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February 27, 2014

Memory of the Dead

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La memoria del muerto
Valentin Javier Diment - 2011
Artsploitation Region 1 DVD

From Argentina comes this well done piece of grand guignol. What I like is that there are no pauses to explain exactly what's going on or why. At a shade under ninety minutes, there's no dawdling around with exposition or setting up every scene. Everything takes place in and around a suburban house, exactly the kind of environment one doesn't expect the various shenanigans to take place.

Alicia has a premonition that her husband, Jorge, is going to die suddenly. The premonition turns out to be true. Forty-nine days after the death of Jorge, Alicia gathers the closest friends of her husband for some obscure ritual that is to bring him back from the dead. The mayhem begins right at the stroke of Midnight. Of course nothing works out quite as planned. Not everyone is quite the friend to Jorge that is originally assumed. Even worse, the half dozen guests encounter ghosts from their own pasts, and these are not happy reunions.

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The first indication that nothing is quite right is when a rat is spotted scampering across the back lawn of this well kept house. The assumption that the ghosts are all outside the house turns out to be false, as they materialize and disappear at will. Nor even within the context of horror fantasy is there certainty that what is being viewed is part of that peculiar reality, or just a dream. The peak of the grotesque is certainly when the gay painter encounter the faceless ghost of his twin sister. The scene could well be a Freudian nightmare with a slit in the face that not so coincidentally resembles a vagina, soon to be a vagina with teeth.

The difficulty about writing about a film like this is that you don't want to give too much away. For those looking for where Memory of the Dead fits in as a genre piece, I think it close in spirit to some of the films of Nobuhiko Obayashi, particularly Hausu and The Discarnates, as well as the earlier films of Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi (and I am hardy the first to note the similarities with the latter two filmmakers).

The film starts off with a folk song about a seagull in love with the sea. The song is both about unrequited love, but also about the folly of not being aware of the nature of things, or in this case, nature's indifference. Jorge's friends are initially bound be what is assumed to be their love for him. Their ghosts are all family members, indicative of unresolved traumas. As it turns out, spectral relations are the not all that the house guests need to worry about, especially when the sanity of the hostess is questioned. Everything does end happily for a couple of the characters here, and this is one of those rare times when I can say it was a twist I never expected.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:48 AM

February 25, 2014

Reeling in the Oscar Years


The Online Film Critics Society is having its members polled on the best and worst Oscar winners. Although I totally lost interest in even watching the annual ceremony, I do watch some of the films to keep up with what was considered the best of the year. I knew that I had missed some of the Best Picture winners from years past, and it turned out to be a few more than I thought. After doing some catching up, I think the history of Best Picture winners can be summed up with my imagined movie mogul from 1928 muttering something like, "Sunrise? We'll never make that mistake again!".

First up, Oliver!. My worst fears were true. I had avoided this musical retelling of the Dickens classic because I was sure I would hate it. I felt like I was hit on the head with a bag of hammers for over two hours. The Academy didn't even nominate what was truly the best film of 1968, 2001 although the directors and writers branch got it right. Richard Lester's Petulia, a film that has been rising in critical estimation over the years, was completely ignored. The only thing I liked about Oliver! was Oliver . . .Oliver Reed, doing a performance modeled after Disney's Big Bad Wolf. And for the record, I do like some of Carol Reed's earlier work, and have The Third Man in my DVD collection.

Around the World in Eighty Days wasn't quite the slog I was expecting. After two hours of being reasonably entertained, the film wore out its welcome. In retrospect, the shoehorning of the many cameo appearances seemed unnecessary, especially as Michael Anderson shot most of the film in a series of full shots. The one time we really got a good look at one of the guest stars, was of Frank Sinatra as the pianist at a San Francisco saloon. A few glimpses suggested why Mexican comic actor Cantinflas was a great physical performer. The Todd-AO lens also had a way of curving perspective, like a modified fish eye lens. At least the Academy gave the Best Director award to George Stevens, the best of the nominees. For mysel, the more interesting films were those nominated in other categories: Lust for Life, Richard !!!, Baby Doll and La Strada.

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Going My Way appears to have taken place in an alternate universe where almost everyone is Irish Catholic. I'm stunned that it was even a critical hit, this is hardly Leo McCarey's best film. Of course the film that even McCarey said is his best, Make Way for Tomorrow is an unbearably depressing movie about the Depression. It does say something about popular culture that there was a time when a bit of opera, in this case Carmen could be safely included in a mainstream movie. The real classic among the nominees is still Double Indemnity, a film that remains constantly rewatchable.

With The Life of Emile Zola, I discovered that even the usually dependable William Dieterle could make a boring film at Warner Brothers in the Thirties. I'll take Midsummer Night's Dream and his version of The Maltese Falcon, Satan met a Lady over this. I even found Dieterle's rematch with Paul Muni, Juarez more entertaining. Sure, Frank Capra's Lost Horizon was obvious Oscar bait, but it's more fun to watch, even if Capra turned out not to believe a lot of the stuff he put on the screen. And it's got Jane Wyatt nude, forever altering how I viewed reruns of the TV series, Father Knows Best.

This leave two Best Picture winners unseen at this time - The Great Ziegfeld and Cavalcade. The first one is on my Netflix queue, with the 'long wait" status. Obviously, a few other members of the Online Film Critics Society are also playing catch up. I will eventually see this, but probably not in time for voting in the poll. I might never see Cavalcade. It's not available from Netflix, and I'm not curious enough to pony up the dough for a DVD. It's hard for me to imagine a movie better than the competition, which included I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, 42nd Street or The Private Life of Henry V!!!.

I guess it's like this every year - the Oscars are doled out, and a bunch of us are left wondering, "The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. what the fuck were they thinking?".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:01 AM

February 23, 2014

Coffee Break

Mary Louise Wilson and June Squibb in Nebraska (Alexander Payne - 2013)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:55 AM

February 20, 2014

Lost in Thailand


Ren zai jiong tu: Tai jiong
Xu Zheng - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I was never lost in Thailand. I did temporarily lose my bearings walking through a couple of the many winding sois, the smaller streets, of Chiang Mai. Eventually, I figured out where I was. Part of Lost in Thailand takes place in Chiang Mai, although what is seen of the city itself is just a few quick shots. The old city wall is unmistakable, even when glanced for a few seconds. The film takes place during Songkran, the festival in which people douse each other with water, in late April. I did feel some nostalgia during a scene that takes place during a lantern festival, watching my own lit lantern fly away to parts unknown.

Lost in Thailand has been compared to The Hangover, but I think comparisons to John Hughes' Planes, Trains and Automobiles are more appropriated. For one thing, there is none of the raunchiness of the Hangover films. The most sexually charged scene, with Xu caught underneath the bed of a threesome, a western tourist with two beauties, could well have been from a Hollywood film from the late Fifties, when it was daring to show women frolic in bra and panties. The nudity is all below the knees. A later scene, when Xu reads the diary of his traveling companion, Bao, and discovers the reason for Bao's "heath tree", a small cactus, is reminiscent of Steve Martin finally warming up to John Candy in the Hughes film, as is the setup of two mismatched men forced to travel together, using any conveyance at their disposal. Xu's film could well have been titled, Planes, Trains, Automobiles and Elephants.

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Xu Zheng portrays Xu Lang, a businessman who has developed a special additive that increases the volume of gasoline with just a couple of drops. In competition with Gao Bo (Huang Bo), the two are in a race to Thailand to get the approval from their boss who is staying at a temple somewhere in the vicinity of Chiang Mai. One the plane, Xu meets up with Bao (Wang Baodiang), a member of a tour group, both overly friendly and perpetually clueless. Losing his tour group in the Bangkok airport, Bao seeks Xu's assistance in helping him make his goals in visiting Thailand. Xu, who has lost his passport in a cab, reluctantly finds that he needs Bao's help, initially in getting a hotel room.

Most of the comedy comes from Wang Baodaing, first with his appearance with his blond mop of hair. Some of the humor involves Bao's ignorance about "ladyboys", his martial arts ability limited to a single high kick, and his insistence that he is the boyfriend of Chinese actress Fan Bingbing. Among the misadventures are the pair stumbling upon an artifact smuggling operation and getting chased by gangsters. There is also a running gag involving Xu attempting to get the location of his boss, and continually getting stymied unintentionally by Bao.

Xu Zheng wrote and directed the film in addition to acting. Call it beginner's luck as the film holds the record as China's top box office success. Even though the film mostly takes place in Thailand, a caveat is in order that it needs to be understood that this is still a Chinese movie that was made for a Chinese audience. Don't expect the same kind of humor found in a Hollywood film, or better, a Thai film where being politically incorrect is virtually a requirement. The laughs here are more mild than wild.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:21 AM

February 18, 2014

Fists of Legend

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Kang Woo-suk - 2013
CJ Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Ignore the generic title. Really. I was quite pleasantly surprised because I didn't know much about this film and was expecting it to mostly be about guys beating each other up. Not that there's anything wrong with that as I've written about films where the fighting is the prime reason why the film was made in the first place. And there is a generous amount of guys pummeling each other here, but there is also the back story which is what makes Fists of Legend of more than passing interest.

The basic premise is that there is a Korean television reality show where men try to show off their fighting skills against each other. Many of the contestants are not trained. While billed as a boxing match, there is kicking and wrestling moves as well. The producer of the show, a youngish woman known as Ms. Hong, goads Lim, known for taking on a rival high school students and a local street gang, into appearing on the show. What is in the works is for Lim to be reunited with three friends from his high school days, in 1988, when he was also in training for the Olympics.

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The story really isn't about who has the greatest fighting skills. With the many flashbacks to 1988, the film is about how you can leave high school, but high school never really leaves you. Denied a chance at the Olympics due to questionable judging, Lim ekes out a living with a small noodle restaurant. His new found celebrity following his winning bout on television brings in customers, but also a new set of expectations that he would prefer not to deal with. For the characters here, there is a question of how much of the past do you allow to define yourself, and what parts are you willing to let go.

"Eye of the Tiger" is part of the soundtrack, and there is a bit of similarity to Rocky in that Lim initially hopes that boxing will be his way out of what appears to be a less than promising life. A scene with the younger Lim running while wearing a hoodie certainly is a reminder of Stallone. There is even the equivalent to Rocky's ringside opponents in the form of a menacing, bald headed brute known as The Turtle. The question here isn't whether Lim will win, or at least go the distance, but rather, will he win, or lose, honestly? Manhood isn't defined as the ability to kick someone's ass, but by a sense of integrity.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:05 AM

February 16, 2014

New World (Shinsekai Story)


Lim Kah-Wai - 2011
Tidepoint Pictures All Region DVD

An explanation of the title is in order. As I understand it, the part of Osaka where most of this film takes place is known as Shinsekai. This is also a bit ironic as much of the area is run down, and badly aged. On a symbolic level, the title also refers to the main character's discovery of a place and people that she would never have discovered prior to her visit to Japan.

The various cultural and economic tensions that have always seemed to exist between China and Japan are taken to a personal level here. Tying everything together is the now ubiquitous celebration of Christmas, unconnected by any religious significance, and now an international celebration of electric lights, fir trees and consumerism. With this, is the implied promise of the holiday being a special time for all.

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The young Chinese woman, Coco, goes to visit Osaka to see her friend, Ivy. She also wants to spend time away from her boyfriend, a youngish businessman named Jimmy. The hotel room reserved for Coco is in a run down hotel, with a small room set with the traditional tatami mat. Ivy works at a tiny bar, run by a Chinese woman in debt to Chinese gangsters. Coco's first day in Japan is an immersion in a community populated mostly by well-meaning people brought together due to their respective misfortunes. There is a happy ending, just in time for Christmas Eve.

Lim, who is of both Chinese and Japanese heritage, plays with the notion of otherness. That notion of otherness, especially as it applies to sense of the exotic foreigner, is mirrored when a local Japanese gangster tries to "buy" Ivy, and later, when Coco, in a modern, and presumably expensive, hotel, is eyed by some male Chinese tourists who think she is Japanese. This is a Japan that is dependent on Chinese imports, while the Chinese look to Japan for their fashion queues.

Lim sets things up in the beginning by alternating between the bright lights of Beijing and the general shabbiness of Shinsekai. Coco's story is one of initial disappointment or anger over unmet expectations, transformed by the connections made with a handful of people who remain optimistic even when down on their luck. For the characters here, it's not a wonderful life, nor It's a Wonderful Life, but it is the life they've chosen and they wouldn't have it any other way.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:25 AM

February 14, 2014

Chastity Bites

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John V. Knowles - 2013
Grand Entertainment Group Region 1 DVD

This is one of those times when I figured I would venture a bit outside of my usual turf. And I know that I am far from the target audience for Chastity Bites, in part by virtue of having said goodbye to high school several decades ago. (Class of '69 if you must know, and don't bother with the jokes, we were already there with them.)

In a small, affluent community, Countess Bathory, in the guise of Liz Batho, shows up to encourage high school girls to preserve their virginity. What appears to be another program of promoting abstinence education is actually designed for the Countess to cultivate donors for one of her rejuvenating baths of blood. Meanwhile, school reporter Leah Ratcliff is trying to convince everyone that the town's foreign visitor is up to no good, much to the annoyance of almost everyone she encounters.

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What gets in the way here is that too much of the film is dependent on topical humor, the kind of stuff that might possibly be amusing during a brief moment in time, but is the kind of stuff that years later can befuddle a casual viewer. I can't entirely dismiss any movie where the boy and girl initial hook up with the discovery of shared admiration for Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex. I'd even be thrilled to know that someone who saw this film was inspired to do some reading of their own.

I don't know how tall Louise Griffiths is, but she towers over the rest of the cast, and virtually owns this movie as the visiting vampire. Sure, she speaks with her own British accent and never attempts to sound even faintly Hungarian, but her screen presence makes such details unimportant. Grittiths' regal bearing is such that it's never a question as to why everyone is in awe of her.

Writer Lotti Pharriss Knowles, wife of the director, may have a feminist agenda, but she also comes with an interesting group of credits, producing the documentaries Vito and I am Devine. She also appeared in something called The 50 Best Horror Movies You've Never Seen. More impressive is that when there is commercial pressure to dumb things down, the Knowles aren't afraid of letting the audience know that they've read a few books.

I will also admit that the first onscreen death took me by surprise. Even while grimacing to jokes about Rachel Maddow or the Kardashians, some of the horror elements were handled quite nicely. And I would hope that I wasn't the only one who laughed as that totally unexpected reference to Du Maurier and Hitchcock's Rebecca.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:04 AM

February 12, 2014

Sex Shop Cinema

Korean poster for Moebius

I'm not sure if calling this series "Sex Shop Cinema" is a good idea. It's bad enough that there are people who will easily lump any sexually provocative film as pornographic. And then, with some films presented by the Denver Film Society, there is the possibility that there may be an audience member or two that doesn't find the films graphic enough. Be that as it may, a look at some of the titles indicates why some of us miss the Seventies, when there seemed to be fewer hang-ups about on screen nudity, and for a brief moment, there was a merging of porn with mainstream cinema. 1972 seems in retrospect to be a banner year.

I still remember Pauline Kael's review of Last Tango in Paris, comparing Bernardo Bertolucci's film with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring". It's a film I saw theatrically three times. The last time viewed was on DVD, several years ago, close to the age of Marlon Brando at the time he made the film, and more sympathetic to his character. I saw Deep Throat in Portland, Oregon while doing some work with the then nascent Northwest Film Study Center. I found out later that I was invited to the preview screening, attended mostly by an auditorium full of curious lawyers, so that if the film got busted, to use the term of the time, I might be called to testify on the "artistic merits" on display. I was curious enough to see director Gerard Damiano's more critically acclaimed Devil in Miss Jones, but in general find hard core cinema to be boring.

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Peggy and Joseph Sarno

Two films related to Deep Throat are included in the series. The documentary Inside Deep Throat is a far more entertaining than the film itself, not only retelling the history of the film, but also its cultural impact, then and now. I remember reading about the death of Linda Lovelace in The Denver Post, totally unaware that she had moved here. I haven't seen Gerard Damiano's Let My Puppets Come, but that film should serve as a reminder that when the "South Park" guys made Team America, they weren't the first to film marionette sex.

I took the opportunity to check out a couple of the newer films. The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies started out as a documentary on the efforts of "sexploitation" filmmaker Joe Sarno's attempts to make another film in an attempt to cash in on the recognition received for films made over forty years earlier. With Joe, is his wife, Peggy, professionally known as Peggy Steffans, a former off-Broadway actress who served acted in supporting roles, and helped produce many of the films. There are clips from several Sarno films, as well as the gallery of talking heads, the most famous being John Waters and Annie Sprinkle.

One of the surprises is the appearance of Adolfas Mekas, who served as editor on a couple of Sarno productions. One of those films was a reportedly shelved musical, an attempt to go legit, called Step Out of Your Mind, featuring a very young Kelly Bishop and Broadway star Patrick Adiarte. What is glossed over is that most of the films discussed as from the first fifteen years of career that spanned over forty years. A review of Joe Sarno's filmography shows that he kept busy. He may not have cared much for hard core movies, but it didn't stop him from making them, sometimes with his own name, like Deep Throat II, but more typically under a pseudonym - my favorite at the expense of silent cinema's Ben-Hur, "Francis X. Bush".

Joe Sarno is touchingly presented as being a bit out of touch - Peggy reminds him in revising his newest screenplay that his characters would not be using pay phones. Sarno does his writing on what appears to be a twenty year old word processor, while Peggy does her work on a computer. There is also Peggy's quite funny and candid admission of wanting a role in one of the simulated sex scenes that Sarno made in the Sixties.

Grim, and sometimes grimly humorous, is Kim Ki-duk's new film, Moebius. One thing is certain, Kim isn't getting any mellower with age. If anything, he's more aggressively looking to provoke his audience. I'm familiar enough with Kim's other films to know that the work that brought him the most attention initially, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring was an anomaly other than in its overly deliberate artiness. With the past couple of films, it seems like Kim has jettisoned the visual qualities, a reminder of his training as a painter.

I'm not sure if I can make sense of what Kim is trying to say here. The characters sure aren't saying anything in this dialogue free study. I'm not sure if describing the work here as phallocentric is quite right, but what I could glean seemed to be about the role of the penis as one of the ways to assert masculinity, homosocial behavior, the Oedipus complex, pain as pleasure, and the emasculating female. With apologies to Iris Murdoch, this film could well have been titled, A Severed Head.

Still, I won't begrudge the opportunity to see some films theatrically that otherwise might not be seen at all. i only wish that with the name of this series, it would have been apropos to include Claude Berri's Le Sex Shop.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:00 AM

February 10, 2014

On the Job

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Erik Matti - 2013
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

Without giving too much away, one of the main characters is in On the Job is shot on the street. Filmed overhead, he is lying on a pathway with crossed lines. The patterns serve as a visual reminder of the greater concerns in the film, connectivity not only of the major characters, but even those in the periphery. The aging hit man tells his young partner that the people they work for know everything about them, including everyone they have any kind of relationship with. And so it is in On the Job that everyones' life seems to intersect eventually.

On the most basic level, this is about two parallel, and eventually intersecting, stories, about the two hit men and the cops who are after them. What Erik Matti is concerned with is not simply examining corruption within the Philippines, but also how said corruption touches everyone. In the end, it's not just cops and criminals, but those from two opposite ends of the social strata acting as cogs for the same machine.

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There is a claustrophobic sense of space. The film opens with an outdoor celebration, with crowds in the street, barely room to move. The hit men, actually prisoners released for a day or two. who do jobs on behalf of some of the top politicians, return to an overcrowded prison. Almost every place is dimly lit, even the golf course where the idealistic investigator, Francis, meets with men who seem to be in charge of everything.

Even Francis is not exempt, seeming to have gotten his position based on being the son-in-law of an important congressman. His partner is a local cop who hasn't risen in the ranks due to his honesty. The two are in pursuit of an aging hit man who is up for parole and his young partner, an apprentice learning both how to kill and how to survive prison politics. The hit men have killed a well known drug dealer whose death has wider implications that few suspect. The older man, Tang, is concerned that parole would mean not making enough money to support his wife and daughter, as he would be retired or possibly killed himself. When the younger man, Daniel, gets a chance to show what he can do, with Tang as his backup, a messy situation gets out of control.

I've only seen one other film by Erik Matti at this point, the very funny superhero comedy Gagamoy. This is a much darker film in every sense of that description. The soundtrack is of interest in that it mostly work that is more experimental and discordant than what might be found in what is presented as an action film. One of the deleted scenes is scored to the much more familiar sound of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter". That On the Job played last May at Cannes provides a good indication of the critical appreciation Matti has achieved.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:48 AM

February 09, 2014

Coffee Break

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Eleanor Matsuura and Juliette Binoche in Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella - 2006)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:43 AM

February 07, 2014

Reel Zombies

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Mike Masters and David J. Francis - 2008
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

A fake documentary about a fake documentary about the making of a zombie movie, Reel Zombies is never scary, and only occasionally funny. The best way to see this film is with the commentary track, because if nothing else, Reel Zombies does provide something of an education for wannabe filmmakers. And this means making any kind of movie, although in this case, the film in question is a no budget horror movie shots over several weekends.

There is a scene involving actors auditioning for a key role. What we see are several different ways of saying the same line, often with the emphasis off, or expressed awkwardly. Tromo head Lloyd Kaufman, playing himself, joins the fun in this scene, a wink to those viewers familiar with his public persona. There is also a bit of fun regarding the almost obligatory gratuitous nudity in these films.

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Masters, Francis and most of the rest of the onscreen performers portray versions of themselves. The setup is that following the two Zombie Night movies, the crew makes a third film. At the time this is taking place, there are real zombies. As can be imagined, no matter how much one thinks one has them under control, making a zombie movies with real zombies turns out to be a disastrous idea.

A little bit of research reminded me that Masters had also produced The Son of the Sunshine, a film with higher artistic aspirations that I saw as part of the Starz Denver Film Festival in 2011. Francis appeared as Jesus in Dracula 3000. Throughout this film, the two reveal how certain scenes were filmed as well as other biographical bits concerning the making of Reel Zombies. The film itself is a combination of script, improvisation and accident. While some of the scenes are clearly a parody of no budget filmmaking, such as those involving craft services, the food provided for the production crew, there are lessons to be had on how not to make a movie. Filmmaking, even in the best of circumstances, isn't easy, and Masters and Francis who what can be done when there is no money, but plenty of passion.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:22 AM

February 05, 2014

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon


Di Renjie: Shen du long wang
Tsui Hark - 2013
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

While I would not want to begrudge Tsui Hark's current success with big budget, special effects heavy, movies that have played to great popularity in mainland China, I miss the guy who made smaller movies for his Hong Kong audience. The film that really hooked me was The Chinese Feast, a screwball comedy about a cooking competition, and in spite of terrible subtitles, for me, one of the funniest movies ever made. What I also miss is that by making films centered on male heroes, the female characters get less screen time, yet it is the two main female characters, here, as well as in films past, that are the more interesting elements from Tsui's extensive filmography.

Carina Lau returns as Empress Wu in this film that presents, as the title indicates, Detective Dee, the name westernized from DI, at the beginning of his career. Lau simply needs to flash hauteur with her ornate costumes. At half Lau's age, Angelababy might be hoping for as significant an acting career. As the courtesan who is on the verge of being a human sacrifice for the sea dragon in question, her costumes also are part of the performance.

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While comparisons are made between the 7th Century Chinese detective and Sherlock Holmes, Dee seems to recede in the background, with his partners in crime solving often taking the spotlight. There is a subplot involving the courtesan and her lover, with echoes of Beauty and the Beast, which is part of the greater plot involving the overthrow of the Wu kingdom.

Dee alternates between competition and cooperation with the kingdom's top cop, proving himself worthy of joining the elite police unit. Part of the plot also involves an enemy that speaks Dondo, a language originating from Indonesia. Some of the historical aspect may well be fuzzy for western viewers. More universal is that the plot involves the members of the royal court drinking a special tea, one that contains parasites, or that the only known cure involves drinking the urine of "male virgins". Tsui often has, for lack of a better choice of words, gags, in dubious taste.

Neither this, nor the first Detective Dee film engaged me as other films by Tsui have done so in the past. Again, I think this may have something to do with the role of women in Tsui's films, as his previous effort, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate was held together by the performances of Zhou Xu, Li Yuchun and Gwei Lun-mei, providing the emotional core, with Jet Li's presence mostly to insure ticket sales. Things pick up during the second half of the film when mysteries are solved and the sea dragon is finally confronted. An abundance of wire work and special effects is not enough to cover for a less than compelling story.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:35 AM

February 03, 2014

Sex Hunter

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Sekkusu hanta - sei kariudo
Toshiharu Ikeda - 1980
Impulse Pictures Region 1 DVD

Sex Hunter is probably not the most perverse movie ever made, but it will still raise the eyebrows of all, but the most jaded viewers. In addition to a lesbian orgy, a gang bang, sadomasochism with ropes and whips, miscegenation, there is sex on a wheelchair, and a Coca-cola douche. Most of the film takes place in a mansion where the initially unwilling young ingenue is assured that no manner of pleasure is forbidden. The semi-Gothic mansion houses a very private ballet school, where some of the dancing is horizontal. While in his notes, historian Jasper Sharp links Sex Hunter to Dario Argento's Suspiria, I found myself thinking more of the films of Radley Metzger, where sex was part of private, or not so private, performance, along with Joseph Losey's The Servant with that film's exploration of power dynamics. In its very twisted way, this film also anticipates parts of Black Swan.

It all begins with a little prick. Ballerina Mike receives flowers and a card from an admirer following her lead performance in Swan Lake. The card has a sharp edge. The close up of Miki's hand serves as a terrific visual queue for the end of her physical and emotional virginity. Walking along the street the next day, Miki is followed by Akiko in her car. Akiko is the one with last night's flowers. She is also the sister to Miki's absent boyfriend, Genichiro. Akiko invites Miki to check her home, complete with a ballet school. A former dancer, Akiko intends to stage a ballet with Miki in the lead. What waits for Miki is a descent into hell.

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Many of the scenes involve the use of two way mirrors. What makes the scenes interesting is most of them simultaneously invoke both voyeurism and narcissism. Several of the scenes have the revelation of sexual transgression being forced on an unwilling viewer. Yet because the sex always takes place in a mirrored room, there is the implication that those performing the sex are also doing so for their own pleasure, regardless of whom else might be watching. There is also one scene where the mirrors are clear on both sides, and sexual desire is expressed by lovers separated by glass.

Much of the credit should go to the manga artist Dirty Matsumoto, who created the original story. At the same time, Toshiharu Ikeda has made a name for himself, most famously with Evil Dead Trap, pushing the boundaries of what can be shown on screen, especially with anything considered taboo in Japanese culture.

Not that he would be entirely unique in this regard, but Ikeda also has a nice use of red here, with the shot of blood on Miki's finger, as a cloth belt on the white leotard of a dancer, the red rope that binds Miki, and red petals in a bath. The intelligent filming of Swan Lake that opens the story indicates that Ikeda not only had a better understanding of how to visually present dance, but that he probably could have done well as a mainstream filmmaker had he not preferred to make a career out of finding new ways to shock the audience.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:31 AM

February 02, 2014

Coffee Break

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Mika Nakashimai in Nana 2 (Kentaro Ohtani - 2006)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:26 AM