bak. Additionally, the film ends unresolved with a promised conclusion in the upcoming Ong Bak 3, which is also said to tie all three films together. Maybe it's a form of cultural misunderstanding, but much of what made the first Ong Bak a hit is thrown out on this new film. What I liked about the first film was that it was fast and funny. Seeing Tony Jaa defy gravity was an eye popping experience, but there was more to Ong Bak than a display of martial arts mastery. I also liked Ong Bak for introducing me to Petchtai Wongkamlao as George, the inept, small time hustler. The only way to really be fair to Ong Bak 2 is to ignore the title, and the accompanying expectations.

Taking place during the 15th Century, we first see a young boy riding on horseback with a man, chased by another rider. Caught in a trap of an awaiting army, the boy is knocked off his horse, his horse with the rider both shot by arrows. The boy is able to hide temporarily until found by a roving band of slave traders, who cage the boy. Taken out of his cage, the boy is tossed into a pit with a crocodile, providing entertainment for a tribal village. Seeing his ability to evade immediate death, a man tosses a knife to the boy who in turn kills the crocodile. Chaos ensues as the benevolent stranger is part of a group of men who have shown up to create havoc and steal goods from the village.

The young boy, Tien, of course grows up to be the character played by Jaa. Taken under the wing of Cher Nang, a leader of a band of land locked pirates, Tien becomes a master of a variety of martial arts. Gradually, it is revealed that as a boy, Tien witnessed the murder of his parents, members of a rival royal household. During an earlier time, Tien also spent time in a remote village, where his best friend was a young girl, Pim. Tien proves himself master of several forms of fighting, beating opponents bigger and seemingly stronger. Before accepting the offer to be Cher Nang's heir and leader of his gang of thieves, Tien goes off to avenge the death of his parents.

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While the first Ong Bak was light and often comic, this new film is dark, both visually and in terms of its story. While fans of fighting will probably savor the duels Jaa engages in to demonstrate his prowess, for me, Jaa is most fun to watch in his solo turns. One such moment of madness is of Jaa hopping onto a moving herd of elephants, jumping from on top one to another. Another scene is of Jaa performing an acrobatic dance. Jaa's athletic abilities are not to be disputed. Jaa does have one scene of fighting with a disguised Dan Chupong. In terms of Thai martial arts films, it's almost like getting Gene Kelly onscreen with Fred Astaire. Jaa shares with Kelly the sense of sheer force, while Chupong is like Astaire in his seeming to make every effort look easy. Pim returns as a youthful woman whose dance performance evokes classic images of Thailand. What I was not prepared for was a Tony Jaa so angry that he enjoys beating up his opponents.

What also surprised me was how much digital work went into Ong Bak 2. The first film boasted of lacking wires or other special effects, and the fight scenes were more cleanly photographed. This new film suffers from to many fragmented shots of fight scenes and too many digital effects. The main story may be unclear to those unfamiliar with Thai history, and some of the characters are best understood in terms of Thai culture and folklore. I'm not sure how much of the visual look of the film belongs to Jaa or to Panna Rittikrai, but there are more overhead shots to be found in Ong Bak 2 than in several Busby Berkeley musicals. Of course, more than some people might admit, martial arts films and musicals have things in common, employing choreographed action. I'm not sure if there is any commercial viability to making a Thai musical, but Jaa can be a very graceful presence on screen, not only being born to fight, but born to dance.

A couple of technical asides: Those interested in buying Ong Bak 2 should know that the DVD is playable anywhere regardless of the official designation. English subtitles are found using the remote control button. Ong Bak 2 is available from HK Flix

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:47 AM | Comments (1)

May 04, 2009

Extra! Extra! Read all about Me!


For some of us writing about film online there are questions about who reads us, and if one is being taken seriously. This is important because many of us do it out of love for cinema. I have been included in the series "Behind the Blog". What is especially nice is that many of those interviewed previously are bloggers that I have read since I first became aware of films blogs, and encouraged me either by direct contact or by the examples of their own work. I am the sixteenth person in this series. There are a good number of talented people who I expect to see included in the future interviews. I want to publicly thank Nick Dawson for including me in the series.

I also wish to make clear that anyone I did not mention that I read "religiously" should in anyway feel slighted. If anyone does feel hurt by exclusion, please let me know.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:56 AM | Comments (3)

May 03, 2009

Coffee Break

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Shary Marshall in Tell Me in the Sunlight (Steve Cochran - 1965)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:12 AM

May 01, 2009

Convicts 4

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Millard Kaufman - 1962
Warner Archives Collection DVD

"The coffee's so strong a mouse can dance on it." I frankly don't give a damn about, "Frankly my dear . . .". "Rosebud" wilts as soon as you realize it's a psychological explanation that really doesn't explain anything. But the words spoken by prisoner Ben Gazzara to prison guard Stuart Whitman evokes an imagined cartoon of Jerry Mouse doing a soft shoe on a cup of joe. Even more hilarious is a few minutes later when Ray Walston sticks his head out of the floor, and realizing that the tunnel he's been digging out of the prison has been discovered, utters, "That's the way the pickle squirts."

Convicts 4 has almost everything you want in a prison movie, imaginatively colorful dialogue, a jazzy film score, and idiosyncratic characters. Most of the film was shot in Folsom Prison where almost everyone seems to be sentenced for criminally over-acting. In addition to Ray Walston yelling, "You lousy, miserable screwwwwww!" to one of the guards, there is also perpetual heavy Timothy Carey as a well connected con. More modulated is Sammy Davis, Jr. as a former stick-up man who's first seen constantly combing is conked hair, the coolest guy in the joint. Even those in charge of prison are guilty, with Rod Steiger mugging for the camera as a top prison guard, while Broderick Crawford bellows his lines from a comfortable chair. Even Vincent Price shows up for all of five minutes as the art expert who discovers Resko's professional potential. As a wag might say, there's enough ham to stock a small deli.

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Most of what Millard Kaufman has to say of real significance is in the first half hour. Based on the autobiography, Reprieve, by John Resko. The opening scene is of Resko's last hours before his execution at the electric chair of Sing Sing prison. As in Bad Day at Black Rock, Kaufman has his heart in the right place with his discussions of capital punishment and treatment of criminals. The rest of the film is about Resko's imprisonment in Dannemore where he eventually finds emotional release in painting, which in turn enabled commuting of his life sentence. Kaufman uses Davis to address racial issues, "Don't call me 'Shine'" being one of the first rules doled out to cellmate Gazzara. Even prison homosexuality is suggested with with the line about, "you two studs falling in love with each other", and a young prisoner complimenting Gazzara's "pretty eyes". The best line in the film actually wasn't written by Kaufman, but by 19th Century French criminologist Jean Lacassagne: "A society gets the criminals it deserves." As usual for this film, Ray Walston gets the best bon mots.

Convicts 4 was the only film directed by Millard Kaufman. The more commercial sounding title never really helped this film, and Kaufman went back to scriptwriting. The cinematography was by Joe Biroc, best known for his work with Robert Aldrich. At one point in the film there is an overhead shot, similar to one of Aldrich's visual signatures. How much credit should go to Biroc and how much to Kaufman is something I can't say for certain, but the film is visually more controlled than the acting. At 31 when he made the film, Gazzara was too mature for the real life Resko, who was 18 when he was imprisoned for the accidental shooting death of a toy store owner. While a flashback indicates that Resko's crime took place on Christmas Eve of 1931, and later signs let the viewer know that the action takes place in the 1940s, there is sense that time has been suspended in prison. Convicts 4 works best in the bulk of the film, taking place within the confines of Sing Sing and Dannemore, where the outside world is sometimes mentioned, or imagined, but never seen. Beyond the specifics of its story, and the entertaining hamminess of the cast, and some howlingly funny dialogue, Convicts 4 still holds up some of its more serious intentions. The film might never be considered a classic, but the issues addressed sadly still remain with us.

In addition to his paintings and autobiography, Resko wrote a teleplay that undoubtedly used some of his personal experiences for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

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