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May 30, 2010

Coffee Break

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Jon Polito in American Gangster (Ridley Scott - 2007)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:35 AM

May 27, 2010

The John Williams Blog-a-thon: Gidget Goes to Rome

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Paul Wendkos - 1963
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

A guy's got to start somewhere. The film scorer commonly known as John Williams was billed as Johnny Williams during his first decade. Gidget Goes to Rome was one of the early composting credits on a solidly mid-budget studio production, though not the first association with the "Gidget" series. Still a relative newcomer, William provided orchestration for the first film, in 1959. Previous to this film, Williams had his first credit for scoring a little American International Pictures programmer titled Daddy-O. Whatever Williams had done on Gidget, he must have clicked with director Paul Wendkos, giving Williams the opportunity to compose the score for Because They're Young in 1960. While Gidget Goes to Rome does not have the kind of music one thinks of regarding John Williams, the film allowed the composer to have a little bit of fun.

Some critics have noted the variations on the musical theme for Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. Williams might be said in retrospect to have prepped for that film, almost ten years later, with his variations on the "Gidget" title song. Most of the music is what would be expected for a Hollywood film to evoke Italy, or something faintly exotic, as when Gidget imagines herself to be teenage Cleopatra, with white sneakers. A brass band playing music for Romans to twist the night away sounds like the prototype for Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass. Maybe Williams direction was to primarily to provide continuity where George Duning, Columbia Pictures' house composer, left off, when Gidget went Hawaiian. In terms of film music, Gidget Goes to Rome demonstrates that even future Oscar winners sometimes have to toil inconspicuously, just to prove they can get the job done.

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As for the film itself, Gidget Goes to Rome is the last, and least of the three feature films. There are a few moments worth savoring, with Paul Wendkos giving sway to his inner Orson Welles when Gidget wanders by herself in a museum, surrounded by old statues. Cindy Carol is blandly cute, but less interesting than the adenoidal Deborah Walley, who in turn could never quite fill the beach sandals of the underrated and under appreciated Sandra Dee. An overview of the original novel and origins of Gidget suggests that there is far richer material than is indicated by the films. Nonetheless, the first film is key to introducing surf culture to the mainstream, while the second film is much smarter and funnier than might be assumed of a film titled Gidget Goes Hawaiian. I am assuming Universal's exclusive contract made Dee too expensive to continue the role with which she is best known. Unfortunately for Dee, Universal squandered the promise of an actress who showed considerable ability with Vincente Minnelli, Douglas Sirk, and especially Delmer Daves. Aside from Paul Wendkos, only James Darren as Gidget's love, "Moondoggie" remains the constant of the three films. Andrew Sarris is dismissive of the three "Gidget" films as examples of Paul Wendkos's filmography. I would suggest all three films have varying degrees of reward to those who are serious about looking beyond genre, any genre. The "Gidget" films might not exactly be art, termite or otherwise, but they are genial, unpretentious fun.

For more on John Williams and his music, visit Edward Copeland's site, done in conjunction with Ali Arikan.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:17 AM

May 25, 2010

Truffaut True Faux True Foe

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Correspondence: 1945 - 1984
Francois Truffaut - 1988
The Noonday Press

The Soft Skin/La Peau Douce
Francois Truffaut - 1964
Tartan Video Region 2 DVD

I was hoping the Denver Public Library would have a copy of Francois Truffaut's Films of My Life. They didn't. But they did have a copy of Correspondence: 1945 - 1984. The book will be the closest we'll ever get to an autobiography. The first thing that struck me is that for a guy who dropped out of school at the age of 14, Truffaut was incredibly well read. That might be as much a tribute to French education as to Truffaut's own literary interests. The first several years of letters are almost exclusively to childhood friend Robert Lachenay. The two remained friends through adulthood, with Lachenay trying his hand at film production. Truffaut would also take his friend's last name as that of the adulterous husband in his film The Soft Skin.

What also struck me was the reminder that for all of his critical acclaim, Truffaut's films were not big money makers. Even the Oscar winning Day for Night was a financial failure, although for a while, Warner Brothers was high enough on Truffaut to suggest that he remake Casablanca. The recurring theme is of a filmmaker who turned down big paychecks to make the films he wanted to make on his own terms, passing on Day of the Locust, Swann in Love, and Is Paris Burning? among other films. Of the film he most famously did not direct, his involvement with Bonnie and Clyde was more substantial than I had assumed, with his hoping to cast Terence Stamp and Alexandra Stewart in the title roles. Arthur Penn's name comes up several times, making it seem even less coincidental that he was the one to finally make the film that had been in development for several years. Fahrenheit 451 was also in the planning stages for almost four years, with Truffaut considering filming in French with Jean-Paul Belmondo, or in English with Stamp, before ending up in an unhappy reunion with Jules and Jim's Oskar Werner.

A couple of very nice letters to the ailing Henri-Georges Clouzot dispute the notion that the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers were consistently dismissive of the older generation of "quality" filmmakers. On the other hand, Rene Clement seemed to constantly raise Truffaut's ire. Truffaut notes that in his collection of reviews, he has chosen not to republish a negative piece on Yves Allegret. In The Soft Skin, the main character, Pierre Lachenay, introduces a special screening of Marc Allegret's film, With Andre Gide. Allegret's film includes narration by Jean Desailly, the actor who plays Lachenay.

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Truffaut's little joke in The Soft Skin is not mentioned by Jean-Louis Richard, who wrote the film with Truffaut, and has a dialogue about the film with film historian and critic Serge Toubiana. I'm not able to explain why this is my favorite Truffaut film, maybe it's just watching Francoise Dorleac in what is considered her finest role, or maybe it's the plaintive score by Georges Delerue. What I was unaware of until reading Truffaut's letters was that the film was made during the dissolution of his own marriage, a point also mentioned briefly by Richard. That is Truffaut's own apartment where the Lachenay family lives, and I would not be surprised if someone did confirm that Truffaut gave one of his daughters an album of Haydn's "Toy Symphony", as Pierre Lachenay gives to his onscreen daughter.

Richard and Toubiana discuss the influence of Alfred Hitchcock on The Soft Skin. This is in contrast to most other filmmakers who think that remaking Psycho is all there is to the lesson. For Truffaut, it is primarily in the eyes, looking at the other person, or away, and close ups of hands turning lights on or off. Taking a cue from Rear Window is a moment when Desailly and Dorleac pass each other, and there is a brief freeze frame of each gazing at the other. Richard also notes that parts of The Soft Skin, notably the ending, have their sources in true crime stories, much like many of Hitchcock's own films.

I admittedly snagged a copy of this out of print DVD also for the featurette on Francoise Dorleac. Most of the footage is from The Soft Skin, but some of it is of Dorleac dancing alone in what I assume is a television commercial. Whatever the source of that particular footage, I'm sure it inspired the scene where Dorleac twists by herself in a nightclub while Desailly sits back to watch her. Dorleac's untimely death so disturbed Truffaut that he refused to attend any funerals. Truffaut wrote in one letter, " . . . we live not only with the living but also with all of those who have ever meant anything in our lives."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:24 AM | Comments (1)

May 23, 2010

Coffee Break

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Maribel Verdu in Mar Rojo (Enrique Alberich - 2005)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:00 AM | Comments (2)

May 20, 2010

Two films about Hong Kong filmmaking

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Ah Kam/A Jin de gu shi
Ann Hui - 1996
Mei Ah Laser Disc Co. Region 0 DVD

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My Name is Fame/Ngor yiu sing ming
Lawrence Ah Mon - 2006
Tai Seng Region 0 DVD

The story of Ah Kam is about a woman who appears on a movie set to serve as a stand-in, accepts an on the spot offer to film some stunts, and even serves as the action director on another movie. The film is most interesting when it is about filmmaking, and might have been something like the Hong Kong equivalent to Hal Needham's Hooper. The narrative wanders off to follow Ah Kam as she falls in love with a businessman who takes her back to China, where they live together while she manages his new nightclub. The boyfriend turns out to be less than faithful, and Ah Kam returns to Hong Kong. The action director, Tung, that she worked with, has found himself in deep trouble with gangsters.

What is worth watching are the scenes that give some idea of filmmaking in Hong Kong, where action scenes are usually handled by a specialized director who coordinates both what the stunt performers with do, and also how they will be filmed. Part of the strength of Hooper was that story elements were taken from Hal Needham and Burt Reynold's own experiences in filmmaking. A more interesting film might have been made using Sammo Hung's experiences both in front of and behind the camera, giving his character of Tung more depth. When Michelle Yeoh, as Ah Kam, is given the chance to direct some action scenes, I was hoping that the film might use some of Ann Hui's own experiences, possibly referring to her work as assistant to King Hu, and that perhaps Ah Kam would have worked her way up in Hong Kong's film industry.

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The action was choreographed by Ching Siu-Tung, who probably doesn't have a shortage of his own behind the scene stories. Two smaller roles of film directors are played by Teddy Chan, director of the currently acclaimed Bodyguards and Assassins, and < a href=http://www.filmref.com/directors/dirpages/yim.html>Yim Ho. The film was produced by Raymond Chow, most famous for Enter the Dragon. There is footage during the final credits of Yeoh injuring herself, jumping from a bridge to a moving truck. Given that Yeoh was unable to work for three weeks gives some credence to this review of the film that indicates that the released film was not the film Ann Hui had originally intended to make, but one that had to work around Yeoh's physical limitations. There is little online to address these questions, at least in English. It is also worth noting that Yeoh has returned to Chinese language filmmaking with two martial arts films at the age of 47.

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Filmed ten years after Ah Kam, Ann Hui plays the part of a director in My Name is Fame. Lau Ching Wan plays the part of a once promising actor, Fai, with a career that has dissolved to bit parts. A young would be actress, Faye (Huo Siyan), fresh from the mainland seems to be the only one to remember the better part of Fai's career and ingratiates herself, making him a reluctant acting coach and manager. Under Fai's tutelage, Faye goes from bit player to star. The film ends during the Hong Kong Film Awards, with Fai one of five nominees for supporting actor, with the winner to be handed the award by Faye. Faye fumbles with the envelope and the viewer never knowing who won the award. It may not be coincidental that My Name is Fame actually won two acting awards, and received four nominations from the real Hong Kong Film Awards.

There are some sight gags, such as watching Faye repeating a chase scene where she falls, until one leg is injured. Dressed in a flowing red gown for an action scene, Faye is hoisted a bit too energetically on the wires she's hooked to, her head hitting the top of the set. In addition to Ann Hui, director Gordon Chan also appears as himself, while several actors make appearances, including Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Ekin Cheng. What My Name is Fame does unintentionally is remind those use to Hollywood opulence about how much more modestly other film professionals live and work. It's not only Fai, who lives in a dingy apartment decorated with a poster from Scorsese's After Hours and a painting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker, but Fai's parents, with his father a former film director, living in a small, though comfortable apartment. Likewise, the offices of the filmmakers are cramped and overstuffed. In some ways mainstream Hong Kong filmmaking is closer to true independent productions with the limited budgets, small payrolls, and need for spur of the moment decisions on the set.

My Name is Fame is a gentle comedy-drama, not trying to be A Star is Born (any version), or any of the more ambitious exposes about being a movie star, or even a workaday actor. In some ways, My Name is Fame is closer to The Oscar in some of its basic concerns, but with a greater greater self awareness, and a far less inflated sense of self importance. With a nod to the unnamed Infernal Affairs and The Departed Wai sums up Hong Kong cinema as being a product that will be remade in Hollywood "starring Brad Pitt", which is essentially a remake of Hollywood films. Instead of biting the hand that feeds it, My Name is Fame offers a loving nibble.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:34 AM

May 18, 2010

The Sanctuary

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Thanapon Maliwan - 2009
First Look Studios Region 1 DVD

I can't argue about the fighting skills of Mike B., formerly Piroj Boongerd. The guy could probably hold his own against peers Tony Jaa and Dan Chupong. Mike B., in fact, had been a stunt performer in Ong-Bak and has also served as action director on a handful of films. What Mike B. lacks is the kind of onscreen charisma that make Tony and Dan fun to watch even when they're not doing back flips or kicking someone in the face. And if Mike B. can be considered some kind of martial arts star, he is to Tony Jaa what Gerard Butler is to Russell Crowe.

The Sanctuary is the type of film that might find its true calling on late night cable television. No cliche has been left behind. The basic premise is that a group of high tech thieves are after a Thai national treasure, with some double crossing in the favor of the highest bidder. Mike B. plays Krit, a dealer in fake antiques, who discovers that his uncle has been involved with the crooks. It also turns out that one of the bad guys killed Krit's twin brother. In one scene, the injured Krit is nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk who uses what is described as a very rare herb. While with the pretty archaeologist, Praifa, Krit is shot and the two fall down in a wooded area where there is a cave, and by golly, the rare herb is in the cave, allowing Praifa to cure Krit. Krit and Praifa manage to run into the bad guys on the road not once, but twice. There is also the one bad guy who knows which tree to jump from, to ambush Krit. And as the closing credits roll, there is the suggestion that the chief bad guy may not be dead after all. As it turned out, just days before I was going to post this review came this news from Cannes. And If that's not enough, Krit also has this jewel which has holographic images of Muay Thai boxing when held in the light, just the right way.

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The real stars of The Sanctuary are Russell Wong as chief bad guy, Patrick, and Patharawarin Timkul, as the lethal Selina. Armed with knives, guns, and grenades, you know that Selina is a very bad girl because she's a chic dresser, and has too much lipstick. Intira Jaroenpura, best known for playing the title role in Nonzee Nimibutr's Nang-Nak, is the young archaeologist. One of the other signifiers of Thai cinema is that the good girls don't wear much make-up, and dress in practical blue jeans. Praifa mostly is confined to supporting Krit in the pursuit of the stolen vases, but does have a moment to show off her own boxing skills against Selina. In the one moment of the film that makes total sense, Krit is fighting the bad guy Gary, Praifa is taking on Selina, so after observing the scene, Patrick cooly picks up the goods and the loot and walks away.

The couple of trailers with the DVD indicate that First Look has also hopped on the Asian martial arts movie bandwagon. The trailer for Mike B.s previous film, Brave, also directed by Thanapon Maliwan, looks kind of fun. The Sanctuary was originally filmed in both Thai and English, depending on who was doing the talking. For some unknown reason, First Look has the film available in a completely English dubbed version. The only way one can enjoy seeing Thai actors speak Thai, and follow what they are saying, is by watching the film with subtitles designed for the hearing impaired. To not have the option of having subtitles during the Thai language portions of The Sanctuary was a dumb decision on the part of First Look. Fortunately, the subtitles don't interfere with the pleasure of watching the villainous expressions of Russell Wong and Patharawarin Timkul.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:09 AM | Comments (1)

May 16, 2010

Coffee Break

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Lee Bo-young and Jo In-seong in A Dirty Carnival (Yu Ha - 2006)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:07 AM

May 13, 2010

Legend of the Tsunami Warrior

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Puen yai jon salad/Queens of Langkasuka
Nonzee Nimibutr - 2008
Magnolia Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I have to assume that releasing Nonzee Nimibutr's newest film on DVD in the U.S. is the part of the price Mark Cuban and Magnolia are paying to stay in business with Sahamongkolfilm, the studio of Thailand's biggest star, Tony Jaa. Two years after its release at Cannes, Nonzee is ill-served by a nonsensical title. At least the film is the same version that played theatrically after Cannes, cut from 133 minutes to just a little under two hours. As a producer, Nonzee has been busy with several films, notably The Eye 2 for the Pang brothers, and the Thai classical music story, The Overture. As a director, Nonzee's last film to get significant DVD release was Jan Dara, with OK Baytong apparently only seen outside of Thailand in the festival circuit.

A queen and her two princesses rule the mythical kingdom of Langkasuka. Rival kingdoms, all ruled by men, have formed alliances that threaten the queen. One prince has joined with a pirate, Black Raven, to attack the kingdom. In a small fishing village, a young man, Peri, learns magic from a mysterious old man named White Ray. White Ray has an evil twin brother, Black Ray. There's also a very large cannon, a gift to defend Langkasuka, that is at the bottom of the ocean, the result of a pirate attack. Black Ray plots to raise the cannon for use against the kingdom.

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Legend of the Tsunami Warrior represents a major shift in the work of Nonzee Nimibutr, from his smaller, more personal films. The 20 million dollar budget is not much bigger than that of some so-called independent films from Hollywood studios, but was a record by Thai standards. There are parts of the film that will easily recall Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars. And it is those parts of Legend of the Tsunami Warrior that work against the intentions of the filmmaker. While not as wrong-headed as the superhero movie, Mercury Man, there is a misunderstanding of what is needed to make a film with international appeal.

The biggest error is to attempt to make a Thai version of the kind of film that Hollywood produces at ten times the budget with big name stars. The most popular Thai film, the first Ong-Bak, was uniquely Thai in its concerns of Buddhism and elephants, and also in its sense of humor. Also uniquely Thai was the first Thai film to get international distribution, Iron Ladies, about the winning volleyball team comprised mostly of gay men and ladyboys. In that same vein, the most acclaimed of Nonzee's films is his own version of a genuine Thai legend, Nang Nak.

The best known actor in Legend of the Tsunami Warrior is the second best known martial arts star, Dan Chupong, seen mostly with a partial mask to cover a wound received near the eye, saving the life of the queen. Ananda Everingham, who for a while seemed to be in every other Thai movie, plays magical Pari who literally swims with the fishes. Sorapong Chatree, a mainstay of Thai cinema since the mid Seventies, plays White Ray. One of the action directors is Panna Rittikrai, probably one of the valuable members of the Sahamongkolfilm team. Weerapon Phumatfon, best known for the fight choreography for Chocolate, also served as action director. The screenplay is by novelist Win Lyovarin with an ending that suggest a sequel. The film was originally envisioned to be in two parts. Legend of the Tsunami Warrior isn't a bad film as much as it is a disappointment from the man who raised the bar for Thai cinema.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:39 AM

May 11, 2010

Dennis Hopper (A Keen Eye)

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Rudi Fuchs and Jan Hein Sassen
Stedelijk Museum Amersterdam
NAI Publishers Rotterdam - 2001

I first became dimly aware of Dennis Hopper as a photographer not too long after Easy Rider had become a well established hit film. A friend of mine pointed out that Hopper had done the photos of Ike and Tina Turner on their "River Deep, Mountain High" album. About fifteen years ago, when I was trying my hand at photography, I picked up a magazine that had a special black and white issue. Among the photos were several shot by Hopper in the mid Sixties of Bill Cosby, Jane Fonda, and perhaps ironically, John Wayne and Dean Martin, on the set of The Sons of Katie Elder. I say ironically, because that film was directed by Henry Hathaway, whom Hopper had a legendary clash with several years earlier, leading to Hopper's acting career limited to television guest roles and several spartan budgeted films at American International. A book, Pictures of Peace, included some other photos by Hopper, including one of a biker couple, shot in 1965.

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I knew Dennis Hopper did some painting, but until viewing the photos illustrating the exhibit, had no idea about the extent of Hopper's work. Not just painting, but installation pieces, and work with a variety of mediums. I have neither the academic chops nor the vocabulary to discuss Dennis Hopper as an artist outside of what he has done in film. In some of the work, I can see connections with the film work, but I understand it more on an intuitive level, based on the use of color and imagery. If perhaps there is too much emphasis on connecting the art work here with Easy Rider, it may be because it is Hopper's most easily identifiable work as a filmmaker and actor. The narrative can be described as one of an artist who works with painting and photography, abandoned in favor of filmmaking, and returned to in one degree or another.

One biographical bit that was very surprising was to know that Dennis Hopper had about 300 paintings that were lost in a fire in 1961. Almost tying things up in a literal fashion was reading that Hopper's studio in Taos, New Mexico, was a former movie theater. There is the unexpected collaboration with Marcel Duchamp, and an exploration of the influence of fellow Kansan, Bruce Conner, a frequent subject of Hopper's photographs. Of the films Hopper directed, Colors has been the film that most rejuvenated Hopper's interest in photography and painting, the film title given additional extratextual meanings. Take what you want to from the two essays in this book. I wish there were some decent photos of the paintings that were available online. The paintings, even in small reproductions here, and the photos, are all worth a look, especially in consideration of an artist who in any of his chosen mediums could not escape the description of "intense".

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

May 09, 2010

Coffee Break

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Edith Scob in Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas - 2008)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:00 AM

May 07, 2010

Miyamoto Musashi V: Duel at Ganryu Island

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Miyamoto Musashi: Ganryu-jima no ketto
Tomu Uchida - 1965
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Tomu Uchida films a sword fight in a way I have not seen done by any other filmmaker. The swordsman, Kojiro, played by Ken Takakura, is asked to demonstrate his abilities for a local lord. One of the lord's vassals is asked to be the opponent, using a spear. In most films, duels are traditionally composed of full shots of the two duelists alternating with medium or close up shots of each person. Uchida, has instead filmed a significant part of the duel as a long take of nothing but the legs of Kojiro's opponent, followed by a full shot of the opponent. It's a very unusual way to film a duel, and essentially forces the viewer to imagine not only the action, but also the expressions of the actors.

The film begins with a more traditional recapping of the previous four films, and ends with the reunion of the main characters as well. Musashi, taking a break from proving his prowess with the sword, comes across a young boy who's father had just died. Helping the boy bury his father, Musashi sticks around to help with the small farm where the boy lives. The sequence reminds me of Shane, where the gunfighter puts down his weapon for a more pastoral life. The country life comes to an end when Musashi fights off bandits that have come to steal the villagers' rice from a storage house.

There is also a revisiting of the theme of artistic expression from the fourth film. Turned down for an official position by the shogunate, Musashi is asked to create artwork on behalf of the lord of the fief. The spare painting is describes as a tiger lost in the wilderness, a metaphor for Musashi's own spirit.

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Even though he is the title character, Musashi is presented throughout Uchida's series as continually conflicted about the meaning of many of his actions. Uchida could be said to undermine the romantic notions regarding the philosophical underpinnings of Bushido and what it means to be a samurai, with most of the characters ultimately rationalizing their self-interests. The final shot in this film leaves Musashi as a tiny figure on a boat, visually suggesting that Musashi is "lost at sea", or at the very least is insignificant against the flow of nature. The ending is disquieting, and does not provide the expected kind of closure. According to the site Wildgrounds, Uchida was working on a sixth Miyomoto Musashi film at the time of his death.

I should mention that AnimEigo has much higher standards than anyone else when it comes to presenting Japanese movies on DVD for westerners. In addition to the easy to read subtitles, and titles that concurrently explain some of the historical context, and the notes that are part of the supplements, is the subtitling that goes beyond the efforts of others. Everyone, and I mean everyone, including the most minor of actors and characters, has their names translated into romaji during the credit sequences. Also, signs, letters and postings of various kinds also get subtitles, leaving the viewer no doubt as to what is written. There may be some debate as to whether the Miyamoto Musashi series is the ideal choice of introduction of the films of Tomu Uchida. Even if this series does not represent Uchida's best work, as some have argued, it's good enough to make me want to see more from this still little known filmmaker.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:08 AM | Comments (1)

May 05, 2010

Miyamoto Musashi IV: Duel at Ichuyo-ji Temple

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Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijoji no ketto
Tomu Uchida - 1964
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

What interests me about the way Tomu Uchida is filming his series on Miyamoto Musashi are his stylistic choices. Each film in the series is done in a consistent visual style, yet the consistency is only within each film rather than carried throughout the series. The fourth film begins with a recapping of the events of the first three films, but with mock period paintings, in color, alternating with black and white shots from the preceding films. At first it appears as an odd conceit, but the reasons for Uchida's visual choices becomes more clear as the film progresses.

Musicianship and painting, art in general, symbolize alternative modes of life and expression. Otsu makes her appearance known to Musashi by playing her flute by the side of a road. The father of the boy, Jotaro, is identified by his playing of an older Japanese woodwind instrument. Musashi spends part of his time contemplating an abstract looking Chinese painting. In a key scene, Musashi spends the night with a courtesan. The courtesan, Yoshino, plays the stringed instrument, the biwa, which she cuts open to explain how the sounds are created. She compares Musashi to a taut instrument that will easily break, as opposed to the hidden flexibility within the biwa.

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The narrative is about the students of the martial arts school seeking revenge for their young master having been defeated by Musashi. The hot headed Denshichiro leads the students, ignoring warnings that he may overestimating his own capabilities. The title of this episode refers to the scene of battle, with Musashi standing against the seventy-three members of this dojo. The sequence is in monochrome. I have no idea why Uchida chose to break from color for this part of the film. The contrast is immediate when, after the battle, we see Musashi lying in a field of red leaves, an image that consciously evokes the flames of hell.

Red, of course, is the color of blood. Red is used in various ways also in the color of some of the costumes. The connection of red, blood and nature is also connected within a bit of dialogue. When Musashi returns from a brief sword fight, Yoshino tries to blot some blood from his clothing while entertaining a group of men. One man, taking notice, asks if what he saw was blood. The reply is, "I believe it is a crimson peony petal".

Uchida seems to have used this film to explore his own ideas about art in the way he uses the wide screen. Within each shot one can identify ways of dividing the space vertically as well as horizontally. Much of the vertical space is broken up by the panelling of the houses in interior shots, and trees for the exterior scenes. Most of the shots are relatively long takes with the use of pan, tracking and crane shots to emphasize the unity of the characters within the shot. The visual style is integrated within the film without calling attention to itself. It could well be that in working with what is a very familiar story, filmed several times previously, that what interested Tomu Uchida was not the story of Miyamoto Musashi, but how he could tell the story. Uchida was a well established filmmaker who's real interest was in continuing to find new ways of expressing himself artistically.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:51 AM

May 03, 2010

Miyamoto Musashi III: Birth of the Nito-Ryu Style

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Miyamoto Musashi: Nitoryu Kaikan
Tomu Uchida - 1963
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Into the third entry of the Miyamoto Musashi series, I feel like I am watching something that in structure resembles something like Robert Altman's Nashville. What I mean by this is that, taken as as whole, characters weave in and out, and are all connected in some way to Miyamoto, although many are unaware of those connections. This particular episode also made me think of Altman in that several of the characters are looking for each other unsuccessfully. Miyamoto's story almost takes a back seat to the narrative strands of several supporting players. I'm not sure if I can even relate what goes on in the film without charts and diagrams.

Miyamoto is still roaming around Japan, looking to pick fights with the masters of other martial arts schools. The aging master of one school won't even see anyone because he has retired. Otsu, the young woman pining for Miyamoto, acts as the old man's assistant, and never knows that as she walks past a country inn, Miyamoto is behind the door. The bat shit crazy woman who would have been Otsu's mother-in-law is still convinced her son is dead, and that it is Miyamoto's fault, chasing after him with a sword. Jotaro, Miyamoto's young courier, kills the dog belonging to the old master after it has scratched his face. By the end of the film, virtually all of the main characters from the first three films have either crossed paths or in some way have been accounted for.

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Added to this mix is a new challenger, Sasaki Kojiro. Ken Takakura makes a great entrance, standing in the bow of a small ship. Sasaki is also out to prove that no one is better than him with a sword. His first demonstration is to lop off a rival's top knot. Still very boyish looking, Takakura hardly resembles the actor best known to western audiences for his role in Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza.

Tomu Uchida's visual style is more functional here than in the first two film films. What is even more noticeable is a sense of artificiality. Everything looks like it was shot on a set, even when I'm pretty certain that it was not. The use of color, especially in the final shot with the rosy finger of dawn streaking the sky, made me think of another classic film about journey that leads to self knowledge, The Wizard of Oz. That the journey, rather than the destination, is what interests Uchida is noted in this excerpt from a dialogue with Yasujiro Ozu: "Large groups are no good. If you go out on your own, you don't have to determine where you're headed. On a Sunday morning you can put on a backpack and head out with no specific goal in mind."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:32 AM

May 02, 2010

Coffee Break


Woody Harrelson in Defendor (Peter Stebbings - 2009)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:03 AM

May 01, 2010

Miyamoto Musashi II: Duel at Hannya Hill

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Miyamoto Musashi: Hannyazaka no ketto
Tomu Uchida - 1962
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Fifteen monks with spears to the left. About twenty-five unkempt ronin to right. What's a lone swordsman to do? The second installment of the Miyamoto Musashi series is a transitional episode that can not be judged in the same way as a stand alone film. The film is essential a road film chronicling a bit more of Miyamoto's development, both in his abilities with the sword, and with his outlook towards life.

Some of the characters from the first film appear again briefly. The young woman, Otsu, who was his friend's fiancee, now has her heart set for Miyamoto. The friend, Matahachi, has married the older woman, Oku, and runs an inn with her and Oku's adopted daughter, Akemi. The story, as such, is of Miyamoto showing up at various schools to prove his mastery in martial arts. On his journey, he is accompanied by a young boy, Jotaro, who acts as his courier.

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The film begins with Miyamoto stepping out of the room he has been cloistered in for three years. If the equation of sunshine and enlightenment was missed by anyone who watched the first film, it won't be missed with two mentions of illumination within the first few minutes of this second film. Uchida uses a camera setup frequently with the camera looking up at the camera, with the blue sky and some white clouds in the back. This constitutes one of his repeated stylistic flourishes. There is some imagery of the very small characters almost lost in the landscape, though not to the extent of the first film. As for action, it doesn't take place until the title scene, with Miyamoto dispatching the scruffy ronin each with a single well placed blow of the sword. One guy gets his head lopped off, which causes a fellow ronin to observe of Miyamoto: "This guy is tough".

The real payoff is at the end of the film. The leader of the spear wielding monks takes a group of small stones, and has a Buddhist prayer written on each one. The stones are then set on each of the dead ronin. Miyamoto rejects the notion that his rivals are worthy of any kind of human consideration. One of the frequent elements in Buddhist parables, and the central part of the life of Shakyamuni, is the theme of the journey. That Uchida's version of the life of Miyamoto Musashi is to be understood as something of a Buddhist parable is made clear for the viewer, even when the title character is unaware of the philosophical path his life will take.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:38 AM