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April 28, 2011

Silent Naruse - Disc 2

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Apart from You/Kimi to wakarete
Mikio Naruse - 1933

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Every-Night Dreams/Yogoto no yume
Mikio Naruse - 1933
Eclipse Region 1 DVD

The two films on this second disc are complementary in subject matter. Both are about single mothers and their sons, a geisha and a bar girl, respectively. Naruse's characters live in humble apartments, where laundry flaps in the breeze, and men's socks have holes in the toes. The women do not like their jobs, but do them as means of supporting the children whom they hope will have better lives.

The two films show further evolution, a paring down, of Mikio Naruse's visual style. There are repeated uses of mirror shots, but less use of obvious framing devices. Frequent dolly shots moving towards the actors are used for emphasis. A montage of a car accident in Every-Night Dreams is less elaborate than a similar scene in Flunky, Work Hard. Naruse does redo a scene from that earlier film when the young son sticks his fingers into the hole of his father's shoe.

That both films will make familiar viewers think of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is probably inescapable. Apart from You is about an aging geisha, Kikue, who discovers that her son, Yoshio, in his late teens, has been ditching school, and feels resentful about how his mother supports the two of them. Yoshio has no problem being friendly with Terugiku, a younger geisha who works at the same house as Kikue. Terugiku takes Yoshio to visit her family, but also to open the young man's eyes to the kind of sacrifices his mother has made on his behalf.

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This might be melodrama, but stuck in the middle is some laugh out loud humor. In Terugiku's seaside village, a hapless salesman and customers are befuddled by the workings of a yo-yo. Terugiku's wide mouthed little brother demonstrates his savvy in getting to yo-yo to wind back up the string. It's not an important moment in the narrative, but it belies the reputation that Naruse's films are totally serious. As the young geisha, Sumiko Mizukubo is captivating. It is little wonder that she starred in films by several of the top directors of the era, including a couple of films with Yasujiro Ozu. Mitsuko Yoshikawa, the suffering mother of this film has a supporting role in Every-Night Dreams.

Naruse's familiar themes are repeated in Every-Night Dreams. Sumiko Kurishima, plays the popular bar girl, Omitsu, raising a young son, Fumio, alone. Omitsu's husband, Mizuhara, returns from a three year absence with the promise to be a good husband and father. Even among the working poor, the husband is unable to get work. As he would do in future films, Naruse looks at the trade offs required for financial security. When focusing on Mizuhara, Naruse appears to be reworking some of his visual and thematic idea from Flunky, Work Hard, although in this film, even being a flunky seems to be a dream out of reach.

The Naruse films in this series have jazz inflected scores by Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz. The music generally supports the films, and isn't distracting, and yet it also brings up questions concerning the use of music for silent films. Some of the questions are raised in a humorous and horrifying post by Greg Ferrara concerning Nosferatu. For Japanese silent films, there are the questions of not only musical choices, but also noting that silent Japanese films also had live narration provided by a benshi. While I have not seen any of these films, I wish to point out that there is a small company based in Japan that offers silent Japanese classics with benshi narration on DVD. One would hope that one of the major boutique DVD labels, Criterion or Masters of Cinema, would follow suit with a classic in need of DVD resurrection.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:30 AM | Comments (5)

April 26, 2011

The Dorm that Dripped Blood

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Death Dorm/Pranks
Jeffrey Obrow & Stephen Carpenter - 1982
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

This isn't the kind of film that I usually write about, and I'm admittedly not an aficionado of slasher films. Yeah, I saw Halloween when it first came out, and I've been a fan of gialli over the years. I also, memorably, went to see the original My Bloody Valentine with my mother, who was assigned to write a review for the Denver Post.

So why bother with The Dorm that Dripped Blood? What I found fascinating was watching the film with the commentary track by the directorial team of Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter. Sometimes the making of a film can be as interesting, or sometimes more interesting, than the film itself. And while I usually don't bother with commentary tracks, this one is fun as well as extremely informative. I would actually recommend watching the film with the commentary track for any film students or novice filmmakers as a way of letting them now how it was done, especially in those pre-digital and pre-home computer days when making a movie meant working with celluloid.

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The real story isn't about some mystery person hacking various people in a virtually empty college dorm, schedule for closure during the Christmas holiday. For me, it was the story of a gang of UCLA film students who grabbed what ever film equipment they could take out during a period of almost three weeks, film stock they could finagle, and some actors that worked for little or no money, shooting in and around the UCLA campus, finally coming up with a feature film that not only garnered international distribution, but provided entry for several people into varying degrees of professional success.

Most of the commentary is provided by Jeffrey Obrow, who with Stephen Carpenter, as well as alone, worked on several more horror films. I haven't seen any of their other work, but have to feel impressed that Rod Steiger and Kim Hunter were both in The Kindred. Carpenter has gone from direction and cinematography to some success as a screenwriter. The name Matthew Mungle might not mean anything until you check out his filmography and realize that you've seen his special effects and make-up work on at least a dozen films minimum. Film composer Christopher Young began his career with this film. And yes, the influence of Bernard Herrmann's shrieking violins from Psycho can't be missed, but it's still got some interesting moments. The DVD also offers an isolated music track, quite rightly. Young and Mungle also get brief DVD interviews discussing their participation in the film. Of the cast members, only Daphne Zuniga was sprinkled with stardust. Seen briefly in her screen debut, the future Princess Vespa is button cute.

Part of the appeal of The Dorm that Dripped Blood is that it was part of the (in)famous list of films designated as "Video Nasties". I have seen some of the other films on that list. The response to some of the more graphic moments is going to based on the viewer's tolerance level for such mayhem, but I can honestly say that I've seen bigger budget films that didn't look as good, a tribute to Matthew Mungle's craftsmanship. For those whose interest is less scholarly or in anyway critical, The Dorm that Dripped Blood has the requisite chasing up and down dark passages, deliberate false clues, brief nudity, and death by a variety of implements. For myself, none of the head bashing, strangulations or lopped off body parts bothered me as much as the cockamamie premise that a college dorm would close down in the midst of the school year.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:26 AM

April 24, 2011

Coffee Break

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George Clooney in The American (Anton Corbijn - 2010)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:38 AM

April 21, 2011

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

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Jing wu feng yun: Chen Zhen
Andrew Lau - 2010
Well Go USA Entertainment

While I wouldn't say that it's mandatory to see the Hong Kong movie Jing wu men, a film known under English language titles Fist of Fury and The Chinese Connection, it may add to the enjoyment of Legend of the Fist. Andrew Lau's film is a sequel of sorts to Lo Wei's movie, with the character played by Bruce Lee somehow surviving what appeared to be certain death at the end of that film. There is pleasure to be had during the final showdown, almost a remake of the end of the earlier film, with Donnie Yen whooping it up, with the sounds and moves of Bruce Lee, right down to pulling out the nunchucks from his back pocket.

Bruce Lee is also deliberately evoked when Yen takes on the role of "The Masked Warrior", a mysterious character who helps stand up for the Chinese during the time of Japanese occupation following World War I. With the black suit, cap and mask, Yen is Kato without the Green Hornet to hold him back. The action sequences are the film's main calling card, and a terrific showcase for Yen, who also served as the action director.

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This is also Andrew Lau's first film to get significant U.S. distribution since Infernal Affairs. Legend of the Fist amplifies the theme of identity explored in the Infernal Affairs trilogy. Going undercover, Yen takes on the name of a deceased friend, and the disguise of a pencil thin mustache, as the pianist, and later, manager, of a nightclub favored by the both the British and Japanese movers and shakers in 1920s Shanghai. The star attraction at the nightclub, called Casablanca, is the beautiful Chinese singer known by the European stage name of Kiki. Significantly, as the director and stars made their names in Hong Kong cinema, Legend of the Fist is primarily concerned with what it means to identify oneself as Chinese.

One might also argue that China has become the new Old Hollywood, as Legend of the Fist is the kind of historical epic that used to be a Hollywood staple about fifty years ago. The film begins with a reminder of Chinese participation in World War I, setting up the prologue for how Chen Zhen was able to get the identity that allowed him to return to China. The combination of documentary and staged footage also provides the set up for the first action sequence with Donnie Yen leaping past machine gun fire, swinging into a building, and taking on several German soldiers. Also impressive is the Shanghai street set where the night club is located, and the mammoth interior of the night club.

For some of us, it's hard to pay attention to Donnie Yen when Shu Qi is onscreen. There should be no doubt about her acting ability, but such considerations are easily put aside with a close up of Shu wearing a chicly tilted beret. Certainly Shu is the most beautiful actress to wear blue eye shadow this side of Elizabeth Taylor. Anthony Wong appears older than he is as the nightclub owner, lover of Kiki, and self-declared brother of the impudent pianist who plays "The Internationale". The screenplay is by Gordon Chan, also an accomplished director, but more importantly here, the writer and director of another film about Chen Zhen, made in 1994 with Jet Li, with the English title of . . . Fist of Legend. You don't need me to tell you that Donnie Yen kicks ass, but that's no stunt double when the star sits down at the piano.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:39 AM

April 19, 2011

Silent Naruse - Disc 1

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Flunky, Work Hard/Koshiben ganbare
Mikio Naruse - 1931

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No Blood Relation/Nasanu naka
Mikio Naruse - 1931
Eclipse Region 1 DVD

What is certain about seeing Mikio Naruse's earliest existing films is that the themes he would visit in his better known films were already well established. Both Flunky, Work Hard and No Blood Relation are about the sticky and fragile ties of love, money, happiness and family. As in his later films, Naruse also makes use of traveling shots, the camera slightly ahead of his characters as they walk from one one place to another, although the background is level in these earlier films, unlike the latter shots with their downward tilting bridges and roads. The two films have victims of the need for speed, with characters seriously injured by a train, a car and even a bicycle.

Flunky, Work Hard is considered something of an anomaly in Naruse's career being centered on a male character. I would counter that even a film like When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is also a study of modes of masculinity in the form of Hideko Takamine's suitors. In this earlier film, Naruse's financially struggling insurance salesman, Okabe, is looking to make a sale with the matron of a large, well to do, family. Not only does Okabe's wife complain about living in poverty, but their son has been getting into fights with other neighborhood boys, wanting to play with their model airplanes. The father, who tries to dole out sage advice regarding fighting with the other boys, proves an ineffective example when he comes to blows with a rival insurance salesman.

The rival salesman is something of a shock to see because with his small stature and buck teeth, he unintentionally anticipates the stereotypical "Jap" of World War II movies. Naruse makes use of various dramatic contrasts with Okabe's small, rented house, with its traditional Japanese design compared to his client's large, western style home. Okabe wears a kimono at home, and an ill fitting suit when at work. His family is in kimonos, while the better off neighbors are in western dress.

The two films here also show Naruse's penchant for framing devices. Shooting through picture frames is frequent in both films. In Flunky, Work Hard, Naruse also makes use of some very large pipes laying in a field where the boys play. In No Blood Relation, there is also a mirror shot when Yoshiko Okada looks in a mirror. What makes these visual motifs of interest is that they were eventually abandoned by Naruse in favor of a less ornamental visual style.

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Naruse also employs dolly shots with the camera moving towards his actors for dramatic emphasis, something not seen in the later films. These shots are used frequently in No Blood Relation, most notably when Yoshiko Okada first tries to reclaim the six year old daughter she left as a baby. Naruse alternates between shots of the woman with her mistaken assumptions about her daughter, and the girl who yells, "Kidnapper!", "Liar!", and, "Dummy!" while running back home.

In her study of Naruse, Catherine Russell notes that No Blood Relation was based on a play, that was previously filmed in 1909. This is the kind of film where the story telling outweighs the story which was considered cliched by 1932. It takes a very big gulp just to swallow the premise of a Japanese woman who runs away from home and becomes a big Hollywood star. Not to mention that when the film takes place, they were making nothing but talkies in Hollywood and Sessue Hayakawa, who was a star in silent era Hollywood, had returned to Japan that year.

Even though the story is about two women fighting over one little girl, it is a couple of guys that really makes No Blood Relation fun to watch. One is Joji Oka, best remembered as the male lead in Ozu's crime drama Dragnet Girl. Tall, handsome, unshaven, ready to take charge when things go wrong for his sister, the woman who raised the young girl, Oka has charisma to spare in the kind of role that Naruse would give to Tatsuya Nakadai in the latter part of his career. Shozaburo Abe provides comic relief as the incompetent thug and sidekick to Ichiro Yuki, who plays the gangster brother of the Hollywood star. This would be tough guy almost knocks himself out trying out a pair of boxing gloves.

Knockabout comedy is also something that one doesn't readily associate with Mikio Naruse. For that and the visual play, there's enough reason to see the earliest examples of what the filmmaker would retain as recurring elements over the next thirty-five years.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:13 AM

April 17, 2011

Coffee Break


Angelina Jolie and August Diehl in Salt (Philip Noyce - 2010)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:32 AM | Comments (1)

April 14, 2011

All About Women

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NĂ¼ren bu huai
Tsui Hark - 2008
Tai Seng Region 1 DVD

One of my favorite films by Tsui Hark is his screwball comedy, The Chinese Feast. Leslie Cheung and Anita Yuen are expressively goofy as cooks in a competition, trying to come up with meals both unique and delicious. Unlike Tsui's martial arts movies with flying fists and feet, this film comes with verbal play, including jokes about other Hong Kong stars which flew right past me as a novice to Cantonese pop culture.

All About Women isn't as fast or as funny as The Chinese Feast, but it does have some visual gags, some of the best which recall some classic Hollywood films about romance. The story is about three women, all seeking romance with the right man, whose lives intersect at various points before coming together. One of the women, Fanfan, has discovered a way of creating stickers with pheromones that men find irresistible. Fanfan tests it on rock singer, Xiaogang, who has a volatile relationship with young singer-internet novelist Tie Ling, the object of adoration for nerdy Chiyen, the cousin to the spectacularly successful industrialist, Tang Lu, a woman never without a stream of male admirers.

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Two of the best visual gags are with Tang Lu, played by the gorgeous Kitty Zhang. Accidentally discovering her intense reaction to the pheromones of an environmental scientist, Tang Lu attempts not to breathe in any part of his aroma at his wedding by lighting up a handful of cigarettes to cover the smell, a comic nod to Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager. Even better is a scene of Tang Lu in a bridal dress, chased by hundreds of would be grooms, Tsui's own remake of the classic chase scene in Seven Chances with Buster Keaton pursued by hundreds of brides.

The filmmaker most recalled in All About Women is Frank Tashlin. Tashlin's best movies were about the minefield of relationships between men and women as well as commentary on romance amidst changes in technology and popular culture. There is also the love of sight gags and jokes at the expense of friends in the film industry, such as director Jacob Cheung as himself, undergoing a prostate exam. A friend pointed out a Youtube clip that was composed of shots of legs in Tashlin's movies. Tsui has several shots of legs, often for comic effect. In an early scene, Fanfan shows up for dancing lessons, immobile while her teacher literally drags her across the floor. As Fanfan, Tsui exploits Zhou Xun's flair for physical comedy, such as a scene in which she haplessly attempts to put on contact lenses, staring into the camera with crossed eyes.

The screenplay was written by Tsui with Kwak Jae-young, still best known for his own debut film, My Sassy Girl. The character of Tie Ling, ferocious in her sense of independence and periodic wrongheadedness is closest to the title character of Kwak's film. As Tie Ling, Kwai Lunmei fearlessly steps into a boxing ring with another woman twice her size, takes to the stage to improvise a rock song with reckless bravado and the declaration that she hates punk rock, and natters away to her invisible boyfriend, a famed Hong Kong musician, only to find herself totally unprepared when the real life star comes into her life.

As in some of Frank Tashlin's films, the set design is used as commentary on the characters. Fanfan's home is almost completely white, appearing even more clinical than the laboratory where she works. Somewhat analogous to Jayne Mansfield's famous stroll in The Girl Can't Help It is Tsui's traveling shot of Tang Lu's male employees blushing as she walks by. Tsui also makes use of animation and CGI to illustrate an internet conversation, as well as showing the many errant paths of the pheromones. Some may quibble with some of the philosophy of the characters, and only the foolish would expect narrative logic from Tsui Hark, but until I see something better, All About Women mostly succeeds in transposing Hollywood comedy from the mid Twentieth Century to contemporary Beijing.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:45 AM

April 12, 2011

Good-bye, My Lady


William Wellman - 1956
Warner Archive DVD

I've been gradually watching several of William Wellman earlier films from the Thirties, over the past couple of years. As might be noticed by those who follow my Coffee Break series, there's quite a bit of coffee drinking in Wellman's films. In several films, coffee is part of scenes establishing friendship between two characters. Bonding over a cup of joe is a recurring event in Good-bye, My Lady. A cup of coffee provides the rite of passage for Brandon De Wilde in this film, an informal, down home, coming of age ceremony.

In some ways Good-bye, My Lady seems even more remarkable when so many contemporary movies are about adults desperately clinging on to their last shreds of adolescence. The theme of the film is announced in the song, "When Your Boy Becomes a Man", played during the opening credits. And yes, some aspects of the film may strike some as obvious or corny, but there is also something to be said in favor of a movie in which the whole point of childhood is to eventually grow up.

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A relatively simple, though not simplistic, story, the film marks, if not William Wellman's last personal film, his last film that was probably closest to his original vision. After this, Wellman caved to Jack Warner's demand to direct Darby's Rangers in order to make his dream film, Lafayette Escadrille, only to see Jack Warner order new scenes and new cuts, causing Wellman to finally walk away from Hollywood. Good-bye, My Lady was also the last or Wellman's films to be produced by John Wayne, significant as it was Wayne who also produced Track of the Cat, Wellman's experiment with color, which has grown in critical esteem, although it was a box office failure at the time of release.

A boy, Claude, nicknamed Skeeter by his uncle, Jesse, lives in a shack in a remote, swampy part of Mississippi. Hearing strange sounds in the night, he discovers the source of the unnerving laughs in the night belong to a dog. Eventually catching the dog, he teaches her how to hunt birds. An unusual breed, a basenji, Skeeter also is aware that he might not be able to keep the dog, that she might be legally claimed by someone else.

Even though this is a movie about a boy and a dog, it is also unlike the kind of story that was a staple for Walt Disney. As word gets around about Skeeter's unusual and talented dog, tourists show up at the shack to hear stories from Uncle Jesse. Wellman makes a little dig at Disney with a shot of a couple of slack jawed boys in Davy Crockett hats staring awestruck at Walter Brennan. Much of the dialogue emphasizes the regionalism of the story with jokes about Yankees, as well as the sense of physical isolation with wide swaths of swamp and fields, and very few people living in houses miles apart from each other.

One other note about Brennan - there is a scene where Uncle Jesse discusses a possible name for the dog, eventually dubbed Lady, with Skeeter. Jesse suggests naming the dog Gertrude. When asked why, Wellman cuts to a close-up of Brennan. Jesse talks about a woman he knew, that he was in love with when much younger. Having seen Brennan in one of his earlier performances, Howard Hawks' Barbary Coast, I could tell you that Brennan could never have been described as handsome. Yet, unlike most performances I've seen by Walter Brennan, he was able to convince me that once upon a time, he was a young man in love, wistfully looking back on a past long gone.

My own curiosity about the film came about from watching a Turner Classics Movie documentary on Wellman. Sidney Poitier talked about filming on location in Georgia. No Hollywood money could budge the institutional racism of the day when it came to providing Poitier with the same accommodations as the rest of the cast and crew. Wellman reportedly went to bat for Poitier without success. Poitier plays the part of a nearby neighbor and farmer. Nothing is said, and nothing needs to be said, as the character of Gates also provides Skeeter with another positive example of what it means to be a man. Unintentionally at the time, Wellman documents the change of how race would be presented in Hollywood with Louise Beavers, most often seen as a maid, seen in one scene as the matriarch of a nearby farm where Skeeter picks up buttermilk. Wellman films Poitier in such a way that, with his wide brimmed hat, he could have well become another Wellman hero with John Wayne or Clark Gable, which to some extent happened almost ten years later. Beavers' one scene is filmed with warmth and humor, her presence also bringing Wellman's career to something of a full circle almost twenty-five years after What Price Hollywood? and Midnight Mary.

The novel that provided the basis of the film was by James H. Street. The writer's entry into Hollywood was a short story that Wellman filmed as Nothing Sacred. As the screenplay was written by Sid Fleischman, who previously wrote the screenplays for Wellman's earlier Blood Alley as well as Lafayette Escadrille, and also was photographed by William Clothier, another collaborator on those two films, again indicates for me that this could well have been as personal a project as any of Wellman's better known films. The understated score was composed by Laurindo Almeida on guitar with George Fields on harmonica. While it might be impossible to make a movie about a boy and a dog without any sentimentality, Willlam Wellman allows both his film and his characters to exist in quiet dignity.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:42 AM

April 10, 2011

Coffee Break

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Richard Barthelmess and Aline MacMahon in Heroes for Sale (William Wellman - 1933)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:23 AM

April 07, 2011

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec

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Les aventures extraordinaires d'Adele Blanc-Sec
Luc Besson - 2010
M Pictures Region 3 DVD

Luc Besson has been so busy churning out screenplays and producing the films with great frequency, that even when not directing films like Taken or The Transporter and its sequels, his hand in those projects is unmistakable. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec is Besson's most recent turn at doing the direction himself. As it currently stands, one of the few ways English speaking fans of Besson can see this film is by getting a Thai DVD that comes with both an English language track or in the original French with English subtitles.

After seeing the film, I can see why U.S. distributors, even those who have done well with Besson in the past, would shy away from this film. Even though, by most standards, the story is not as out and out nuts as Besson's screwball comedy disguised as a sci-fi extravaganza, The Fifth Element, your current stock of studio marketeers would be challenged by a film that takes place mostly in Paris of 1911, with a new born pterodactyl terrorizing the city, and a revived coterie of recently revived, French speaking mummies. The title character is adventurous and resourceful, but, perhaps keeping with her era, genteel compared to other Besson heroines.

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Adele Blanc-Sec is a journalist famous for her world wide travels. An assignment to Peru is turned by her into an Egyptian journey to find the tomb of a pharaoh's doctor. Adele believes that an aged scientist would have the ability to bring the mummified doctor back to life, with a cure for Adele's sister. The sister has been in a semi-conscious state for five years following a disastrous fall on a very long hat pin that pierce her entire scull in the course of a tennis match with Adele. And, yes, describing some basic plot elements may cause some to slap their foreheads in disbelief, but considering more beloved films from Luc Besson, it's no less nutty than the story of a professional hit man who adopts an orphan girl.

I'm not familiar with the graphic novels by Jacques Tardi, but Besson's version of Adele Blanc-Sec, in the person of Louise Bourgoin, is certainly pretty, and more fashionably dressed. Many of the cast members look cartoonish, resembling the ensembles that populate the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, especially Amelie. As the aged scientist with a psychic connection to the pterodactyl, Jacky Nercessian resembles Dustin Hoffman as the extremely old Jack Crabb in Little Big Man. Behind sunglasses, sharp facial feature, and even sharper teeth, Mathieu Amalric is almost unrecognizable as Adele's nemesis.

This isn't quite a distaff version of Indiana Jones. Except for the beginning of the film with Adele and the Egyptian tomb raiders, and the finale with reanimated mummies in the Louvre, this is a much more relaxed film that might be expected from Besson. There are several playful moments with earnest, if inept policemen disguised as sheep, a line mentioning that the courtyard for the Louvre would be a great location for a pyramid, and one sight gag involving a mishap with a guillotine. This may not be among Besson's best films, but it is certainly entertaining. Some who are fluent in French may quibble with Louise Bourgoin's acting abilities, but certain judgments are given a rest by the sight of her full lipped smile and her enthusiastic flight on the back of the pterodactyl.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:50 AM

April 05, 2011

The Secret of the Urn

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Tange Sazen: Hien iaigiri
Hideo Gosha - 1966
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Primarily due to the efforts of AnimEigo, more films by Hideo Gosha are available in subtitled versions. This still only represents a small portion of the twenty-four features made between 1964 and 1992. Secret of the Urn is an early work and in some ways is a more traditional film than his genre mash-up Gyokin with its references to Hitchcock and Leone, or the masterful yakuza films like The Wolves and The Geisha. What may be of interest are the hints of things to come, as Gosha's reputation was in part made by his inclusion of more graphic sex and violence.

Tange Sazen was a samurai ordered to kill a spy. The spy was Tange's best friend, or so he thought, losing an eye and an arm in the process. The spy might have lost his life, but Tange's life is one of a poor ronin. A young boy, with an urn that various clans are dueling over, runs into Tange's hut. Tange finds himself caught between the two clans, plus a gang of thieves, all fighting for the urn for their respective reasons.

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Does anybody know if Robert Aldrich provided inspiration for Hideo Gosha? One of Aldrich's visual motifs was the use of the direct, overhead shot, sort of a god's eye view of the proceedings. There is also some similarity in the kind of protagonists, men who might not necessarily be outlaws by profession, but operate outside the law and society, loners who make temporary alliances out of need or some personal gain. At the same time, these men, seemingly amoral, also take action for the higher good, even when they do not personally benefit.

There have been several films centered on Tange Sazen over the years, from 1928 through the most recent that I am aware of, made in 2004. Even though what is sold is the character's one armed sword fighting technique, the best reason for watching The Secret of the Urn is watching Kinnosuke Nakamura cock his one good eye, and sneer at royalty and lowlifes alike. The still active Keiko Awaji plays the leader of the thieves, whose cover is that of an atonal music teacher. Awaji and Nakamura were married at the time that they made the film. A comic highlight involves Awaji distracting an army of samurai by casting off her clothing while they chase after her in a palace courtyard. One of Gosha's frequently used stars, Tetsuro Tamba, is seen here as an upstanding clan leader.

There are some other small bits that make me wish that AnimEigo had included some historical context to the story. One of the lords is seen attended to by a someone in western clothing, Portuguese perhaps. Awaji's character wields a revolver, something not seen in most period films. There is also a brief mention of foreign trade, which makes me think that the time period is sometime in the mid-19th Century. It is this combination of unusual details and some unique characters that ultimately distinguishes The Secret of the Urn.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:30 AM | Comments (1)

April 03, 2011

Coffee Break

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Gru in Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud - 2010)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:34 AM

April 01, 2011


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Hong Sang-soo - 2010
United Entertainment Korea Region 3 DVD

Two friends get together for a final get together before one leaves Korea for Canada. They soon discover that both were in the port city of Tongyeong. Leisurely eating and drinking, the two man exchange stories about their time there, unaware that their paths indirectly crossed, and that their stories involve the same group of people.

Hong Sang-soo's film is as casual, letting things gradual unfold or occasionally double back. If the film is about anything, it is about how awkward relationships are, whether between family members, lovers, even friends. More often than not, people unintentionally say the wrong thing to each other, and usually it's the men who put their respective feet in their mouths talking to the women they are with at the moment. With its title, Hahaha creates the expectation that one will be watching a comedy, and the film is a comedy, but not in the traditional sense. Hong's film is more quiet, more gentle, about the recognition of human foibles in others and perhaps ourselves.

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One of the central locations is the little restaurant run by Yun Yeo-jeong. Yun might be best known now for her role in the recent The Housemaid. Yun's character doesn't have a name in this film, and plays the mother of one of the two friends, Mun-gyeong. As uncomfortable as mother and son seem to be during their final meetings before Mun-gyeong's departure, the mother is more than ready to adopt some of the other younger people she meets, urging them to call her "Mom". The one time mother and son seem to truly bond is during a scene of corporal punishment which brings out a sense of nostalgia in Mun-gyeong.

Hahaha one the prize at Cannes last year for Un Certain Regard, and in spirit, this is a French film even it was made by Korean talent. I don't think it inappropriate to compare this to films by Eric Rohmer, something like Boyfriends and Girlfriends. In a Rohmer film, people bond over literature and philosophy while in Hong's film, people get together to eat and drink, frequently large quantities of alcohol, with the periodic cup of coffee. Unlike Rohmer's films where the "right" people seem to find each other, Hong's film is more open ended. In the New Yorker, Richard Brody compares Hong to Joseph Mankiewicz, and A Letter to Three Wives, as films about men, women and memory. The comparison has some validity, although in a Mankiewicz film, the characters often exchange the piercing bon mot, while in Hong's film, Mun-gyeong finds himself trying to undo the damage when telling his would be girlfriend that she looks like a chubby rabbit.

In a recent interview, Hong stated: "The important thing for me is to discover the small things in daily life. This motivates me the most, it is what gives me the courage to live." This may also explain why, in spite of the critical acclaim over the years, why Hong remains less known than some of his peers. Hong is not working within the framework of a recognizable genre, nor are the films plot driven. Darcy Paquet wrote an overview on Hong's career about four years ago that doesn't need much revision. Hahaha is a film comprised of many small things, small dogs, small flowers, and sometimes small talk. The seeming simplicity of the film belies a more rigorous narrative and visual structure. At this time, Hong's films haven't generated the kind of interest to support art house screenings or stateside DVD releases, a loss for all but the more dedicated or curious cineaste. Definitely Hong Sang-soo is worthy of more than simply a certain regard.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:33 AM