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January 30, 2011

Coffee Break

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Luigi Lo Cascio in Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee - 2008)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:52 AM | Comments (1)

January 27, 2011


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Byun Young-joo - 2002
Oscar Region 0 DVD

There is, to me, a remarkable shot of Lee Jong-won's back during the first scene of sex with Kim Yunjin. His back is covered with beads of sweat. Most filmed depictions of sex seem to miss that detail. Hot sex is more than the motions. Really great sex is sweaty, smelly and messy.

I'm not sure how the Korean title would really be translated, but Ardor seems about right. Byun Young-joo's film is in part about a relationship primarily based on mutual sexual attraction, but it's also about how love and sex mess with your head. There is a certain literalness to the film, possibly so Byun can put her points regarding what's going on with Kim's character of Mi-heun.

The film opens on Christmas Eve with the sudden appearance of a young woman at the Seoul apartment of Mi-heun and her husband. The inebriated young woman spontaneously reveals that she has been having an affair with the husband, causing shock to Mi-heun. Further attempting to stake her claim, the young woman strikes Mi-heun in the head with an unseen object, causing injury. The rest of the film takes place in late June, with Mi-heun and her husband and young daughter living near a small town, out in the countryside. Mi-heun continues to have headaches, possibly psychosomatic, and seems continually distracted.

Byun's literalness continues when Mi-heun meets the man who would be her lover, In-kyu, when her car stalls at a crossroad. The first day that Mi-heun and In-kyu make love coincides with the beginning of typhoon season. At least Byun is smart enough not to feel the need to underline her points for the less visually attentive viewer.

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Ardor in spirit reminded me of Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Chereau's Intimacy. In-kyu proposes to Mi-heun that they have a relationship that is temporary, lasting no longer than Summer, to end if either person makes a declaration of love. Mi-huen's passion is such that she sneaks out of the house, barefoot, wearing nothing but a nightgown, and walks over to In-kyu's home. In-kyu even admits that he is having difficulty playing by his own rules.

This is a film of doublings. Mi-heun and In-kyu's relationship echoes what is described to Mi-huen by her husband's lover on Christmas Eve. Right before Mi-heun and In-kyu meet, Mi-heun wanders around the outside of a house, surveying the wreckage of strewn items, which she later learns was the setting of a murderous lovers' quarrel, a true broken home. Mi-heun becomes friends with a woman who runs a small roadside snack house, who also is in a volatile relationship with her husband. Finally, the husband becomes aware of Mi-huen's affair, reacting in fury as if his own actions that set the narrative in motion had never happened.

I have written about Byun Young-joo previously in a post about Flying Boys. Some of the critical reaction to Ardor is of interest because there is a divide regarding how much of a feminist reading should be applied to this film. I don't think the points raised are invalid. With her documentaries, Byun has established her feminist credentials. Perhaps Ardor was Byun's declaration of entitlement for some ambiguity or open interpretation, what is often looked for with many admired filmmakers who also happen to be male.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:27 AM

January 25, 2011

Global Art Cinema


Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories
Edited by Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover
Oxford University Press - 2010

One night at the Starz Denver Film Festival, I had a brief conversation with a respected documentary filmmaker. We talked a bit about films we saw and those we were looking forward to seeing. I had mentioned Uncle Boonmee and my interest in Thai cinema, as well as my time in Thailand. He had asked me about the "Thai cinema scene". I was a bit stunned, and not sure how to answer. Part of that is because of various factors. In Thailand there are the commercial films that play throughout the country, and then the smaller films that play in Bangkok, possibly in Chiang Mai, or maybe in special venues or festival screenings. Also there is a disconnect with those films that are tapped for import providing a distorted view of the local cinema scene. More specifically, if one based Thai cinema based on what was available in the U.S., one might assume it is either an "art movie" like Uncle Boonmee or an action film with Muay Thai boxing. The truth is more complicated and messier.

There are two problems I have with Global Art Cinema. First, too many of the contributors feel the need to position themselves against David Bordwell and his definition of "art cinema". Bordwell is mentioned so many times that I think he should make a claim for authorship. Second, just because you're an academic doesn't mean you have to write like one. Maybe it's just me, but I think others have proven that one can write intelligently and with insight about film without using words like heterogeneity or intertextually.

What I think Global Art Cinema does right is bring up questions about how films are produced, marketed and perceived, especially those that are (mis)understood to represent their respective countries of origin. For myself, the film raised more questions, rather than provide answers, making me reflect on both the choices of films I see, as well as the films I choose to write about. Additionally, I have to think about how film history, theory and criticism was taught and understood at the time I was going to New York University during the first half of the Seventies. If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have ventured at least a couple of times to the movie theaters in Chinatown, and maybe to the theater that briefly showed the latest Bollywood movie.

There were a couple of essays that I especially liked. Patrick Keating's piece on Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa discusses the differences in his work between Emilio Fernandez and Luis Bunuel. An anecdote regarding Bunuel asking Figueroa to point his camera in the opposite direction of a shot more likely to be found in a Fernandez film is echoed in a recently related story where the Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi would base his filmmaking choices on what would not be done by Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu. Also, Dennis Hanlon's essay on South American filmmakers, mostly Jorge Sanjines, but also Glauber Rocha, talks about trying to create films that will appeal to the intended local audience, express what needs to be address politically, and possibly find a filmmaking language that does not mimic Hollywood or European films.

Uncle Boonmee is an interesting case in point because the films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul are largely financed through European sources. There was also the sense expressed by some in Thailand's film industry that there was little local interest in Apichatpong's films within Thailand. A variety of factors contributed to Apichatpong's films being more widely seen outside of Thailand, although lack of interest could be disputed, as his films were clearly made available at the Chiang Mai DVD store I frequented. Winning the top prize at Cannes made Apichatpong a local celebrity and allowed, or perhaps forced, a theatrical run of Uncle Boonmee in Bangkok, with greater than anticipated attendance. To comprehend why talking about national cinema can create misunderstandings and misstatements about what comprises the cinema of that country, consider this list of the most popular Thai films of 2010. Not only is Uncle Boonmee, the film that has received the most critical acclaim and the greatest international distribution, not on the list, but the only film to get international distribution beyond a pan-Asian audience is Ong Bak 3, based on a dedicated fan base for Tony Jaa and martial arts films. Neither Apichatpong nor Tony Jaa is representative of more than a fraction of Thai cinema, yet that most visible fraction represents the whole for many western viewers.

What Global Art Cinema does is raise the questions about what is meant by a foreign film, who are the people who help make that film, and who is meant to be the audience?

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:39 AM

January 23, 2011

Coffee Break

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Ewan McGregor in The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski - 2010)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:11 AM

January 20, 2011

The Kon Ichikawa Story: A Filmful Life

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Kon Ichikawa on the set of Dora-Heita.

Ichikawa Kon monogatari
Shunji Iwai - 2006
Pony Canyon Region 2 DVD

Shunji Iwai will be premiering his newest film, his first in English, at Sundance in the next few days. I won't be there, and neither will be some of those reading this piece. However, Iwai has what he describes as his own online film festival. It's as worth checking out as are Iwai's films. My personal favorite at this time is Alice and Hana.

Iwai's movie about Kon Ichikawa is a personal look at both a filmmaking idol and friend. Some of the facts of Ichikawa's life are presented, but this is less an objective documentary than a cozy, and immensely entertaining portrait of a guy who just happened to be one of Japan's great directors. And of course, like any such film, you want to see more work by the filmmaker in question. There is some frustration, in that only a limited number of Ichikawa's films are available with English subtitled DVDs, and the fewest of those films are from his earlier works.

The excerpts are like great delicacies that left me craving for more. There were several Ichikawa films that I've always wanted to see, such as Conflagration and The Key. A couple of minutes are given to seeing Tatsuya Nakadai taunting Raizo Ichikawa (no relation) in the former, and Machiko Kyo teasing everyone in the latter film. An anecdote is told that Kon Ichikawa was given the rights to the film by showing up at author Junichiro Tanizaki's house, driving up in a Mercedes with a large gift of cash. Of films currently unavailable, Hideko Takamine snags the attention of Ken Uehara and myself in Ichikawa's feature debut, A Flower Blooms, from 1948. Ten Dark Women, from 1961, is a black comedy about a television producer, and his wife and nine mistresses who conspire to murder him. And as revered as Yasujiro Ozu may be, maybe because he is so beloved, I would like to see Ichikawa's parody of Ozu, Anata to watashi no aikotoba: Sayonara, konnichiwa. There's also Hole in One, with an extremely voluptuous Machiko Kyo, and a badly fastened wig.

Additionally, there are excerpts from Ichikawa's work as an animator in the early Thirties, making cartoons that look very similar to some of the work of his American contemporaries. A film with marionettes, a period love story, and Ichikawa's first film of any kind, shows his concern for framing and lighting, as if he knew that eventually this work would be practice before given the opportunity to work with live actors. A lifetime fan of Walt Disney, Iwai was able to include excerpts from one a Disney "Silly Symphony" as well as Mickey Mouse in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" from Fantasia. A close up of Ichikawa on the set of his last film, is of his shoes, with the Mickey Mouse logo.

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Natto Wada and Kon Ichikawa

Iwai's film is also, at time, a biography of Natto Wada, Ichikawa's wife, screenwriter, and creative partner. Even though she addressed him as Sensei (Master), and he called her Natto-san, Ichikawa would always concede to this intelligent and attractive woman regarding all artistic decisions. Poignant is the story about the couples last movie date, where Wada decides that the two of them should go see E.T.. It is no coincidence that Ichikawa's best films were all done in collaboration with Wada.

Near the ends, the film takes on a more personal note when Iwai relates how Ichikawa had come up with the idea that the two of them would share directorial duties on a film. As would happen when Dora-Heita was in the screenplay stage, nothing would come of conflicting visions. Perhaps, as Ichikawa did with Dora-Heita, directing the film following the passing of collaborators Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Masaki Kobayashi, Iwai might film the project he and Ichikawa had proposed to do together. Perhaps, also, Iwai, might film one of Natto Wada's unfilmed screenplays. Iwai also makes some funny and perceptive observations about Ichikawa's men and women.

A second DVD, with Iwai interviewing Ichikawa, sadly does not have English subtitles. Iwai's story of Ichikawa ends with what turned out to be Ichikawa making his last film. He might have need some assistance with a cane, but even at age 90, Ichikawa-sensei was still spry, and still with an impish sense of humor.

Poster for Ana (Hole in One) with Machiko Kyo

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:50 AM

January 18, 2011

I See a Dark Stranger


What do we mean when we describe a film as "Film Noir"? Maybe I'm alone regarding this, but after reading William Ahearn's series of essays on Film Noir, I have to question my own assumptions. Is it still acceptable for me to label a film as "Film Noir", or should I perhaps modify my description by stating the film "has Noir elements"?

I have to think it is way too late to go back to the term as originally intended by French critics in the Thirties in discussing Le Quai des brumes or Le Jour se leve. I'm also uncomfortable with an orthodoxy that limits the history to one beginning with The Maltese Falcon through Touch of Evil. On the other hand, I feel some discomfort in seeing a retrospective of films that includes Momento along with the more generally acknowledged genre gems such as Kiss Me Deady and Detour. Maybe my question should be: how responsible should I be in using the term "Film Noir"?

The reason I raise some of these questions is because I plan to contribute some pieces to a forthcoming blogathon devoted to Film Noir in February. The blogathon is designed to help bring attention to film preservation, and in this case, to help raise funds to preserve a film on behalf of the Film Noir Foundation. While I am all for film preservation, what I also am concerned about film scholarship. Not every film with a girl and a gun is Film Noir. (Or is it?) Some of the films I plan to write about are Asian. One film is loosely lumped with the Italian giallo, a genre that arguably has ties to Film Noir, and has found inspiration in past films. There may be some who feel that the films I write about do not belong in discussion on Film Noir. Others may use the term loosely, but I feel like some consideration is needed for myself to include a film in this series.

Even the term "Neo-Noir" might need some further scrutiny. I've seen a good number of the film listed here by the good folks at "They Shoot Pictures". I can understand the inclusion of The Money Trap, which reunited Glenn Ford briefly with Rita Hayworth, as well as the two films listed by Jean-Pierre Melville. I question listing Bullitt or The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, two films I have enjoyed more than once by the way. I might argue that Pretty Poison should have been included in this list. Director Noel Black persuaded Tuesday Weld to be in his movie by mentioning Barbara Stanwyck, and thinking of the role of Sue Ann Stepanek as a then contemporary (19680 equivalent to the femme fatales of what are considered classic noir films. The casting of Anthony Perkins may have been obvious, but his character of Dennis Pitt is not too distant from the well intentioned guys who find themselves in over their heads because of a devious female. The working class milieu of Pretty Poison also connects this film to those of the classic era. It might be worth mentioning that the TSPDT list is made up of Hollywood and some French and British titles, creating a geographic and cultural limitations.

After reading the history of the origin of the term Film Noir, I feel like I just watched the film scholarship version of The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, where a couple of French guys decided to print the legend. Of course there are those that might also claim that no one has any business describing The Misfits, Lonely are the Brave or Bad Day at Black Rock as westerns. I also can't expect over fifty years of critical writing to completelyl be revised. At the very least, I do appreciate knowing how the concept of Film Noir began and evolved. Perhaps what is called Film Noir should be allowed some degree of fluidity much as the concept of movies has embraced both celluloid as well as video and digital means of production.

Anyways, I encourage people to read William Ahearn's essays, and if you have the inclination, let me know what you think, either about what he has written, or about what I should covering when I write about Film Noir.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:55 AM

January 17, 2011

Coffee Break

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Cicely Tyson and Sammy Davis, Jr. in A Man called Adam (Leo Penn - 1966)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:18 AM

January 16, 2011

Coffee Break

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Carroll Baker and Lloyd Bochner in Sylvia (Gordon Douglas - 1965)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:37 AM

January 13, 2011

A Girl Named Tamiko

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John Sturges - 1962
Netflix Instant

Why is it that fifty years ago, there were two Asian women who could be top billed Hollywood stars, and now, in these allegedly more progressive times, there's no one? While it's true that Nancy Kwan was in the more high profile films, her sometime professional rival, France Nuyen would have her name clearly visible on movie posters. Was there some kind of oriental fetish going on that seemed to coincide with Kennedy administration? Was the use of Asian actors an indirect way for Hollywood to deal with racial issues? I have no answers, and certainly this John Sturges film brings up more questions.

For a film that's suppose to be serious about issues regarding race and racism, the lurid advertising pitch seems all wrong: "He was half Oriental...but he used the women of two continents WITHOUT SHAME OR GUILT!". The film as it stands seem to have its heart in the right place, or at least makes everyone look like they should be shameful or guilty of something, with the exception of the title character. The tag line would have Lithuanian born Laurence Harvey as a villain as much for toying with the affections of France Nuyen and Martha Hyer as for being half Russian and half Chinese. Maybe the copy people thought such a tag line would sell tickets, but it goes against what the message of the film.

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Harvey's character, a photographer named Ivan Kalin, who has doggedly pursued getting a visa to immigrate to the U.S. for twelve years. It's never explained how he got into his current situation, but Kalin is a stateless refuge, hoping of a piece of the American dream, and the supposition that he would be regarded as less of a foreigner in the United States. Kalin's caddish behavior is cemented by his brush off of sometime girlfriend Eiko, a bar girl, especially when he tries to get together with the blonde Fay Wilson, someone who could presumably help with professional connections. Kalin finds himself increasingly attracted to Tamiko, a young woman working at the Foreign Press Club library, and again someone who could help with her family connections. Fay pushes Kalin away, only to force herself on him for a relationship on her terms, even surprising Kalin by waiting for him in his bed. Tamiko finds herself attracted to Kalin, perhaps because he allows her not to be bound by Japanese tradition.

I wondered if Ivan Kalin had seen The World of Suzie Wong. If things could work out between William Holden and Nancy Kwan, than why not in this movie? Sure, Eiko is a bar girl, but she's played by cutie pie Myoshi Umeki. I have no idea what Myoshi Umeki was really like, but on screen, no matter what role, she's been a woman with a heart of gold. Martha Hyer and France Nuyen might be more conventionally attractive, but Umeki's overwhelming sweetness stole my heart.

The casting of Nuyen was a reflection of the attitude that all Asians look the same, even though Nuyen is part Vietnamese (or Chinese, depending on which biography you read). Non-Japanese Philip Ahn and Richard Loo lend support to the film as well. At least no one is in "yellow face" as was still happening most conspicuously with Mickey Rooney and Alex Guiness. To some extent, A Girl Named Tamiko is more courageous than Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock, where the question of racism is abstract, and the mystery is a gimmick that could have been based on any unseen character that might have been a potential victim of a hate crime. While the idea of knowing Japan from the point of view of a tourist is criticized, Sturges halts the film long enough to give a tourist's view of Kyoto. Even the ending might be considered self-contradictory with Kalin finally finally coming together with Tamiko instead of heading off to San Francisco with Fay. While Tamiko is the "better woman" of the two, I also suspect that this was Hollywood's gentle way of saying that a the real happy ending was to not have a part Asian male on U.S. shores.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:01 AM

January 11, 2011


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There's Nothing Out There
Rolfe Kanefsky - 1990

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The Chainsaw Sally Show
Jimmyo Burril - 2010
both Troma Entertainment Region 1 DVD

While I have seen a few films from the Troma Team over the years, I have to admit that there are only a very few that I really liked. Also, I am not part of the audience that usually watch Troma films. Most of their films are for a much younger audience, for whom Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is considered an old school classic. Still, I laughed at parts of Tromeo and Juliet and Toxic Avenger, so I'm not entirely an old fogey, but at the same time, I regard the best part of Hell Comes to Frogtown to begin and end with the title. I will also have to hand it to Lloyd Kaufman for finding a niche and keeping at it for over thirty years when other companies have come, gone, or been gobbled up by larger corporations.

The story behind There's Nothing Out There is more interesting than the actual film. Not too many twenty year olds make a feature film, especially one with special effects. Rolfe Kanefsky's film never got anything resembling a decent theatrical release, finding a small measure of success on video and cable. The film is about some very mature looking high school kids who spend the weekend at the country cottage of one of the kids, only to be picked off by some alien creature. There's some soft core sex, nudity, spatter, slime and gore. One of the boys is considered to be one of the earliest examples of the on screen character who compares discusses what is happening within the film with other horror movies. If you want to see a truly funny and scary example of this kind of film, of kids in a cabin, film references, and the unstoppable horror that awaits them, then let me recommend Dead Snow. Zombie nazis are scarier than a less than bright space creature with teeth and tentacles, and the death metal in Dead Snow out rocks the lame music in There's Nothing Out There.

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Kanefsky's own story makes the DVD extras worth watching. With a stationary camera pointed at him, Kanefsky tells not only about the history of making and trying to sell There's Nothing Out There, but also about his own professional life since his feature debut. Seeing Kanefsky, sitting on the edge of his bed, in a studio apartment in North Hollywood, should possibly be mandatory viewing for all would-be students who go to film school with dreams of being the next Michael Bay or even a Kelly Reichardt. Kanefsky has been knocking around for twenty years, and has been working fairly steadily during that time, and lives quite modestly. His life is not the kind one hears about when discussing professional filmmakers. This is the Hollywood that usually isn't discussed, of remaining both in the game and in the margins.

I have to wonder what Carol J. Clover would make of Chainsaw Sally. The DVD set is made from webcast videos about a young woman who works as a librarian by day, who kills and maims various victims during her free time. One of the first images is of this young woman, chainsaw in hand, chasing another young woman. There's an audience for this show that is post-feminist and post-punk, far younger than me, whom finds delight in this grand guignol series. The show is a family affair, written and directed by Jimmyo Burril, and starring wife April Monique Burril, with Lilly Burril in a supporting role. I admit to having belly laughs watching Peter Jackson's early films like Dead Alive, when nothing about the tasteless mayhem suggested the work of a future Oscar winner. Maybe Chainsaw Sally works better on a small screen in small doses. My own preference is for Sally the librarian, someone with a passion for books and coffee.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:33 AM | Comments (1)

January 09, 2011

Coffee Break

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Thomas Weiss in Agnes and his Brothers

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:33 AM

January 06, 2011

For Those Who Think Young

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Leslie H. Martinson - 1964
Netflix Instant

Recently, Ray Young of Flickhead wrote tangentially about double features, the standard way many of us saw movies, growing up in the Sixties. I bring this up because I saw For Those Who Those Who Think Young twice theatrically, and only because the film was playing with something else I really intended to see and I was always determined to get my money's worth. The films in question were 633 Squadron and A Hard Day's Night, respectively. That For Those Who Think Young also starred Pamela Tiffin, who I once thought was one of the most beautiful women in the world helped, but I was twelve at the time, and my world was a bit smaller.

Sure, the title was taken from advertising for Pepsi. At the time, I thought nothing of the product placement for Pepsi, or that one scene took place in a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store. Some of the jokes had outdated references by the time the film was released, such as Paul Lynde quoting from the year old (in the U.S.) novelty song "Tie Me Kangaroo Down. Sport", and a reference to the recently cancelled television series Car 54, Where are You?. For those around my age, James Darren, star of the original surf movie, Gidget was someone from the distant past. I was listening to pre-electric Bob Dylan, Jan and Dean, and radio friendly Beatles at the time. The one hit song by Darren that I remembered, "Her Royal Majesty" seemed like ages ago, even though it was really only two years past. The real star of For Those Who Think Young was Bob Denver, beloved by my peers as beatnik Maynard G. Krebs in the Dobie Gillis television series. As Darren's best friend and personal assistant named Kelp, the character is something of a variation on the past television persona. A scene with Denver buried under the sand, with only his upside down mouth exposed, and the kids doing a tribal surfing dance around him, remains amusing in its unashamed silliness. Denver gets the single shots and the close-ups, while Darren does not, indicating that Leslie Martinson and company also knew who really carried the movie. Keep in mind that a new show about a guy named Gilligan had not yet flickered on television screens yet.

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Of course, Leslie Martinson would be know all about the teen years - he was born in 1915. The biggest mistake of For Those Who Think Young is that it spends too much time on the old folks, James Darren's grandfather, a wealthy philanthropist played by Robert Middleton, and Pamela Tiffin's bachelor guardians, the apartment sharing Woody Woodbury and Paul Lynde. Parts of the film are devoted to cleaned up versions of Woodbury's comic routines, some of which provoke a few chuckles. Middleton thinks Tiffin is a gold digger, pursuing campus playboy Darren for his wealth. I'm not going to give away how this film ends.

One of the brighter spots is that there is footage of actual surfing. The downside is that the surfers are only seen in full shots, better to take advantage of the Techniscope screen. But it is real surfing with real waves, with no cutaways with actors pretending to bob up and down while an offscreen stage hand splashes water to make the shot look authentic. The surfing footage is presumably second unit work done for the film. Cutting back to Darren and Tiffin, they are lying on there stomachs on their respective surfboards, on water where there is barely a ripple. On a positive note for some of us, the flat water doesn't distract from admiring the curve of Pamela Tiffin's backside. There is also the actress Ellen McRae, now better known as Ellen Burstyn, playing a professor of sociology who captures Woodbury's eye. Anyone watching the film now would probably pay greater attention to her performance than they did when the film was released.

The film also provided temporary employment for older character actors like Anna Lee, Robert Armstrong, Alan Jenkins and George Raft. For some reason, IMDb does not list Howard W. Koch, who has a production credit here. I think it less than coincidental that Koch, who had producer credits on several films starring Frank Sinatra in the early Sixties, had also produced a film that features Nancy Sinatra as well as Dean Martin's daughter, Claudia. What might also be less coincidental is that Tina Louise, who plays a family friendly version of a stripper, would find stardom keeping keeping her clothes on just a few months later, in Gilligan's Island, with Bob Denver. All things considered, For Those Who Think Young might be considered to have greater historical value than Leslie Martinson's previous feature, an almost forgotten biographical war movie titled PT 109.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:17 AM

January 04, 2011

The Magnificent Concubine

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Yang Kwei Fei
Li Han-Hsiang - 1960
IVL Region 3 DVD

I had written about Kenji Mizoguchi's Yang Kwei Fei two years ago, and decided to see this other version. Mizoguchi's version is the one that is best known nowadays, but it was also a commercial failure at the time of its release. Li Han-Hsiang never had the international prestige of Mizoguchi, but he knew how to make box office hits, and the Hong Kong audience that didn't care to see Japanese actors in a legendary Chinese story flocked to see this new version from the Shaw Brothers. While some parts of the story are the same, the differences are quite striking.

Unlike Mizoguchi's film which depicts Lady Yang's humble origin, and unexpected rise in the royal household, Li jumps in when Yang is firmly entrenched, with all of the power and privilege of royalty. Mizoguchi's Yang is demure, finding herself compromised by people and circumstances beyond her control, while Li's Yang is assumed to have manipulated the emperor into giving her brother the position of Prime Minister. Not only is Yang, played by Li Li-Hua, the most beautiful woman in China, she knows it, and she doesn't shy from letting others no it as well. At a time when the emperor seems to have his eye on another woman, Lady Yang tosses several vases, the classic scorned woman. The emperor and Lady Yang kiss and make up, with the second half of the film presenting a more sympathetic woman who really does have the interests of the emperor and the Chinese people at heart.

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Does anybody know if Joe Mankiewicz was at the Cannes film festival in 1962, where The Magnificent Concubine was presented? Or maybe someone who had something to do with the making of Cleopatra caught the film? The scene the introduces Lady Yang, and the actress Li Li-Hua, strongly resembles the bath scene in Mankiewicz's film. While it is only fleetingly glimpsed, there is more nudity in the older film as the camera pans past Li Li-Hua reclining by the pool. What struck me is that had I not known that The Magnificent Concubing had been filmed first, I would have thought that in her screen demeanor that Li Li-Hua was channelling Elizabeth Taylor.

Li Han-Hsiang was one of the top directors at the Shaw Brothers studios, and this film looks almost as good as a Hollywood feature of the time. Unlike Mizoguchi's film which emphasized the tragedy, Li seems more interested in the spectacle, with beautiful costumes, some gorgeous outdoor photography at the beginning of the film, and hundreds of extras. Even with the short running time of less than 75 minutes, Li takes a break to have a performance by a dozen or so acrobatic swordsmen followed by a troupe of female dancers. It may be the sumptuous visuals that persuaded the Cannes jury to award Li with a technical prize at Cannes.

There are some extras which make the DVD more valuable to either scholars of Hong Kong cinema, or Chinese culture. A featurette of Li Han-Hsiang discusses his background in art, and shows clips from several films. Several people who have worked on his films, primarily actors, discuss Li and their experiences with him. The featurette is subtitled except for the naming of the people talking about Li, putting those with less familiarity with some of the actors in a disadvantage. There is also some footage of Li, who dies in 1996, discussing his work. Unexpected and totally delightful, at least for me, was the inclusion of excerpts from three poems inspired by Yang Kwei Fei, including brief explanations. There is also a series of paintings and drawings, along with some historical explanation regarding the clothing worn during the T'ang Dynasty in 9th Century China. One might quibble about the facts as presented in either Li's or Mizoguchi's films. But to dismiss Li's film because he lacks the critical standing of Mizoguchi would be a mistake. While there is little discussion of Li in English, David Bordwell has some observation of interest. If there is room to embrace multiple versions of the stories of Joan of Arc or Billy the Kid, among others, than greater critical evaluation is due this other version of a woman who almost caused the fall of an empire.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:12 AM

January 02, 2011

Coffee Break

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Clotilde Hesme and Nicolas Cazale in The Grocer's Son (Eric Guirado - 2007)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:55 AM

January 01, 2011

Happy New Year!

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Victor Moore in It Happened on 5th Avenue (Roy Del Ruth - 1947)

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