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June 29, 2009

The Haunted Drum

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Perng Mang: Glawng phee nang manut
Nuttapeera Chomsri & Sranya Noithai - 2007
Tai Seng Region 1 DVD

Had I stayed in Thailand for another couple of weeks, I would have seen The Haunted Drum theatrically, mostly because it would have been the major release at the moment. The film recently was made available on DVD in the U.S., and turns out to be one of the more credible Thai ghost stories I have seen. This is one of the few films that plays it straight. If The Haunted Drum doesn't reach the artistic heights of Nonzee Nimibutr's Nang Nak or Wisit Sasanatieng's The Unseeable, it still proves to be a satisfying film for what it does achieve.

Being a period film, taking place in the 19th Century, The Haunted Drum does require some appreciation for Thai culture. The film delivers on graphic horror without dwelling on it, and at least on of the plot twists is not only not unexpected, but may seem like a requirement for Thai ghost stories. The visual gorgeousness of The Haunted Drum begins from the opening credit sequence of shots of a shrine decked with golden masks and incense, a series of pans and dissolves. The narrative introduces Ping, a young boy with the ambition to become a musician. It is later revealed that he is from a prominent family, yet chooses to be part of a musical group that is as prestigious as it is impoverished. While some of the musicians and dancers publicly agree to the vow, there is discontent regarding their financial and social standing, partially determined by the local government chief who sponsors a musical group of his own.

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At the time that Ping steps into the courtyard where the musicians and dancers live, the group master, Duong, has everyone gathered while he makes a special vow. Those of the group who do not leave by the time a stick of incense has burned would be expected to remain as loyal members of Duang's group. Anyone who leaves the group after completion of the vow, or who causes discord in the group, would be subject to a horrible fate. Ping stays with Duang, in part because of the opportunity to move up from supporting drums, playing the taphon, to playing the featured perng mang, The perng mang is actually a group of tonally keyed drums that play different notes. The title instrument is said to host spirits who serve to protect Master Duang's group as long as it is revered. Strictly going by the synopsis, one might easily dismiss The Haunted Drum.

I could only imagine what it might have been like to see The Haunted Drum in a theater like the Major Cineplex in Chiang Mai. I would recommend this film based on the soundtrack alone. There is a scene in which Ping and another musician, Pai, compete on the perng mang. To put it in a way that westerners might understand better, it's like watching a face off between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. I don't know how close to classical Thai music this is, but it is no surprise that the musical group Giant Wave had been nominated for their score. Maybe the biggest twists to The Haunted Drum is that it actually was a box office failure in Thailand, only to score several nominations in the Thailand National Film Association awards, also for the costumes, and actress Woranut Wongsawan, who plays the mysterious Tip.

Because the film was a critical, but not financial success, it will be of interest to see what opportunities are given for the filmmakers. Nuttapeera is also credited for cowriting the screenplay for the critically lambasted White Monkey Warrior. I would hope that Sranya will be heard from again, being one of the few Thai female film directors.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:30 AM | Comments (1)

June 28, 2009

Coffee Break

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Willem Dafoe in The Loveless (Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery - 1982)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:19 AM | Comments (1)

June 25, 2009

Angel Baby

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Paul Wendkos - 1961
Warner Archives DVD

Is there anyone who has the story on the making of Angel Baby? What is known for sure is that the film was begun by Hubert Cornfeld, and completed and signed by Paul Wendkos. There are also two credited cinematographers, Haskell Wexler and Jack Marta. There are parts of the film that appear closer to the work of Cornfeld and Wexler, mostly with some of the more dramatic lighting and unusual angles. In terms of any thematic and visual continuity, Angel Baby has more in common with Cornfeld's other films that I've seen, Pressure Point and Night of the Following Day. It could also be that Wendkos was hired to complete the film because someone remembered that his first film, The Burglar was about the robbery of a fake spiritualist. I found it interesting to discover that Wendkos and Cornfeld both made their debut films at about the same time, with The Burglar on the shelf for two years before being picked up by Columbia Pictures. Andrew Sarris considered Wendkos and Cornfeld interesting enough to mention them in his American Cinema. If nothing else, further study and interviews of those still with us would be of interest in discussing the kind of work that constituted independent filmmaking in the Fifties, when Wendkos and Cornfeld began their careers. Cornfeld's filmography is the skimpier of the two men because he managed to antagonize enough people to effectively cut short his time in Hollywood. Paul Wendkos proved to be more elastic in taking whatever projects came his way, yet Angel Baby is not uncharacteristic considering the scope of his very productive career.

Setting aside questions of authorship, Angel Baby is, on the whole, a film that seems to look better now than it did during its initial release. A mute young woman, Jenny, is dragged by her mother to the prayer meeting held by evangelist Paul Strand. With the audience members also praying for her to regain her voice, Strand places his hand on Jenny's throat. She regains the voice lost when she was a young girl, much to her own shock and amazement. Jenny decides to dedicate her life to spreading "the word", joining the itinerant Strand with his much older wife, Sarah, and their assistants, the less than secretively alcoholic Ben and Molly Hays. Sarah's jealousy of Jenny's youth and fear of losing her husband causes a rift, with Jenny going out on her own with help from the Hays couple. A small town businessman sees a way to make money promoting Jenny. While some critics have described Angel Baby as the smaller scale, distaff version of Elmer Gantry, this ignores both the issues raised by Angel Baby as well as its other merits as a film.

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Even though the religion in the story is a form of Christianity, I think it would by short-sighted to think that Christianity is the subject of the film. Taking a broader perspective, I would argue that Angel Baby is actually about the role of faith taken personally, and used in any form of organized religion where hierarchies of any kind are involved. The characters in Angel Baby may be deeply flawed, and yet they are also guided by a sincere belief that they are acting on behalf of God. What makes the film work is that there seems to be a fundamental respect for the characters without making them the objects of derision or cheap humor, even though there is an abundance of opportunity.

One scene that would have surely tempted a lesser director involves Sarah and Paul. Imagining that Paul's feelings about Jenny are more than friendly, Sarah reminds Paul of their marriage vows, and offers herself to Paul, wearing a somewhat flimsy nightgown, exposing the upper portion of her breasts. The actress playing Sarah, Mercedes McCambridge, was never attractive in the conventional sense, and was twenty-three years older than the actor playing Paul, George Hamilton. Paul spurns Sarah's advances. While the scene could be read as one of the old Hollywood trope of there being something wrong with mature women having both sexual interest, and sexual interest in much younger men, the scene is played with greater sympathy for Sarah than would be found in a similar scene in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard which played up the relationship between Gloria Swanson and William Holden for maximum grotesqueness.

Salome Jens, as Jenny, never fit the conventional mold of Hollywood beauty. Her acting ability cannot be questioned in the first few minutes of the film, first by the body language she uses when she is mute, and then when she is healed by George Hamilton. When Jens first speaks, it is with the voice of someone who has not spoken in about ten years, mouthing the words but not being fully articulate, the sounds struggling to come out of her mouth. The film also marks one of top billed George Hamilton's early roles. Whatever limitations Hamilton has had as an actor, he is visibly better delivering fire and brimstone than playing innocent and earnest. His performance in Angel Baby suggests that not enough attention was paid to how much better Hamilton is when his character skirts the sleazy side of life. Peripheral to the story, but a moment worth savoring is a scene of the very drunk Ben and Molly Hays, played by the always dependable Henry Jones and Joan Blondell. Deciding that the need to see the Strands about the trouble Jenny is about to get into, Jones takes Blondell's feet to put on her shoes. There is a palpable sweetness to the scenes these two older character actors share. Angel Baby was also the inauspicious big screen debut of Burt Reynolds, playing a character not too different from the good ol' boy persona he would make his own almost ten years later. Reynolds appears only in a few scenes in the beginning and near the end, showing off the chest that would sell a million magazines a decade later. Reynolds also has my favorite line in the film, letting Jens know how much he feels for her: "You look so nice and sweet. I swear you give me the torments."

I'm not sure if I know exactly what "the torments" are, although I could probably make an educated guess. Still, it's a great line and one that is more imaginative than what passes for dialogue in more recent American films. For those whose church is the cinema, we can be thankful that Angel Baby is born again on DVD.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:44 AM | Comments (2)

June 22, 2009

The Claude Chabrol blogathon: The Road to Corinth

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La Route de Corinthe/Who's Got the Black Box?
Claude Chabrol - 1967
Pathfinder Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Road to Corinth is a perfect illustration of what Andrew Sarris meant when he described Chabrol as keeping his hand in the filmmaking process even when his heart wasn't in it. The last film made before renewed commercial and critical with Les Biches, it is easy to understand why Chabrol would think this is his worst film. This is not to say unwatchable or devoid of any rewards. If Claude Chabrol's goal was to be the French Alfred Hitchock, than The Road to Corinth is Topaz, filmed two years earlier and with fewer pretenses.

The black boxes are little electronic gizmos that are suppose to cause failure in N.A.T.O.'s radar system. The boxes are Chabrol's MacGuffin. Chabrol is less interested in cold war politics than he is in presenting Jean Seberg as his blonde damsel in distress, picking up where her murdered spy husband left off. Chabrol may have been glancing at Jean-Luc Godard by not only using the star of Breathless, but introducing his N.A.T.O. spies with a wall sized photo of Lyndon Johnson and a giant U.S. flag. If nothing else, these outsized props serve as notice to not take The Road to Corinth seriously.

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What probably was of interest to Chabrol was the constant shifting of relationships. Seberg's goal is to vindicate her husband while everyone else wants to get in her way for their own reasons. Both characters and places are not always who, or what, they appear to be. The film begins with the appearance of a magician named Socrates, who is revealed under torture to be a spy. Michel Bouquet operates a small snack shop as a cover for his spy operation, while the chief villain has a lair inside the family crypt. Chabrol plays with sexual ambiguity presenting a male chambermaid, a portly hitman whose voice and soft features a feminine, and a dandyish hitman with an affinity for flowers and straw hats. The interest in duality within one person is also indicated when a piece of sculpture, the head of the goddess Artemis, is split in half, truly a girl cut in two.

Chabrol finds ways to be visually inventive with such scenes as the dandy spy climbing down a rope, filmed breaking into the movie frame, or Jean Seberg suspended in midair while hoisted from a crane. There is some humor involving spies disguised as Greek Orthodox priests, complete with sunglasses. Coming as it did, when the James Bond inspired spy cycle was tapering down, The Road to Corinth can't really be described as a spoof, but Chabrol is attempting to have some fun with both the genre and the Greek locations.

While thinking about the film, I had wondered it Hitchcock had ever considered Jean Seberg. Probably the combination would not have worked on a personal level, and Seberg was considered iffy at best in terms of Hollywood box office potential. It is also possible that Chabrol cast Seberg because she had a name that had some meaning beyond France, and if he couldn't make a movie with Grace Kelly, he could at least work with Otto Preminger's discovery. If you want to see Jean Seberg's best acting performance, see Lillith. In The Road to Corinth, it's enough that Jean Seberg is blonde and beautiful, and that every man in the film falls in lover with her. Even if one jettisons questions of Claude Chabrol's style and authorship, Jean Seberg's presence alone is enough to justify a view of this souffle of a movie.

For much, much more on Chabrol, visit Flickhead.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:20 AM | Comments (3)

June 21, 2009

Coffee Break

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Jacqueline Bisset in La Ceremonie (Claude Chabrol - 1995)

Le blogathon de Claude Chabrol commence a chez Flickhead.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:28 AM

June 18, 2009

The Good Guys

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Young Billy Young
Burt Kennedy - 1969
MGM Region 1 DVD

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The Good Guys and the Bad Guys
Burt Kennedy - 1969
Warner Brother Region 1 DVD

The revived interest in Budd Boetticher has in turn inspired me to watch, or in some cases, watch again the films by Burt Kennedy. Kennedy wrote the screenplays for what are probably the better of the Randolph Scott westerns directed by Boetticher, including the first, Seven Men from Now, and the last, Comanche Station. The eventual disappearance of westerns as a Hollywood staple was one of the causes for Kennedy's career to turn from theatrical films to television assignments. While I never saw Kennedy's films as consistently as I might have, those I did see usually offered a certain amount of pleasure. At his peak, Kennedy enjoyed working with bigger budgets and longer running times than allowed Budd Boetticher, yet Kennedy's film usually lack the vividness and punch Boetticher seemed to achieve with a few broad strokes. Still, what I like best about Burt Kennedy was that even though by choice or by circumstance, he was primarily involved with westerns, and he seemed to always look for some way to tweak the genre.

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Kennedy also worked with some of the same actors in different films, and in keeping with his affinity for westerns worked with stars who were primarily associated with the genre, twice with John Wayne, a mentor early in Kennedy's career, and James Garner. One of the more curious collaborations is that 1969 saw the release of two films Kennedy filmed back-to-back with both Robert Mitchum and David Carradine. It isn't that surprising that neither Young Billy Young nor The Good Guys and the Bad Guys rated any discussions of Carradine's past film roles, these are supporting roles with not a lot of screen time. Reflecting on the films Kennedy wrote for Boetticher, I tried to imagine Carradine in Lee Marvin's role in Seven Men from Now, or taking the place of James Coburn in Ride Lonesome.

By extension, this means imagining Robert Mitchum instead of Randolph Scott. Both of Kennedy's films introduce Mitchum crouched down by a campfire, drinking coffee, the type of scene that would appear in Boetticher's films with Scott. The thematic concerns continue, primarily that of youth versus maturity, and the usually surrogate relationships between fathers and sons. Curiously, both Young Billy Young and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys begin with shots of old steam locomotives, as well as vocal versions of the title songs. As much as I usually like Robert Mitchum, he never had much of a singing voice, and what was passable for Thunder Road is painfully thin almost ten years later. The Good Guys and the Bad Guys boasts the then popular Glenn Yarbrough, a real singer, although for this kind of film, I would have preferred Frankie Laine. Young Billy Young, with a screenplay by Kennedy is more similar to the Scott-Boetticher films. Kennedy recycles the last name of one of Ride Lonesome's characters, Boone, as the family name for Carradine and John Anderson. Mitchum's character is named Ben Kane, possibly a combination taken from Will Kane of High Noon and Scott's Ben Brigade in Ride Lonesome.

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Young Billy Young claims a book titled Who Rides with Wyatt? as its basis, but there is nothing in the film that resembles even a highly fictionalized version of the story of Wyatt Earp. Instead, two young outlaws, David Carradine and Robert Walker, Jr. sneak onto the train seen in the opening credits, shoot a Mexican officer and ride off, with Carradine soon abandoning the horseless Walker. Roping a jackass found on the trail, Walker comes across Mitchum, sitting alone, drinking coffee by a stream. Mitchum's past catches up to him in the Arizona town where he acts as lawman, with Carridine as the son of the man who killed Mitchum's son. Mitchum also clashes with Jack Kelly, the man who virtually owns the town, with Angie Dickinson caught between them. Unlike the Boetticher films written by Kennedy that take place in isolated outposts, Kennedy prefers more populated settings for his own films. Still the relationships between Mitchum and Walker, as well as Walker with Carradine, share common ground with such films as the aforementioned Ride Lonesome and The Tall T.

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Thematic concerns are less to the point for The Good Guys and the Bad Guys. The film starts off as a seemingly traditional western with Mitchum riding foothills of New Mexico, and stopping off to make small talk with curmudgeonly, civilization hating, Douglas Fowley. The cut to Model Ts upsets any previous expectations, with much of the film taking place in the early 20th Century in a town pointed called Progress. The screenplay is credited to Dennis Shryack and Ronald Cohen, but there seem to be a few moments that indicate Kennedy's hand. Carradine's cigar chomping outlaw leader has more screen time. Like many westerns of the time, it is an elegy to the end of the west, although more comic in tone with Martin Balsam's pompous mayor leading the charge towards the future. Seen almost thirty years later, there is a sense of nostalgia not so much for changing times, as much as the pleasure of seeing Robert Mitchum square off against George Kennedy, John Carradine making a brief appearance as a train conductor, and perennial bad girl Marie Windsor as a bar hostess. It seems quite possible that unlike his heroes who have supposedly outlived their usefulness, Kennedy knew that his time as a genre specialist was limited.

Burt Kennedy conducted an interview with Sean Axmaker, primarily discussing his work with Budd Boetticher.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:06 AM

June 16, 2009

Japanese Cinema Blogathon: Matango

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Ishiro Honda - 1963
Tokyo Shock Region 1 DVD

While I can't really say that watching Toho Studios monster movies initiated my love for Japanese movies, it probably had a lot to do with introducing me to the idea of watching Japanese movies more seriously. If for no other reasons, I would consider the series a gateway that help generate an interest in Japanese film in general. Unlike some of my generation, I didn't see any of the films theatrically but waited for the television broadcast versions of Rodan and Mothra. At the time I first saw the film known to Americans as Godzilla, I was still unsophisticated enough to not realize that Raymond Burr was shoehorned into an all Japanese film by means of editing. Seeing the American edit years later, I've always wondered why no one has had the sense of humor to remake the film - Raymond Burr plays a character named Steve Martin, so why not have Steve Martin in a version as a character named Raymond Burr? I did finally see the original Japanese version on an Australian DVD, several years before the American DVD version of Gojira was available, stunned by how much grimmer Ishiro Honda's film was as was his intention.

That my viewing of Japanese films would segue from Honda to Akira Kurosawa might also be considered somewhat natural, as these two filmmakers worked at the same studio, made films that essentially defined Japanese cinema for American young men, and personally were the best of friends. The name though that meant more to me when I was a much younger film scholar was Eiji Tsuburaya, Toho's special effects wizard, profiled in a copy of "Famous Monsters of Filmland". I eventually felt myself too old to watch Toho monster films, at least theatrically, but would catch something on occasion on television. The special effects might not have measured up to Hollywood standards, and the synchronization of the dubbing would be off, but there was always a childlike fascination with giant creatures that would visit Earth to create panic and havoc, and remind people of the dangers of radiation. In their unique way, Toho monster movies would also create the notion of the world outside of America at a time when the U.S. was less culturally or racially diverse.

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I'm not sure how much I would have appreciated Matango if I had seen it when I was much younger, but I can understand now why some of the actors say it is the favorite of Toho monster films they acted in. Unlike many of the other Honda films, there is no giant monster. That the monsters here are people are walking, stalking, human sized mushrooms is a loopy concept that originated from writer William Hope Hodgson. While unstated, as best as I can tell, from anyone associated with the film film, I would say that Matango reminds me of that favorite line from the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby version of The Thing: "An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles!". There is a brief reference to the dangers of radiation, but the other film that Matango would remind me of, more than the giant monster series, would be Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Siegel's monsters were the "pod people", repeating the idea of people as vegetables, or vice versa, lacking human emotions. This, of course, could be a setup for a joke about the horror of carrots, peas and mushrooms. But what I think Honda was after, on a more symbolic level, was a critique of the conformist aspect of Japanese culture.

The film is told primarily from the point of view of the last survivor of a yacht that lands, after a destructive storm, on deserted island. Kenji, formerly a psychology professor, is himself declared crazy after being rescued. The first view we see prior to his hospital room is a view of Tokyo, almost an abstraction of neon signs. Kenji and the six other people, are on a pleasure cruise to escape from their lives in Tokyo, to relax without demands or expectations. The opening credit sequence could be from a musical or light comedy, with it's cheerful music and shots of the yacht in the open sea. Once the yacht's crew and passengers are stranded, the film shifts to being a discussion of survival with the conflicts concerning group needs versus individual desires, and shifts in who leads and who follows. An abandoned ship is discovered, one that looks almost like an alien planet, covered as it is with fungus and streaks of rust, or is that blood? Even though it is recognizably the remains of a ship, the surface colors make it resemble an alien landscape. The ship's log explains partially what happened to that boat's crew, yet the lure of the mushrooms proves too great. Obliquely, Honda is positing the question of retaining individual identity or surrendering to the demands of the group.

This particular dilemma might be lost on an American audience, particularly a younger audience who would have comprised Matango's primary viewers. Kenji talks wistfully of having stayed on the island, and states that both the unnamed island and Tokyo are equally cruel. One could liken the mushroom people as both standing in for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors who were horribly disfigured, or the more recent victims of Minamata. Kenji struggles both physically and emotionally to retain his human identity, only to find that while he has refused to surrender his sense of self to become a mushroom person, neither is there a place for him in human society. In the conclusion of Matango, the greatest horror is that of finding yourself alone.

For more Japanese Cinema, visit Wildgrounds.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:10 AM | Comments (3)

June 14, 2009

Coffee Break

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Scarlett Johansson in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen - 2008)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:51 AM

June 11, 2009

Splendid Float

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Yan guang si she ge wu tuan
Zero Chou - 2004
Panorama Entertainment All Region DVD

Seeing Zero Chou's last two feature films proved enough incentive for me to see her debut narrative film, Splendid Float. Like her other films, Splendid Float is a meditation on love and loss, and an eventual coming to terms with life. Like Chou's other films, it is also about being gay in Taiwan. While some aspects of the film are culturally specific, it is a film that should be seen not only because it establishes Chou's thematic concerns but also because those concerns go beyond any drama about sexual identity.

Roy, a young novice priest, works on behalf of his family's funeral business, conducting Taoist ceremonies for the dead. Unknown to his family, Roy becomes Rose at night, a performer with a traveling drag troupe that sing and dance from their mobile stage. Beyond the performers actually singing, within its tiny budget and restricted locale, Splendid Float has deeper concerns than guys in dresses and make-up lip synching to "Shake your Groove Thing".

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Roy is dealing with the death of his lover, Sunny. Sunny had been ambiguous about the extent of his feelings towards Roy. Roy has been asked by Sunny's mother to perform a ceremony for Sunny, unaware that the two were lovers. Roy's emotionalism during the ceremony causes concern both for Sunny's family as well as Roy's own, with those unaware of Roy as Rose questioning why he would act as a bereaved widow. The circumstances of Sunny's death are unclear, possibly accident or suicide. What is known, at least to Roy, is that the two made love, with Sunny leaving a letter of apology and a yellow rose.

While Splendid Float deals with Taoism as practiced in Taiwan, some general aspects to that philosophy can be appreciated. Most obviously is Roy's dual identity as seen by others, both designated by the wearing of clothing and the act of performance. The splendid float of the title refers to the brightly lit stage used by the drag performers, and by extension, where their audience sits or dances, introduced in the beginning of the show as a means to transport the audience to paradise. The mobile stage, the yellow rose, and Sunny's death could all be seen as illustrations regarding the transience of life. When Roy attempts to seek answers to Sunny's death, he tosses two I-Ching coins. Chou does not explain the cause for Sunny's death, although there may be a clue when Roy and Sunny first get together. When asking if Sunny thinks Roy and his friends strange, Sunny response that he thinks they are liberated. Indirectly through Sunny and more directly with Roy, Chou examines the dichotomy of society's expectations against personal identity.

This concern with duality can also been seen in Sunny's formal funeral. Three women, in very colorful dress, perform a dance as part of the ceremony. The scene might be read as a parody of sorts of the performance done by Roy and his friends. Duality is also at the core of the songs performed by the drag troupe so that the lyrics provide a form of commentary on the lives of the characters. Like Taoism, which might be generalized as being about finding unity within duality or two opposing aspects, Roy's journey is about finding a sense of unity within himself.

Splendid Float served to announce Zero Chou as a major talent, winning several Golden Horse awards including Best Taiwanese Film for 2004, with James Chen getting nominated for Best Newcomer for his performance as Roy. Certainly those expecting a Chinese language version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Chou's film might be a challenge with its elliptical story telling, shifting between past and present, comedy and drama, musical and ghost story. For a deeper examination of Splendid Float, there is this essay available from Film International.

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Splendid Float is available from HK Flix.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:15 AM

June 09, 2009


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Irina Poplavskaya - 1969
Russian Cinema Council All Region DVD

The story of Djamilya is, at least on the surface, simple and familiar. In wartime Russia, a peasant family in a remote Kirghiz farm, harvests wheat to be used for soldiers' bread. The farms are staffed mostly by women, children and men too old to be drafted. The younger men that help farm have been injured seriously enough to be dismissed from service. Seit, the oldest remaining boy in his family helps with the farming and is also charged with protecting his sister-in-law, Djamilya. That Djamilya's husband is a soldier currently recuperating at a hospital does nothing to keep the men showering Djamilya with unwanted attention. An injured soldier, Daniyar, is assigned to help with the farming. He befriends Djamilya and Seit, but often finds himself the subject of teasing. Daniyar also lets Djamilya know his feelings for her. After resisting his advanced, Djamilya gives in, in part because of the neglect she feels has been expressed by her husband, who mentions her last in his uninformative letters to the family. Djamilya runs off with Daniyar. Looking back at his life, Seit recognizes that he was also in love with Djamilya, but at the time did not understand his sense of jealousy. He soon leaves the family himself when the opportunity is offered to study art away from home.

Djamilya is based on the autobiographical story by Chingiz Aitmatov. While inspired by his own experiences growing up in Kirghiz, Aitmatov's character grows up to be a painter, rather than a writer. Aitmatov wrote the screenplay and provides narration. The film is about about a way of life that probably changed drastically after World War II. Without there being any sense of conflict or contradiction is a life that has one foot steeped in cultural traditions of several hundred years, and another foot following the path and goals of Joseph Stalin. Even though the fighting is unseen, the effects of war are manifest by the actions of Djamilya and Seit, going against traditions of wives as the bedrock of the extended families, and sons growing up to replace their fathers in the fields.

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i could find nothing about director Irina Poplavskaya, and I don't know how much of the film reflects what was specifically written in Aitmatov's screenplay, but there are many moments when Djamilya seems closer in cinematic expression to the French New Wave films and American Independent films that emerged in the early part of the Sixties. There are montages of herds of galloping horses and rustling wheat fields. When Daniyar chases Djamilya through one of the fields, it could well be a scene from a Soviet Truffaut. There is a moment for low tech special effects when Seit is out by a lake at night, the scene illuminated with sparkles that exist for no other reason than providing an otherworldly quality for its own sake.

The actor who plays Daniyar, Suimenkul Chokmorov, also provided the paintings that are presented as the work of Seit. The film opens with a man looking a group of the watercolor paintings, holding a stack while standing, letting them drop to the floor one by one. The watercolors act to inform the viewer that the story takes place in a past time, from the point of view of a child. A later montage of paintings, with shots of details, or using different angles, depicts Daniyar and Djamilya's escape from the village and Seit's imagined fate of the two lovers. The paintings are filmed in color, contrasting with the monochrome of most of the story. When color is used for a live action shot of some horses, the color is altered to appear as if in one of Seit's paintings with their red horses against a blue background.

Djamilya seems markedly atypical for a Russian film even forty years after its initial release. Even though there is a brief interview with director Irina Poplavskaya, she mostly discusses how she had to fight to do the creative color photography and credits Aitmatov for supporting her vision for the film. There is no mention of any role played by the more established director Sergei Yutkevich in the making of the film, or of her own career which appears to have had a lengthy lull following the completion of Djamilya. Aitmatov's story has inspired at least two other versions that emphasized the relationship between Djamilya and Daniyar. Undoubtedly reflecting the hand of its original author, the film Djamilya is about what is in spirit a romantic triangle, with the feelings of a young boy manifesting in the form of art that creatively documents a past life and its people.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:34 AM

June 07, 2009

Coffee Break

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Rudiger Vogler in Lisbon Story (Wim Wenders - 1994)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:48 AM

June 04, 2009



Jaran Phromransee - 1976
Saha Puntamit Sound and Film All Region DVD

Who's the guy in the blue leisure suit with the brown Panama hat who can kick your ass if provoked? Pherg, that's who.

Chumpae, also known as Choom Pae, was at one time the biggest hit in Thai movie history. The star, Sombat Metanee, was the top star of his day, and even looks a little bit like a baby faced Burt Reynolds. I got the DVD as a way of getting a little more understand into older Thai cinema. Chumpae is not the kind of film that lends itself to serious film criticism, it is more accurately an old film rather than a classic. What is greater than the film is that it provokes a host of questions regarding film preservation as well as film studies.

Film preservation as it understood in Europe and the North America is still in its infancy in Thailand. Just as in the U.S., Thai studios were not prepared for the fact that DVD consumers would be interested in movies that played more than ten years previously. While I have read about a number of older films, the substantial number of old Thai titles available on DVD with English subtitles are those films by Chatrichalerm Yukol. For the non-Thai speaking film scholar, there is the dual problem of seeing the film on DVD, or in many cases VCD, as well as having the film come with reasonably correct English subtitles. Chumpae provides a case in point because the film element used for the DVD was pretty well worn, if not quite as bad as Insee Tong, which I wrote about last year. Also, there is the question of subtitles with English being the common language used even for international film scholars. Nothing gets in the way of taking a film seriously when according to the subtitled dialogue, a bad guy tells a potential victim, "You're going to die like a frog."

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Chumpae earned 30 million baht at the Thai box office, impressive for Thailand, but small change by U.S. standards, converting to around one million dollars. There is a lot of shooting and some very basic kick boxing. As far as Asian action films go, this doesn't have the polish of something by Cirio Santiago, the prolific Filipino director who worked with equally small budgets. Another question raised is how a foreign film critic or historian is to write about a film that was intended primarily for a domestic audience, and perhaps also for import within a specific geographic area. Some of the questions come to mind because I am currently reading Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context. For a variety of reasons, Thai cinema is more "foreign" than Japanese film, a situation caused in part because of the more limited number of Thai films shown theatrically as well as available on DVD, especially older films made before the Thai "New Wave" of 1997, as well as the extremely scant writing available on Thai cinema.

As for the film in question, Sombat plays a crook named Pherg who shows up at the town of Chumpae primarily to avenge the death of his father. The town itself is in the middle of Thailand. A gangster named Tom has the police in his pocket, and has also promised his young daughter to be married to the police chief. It is later revealed that Tom makes a habit of offering his daughter's hand in marriage to anyone who can be of significant help in his schemes. Pherg decides to fight Tom and his gang, becoming a sort of Robin Hood in the process. Complicating things is another gangster who runs amuck with his mob, causing havoc, claiming that he is Pherg. Pherg's idea of flirting with a female cop involves the two aiming guns at each other. There is much shooting, tossing of hand grenades, a preposterous happy ending, and subtitles indicating a shaky knowledge of the English language and idioms.

There was no information to be found on director Jaran Phromransee. Based on what I have read about Sombat also being a singer, I am hoping someone will tell me if that is his operatic voice on the song heard during the opening credits. If nothing else, having Chumpae on DVD provides one example of the work of one country's movie star at the height of his career. But in another sense, Chumpae also illustrates how limited film scholarship is both in terms of the availability of films and information regarding many films, as well as the kind of obstacles faced by those whose interest in film history goes beyond the well worn paths.

Chum Pae is available from HK Flix, along with more recent Thai classics, like Tears of the Black Tiger featuring Sombat in a supporting role.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:06 AM

June 01, 2009

King of the Roaring 20s

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Joseph M. Newman - 1961
Warner Archives DVD

David Janssen hardly looked like the real Arnold Rothstein. One isn't going to view King of the Roaring 20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein for much in the way of historical accuracy. This is a film to watch primarily for the cast generously stuffed with memorable character actors. Veracity matters less when Jack Carson, Mickey Rooney, William Demarest, Diana Dors show up for their few minutes of screen time. Maybe a truer film about Arnold Rothstein will be made. In the meantime, this film will do, as the entertaining story of the rise and fall of a gangster with the same name.

I haven't read the book by Leo Katcher that provided the basis for the film. The film marked screenwriter Jo Swerling's second whack at Rothstein, the first via Damon Runyon with the character of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. The other telling compromise is that this is the story of a Jewish gangster that dares not speak its name. In her book, The Jew in American Cinema, Patricia Erens would note the existence of Jewish groups that pressured Hollywood to essentially censor this aspect of Jewish-American history. The clues are with the casting of Joseph Schildkraut as father Abraham Rothstein, and a couple of discussion about "our faith", without being specific. The biggest error may be in glossing over why Rothstein was important in the history of organized crime, and the extent of his power and ties with other mobsters. In King of the Roaring 20s, the impression is that Arnold Rothstein was simply a gambler who for a time was extremely lucky.

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The film story seems to have been borrowed from the Warner Brothers template, even less surprising considering that one of the producers, Samuel Bischoff was one of the staff producers at Warners. One of Bischoff's credits was as Associate Producer for Raoul Walsh's The Roaring Twenties which stands as one of the classics of the genre. There was a resurgence in interest in the era in the early Sixties so that not only was there a television show that shared the title of Walsh's film (though nothing else), as well as a slew of moderately budgeted films.

The film begins with teenage Arnold Rothstein and his pal, Johnny Burke, busted by the neighborhood cop for organizing gambling out in the streets of New York City. Rothstein promises Burke that they'll be friends and partners forever. Anyone who can't guess where this is heading probably has never seen a movie, or at least not one with James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart (or both). The street cop, complete with Irish brogue, played by Dan O'Herlihy, rises in the ranks, while his take from the underworld increases. Rothstein and Burke grow up to be Janssen and Mickey Rooney. The friendship is forgotten when Rothstein starts working for Tim O'Brien, a politically connected operator with friends in Tammany Hall. O'Brien is played by Jack Carson in his last big screen performance. Carson's performance might be said to be a variation on the snake oil salesman some of us have loved in the past, albeit one with higher financial stakes and deadly consequences for those who cross him.

Joseph Newman primarily employs any visual flourish in conjunction with Rooney. Early on, dismissed by Janssen, Rooney's shortness is emphasized as he finds himself bumping into people and being summarily disregarded by the crowds. In a later scene, Rooney emerges from the shadows to for a near fatal meeting with O'Herlihy. Rooney is restrained, downbeat. As if to recall the live wire kid who was a star at MGM twenty years earlier, is the final glimpse of Rooney defiantly yelling at the gangsters he knows will shoot him down.

In it's initial New York City run, King of the Roaring 20s played second bill to Angel Baby. What cult interest has since developed could primarily be credited to Andrew Sarris who cited the film for the performances by janssen, Rooney and Carson. The film is not quite as good as I remember. The King of the Roaring 20s might best be described not as a classic gangster film but a filmed memory of classic gangster films.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:54 AM