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November 29, 2011

Three Stripes in the Sun

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Richard Murphy - 1955
Columibia Pictures Archives DVD

I'm not too optimistic about the chances of ever seeing King Vidor's Japanese War Bride. Donald Richie made sure that film was not included in a King Vidor retrospective presented by the Museum of Modern Art, back in the Seventies. In the meantime, there is Three Stripes in the Sun, perhaps less meaningful as a more modest production from a filmmaker of decidedly less reputation. The film is worth seeing in terms of how it deals with interracial love at a time when Hollywood was tiptoeing around the subject.

The basically true story is about an American soldier stationed in Japan in 1949. A survivor of the attack at Pear; Harbor, Hugh O'Reilly doesn't want anything to do with Japan or any Japanese people. When the Japanese man O'Reilly mistakes as having stolen his wallet turns out to be a priest, O'Reilly is ordered to make amends by driving the priest back to his orphanage outside Osaka. Coming along to show the way is Yuko, a young Japanese woman who works as a translator for the army brass. It's a bit of Irish and Hollywood blarney as O'Reilly makes it his mission to build a new orphanage, feed the children, and eventually fall in love with Yuko.

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Part of the film was shot in and around Osaka, and the Japanese characters are all played by Japanese actors. From a historical perspective, Three Stripes in the Sun is a fairly progressive film. Even though the production code was starting to crumble, it could be that with a relatively lower budget, Richard Murphy was able to tread where the higher profile and more expensive films dare not go. While we don't actually see Aldo Ray and Mitsuko Kimura kiss, they are filmed in such a way that the viewer assumes they could be locking lips, or at least puckering up face to face. There is even brief discussion that racial prejudice exists in the United States. There is that grain of salt, that this is the story of an American military man with a Japanese woman, Madama Butterfly with a happy ending, with a white male protagonist and the exotic other female. For Hollywood, the other shoe wouldn't drop for another four years, when Sam Fuller's The Crimson Kimono showed Victoria Shaw choosing James Shigeta over Glenn Corbett.

Richard Murphy directed only two films. The second, The Wackiest Ship in the Army is as mildly amusing as the title. Murphy's main distinction was as a screenplay writer. Twice, the Writers Guild of America nominated Murphy for screenplays, ". . . Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene". The movies in question were Panic in the Streets and Cry of the City. Murphy was also nominated twice for Oscars, once for another film directed by Elia Kazan, Boomerang!. Having taken time off from Hollywood to fight in the Pacific during World War II seems to have made a major impact, so that whether Three Stripes in the Sun came as an assignment, or as a project he pitched for himself, Murphy had the credentials to make a film with a military setting and one addressing a topical issue.

The real Hugh O'Reilly looked more like William Schallert than Aldo Ray. Of course Ray was a star at Columbia Pictures back in the Fifties. Historical accuracy aside, Ray also arguably looks like an imagined American, tall, blond and not the least subtle. When Ray pushes his way through the crowds of Japanese citizens in the beginning of the film, he could well be playing up on the Japanese perception of their Yankee "guests". In supporting roles, there are Chuck Connors and Dick York before finding stardom on the television. Does anyone know what happened to Mitsuko Kimura? Three Stripes in the Sun appears to be her last film. The only other films to her credit are are small, independent film from 1952, Itsu Itsu made mo, also about an American G.I. in love with a young Japanese woman, and two films notable for having screenplays by Kaneto Shindo and Nagisa Oshima. Kimura's biggest claim to fame was appearing on the cover of Life magazine.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:54 AM

November 27, 2011

Coffee Break

Nicole Kidman in Trespass (Joel Schumacher 2011)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:33 AM

November 24, 2011

Drunks Like Us

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Because the Siren asked nicely, as if she would not do otherwise, I'm going to write as best as I can about the night I spent drinking with Nicholas Ray. I probably should have done this earlier as my memories of almost forty years ago are getting fuzzier on some of the details.

I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time, the first half of 1973. I was spending my time trying to catalogue still photographs at what was at the time called The Northwest Film Study Center, back in its earliest form. I don't remember what month it was but it was somewhere in March or April. Nicholas Ray was touring around with some 16mm prints, and we had the chance to show one of his films at the Portland Art Museum, where screenings were held. Of the films available, I campaigned for the presentation of They Live by Night. My argument was that it was a rarer film to see, and besides which, everyone was familiar with Rebel without a Cause. This essentially the story of my life, great artistic sense, but no instinct for what pays the bills.

I travelled by foot all over Portland, posting flyers for the show. Not as many people showed up as we would hope. It was disappointing to know that many more people flocked to a university showing of a double feature of Claire's Knee and Chloe in the Afternoon, as I was sure that if Eric Rohmer were in town, he'd make a beeline to see Nick Ray's first feature and tell everyone else to do the same. Still, Denise Jacobson, who at the time was head of the center expressed satisfaction with showing a film that might not otherwise have been seen.

There was an after screening discussion with Nick Ray that started at the art museum and eventually moved to someone's house. It must have been about two dozen people altogether. I don't remember what kind of food we ate, but I do remember that we drank lots of beer, probably Olympia or Rainer, or both.

My memories of the rest of the evening would make a one or two minute montage at best, bursts of images and sound bites. Ray talked a bit about the film he was making with his students, at that time titled The Gun Under My Pillow. We did a bit of an acting exercise he did with his students, about airport security, intrusive then, but now seemingly quaint with present day shoe removals and body searches. This was the first time I learned of Ray's time spent with Frank Lloyd Wright. With his interest in folk music, touched on at the end of The True Story of Jesse James, Ray also broke out into song at one point.

Most of the people at the party were mostly students or of college age. There were questions about James Dean and Dennis Hopper. I recall Ray joking to someone that the script for Flying Leathernecks, "still hasn't been found". There were also some discouraging words about Robert Ryan's acting as of late.

Tact and diplomacy were hardly my strong points at the time. I had asked about Elia Kazan and the blacklist, to which Ray responded that Kazan had not named anyone who hadn't been named previously. I had also asked him if there were any current filmmakers he liked. Ray named Robert Altman. Ray was visibly upset when I mentioned that Altman was making his own film version of Edward Anderson's novel, the basis for Ray's film debut.

And that's really all I can remember. Had I been smarter, I would have written something the next day to keep for posterity. As it stands now, it isn't much, but at least I have bragging rights to say, "Fuck yeah! I got drunk with with director of Rebel without a Cause".

* * *

A Google search pointed to a reminder that I did write about Ray in Portland back in 1973. I am mentioned on Page 536 of Patrick McGilligan's book on Nicholas Ray, for a piece written for the Portland Art Museum.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:18 AM | Comments (3)

November 22, 2011


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Nihon bundan: Heru doraiba
Yoshihiro Nishimura - 2011
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

I'm not totally sure how to critically approach Helldriver. It's the kind of film that's designed to function as entertainment. There are elements of satire, but otherwise no identifiable message. This is the kind of film that a lot of serious film critics would probably dismiss as a genre film that panders to the fans. To a certain extent, these critics would not be wrong. And while a film like Helldriver is made primarily for an audience much younger than myself, I think my years, decades really, of filmgoing and interest in film history, brings a different kind of perspective.

Consider that these films produced by the Japanese company, Sushi Typhoon, are made by young, or relatively young filmmakers, in conjunction with the venerable Nikkatsu Studios. In the past couple of years, Criterion, primarily through their budget subsidiary, Eclipse, has released several Nikkatsu productions from the mid 1950s through the mid 1960s. These were primarily modestly budgeted films by younger filmmakers, with young actors, for an audience of teens and young adults. These films were usually ignored by the likes of Donald Richie, and only rarely imported, primarily for the exploitation market. Maybe it will take a few years to give Helldriver the kind of consideration now given to a film like A Colt is My Passport or The Warped Ones.

Yoshimura's film looks like he took his favorite bits from George Romero, Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper and Quentin Tarantino, and tossed them into a mixmaster. High school girl Kika has a hard enough time dealing with a mother and uncle who are serial killer cannibals, but some fireball from outer space has turned them into seemingly indestructible zombies. Even worse, a spray of ash has caused six million people in northern Japan to also become mutant zombies. A wall separates the two parts of Japan, while the government tries to come up with a solution. Kika's mother, who apparently never had much in the way of maternal instincts while human, rips Kika's heart out. Kika manages to live anyways, becoming part cyborg and all zombie hunter.

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Nothing is too excessive as far as Yoshimura is concerned. There's an overabundance of sprays of blood, lopped off limbs, and exploding heads. At one point, there's a rain of zombie heads flying towards the small band of zombie hunters. A giant creature composed of zombie parts made me think of something imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. Additionally, there is a speeding car made of reassembled zombie parts. As in such films as Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, there are hybrid creatures, zombies with guns and swords for appendages. And maybe I'm inured to the blood, guts and gore, but nothing was particularly shocking or disturbing. One might look at Helldriver as the cinematic equivalent of a series of gross out jokes.

Then again, one could also ignore some narrative elements, and view Helldriver as a kind of action painting done with high definition video. It's not only sprinkling of red across the screen. Yoshimura plays with color, with dollops of day-glo colors in almost monochrome scenes, such as in the beginning with a character dressed from head to toe in black, save for his bright red gloves. The occasional creative bursts of color suggest that given the opportunity and inclination, Yoshimura is capable of visual invention beyond the use of body parts.

The five foot, seven inch, lean and full lipped Yumiko Hara has only appeared in two films to the best of my knowledge. She carries the film as Kika, convincingly playing someone a few years younger, and capable of knowing her way around a chainsaw. The better known star in Helldriver is Eihi Shiina, best known as the girlfriend from Hell in Audition, as one mean mother here. One of the DVD supplements is about the launch of Sushi Typhoon in Japan. No matter what one might think of the movies, the enthusiasm of the filmmakers and actors is, well, infectious.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:24 AM

November 20, 2011

Coffee Break

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Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in His Kind of Woman (John Farrow - 1951)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:25 AM

November 17, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Fade out

I got a little digital camera. I'm still learning how to use it. As this is the last festival to take place primarily at the Starz Film Center, I wanted one shot of the exterior. Also, there are some shots of some of the people who help make the festival possible.

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Originally the AMC Tivoli 12 when it opened in 1983, the multiplex meant the return of theatrical films showing in downtown Denver. The Denver Film Society took over the theater in 2002, over a year after AMC stopped operations. The final screenings at this theater took place on November 13.

I've called the festival's head of public relations, Tammy Brister, my BFF (Best Festival Friend). Not only does she see to accreditation, but she's even made sure I was able to see certain films theatrically. Also, as liaison between filmmakers and media, she's one of the hardest working person during the festival.

Jenny Bloom is second-in-command for PR, and graciously deals with my requests for screeners.

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Tom Botelho is the Executive Director of the Denver Film Society. He's also a pretty nice guy.

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The lobby of the new Denver Film Center. As much as I like classic images from Tears of the Black Tiger and La Dolce Vita on the walls, I'd love it even more if they get those two films back on the film center's screens.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:32 AM

November 15, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Arirang

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Kim Ki-duk - 2011
Finecut Digital Presentation

Kim Ki-duk calls his first person film a drama, and not a documentary. And I'm fine with that distinction. The film follows Kim as he shoots himself (with a video camera) in his little mountain town cabin, before he shoots himself )with a gun) at the end of his film. Except that Kim never literally killed himself, and while there are undeniable autobiographical elements to Arirang, Kim is also acting out, also in the literal sense, some of his concerns.

Between 2008 and early 2011, Kim chose to be a recluse following the near accidental death of actress Lee Na-young when filming Dream. Even though Lee recovered, and is still very active in Korean film and television, Kim felt responsible for what happened, questioning his own role as a filmmaker and the value of making films. Were that John Landis be as introspective as Kim.

For Kim, it was impossible to not film, so ingrained with fifteen features made between 1996 and 2008, and a handful of screenplays filmed by others. Parts of the Arirang are dialogues with himself, or two versions of himself, as well as his own demonstration of acting, repeating the same line several different ways. Kim also points out the irony of his winning awards from South Korea primarily for having won prizes at film festivals, wondering if any of the Korean officials have actually seen Kim's films, most of which have generated controversy for various reasons. Kim does take time to watch part of his most famous film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, with tears in his eyes.

The title comes from a traditional Korean folk song about love and loss. This is fitting in regarding that Kim sees his films as dramatizations of various Korean issues, of his view of the state of his country. Also, as Kim reminds the audience when discussing his life, unlike many of his peers, his origins were quite unpromising, dropping out of junior high, and working in a factory as a teenager. Kim's sense of self as an outsider might be considered as essential to his films.

Arirang could well be described as therapeutic as Kim has a new film, Amen, that premiered last September at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Like Arirang, the new film was shot on High Definition video, primarily by Kim himself, suggesting that at least for now, Kim is approaching his fimmaking less formally than with his previous work. That a new film has been produced so soon after the Cannes premiere of Arirang also suggests that the offscreen shootings by Kim with his handmade gun, were of Kim killing off some of his demons.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:42 AM

November 14, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - The Day He Arrives


Book chon bang hyang
Hong Sang-soo - 2011
Cinema Guild 35mm film

While it's always a possibility of liking a film without knowing exactly why, if you put yourself in a position where you are obligated to write about such a film, there may be a problem. Maybe what I'm responding to might be a comfort level, a familiarity, now that I've seen several of Hong's films. It's not the story, or even the storytelling that is important as much as the repetition. And in a strange way, Hong has made me think of Randolph Scott.

Most of the Randolph Scott films follow a template of the loner coming to town, trying to mind his own business, finding himself as the one person who cleans up the small town corruption, has lost his wife or former love to the guy who is his arch-enemy, and usually winds up, if briefly, in the arms of a woman young enough to be his daughter. It doesn't matter if the director is Andre DeToth or Budd Boetticher, you pretty much know what to expect from a western starring Randolph Scott.

Likewise with Hong Sang-soo, there are certain things that are axiomatic. Two guys claim to be friends, but maybe their friendship isn't quite as deep as one or both might state. Men and women will fall in love, though usually the relationships are brief, and end badly. There's lots of drinking and eating in restaurants, usually drinking. For many of Hong's characters, the way to deal with the uncertainties of life is to remain uncertain.

There are a couple things to distinguish The Day He Arrives from other Hong films. This is the first of Hong's films that I've seen where there is occasional first person narration. Also, except for the opening and closing titles, the film is in black and white. There is also more use of the zoom lens for several close ups.

Just as Hong's films seem to follow repeated patterns regarding the characters, The Day He Arrives shows the main character, a film director named Yu, repeating himself in his goodbyes to would-be lovers, and in continually running into the same people - an aspiring actress and a trio of young filmmakers, all within the same neighborhood in Seoul. The two women Yu gets involved with are played by the same actress. Hong's films may be said to exaggerate real life, where guys seem to get involved with similar looking women, and where people repeat the same lines to different people.

Yu, his friend Young-ho, and a woman who teaches film, Boram, are conversing in the small bar where part of the film takes place. Yu is asked what kind of woman he is attracted to, and Boram replies that she fits Yu's description. Perhaps the best way to describe The Day He Arrives is as a wistful comedy about people both seeking and rejecting validation from each other. And yet . . .

The owner of the tiny bar, Kyung-jin, announces that she will go out to buy some food for her three customers. Yu goes to walk with her on that snowy night. Impulsively, Yu embraces Kyung-jin, and the two kiss. In retrospect, one might not be certain about Yu's sincerity with Kyung-jin, but the image of the two, a straight full shot, with no musical embellishment, might be the most romantic moment in film at this moment.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:38 AM

November 13, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Haunters


Kim Min-suk - 2010
Zip Entertainment

Maybe I'm missing something here. There's been some fuss about Haunters, enough to get the film to make it's way around the festival circuit in the U.S. and elsewhere. And anyone who's spent any time reading my previous posting knows that whatever problems I have with this film have nothing to do with genre or cultural issues. I rather write nothing, than a dismissal of a film, but, hey, when I read that a film is the directorial debut of a guy who had his hand in writing The Good, the Bad and the Weird, expectations are raised.

The basic premise is that Cho-in, a young guy, with a prosthetic leg also has great psychic powers where he can control anyone he sees. All he does with his psychic ability is take large stacks of money from various pawnbrokers, the better to pay for housing in luxury hotels. Cho-in feels resentful towards the world because of his having one leg. Still, that all he does is steal money and live in comfortable digs indicates a dearth of imagination both on the part of the character and writer-director Kim. Trying to steal more money from the pawnshop called Utopia, Cho-in discovers the one person who cannot be affected by his psychic powers, a perennial loser named Kyu-nam.

Not that it would have made Haunters that much better, but I was hoping that the relationship between Cho-in and Kyu-nam might have been given some kind of explanation along the lines of Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson in Unbreakable. Unless I've completely misunderstood what was intended, there are some hints that Kyu-nam may be a superhero unaware of his own powers or identity. More damning is any filmmaker who makes me wish I was watching a film by M. Night Shyamalan.

The one unique part of the film is the inclusion of two sidekicks from the junkyard where Kyu-nam worked, a Turk named Al, and Ghanese named Bubba (?). It's very unusual to see non-Asians in Korean films, and it could be that their inclusion provided a certain amount of comic relief for Korean audiences. It should also be noted that the two actors do speak fluent Korean as mentioned in the review posted at Koreanfilm.org. Other than the casting, there is nothing that makes Haunters a particularly distinguished film. Kim had a couple of interesting ideas for a premise, inserted a couple of little riffs from The Terminator and spaghetti westerns, but was unable to come up with anything more to keep my own mind from wandering.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:30 AM

November 12, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Hospitalite


Koji Fukada - 2010
Film Movement

The opening credits of Hospitalite is made of titles superimposed over white, textured, opaque glass. It made me think of the opening titles of older Japanese films, especially those of Yasujiro Ozu, where the titles are superimposed over burlap or a similar fabric. The first couple of shots of the film also have a way of invoking Ozu, with several exterior shots providing a basic sense of locale. In one of the first scenes, a neighbor comes by to have a printer sign a petition on behalf of a beautification project. The neighbor comments on the presence of the homeless and foreigners. That Fukada's film shares some similarities with Ozu has been commented on by others.

This is very much a contemporary film. The family units, always under some kind of pressure of coming apart in Ozu's films, have a greater tendency to spiral out of control. The printer, Mikio, lives with his elementary school aged daughter, and his much younger second wife, Natsuki. They live upstairs above the small family owned printing press. Mikio's divorced sister also shares what is established as cramped living quarters. A stranger, Kagawa, appears, claiming to know the whereabouts of the daughter's missing parakeet. Kagawa's father had helped finance Mikio's father's press. Not having a job or a place to stay, Mikio invites Kagawa to move in, and to help run the print shop. Shortly thereafter, a blonde woman named Annabelle appears, stepping out of the shower, introduced as Kagawa's wife.

It isn't much of a stretch to see the tiny house as symbolizing Japan, the home as a small island, with it's invasion of foreigners with strange customs and manners, as well as all manner of real and imagined social ills. Even the neighborhood seems enclosed, as when Mikio and Natsuki have an awkward encounter with the ex-wife who walked away from her marriage with Mikio. Over the course of the film, some of the characters are forced to reveal certain truths about each other. Others remain a bit mysterious, such as Annabelle, who is introduced as being from Brazil, but later tells someone else that she is from Bosnia.

The neighborhood, in the outskirts of metro Tokyo, appears untouched by time. Thinking back, Hospitalite could well have been filmed in the same locations as one of Yoji Yamada's "Tora-san" movies from fifty years ago. The closest concession made to the present day is the appearance of a young man who plays with a rock band in a small club. There is a television set in Mikio's house, but otherwise the film seems to take place somewhere remote, disconnected from the visible highway where cars whiz by in the distance.

Fukada makes an interesting visual choice at the end of the film. The focal point is a bird cage, with a newly bought parakeet that resembles the one that flew away. The stationary shot looks down on the cage, while we see primarily the legs of Mikio and Natsuki walking in and out of frame, in the process of cleaning up their house after an impromptu party with far too many guests. That composition of the shot could well be Fukada's way of providing a bit of symbolism, yet at the same time, allowing the viewer to contemplate what has been seen, and to draw their own conclusions.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:36 AM

November 11, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Dance Town


Jeon Kyu-hwan - 2010
Lane Street Pictures Digital Presentation

In one remarkable moment in Dance Town, a woman, Jung-nim visits the housebound Mr. Lee, with the purpose of bringing him home made kimchi. No one answers, and Jung-nim pushes the door open, only to discover Mr. Lee, whose mobility is limited to dragging himself across the floor, attempting to commit suicide with the cord around his neck, attached to the door. Jung-nim struggles to undo the cord, while the chocking Lee wraps his arms around her, pulling down her dress. The two hold each other, breathing heavily. Whether accidentally or on purpose, what is seen is a moment binding sex and death, at once both horrifying and darkly humorous.

I've been able to see two of Jeon's three "town" films. I am not sure how well I can assess what I've seen because even though I have some familiarity with Korean history and culture, Jeon's films strike me as being very culturally specific. This is to say that especially while watching Dance Town, it struck me that there is much about Korean culture that I don't understand.

Dance Town is about a woman who escapes to South Korea from the north. Her husband, a businessman of some kind, has been caught smuggling goods from South Korea. Traveling by a Chinese boat, Jung-nim is initially grilled by government agents, and placed in a government owned apartment. Unknown to Jung-nim is that her apartment has hidden cameras, while the South Korean government assesses whether she is a spy or a true refugee. The irony is that Jung-nim trades one surveillance state for another.

As in Animal Town, the other Jeon film I've seen, seemingly unrelated characters and events are seen, gradually tied together. In Dance Town, not all of the characters or events have impact on each other, but are part of a broader picture. The sense of despair that affects many of the characters, the bleakness of the resolutions, make me think of Michael Haneke. Certainly, the scenes of Jung-nim being video recorded in her apartment, and her social worker watching the videos are the kinds of scenes from several Haneke films. Jeon's films also act as critiques of South Korean society, and the treatment not only of North Korean refugees, but the crippled and elderly.

Part of the drama is Jung-nim's not knowing whether her husband will be able to rejoin her. Jung-nim and Lee, in one of their conversations, conclude that people are pretty much the same everywhere. Jeon raises the question as to whether Jung-nim might have still escaped to South Korea if she could not be with her husband, knowing that had she stayed in North Korea, she would likely be executed for possessing "foreign" goods. Where Jeon is quite different from Haneke is that Jeon also has room for visits from ghosts, a loved one remembered whose presence is briefly seen. In both Animal Town and Dance Town, these scenes might be considered mystical or magic realism, presented in a very low key fashion. As is indicated in this interview, Jeon allows for ambiguity, both in the story, and with what is, or is not revealed, allowing the viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:26 AM

November 10, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Outrage


Takeshi Kitano - 2010
Magnolia/Magnet 35mm film

The first thing that struck me about Outrage was the formalism. The film begins with a lateral tracking shot of a group of men, all in identical black suits, standing by black sedans, facing a mansion. That they are yakuza is pretty much a given. Also a given is that they are less important than the men who are gathered inside the house. An overhead shot of one of the black sedans momentarily appears to be a stylized coffin. What seems to be of greater interest to Takeshi Kitano is not the story as much as how to tell the story.

The emphasis on formalism is extended to the narrative elements. Essentially, it is about the complications that arise from conflicting loyalties based on personal oaths of "brotherhood" as well as the formalities of being part of a yakuza family. Watching the film is like watching a chess game, albeit one more violent, where certain movements are allowed based on the specified role. The alleged code of honor of the yakuza, questioned in several films by Kinji Fukasaku almost forty years ago, is thoroughly beaten down by Kitano. As one character tells the disgraced character played by Takeshi, cutting off the tip of the pinkie finger is worthless. A minor incident escalates to the point where entire gangs decimate each other. Unlike the classic yakuza films, there is no one here to root for - it's mostly violence and bluster, almost a comedy of bad manners as each thug tries to play off one against the other, and almost no one gets away with murder.

Even though the film is written, directed and edited by Kitano, the top billed actor is more part of an ensemble rather than the central protagonist. The opening tracking shot goes by Kitano without pause, as if the filmmaker is telling the audience that while Beat Takeshi is in the cast, he is no more the star than anyone else. The humility in not making himself the focal point of his own film may also reflect on Kitano's decision to make another yakuza film, primarily for the sake of commercial viability following a series of more personal films. Keep in mind that Kitano's last film to get any significant U.S. play was his own version of Zatoichi back in 2003.

Even though Kitano has returned to genre filmmaking, there are several stylistic flourishes throughout the film. A flash of gunfire in a tunnel is a reminder of one of his earlier film where all one could see was gunfire in the dark. Several scenes are linked together by fadeouts to black. There is brief silence before a trio of gunmen start shooting. Likewise, there are several moments of grim comedy, as when some thugs insist that a cook serve a bowl of ramen that contain a couple of lopped off fingers, or the give and take between the yakuza and the corrupt cop who selectively enforces the law. In Outrage, there are neither honorable lifes or deaths, merely survival by cunning or sheer luck.

Outrage will get selected theatrical release on December 2.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:36 AM

November 09, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - A People Uncounted


Aaron Yeger - 2011
Urbinder Films

A documentary? A documentary about people frequently identified as "Gypsies"? Sometimes I need to step out of my customary comfort zones, especially as most of what I know about the Roma people is from watching several of Tony Gatlif's films. To some extent, Aaron Yeger's documentary and Gatlif's films compliment each other.

A People Uncounted primarily examines the genocide of the Roma and Senti people during World War II. Yeger also touches on parallels with the American Civil rights movement as well as genocide that has taken place in more recent years. There is a lot of ground covered within an hour and a half, maybe a bit too much for a film of that length. Still, it's a flaw I can live with - better a film that tries to say too much, than a film that essentially says very little. And I can't imagine anyone seeing A People Uncounted not being affected by it in some way.

The heart of the film is primarily about the Roma people during what is commonly referred to as "the holocaust". Many of the people interviewed are concentration camp survivors. Just when might have thought you knew how bad the Nazis and German soldiers were, come these first person accounts which paint them as even worse than imagined. Most harrowing is the story Dr. Joseph Mengele's surgical experiments with children by one survivor. In reference to the title, there is no accurate count of Roma and Sinti people who died in death camps or the various round-ups, but it estimated that the population loss was close to 90 percent.

Historical perspective is provided with a brief look at the origins of the Roma people, as well as previous actions where they were expelled, as from England by Henry VIII, or enslaved, tortured and killed during previous centuries. There is also a look at current laws, such as in Italy where Roma people are registered and have been forced to move from cities such as Milan, where municipal laws are able to circumvent European Union rules. A montage of clips from movies and television shows touch on how "Gypsies" have been portrayed in popular culture with a mix of both prejudice and fanciful romanticism. It is the first person accounts that make A People Uncounted worth watching, both for providing some added historical perspective on a minority people, but also as an antidote to those who insist on trivializing history for their own dubious purposes.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:12 AM

November 08, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Attenberg


Athina Rachel Tsangari - 2010
Strand Releasing 35mm film

The title of the film comes from one of the young Greek woman's mispronunciation of the name Attenborough. At various points in the film, Marina, often with her dying father, watches one of David Attenborough's nature documentaries. The apparent assuredness and ease of animal family relationships and courtship rituals is contrasted with the awkwardness of the humans.

There are only four characters, and whatever relationship they have with each other seems to be a tentative and not wholly successful rebellion against total isolation. The best of these relationships, between Marina and Bella, is notable for the goofy duets, synchronized walking, or to put it in the widest possible terms, dances with exaggerated steps and gestures. While the relationship between the two is more obviously idiosyncratic, it might also be considered, like many "real" relationships, based on shared rituals and nothing more then that, not unlike friendships that are based primarily on shared religious observances or meeting at a bar or cafe. Marina also experiences her first sexual relationship with an unnamed man, a visiting engineer, and deals with the death of her father. When not watching television with her father, there dialogue is also marked by misunderstandings, whereas the two bond best playing word games and imitating gorillas.

Athina Rachel Tsangari served as an Associate Producer on Dogtooth, while Attenberg is her second feature as writer and director. I can't jump to any conclusions, but with the recent resurgence of Greek cinema as a global entity, Tsangari is certainly part of that movement. There are several moments of deadpan humor, especially in the scenes between Marina and Bella. There is also some seriousness in the scenes of Marina and her father, Spyros, discussing is imminent death. At one point, Spyros talks of how Greece made the leap from an agrarian society to a modern society without having experienced industrialism. Spyros also makes clear that in death he does not want his body to become food for worms. There is a casualness to these conversations that disguises the underlying theme of the connections, and disconnections, with the natural world.

The natural and the unnatural comes to mind when Bella attempts to teach Marina about kissing. In spite of her expressed curiosity regarding the act of French kissing, Marina describes having Bella's tongue as being like a slug. Contrasting the death of Spyros is the death of the town where the film takes place, a factory town where the factory is closed and most of the population is gone. At one point, the camera pans over the residences, blocks of identical white houses. That white is a symbolic color of virginity and death is fitting for this film. The Athens born, New York and Austin educated filmmaker, Tsangari, has described herself as a nomad. Just as Attenberg is a film that travels through uncomfortable spaces between people, I suspect that Tsangari's future films will cross a variety of geographical and personal boundaries.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:22 AM

November 07, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Yukiko


Haruka Motoi - 2010
Digital presentation

Taking place over a period of about three days, Yukiko is about a young woman who suddenly finds herself adrift in Paris after an argument with her boyfriend. Sitting on a street corner, Yukiko is taken in by another Japanese woman, Mitsue, who works as a translator. The offer to spend the night becomes an offer of temporary housing until Yukiko can find work and an apartment. As it turns out, the following morning, Yukiko's mother shows up in Paris, officially to check on her daughter, but with an agenda of her own.

This is a slight film that essentially concludes that men are unreliable, and women can only count on each other. I have no problem with that premise. What defied credibility was the setup of Yukiko, knowing a bit of English and no French, going to Paris to become a singer. The weakest part of Yukiko is the title character. Better realized are Mitsue, a Japanese woman navigating her way between two cultures both professionally and personally, and the mother, in Paris to seek out the lover who left her pregnant with Yukiko.

Motoi made the film primarily with a French crew, and a cast of French based Japanese actors. What I've gathered through IMDb is that the actors have had smaller roles in French films and television. Hiromi Asai, who plays Mitsue, is in one of the few films to get international distribution, Heartbreakers, starring Roman Duris. More high profile is cinematographer Rodolphe Seraphine with his own website.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:15 AM

November 06, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Record Future

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Mirai no kiroku
Kentaro Kishi - 2010
Kzone Digital presentation

If anyone should have gotten an award named after John Cassavetes, it should have been Kentaro Kishi. The film festival's award is given to an American filmmaker or actor which rules out Kishi. I'm not sure what to make of Record Future, but the fact that the film was largely improvised, and shot over the course of four years clearly follows the template of Shadows and Faces.

Kishi is better known stateside, if not by name or face, than by a resume that includes films Sukeban Boy, Marchine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police, films that may be in questionable taste but are undeniably entertaining. Record Future is closer to late Sixties-early Seventies independent film, and far from the kind of stuff that appears on the Tokyo Shock DVD label. Past, present and future intermingle in a story about a possible imagined school, and memories of a school in the past.

I was hoping to get some more clarification from one of the actor, Satoshi Kamimura, who attended the Friday night screening of the film regarding how much of the structure of the film was similar to Kishi's theater work. Sadly, the translator seemed unable to understand my question, and seemed unaware of the films Kishi has been associated with as an actor. While Kamimura discussed how the film was gradually improvised from a couple of basic ideas, how Record Future connects to Kishi's theater work remains unclear. Kishi did spend some time working with Akio Miyazawa, and the descriptions of a couple of Miyazawa's plays share thematic similarities to Record Future.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:19 AM

November 05, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - The Presence of Joseph Chaikin

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Joseph Chaikin

Troy Word - 2011
Digital Presentation (shown by the filmmaker)

Unless you are an actor, or someone very familiar with American theater, the name Joseph Chaikin might not mean anything to you. The various people who talk about Chakin all talk about the impression that he made on them, both as an actor, director and person. And for someone knowing nothing about Chaikin, that may seem like the usual praise given in a biographical documentary. What I can tell attest to is that I met Chaikin about fifty years ago, when I was no more than 10 years old, and I still have a memory of that evening when I thought he was the coolest person I had ever encountered in person.

So how was it that a kid from Teaneck, New Jersey got to meet the up and coming young actor? My father, Gerhard Nellhaus, translated several plays by Bertolt Brecht that were staged by the Living Theater. There were, as unbelievable as it might seem, two rival productions of the play, Man is Man, that were performed at the same time. A short mention of this is to be found at Playbill.com. After an exchange of emails with Troy Word regarding to dueling productions, it also should be noted that the soundtrack uses a Folkways recording from 1963, adapted by Bentley, with John Heffernan in the role that Chakin performed in the Living Theater version.

The film is a combination of talking heads, home movies and documentations of performances, plus a couple of dramatic reenactments. Not totally in chronological order is the story of a boy born in Brooklyn in 1935. Rheumatic fever at age 6 leaves him with a weakened heart. Aspirations for a more traditional acting career and stardom give way when Chaikin joins the Living Theater, which in turn inspires him to explore other forms of theatrical expression with his own Open Theater. Chaikin wrote a book, The Presence of an Actor, and his life could be said to be about making his own presence meaningful to both himself and others.

Personal aspects of his life revealed include what was a close relationship with Susan Sontag that ended when Sontag was unable to deal with Chaikin's aphasia that followed a major stroke, making it difficult for someone whose life depended to a large degree on verbal expression from speaking coherently. Sam Shepard comes across as a true life hero for continuing to work with Chaikin on a collaborative piece, living with him during the first difficult months, and assisting in Chaikin's rehabilitation. Chaikin is also filmed reading from a poem written expressly for him by Samuel Beckett.

Regarding his stage work, the most intriguing episode is about a production in Israel, already controversial because of the plan to have both Israeli and Palestinian actors working together. The production is nearly undone by the war with Lebanon in 1982, and several of the men in the cast drafted by the Israeli army. The play evolves so that it is in part about the absence of the actors, and about war that affects the cast, crew and audience. A touching moment it when Palestinian actor performs an Israeli song he sang on stage almost thirty years ago, giving the lyrics new meaning.

The film begins, fittingly with a quote from Brecht, "Do not fear death, but rather the inadequate life.".

And a bit of coincidence here that made me smile: both my father and Joseph Chaikin were born on September 16.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:45 AM | Comments (2)

November 04, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Gandu

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Q - 2010
Overdose Joint

It might be sufficient to say that Gandu is unlike any other film from India. The filmmaker, Kaushik Mukherjee, who goes by name of Q, has been compared to Gaspar Noe, not inappropriate, considering some of the graphic content. Unsurprisingly, in a country that frowns upon on screen kissing, Gandu can not be seen in India. For those whose only exposure to Indian film is the high minded cinema of Satyajit Ray, or the song and dance and romance from Bollywood, Gandu will come as a shock.

There's more than kissing going on here, with scenes of fucking, sucking and dope smoking. The film is a combination of street documentary, music video, and hard core sex. What is also striking is to see the results of the globalization of culture, in the music, in the pornography, and even with a character who is obsessed with Bruce Lee. There are moments of informational overload, with multiple screens of talking heads and text running concurrently. Where Q also makes a significant cultural divergence from most Indian films seen in the west is that the action takes place in Kolkata, and the language is Bengali, rather than Hindi or Tamil.

Gandu is a film where the characters lives are a mess. What is not a mess is the cinematography, wide screen, mostly black and white. With a background in documentary filmmaking, Q's images are clean and clear, even if the subject matter is literally down in the dirt. What unfolds is a loosely told story about a young man, known as Gandu, the name is translated as asshole. Living in a spacious, if crumbling apartment with his mother, Gandu has only the vaguest sense of doing something with his live, blowing money on lottery tickets, and dreaming of becoming a music star. Most of Gandu's money seems to come from picking the wallet of his mother's lover. Days are spent hanging out with pal Ricksha, who gets by as a rickshaw driver. Gandu hates his life, yet spends more time wallowing in filth, looking for the easy way out, usually through drugs. On the surface, the description may seem hardly promising, yet the film remains entirely watchable because it shows sides of Indian life otherwise unknown.

Interviews with Q are helpful in putting Gandu in context, both regarding Indian cinema, and global independent filmmaking. For myself, I hope for the opportunity to see Q's previous film, the documentary Love in India. I don't think the intention of the film is to necessarily win friends and influence people as much as it is to provoke discussion on various topics, most obviously how sex is used by the characters in the film, and how it is presented by Q. I'm not even sure if the "normal" critical standards can apply to Gandu, not the least because it defies easy categorization. Within my own limited understanding of India and Indian cinema, I can recognize how Gandu may be deliberately offensive. At the same time, the provocation is not simply for its own sake, which makes all the difference.

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(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:57 AM

November 03, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da
Nuri Bilge Ceylan - 2011
Cinema Guild 35mm Film

The first third of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia takes place in the dark. The symbolism is obvious, once you follow what's going on. What is first seen are lights from cars, seen in a distance. After a while it's gleaned that one is watching a police investigation in progress. A prisoner has buried something, and does not recall where. Landscapes and landmarks are hard to distinguish with no available illumination. Starting and stopping, the exact location is eventually found. A body is dug up, and brought back for an autopsy. Left in the dark are questions regarding the relationship between the accused men and their victim, motivation, and whether the victim might have been buried alive.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan has a website devoted to his photography. And the images are similar to those found in his films. In an interview with the British newspaper, The Guardian, Ceylan discusses how he likes the subtle and the hidden, to make the audience an active participant in watching the film. So it goes with this film.

The story takes place over a night through the following day. Ceylan arguable flips the conventional police procedural narrative by concentrating on what would be fleeting moments in most other films. The first fifty minutes or so is also a "road film" where no one can clearly see where they are going. It's a leisurely investigation where everyone stops to have a late night dinner in a small village, where the lights go out, leaving everyone again in the dark. This is not a film for people who demand constant action or exposition. There are indelible images, the camera pauses to view trees swaying in the wind, a giant sculpture of a face carved on a rocky hill is glimpsed when lightning flashes, a young woman's face is observed serving drinks, illuminated by a small lamp in the otherwise dark house of the village headman. If there is any conclusion, it is that people can remain unknowable.

There are a couple moments of mordant humor. A cell phone's ring is the theme to The Godfather. Even though there is a search for a corpse, no one is prepare to transport the dead body, leading to a discussion of which car trunk has the most room. Critical discussion of Ceylan's films touch upon the cultural changes within Turkey, and in Once Upon a Time . . ., in the scene in the small village, characters discuss how only the elders remain, while the children move to the bigger cities or to Germany. Ceylan doesn't press his points, but as in his previous films, there is the continual sense of disconnection and dislocation.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:00 AM | Comments (1)

November 02, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - Food and the Maiden

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Meshi to otome
Minoru Kurimura - 2009

That the title of Minoru Kurimura's film is a play on a more famous title is immediately confirmed by the first few notes of Franz Schubert's "Death and the Maiden". Is there such a things as chamber film as there is chamber music. Kurimura's film revolves primarily around four characters, and mostly takes place in enclosed spaces. The main difference is that Schubert's music was about the acceptance of death, while Kurimura's film is about the acceptance of life.

The film is about the relationship between several characters and their relationship with food. The sweet center of this story is Saori (the irresistible Mayu Sakuma), the cook at a tiny Tokyo restaurant called Coo. There is also the two office workers, a woman constantly bingeing and purging little snacks, while her coworker hides behind his lunchbox, as if to keep any other predators away. Soari has a crush on Kujo, a young man who regularly comes to Coo simply to drink and nibble on nuts. For Kujo, eating is a private matter, done alone at home. There are a couple of sayings attributed to Buddha regarding food that bookend the film, and a Buddhist priest is one of the recurring characters, seen most notably eating a pork cutlet sandwich that Soari had intended for Kujo. The true religion of this film though is the love of cooking and eating carefully crafted food.

Almost analogous to the way the presentation of the food is often the best part of the meal, likewise Kurimura demonstrates in his debut feature that he is a promising visual formalist. The first images in the apartment of the bulimic Mie are a series of lateral traveling shots that blend together as the camera crosses walls. An overhead shot of Saori appears like main dish with a formal assortment of appetizers on the side. Kurimura doesn't just film the cooking of food, it's almost like he's dived into the boiling pots and frying pans. In one shot, the screen is virtually filled with the image of an egg yolk.

One of the other great images is with the use of red, as Mie's fingers, splashed with blood, slice open a cut of liver, and image both horrifying and salacious. The red imagery is continued with Mie's shirt and hair band. No blenders here. Kurimura relishes extreme close ups of calamari, shrimp, and various vegetables and spices, sliced and chopped by sharp stainless steel knives. Prior to making his own films, Minoru Kurimura had worked with Wong Kar-wai, and shares with Wong an enjoyment of observing his characters' idiosyncrasies without need for judgment, allowing for the humor of a given situation to reveal itself. Food and the Maiden could well be the only foodie film where vinegar is an aphrodisiac.

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(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:16 AM

November 01, 2011

Coffee Break

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Joel McCrea in The Great Moment (Preston Sturges - 1944)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:46 AM