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December 31, 2013

My Best of 2013


I will admit immediately that my list is going to be idiosyncratic. There are several reasons. Because of the length of travel time involved, half an hour is the shortest, I only see a very small number of films theatrically due to my reliance on public transportation. Also, I've been blessed with a good number of DVDs to review which has kept me busy. I was counting on getting screeners of certain films through my membership with the Online Film Critics Society, but that didn't happen because one of the major studios blew us off this year, and others chose to make their films available online - which I don't mind too much for seeing films that viewed purely for entertainment, but I refuse to do for anything requiring a considered assessment. I plan to see Blue is the Warmest Color eventually, but not hunched over my Macbook.

These are the films that struck a chord with me during this past year . . .

Stoker. As far as I'm concerned, this is as good as anything Park Chan-wook has made, and in some ways better. One of my favorite scenes is of Mia Wasikowska, in a shower. At first you think she is crying about an act of violence, but it is soon revealed that she is laughing. Critics were oblivious to the creative visuals as well as use of sound. Like the other films on this list, I feel confident that Stoker will be "rediscovered" in about ten years.

Only God Forgives. I don't mean to be deliberately contrarian. Maybe it's the Thailand setting that suckered me in. I loved Nicolas Winding Refn's dark journey much more than a lot of critics, as well as the public, far more than Drive. The best parts were those of the two most unforgiving characters portrayed by Vithaya Pansringarm, the Bangkok cop with his own ideas about law enforcement, and alway wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother with some eyebrow raising ideas about maternal love.

To the Wonder. I was surprised at how Terrence Malick's new film hooked me in. I liked this much more than Tree of Life. Even more elliptical than Tree of Life, with half heard conversations and a hinted at narrative. Why the film was not as embraced as Malick's previous work, I don't understand. For me it was visual poetry.

The Grandmaster. Anyone looking for a martial arts film was missing the point. I chose to get the Hong Kong DVD. From what I have read from various sources, I made the best choice. Like Wong Kar-wai's other films, this is mostly about love and loss. Between this film and new pan-Asian version of Dangerous Liasons, Zhang Ziyi is proving to be a formidable actress.

Broken Circle Breakdown. A film about bluegrass singers, from Belgium? I could have seen this about a couple of months earlier, as part of the Starz Denver Film Festival. Lucky for me, Tribeca Films mailed me a screener. A moving film about a couple brought together by music, and torn apart by the most untimely of tragedies. Currently one of the nine finalists for Oscar consideration in the foreign language division, my favorite of the the films currently in contention.

Best popcorn movie: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. This will officially get released in the U.S. in 2014. One of the few times I went to see a movie on the big screen. I'm glad I did, because the special effects look a lot better than the Youtube trailers would indicate. Epic goofiness as envisioned by Hong Kong's Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok. Of course I am susceptible to the pleasures of seeing Shu Qi larger than life.

Best new DVD/Blu-ray release: The Big Gundown. Grindhouse Releasing shows how it's done. Sergio Sollima's original 1966 version finally get to be available on Blu-ray. If that's not enough, Enio Morricone's music on the Blu-ray get both an exclusive track, but its own subtitles discussing the various musical queues. And the movie is quite terrific as well. The set comes with Blu-rays of the original 1966 version and the 1968 U.S. release version, a DVD of the 1968 version, AND a soundtrack CD. And the price is less than Criterion usually asks for a single DVD.

One of those rare times when I do shell out for a Criterion release was for the Blu-ray of The Uninvited because, well Gail Russell is so gosh darn pretty in her debut film, and notes were contributed by longtime virtual pal, Farran Smith Nehme, better known by some as The Self-Styled Siren.

See you next year.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:31 AM

December 29, 2013

Coffee Break

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Sue Bernard and Bee Tompkins in That Tender Touch (Russel Vincent - 1969)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:41 AM

December 26, 2013

The 47 Ronin (1994)

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Shijushichinin no shikaku
Kon Ichikawa - 1994
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Not that I am surprised based on the trailers and description of the reworking that the response to Universal's new version of The 47 Ronin is universal scorn. Will this new version inspire a new audience to seek out any of the previous versions? There might have been more interest had the film contained a bit of commercial viability and some critical praise. More likely, it may give reason to those who take film history seriously to see one of the earlier films. Whether the title incorporates the Japanese Chushingura or 47 Ronin, or uses an altogether different title, there are at least as many film versions as there are masterless samurai, with the earliest known version produced in 1907.

I'm not certain if any version is considered definitive. Certainly Kenji Mizoguchi's 1941 is held in high regard because it's by Kenji Mizoguchi. Hiroshi Inagaki's 1962 version was the first to get a U.S. release, while the 1958 film by Kunio Watanabe has a cast that includes more internationally recognized stars including Machiko Kyo, Shintaro Katsu, Ayako Wakao and Kazuo Hasegawa. These versions generally follow the same story line. A daimyo, Asano, perceives an insult from an official, Kira, cutting him with a sword rather than take the insult. For several reasons, Asano is forced to commit seppuku, and his fief is abolished. Asano's three-hundred retainers are now ronin, masterless samurui. One of the top ranking members, Oishi, organizes a plot seeking revenge. The previous three films concentrate more on discussion of the nuances of protocol and the meaning of samurai loyalty.

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Perhaps done with the sense that the core audience was overly familiar with the basic story, Kon Ichikawa chose to concentrate more on Oishi's strategy for revenge. The scenes involving Asano and Kira are fleetingly told in flashbacks. While we see Asano injure Kira, the actions that lead up to this incident are not seen, nor any motivations discussed. Even when confronted by Oishi, Kira is unable to explain or justify what had happened.

Those looking for straight out samurai action might be disappointed. The there is the confrontation between the ronin and Kira's men, and it does have its bloody moments, the bulk of the film is about Oishi planning the attack, and the counter-strategy devised by Kira's retainer, Irobe. As Oishi, Ken Takakura is more contemplative here than in the action films that established his stardom in Japan, or the film that introduced him to a larger western audience, The Yakuza. Ruriko Asaoka shines briefly as Oishi's wife. What I really liked were shots that some might consider extraneous to the narrative - a bamboo forest, branches of cherry blossom trees in different seasons, the colors and textures of stone walls.

The 47 Ronin represented a late period resurgence for Kon Ichikawa, 79 years old, and still active as a filmmaker for a dozen more years. The film earned eleven nominations for Japan's film academy, winning four, including one for supporting actor Kiichi Nakai as Irobe. Those especially unfamiliar with the story would benefit from the DVD extras which AnimEigo has excelled at, including the historical background of the story, some history about the various film versions, as well as explanations regarding various aspects of Japanese culture specific to the 18th Century.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:26 AM

December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

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Richard Masur and Roger E. Mosely in Semi-Tough (Michael Ritchie -1977)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:24 AM

December 24, 2013

The Berlin File

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Ryoo Seung-wan - 2013
CJ Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Throughout much of The Berlin File, Ryoo employs the two shot in filming his characters. For those unfamiliar with the term, the two shot is the shot of two characters within the same frame. The use of this visual motif underlines two aspects of the characters. Virtually all of the characters have, or appear to have, double existences, both professionally and personally. Also, each character is paired with someone else, sometimes, very briefly working together, but more often in opposition. Everyone here is a spy, but it's never clear whose side they are on.

Duality is indirectly referred to also in setting the film in Berlin, the once divided city, where those on the eastern side reputedly spied on each other in the name of loyalty to the Communist regime. Ryoo doesn't spend any time providing the kind of tourist's eye view that is often employed in films using a foreign location, but one can spot the Brandenburg Gate in the background during a scene of two secret agents fighting it out on a rooftop.

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What begins as North Koreans and South Koreans spying on each other in Berlin, gets murkier with involvement by the C.I.A., the Mossad, and an Arab terrorist organization. Adding to this are the conflicts within each organization, adding to the tension, and the concept of duality. Jong-seong, the North Korean "ghost" agent is under suspicion for his part in a failed illegal agreement with a notorious Russian arms dealer that ends up with a gunfight, and the sudden appearance of Mossad agents. Jong-seong's wife is not only suspected of trying to defect by others within the North Korean embassy in Berlin, but suspected by her husband as well. The unseen hand that determines much of the action is that of "the party", the North Korean elite best connected to Kim Jong-un.

Certainly, what makes the DVD release so timely is the recent news from North Korea. That the loyalties of the North Korean characters are constantly questioned by each other, where political expediency trumps any other kind of relationship, is less abstract in light current events. The Berlin File would suggest that what took place in Pyongyang plays out on a smaller, private scale, between people with their own political and personal stakes, all in the name of "The Republic".

The DVD comes with a "Making of , , ," supplement. One of the more informative bits of information that would be lost on those, like myself, who don't speak Korean, or watch the English dubbed version, is that there are a variety of North Korean accents. Not that not knowing this should in any way get in the way of enjoying the action, but it is a reminder of how some cultural details get lost. Ryoo also explains how martial arts specific to North Korea was employed in the scenes of hand to hand fighting.

While The Berlin File is mostly serious viewing, there is fun is discovering who the spies are. And just when you think you have things figured out, Ryoo finds another way to pull the rug out from under the trusting audience.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:57 AM

December 22, 2013

Coffee Break

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Kirk Douglas and Doris Day in Young Man with a Horn (Michael Curtiz - 1950)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:54 AM

December 19, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

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John Lee Hancock - 2013

It may seem uncharacteristic of me to be writing about a mainstream Hollywood movie playing at a multiplex near you, but I was intrigued. Part of it is, as usual for me, an ongoing interest in the backstage stories whether sublime (Contempt or silly (Hollywood Boulevard). I'll even watch those movies of questionable factualness with actors impersonating Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock. Also, I had seen Mary Poppins back in the day when it was a relatively new movie. albeit in its run at a theater in a suburb of Chicago. My memories are that I liked the film well enough, and thought it sweet justice that Jack Warner reject Julie Andrews would win the Oscar in the year of My Fair Lady.

As it turns out, there is a bit more to the story than the clash of two egos, two creators of childhood icons. It's also the story of fathers and daughters, mostly that of the young Australian girl, with an alcoholic father, a banker whose own whimsical behavior causes him to be banished to managing a bank in a remote part of the country. There's also the internationally known cartoonist with a magical kingdom named after himself, and a promise to his daughters to make a film out of their favorite book. Also, a chauffeur named Ralph, whose overly cheerful persona masks his own sorrows, with an unexpected connection to the author he serves during her visit to Los Angeles.

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Others will go into greater detail regarding the accuracy of Saving Mr. Banks. A quick glance at the Mary Poppins credits indicates that one of the two screenwriters, Bill Walsh, is nowhere to be seen. Taken on its own terms, the facts ceased being important as the film progressed. What was compelling was seeing the negotiations between two people who initially misunderstand each other based on their respectively well known public images.

I don't don't know if anyone else had noticed it, but at the beginning of the film, the camera pans across a bright sky with high, light clouds. Maybe it's just me, but one cloud, seen in the screengrab above on the right, looked just enough like Mickey Mouse. Maybe it's computer generated, or possible nature was serendipitous that day, but I am certain I saw what may be a nice little visual gag. Or this is just a coincidence of sorts befitting a story about childhood imagination.

Having grown up watching the real Walt Disney on television, I couldn't quite buy into Tom Hank's impersonation. Hank's face is too blocky, the voice too high. Better to accept that the cinematic Walt Disney is a mildly loose version of the real man. By the same token, this is a fictionalized version of Poppins author P. L. Travers. Still, it is enjoyable to see Emma Thompson as an almost perpetually curmudgeon, stiffing bellboys, and sneering at all manifestations of Disneyana. While the film glosses over the unhappiness Travers felt over the changes Disney made to her creation, I think it's safe to assume that the money Travers earned from the cinematic Mary Poppins was a more than sufficient spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine of artistic compromise go down. The film's secret sauce is Paul Giamatti as the chauffeur, Ralph. Maybe the question should be, has there ever been any movie that did not benefit from having Paul Giamatti in the mix? The overly ingratiating and not very bright driver for "Mrs. Travers" (more fiction from the never married writer), Giamatti eventually becomes Saving Mr. Banks' warm and fuzzy heart.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:16 AM

December 17, 2013

Toad Road

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Jason Banker - 2012
Artsploitation Films All Region DVD

Even reading about Toad Road after seeing the film has not made it easier to process. What we have is really an unclassifiable hybrid. To call this a horror movie sets things up for unmet genre expectations. This is not like Abel Ferrara's The Addiction which clearly made the connections between drug dependency and vampirism. And an abundance of drugs are consumed in Toad Road. On a personal note, I have had, in a past long gone, had my own experiences that have some resemblance to the gatherings of the kids in Toad Road. An incident that I found amusing is that I had a friend who was strict about keeping kosher, but had no problem purchasing LSD from a stranger in New York City's Central Park.

The story is about a group of college aged friends who get together at a house for the sole purpose of not simply getting high, but totally wasted. Two of the friends, James and Sara, go for a walk in the woods, exploring for themselves what is suppose to be an urban legend, a path that leads to the seven gates of Hell. The path is Toad Road, somewhere near York, Pennsylvania. The gates may or may not really be there. The two share some kind of hallucinatory substance passed from Sara's tongue to James. At a certain point, Sara seems to have wandered away. James wakes up in the snow, unaware of how much time has passed.

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Getting lost seems to be the operative metaphor here. James talks about having a normal life, although we, and probably he, don't have any specifics other than vague talk about going to college. Even when James is found wandering in a nearby town, he is completely unmoored. His friends have all left, and without any place to go. There is a suggestion of what happened during James' missing time in the woods, but Banker keeps the viewer guessing.

The opening and closing scenes bookend a scrambled chronology of events that may or may not have happened. There is a beautiful shot taken of a young woman's reflection on water, in a lake in the woods. There is also some gorgeous gamelan music. But also there are static sounds, and extremely brief flashes of abstract images. That the actors play characters with their own names also blurs the lines between fictional narrative and a staged documentary. An early scene is of the kids getting high, playing around, with James so fucked up to even keep his pants on. The scene runs too long, but could well be deliberate. James is last seen lashing out destructively. There are questions but no answers. As such, Toad Road might serve as a denial of William Blake's notice that, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:36 AM

December 15, 2013

Coffee Break

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Henry Fonda, Carl Switzer and James Stewart in On Our Merry Way (John Huston - 1948)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:39 AM

December 13, 2013

The Big Gundown

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La Resa dei Conti
Sergio Sollima - 1966
Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray Regions ABC / DVD Region 0 set

There is a remarkable scene only available on the Blu-ray disc of La Resa dei Conti, the 1966 Italian western that was recut and released as The Big Gundown in the U.S. two years later. The original title roughly translates as "The Settling of Scores". Three outlaws from Texas think they have succeeded in completing their rendezvous with an outlaw they only know by name in Colorado. As it turns out, it's the bounty hunter who is waiting for them. One of the trio explains that they have run out of bullets. In a beautifully composed shot, we see the bounty hunter place three bullets on a log, one in front of each man, the three men and their respective bullets all within a single frame. One of the reasons why anyone would want to see Sergio Sollima's original version is to see how the characterizations are better fleshed out, especially in establishing the sense of fair play on the part of the bounty hunter, played by Lee Van Cleef.

Another shot that is shortened takes place presumably during "Day of the Dead" celebrations, with children watching marionette skeletons. It works as part of a visual motif. In the aforementioned opening scene, the camera pans just enough to the viewer's right of the outlaw trio to see the outlaw they were planning to meet hung from a tree. Later, Tomas Milian is tied in such a way that he is pulled in several directions at once. While some may gripe at hearing Van Cleef dubbed in Italian, with subtitles, La Resa dei Conti is the richer film.

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Not only is the dialogue subtitled in this version, but so is the music. Not only can you see the film with an isolated music track by Ennio Morricone, but there are subtitles that discuss the music queues. Not that all of the music is by Morricone, as his is aided by a couple of guys named Mendelsson and Beethoven. Mendelsson's "Wedding March" is played at the marriage of a magnate's daughter, suddenly morphing into a square dance. Beethoven's "Fur Elise" is first heard on piano, played by an Austrian baron who serves as the magnate's hired gun. Later, Morricone takes the opening notes, replayed as part of the soundtrack, poignantly integrated with a Spanish guitar theme.

As for the film itself, the fun is primarily watching the twists and turn of Van Cleef in his pursuit of Milian. Although seen later in the U.S., this was Van Cleef's first top billed performance following his career changing role as Colonel Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More. Van Cleef looks like a predatory bird with his thin face and pronounced nose. When he smiles, Van Cleef looks like the cat that swallowed the canary. In contrast to the usually cool and measured Van Cleef, is Milian's manic thief. There are times when Milian appears act like a simpleton or a slack-jawed idiot, disguising his own smart ways of taking advantage of every situation where he appears to have been caught. This was Milian's second western, also a career changer, where he became a staple in Italian westerns and later, in crime thrillers.

In one of the many supplements, Sergio Sollima talks about a love for westerns that he's had since childhood. I would venture that this love persisted into adulthood. Was Sollima thinking about My Darling Clementine with the shot of the sheriff leaning back in his chair, feet on the railing? Could the inclusion of a traveling Mormons be inspired by The Wagonmaster? While Sollima cites Akira Kurosawa with helping create the genre most associated with Sergio Leone, this film shows also a tip of the sombrero to John Ford.

Others interviewed as supplements to The Big Gundown are Tomas Milian, who also discusses his long acting career, and screenwriter Sergio Donati, a name associated with several Leone films as well. The commentary track by C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke, described as western experts, is generally entertaining and informative. A twenty-two page booklet provides more information. There's also a soundtrack CD for those who want to simple enjoy Ennio Morricone's music by itself. And if that wasn't enough, there's even a DVD-ROM of listing of Columbia Picture's edits! In short, the words "ultimate" and "collector's edition" on the cover box really mean something here.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:28 AM

December 11, 2013

The Snake God

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Il dio serpente
Piero Vivarelli - 1970
Mondo Macabro Region 1 DVD

By the standards of Mondo Macabro's previous releases, The Snake God is a relatively conventional movie. There a handful of zombies, or maybe they are extremely gaunt men with white make-up, some nudity, voodoo rituals, and interracial sex, the obligatory product placement of J & B scotch found in many Italian movies of the time, and the titular snake god who shows up in human form. What's missing is the kind of stuff that gets the description of "batshit crazy".

For myself, the best part of the DVD was the interview with writer-director Piero Vivarelli, apparently filmed shortly before his death in 2010. There are stories about his days as a dedicated smoker of an illegal herbal substance, and his commitment to communism including friendship with Fidel Castro. Better, are the clips from films he had a hand in, either as a writer or as director. There are a couple of clips from musicals directed by Lucio Fulci, yes, that Lucio Fulci, remembered chiefly for his horror movies where eyes routinely get gouged. One of those films has the odd English title of Howlers of the Dock, and features Chet Baker. There are other films with various Italian rock stars of the early Sixties, written and directed by Vivarelli. And I'd really love to see those films lovingly restored on DVD with English subtitles. As a writer, Vivarelli also had a hand in the original Django.

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As for The Snake God, it doesn't quite work as either an exploitation film or social critique. Young Paolo shows up with her older husband, Bernard, to live on his massive Caribbean plantation. On a boating excursion, Paolo spies upon Stella, running with her boyfriend, on a beach. She learns that Stella use to be Bernard's secretary. The two women become friends, with Stella introducing Paola to the traditional beliefs, with a meeting with a voodoo priest and participation in ritual ceremonies. Paola also seems to be searching for love that is not being fulfilled by her husband. According to Stella, the big, brown snake that Paola encounters on a beach is actually a god that was seeking her.

Vivarelli's attempt to provide some intellectual weight includes a brief discussion between Stella and Paola's former boyfriend, Tony. Standing in front of an old building, Stella reminds Tony that what is a well preserved example of colonial architecture is also the place where the Spanish inquisition took place. We see an example of how Catholicism has been allowed to mutate when a doll representing baby Jesus is passed around by believers. There is also a striking scene of Bernard's funeral, celebrated with some vigorous dancing.

It is a previous scene of dancing that comes off as pure exploitation. Paola is invited by Stella to witness her first "native" ritual. Everyone is taken by the rhythm. Stella and Paola are writhing on the ground. Shirts are ripped open. One of the other women rips off her panties, allowing for a brief crotch shot.

Better are some of the moments creating a sense of unease, the cry of birds on a forbidden beach, and the sound of wind. Very briefly, Vivarelli seems to hint at aspirations of making an updated version of I Walked with a Zombie, albeit a sexed up version. Those moments are too few.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:58 AM

December 09, 2013

The Rooftop

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Tian tai ai qing
Jay Chou - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

A genre I admittedly enjoy is the musical. Not the big, overproduced kind based on Broadway musicals, with the exception of the first part of West Side Story, the part directed by Jerome Robbins. My taste is more towards MGM, when musicals were still viable, and there were modest budget productions like The Affairs of Dobie Gillis and Give a Girl a Break in between the most sumptuous work from Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. Maybe my preference is simply because those films were made specifically for a film audience rather than trying to reshape a work that originated on stage.

Stateside, he's known, if at all, as the man who would be Kato. In Asia, Jay Chou is big, big star. For The Rooftop, he created the story, directed the film, and wrote the music and has a hand in the eleven songs. And he's also the star of his own film, acting and singing. The only other person I can think of who would have had that many credits would be Charles Chaplin, except that Chaplin never sang.

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If there was ever a movie that could have used a "making of . . ." supplement, this is it. There seem to be a variety of influences at work here - a bit of Bollywood, as well as the sometimes tragic Shaw Brothers produced musicals directed by Umetsugu Inoue. Consciously on Chou's part or not, there is also the influence of Minnelli. The action takes place in an imagined city, Galilee, in an unspecified time somewhere near the middle of the 20th Century. The rooftop itself, a collection of various apartments, features a huge victrola, one of those original record players where music come out of a horn. Bread's 1971 hit, If is still beloved by the residents. Until the last scenes, which give way to dark realism, The Rooftop fully embraces filmmaking fakery.

It seems almost mandatory that such a film would have a show biz related story. In this case, it's a guy named Wax and his three buddies, who live in a ramshackle neighborhood built on top of other buildings, known as The Rooftop. They get by with odd jobs for a snake oil doctor who puts on a show before selling his goods. The four buddies have a ritual of greeting the girl on the giant billboard by their home. Following an accidental meeting with the girl, Starling, Wax finds himself temporarily with a job as a stunt double for his romantic rival, a movie star named William. There's also a subplot with the four buddies temporarily working on behalf of a rent collecting gangster with an out of control protege.

In terms of what might be expected within the genre, the musical numbers are unusually short. Some of the musical moments are diegetic, as when Starling records a song. Likewise, the scenes involving dancing are brief. It could well be that with the classic musical as many of us have known it virtually extinct, that Chou and company felt that anything longer and more fully developed might be rejected by an audience unfamiliar with Gene Kelly or Linda Lin Dai for that matter. Whether a "show stopper" whether in song or dance, or in combination, would be dismissed by Jay Chou's fans, we'll never know. One would hope that should Chou make another musical, he might find inspiration at allowing an extended flight of fancy as seen still by Bollywood filmmakers as well as the tribute to Fred Astaire with the dazzling single take song and dance in Step Up 3D.

Those familiar with Jay Chou will be the least surprised that one of the fight scenes plays out like a musical number. Other highlight include the opening scene with Eric Tsang as the questionable doctor, with male patients leaving their wheel chairs to dance with lasciviouslyā€ˇ dressed nurses. There is also a too short dance number in a bowling alley involving several identically dressed women, with the same bouffant hairstyle and glasses. The biggest misstep was to cast Hsin-ai Lee as the woman on the billboard. Pretty? Yes. But I'm going with the Viva Las Vegas rule where the leading man's best asset is an equally compelling leading lady. Lee's screen presence is sadly as weak as her singing.

The DVD itself is kind of cool, being made to resemble an old 45 rpm record.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:51 AM

December 08, 2013

Coffee Break

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Paulette Goddard in On Our Merry Way (King Vidor - 1948)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:52 AM

December 05, 2013

Saving General Yang

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Zhong Lie Yang Jia Jiang
Ronny Yu - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

There's a scene in Saving General Yang in which the enemy general, Yelu Yuan, is being second-guessed by the advisor to the Khitan empress. Ronny Yu cuts from a shot of Yelu and the advisor, on horseback, facing the camera, to a lateral tracking shot of a wall, with their voices heard on the soundtrack. We then see the decapitated head of the advisor flying above the top of the wall. For myself, it was reassuring to know that Ronny Yu had lost none of the brand of humor displayed most famously in Bride of Chucky and Freddie vs. Jason.

Most of the time though, Saving General Yang plays like Yu's Lawrence of Arabia, only with a shorter running time and better action sequences. The basic story, taking place in 10th Century China, is about armies led by the patriarchs of two rival families, the Pans and the Yangs, set to defend the Song dynasty against the invading Khitans. The Khitans are led by the previously mentioned Yelu Yuan, whose father was killed by General Yuan. In the course of battle, General Pan allows General Yang to be ambushed by the Khitans. Yelu uses the ambush to lure the seven sons of the general, in order to take revenge for the death of his father.

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There's no denying that Yu has a sense of spectacle. The many battle sequences convey the sense of the constant shifting action. There is one battle with the outnumbered Yang brothers army fighting the Khitans with what look like leather bags tossed into the air, which when shot by Khitan arrows, turn into flammable bombs. Later, the Khitans retaliate by attacking the Yangs with huge boulders, hurled into the air by outsized catapults. Yu shows that war has its price with a shot of defeated Song soldiers on the battlefield, several with their bodies impaled by upright spears, amidst pools of bloody and muddy water. Cuts are cauterized with the hot blades of knives. Bodies succumb to the poison of arrows, if not just the weariness from battle.

Yu also shows a penchant of overhead shots of which there are many. That Lawrence of Arabia reference? There are images of the Yang brothers dwarfed by the vastness of the desert. In another scene, one of the brothers plays cat and mouse against a Khitan archer where visibility to each other is mostly hidden within a field of high wheat.

Even though the film is suppose to be about General Yang and his sons, the most interesting character is Yelu. In this pan-Chinese cast, Shao Bing almost steals the film from everyone else, with his craftiness and colorful costumes. Even if Saving General Yang can't top Ronny Yu's best film, The Bride with White Hair, it is full of moments which I am certain would be spectacular had they been seen on the biggest of movie screens.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:58 AM

December 03, 2013


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Kon Ichikawa - 1958
Daiei Video DVD

My interest here is based wanting to see as many films as I can by Kon Ichikawa. I have some respect for Yukio Mishima as a writer, but do not revere him. It's been many years since I read Mishima's novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavillion. Ichikawa's adaptation is faithful to the spirit, if not the letter of Mishima's novel about a young Buddhist priest disturbed by the gap between his ideals and uncomfortable realities.

The film also provides very different performances by two actors who would become more famous primarily in samurai films in the Sixties. Raizo Ichikawa plays the young stuttering priest who burns down the temple rather than see it defiled as a tourist attraction. Tatsuya Nakadai is a fellow novice, physically limited by a clubfoot. Both actors were about the same age, although Nakadai looks more mature than the still boyish Ichikawa, who was twenty-seven at the time he made this film. Although Nakadai's role here anticipates the kind of manipulative characters he would play for Hideo Gosha, I don't think anyone watching Ichikawa would expect him to star in a series of films about a sometimes ruthless ronin.

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As in The Burmese Harp and An Actor's Revenge, what probably attracted Kon Ichikawa here was again exploring the difference between truth and appearances. In The Burmese Harp, appearance becomes reality as the Japanese soldier, by dint of his actions, becomes a priest. In An Actor's Revenge, the female impersonator can not escape his roles either in social caste or as a female character off stage. The novice priest, Goichi, is in a conundrum where his stuttering makes him an outcast. Simultaneously, Goichi's inability to verbalize causes greater problems when manifested in physical actions, such as pushing down a young woman, rather than allowing her to enter the venerated temple. Goichi also finds himself torn between wanting to act in the manner of a priest, and an inarticulated attraction to more earthly pursuits.

In an interview with Joan Mellen, Kon Ichikawa discussed his own change to the source novel, by making a connection between economic poverty and what he describes as spiritual poverty. References to Goichi's father, also a priest, frequently refer to his being poor. Goichi's mother comes to the temple where Goichi now lives, to work work, reminding Goichi that she has to eat. The temple serves as a tourist attraction, its revenue often coming from American G.I.s, rather than donations from believers. For contemporary western viewers, one may need reminding that as the film takes place a few years following the end of World War II, the defeat of Japan undermined core cultural beliefs in addition to the economic turmoil. For Goichi, what the temple represents in his mind is mocked by the reality of contemporary Japan and materialism of the priests. And unlike the pre-war Japan that would make suicide a noble act, Goichi's death is his final, meaningless, act of rebellion.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:08 AM

December 01, 2013

Coffee Break

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Patricia Roc and Phyllis Calvert in Madonna of the Seven Moons (Arthur Crabtree - 1945)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:59 AM