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October 29, 2015

The Golden Cane Warrior


Pendekar Tongkat Emas
Ifa Isfansyah - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

I'm glad to see that Well Go USA has made available a film from Indonesia. With the limited availability of films with English subtitles, it's good to see something from a country that is usually overlooked in discussions of Asian cinema. Sure, it's a martial arts film, the most exportable genre available, other than horror movies. Though some of the blurbs compare The Golden Cane Warrior to Gareth Evans' The Raid, it is only the country of origin and the genre that these films have in common.

Ifa Isfansyah's film mostly takes place in the open country. The narrative is closer to that of a classic western, unlike The Raid and its sequel which take place largely within the confines of a single building, and have narratives that are similar to a video game, with the protagonist ascending higher and more difficult levels. That The Golden Cane Warrior is similar to a western can be seen in the various panoramic shots of the hilly countryside, some of the narrative elements, some bits of the music score which reveal the influence of Ennio Morricone, and even a scene with a group of exiled villagers living in shelters similar to the Native American tipis.

I don't know the time period when the story takes place, other than in some past era. We are introduced to an older martial arts teacher, Cempaka, who acts as a surrogate mother to three grown children of adversaries she has killed, plus a young boy abandoned by his family. Sensing that she is near death, Cempaka bestows a weapon she keeps wrapped, a golden cane, to the younger of her two "daughters", Dara. The older Biru and Gerhana try to hide their jealousy. Not quite Shakespeare, but we have a rivalry between this group of adopted siblings, with Biru and Gerhana framing Dara, and the young boy, Angin, for the death of Cempaka. At stake is not only possession of the cane, but the special knowledge of the cane's power.

Some of the same themes found in other martial arts films are here - family loyalty, the corrupting influence of power, and the use of martial arts on behalf of the community rather than personal gain. Isfansyah is clearly interested in making a film that approaches the epic, cinematic myth making like that of the classic Western. Even with a Chinese action director on hand, it is the depiction of the cane fighting that is the weakest part of the film. Too many choppy close-ups and medium shots, and not enough full screen shots make the fighting less than engaging. There are a couple of nice moments of martial arts practice filmed against a sunset, or two warriors leaping out of water. Isfansyah is much better with shots of his characters running through the open fields and forests, with close-ups of flowers and spider webs. Isfansyah made The Golden Cane Warrior in an attempt to revive what was a moribund genre in Indonesia. For the most part, Isfansyah is successful, and the ambiguous ending makes me interested in a possible sequel.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:35 AM

October 27, 2015

Tu dors Nicole

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Stephane Lafieur - 1014
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

"You're sleeping, Nicole", would be the English translation. Mainly what Nicole is doing is trying to get through Summer in an unspecified town in Quebec. Her age isn't stated but it would appear Nicole's a couple years out of high school. She's working at a thrift store that by appearances would less of a career path that simply something to do. Otherwise, Nicole spends what seems like most of her time at her parents house, where she still lives, helping in the maintenance while the parents are on vacation, and listening to her brother, Remi's rock trio perpetually practicing.

This is a low key film with small comic moments. Nicole gets a credit card, and unsurprisingly reacts as if she's received free money. The credit line is almost immediately reached with the purchase of a trip for herself and her friend, Veronique, to visit Iceland. What do they plan to do there? "Nothing", is the reply. Nicole further elaborates that the lure of Iceland is that she and Veronique would be doing nothing somewhere else. Nicole is also pursued by Martin, a pre-adolescent boy, whose body has yet to catch up with his very adult voice. While Nicole is in a space where she is not quite an adult, Martin persistently woos Nicole by assuring her that in the future, their ten year difference in age will make less of a difference. Yet Martin is not yet ready to totally give up on being a child when he plays cowboy to Nicole's Indian after financial necessity forces Nicole to return to babysitting.

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The film takes place in what appears to be a remote suburb, with a few middle class houses, a few cheap apartments, a handful of places to go, and lots of empty spaces. Most of the shots are from a stationary camera, with a some lateral tracking shots. One shot has the camera tracking away from Nicole with what seems like a music score, only to have the camera track end on the band in rehearsal. The film was shot in black and white which suggests that what we see is a memory or dream. Much of the look of the film was influenced by the photographs of Robert Adams' Summer Nights, Walking. There are moments devoted to those nights when it is too warm to sleep. For Nicole, stepping out for late night walks in the neighborhood may simply be a part of a greater restlessness for something she's not able to articulate.

The DVD includes a couple of very short, deleted scenes. Both are lightly humorous, but their omission does not impact the narrative.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:05 AM

October 25, 2015

Coffee Break

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Cathy O'Donnell in My World Dies Screaming (Harold Daniels - 1958)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:10 PM

October 22, 2015

Heart of Midnight


Matthew Chapman - 1988
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I was intrigued by opportunity to see Heart of Midnight primarily because of the memories I have of Matthew Chapman's best known film as writer-director, Strangers Kiss. That film was inspired by the making of Stanley Kubrick's Killer's Kiss. Chapman has had an interest in the people who exist in the margins of show business, whether it is Peter Coyote as a fledgling filmmaker in Strangers Kiss, or Helen Mirren as a hostess in a London "gentleman's club" in Hussy. Most of Heart of Midnight takes place in an old nightclub inherited by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

The name of the nightclub is Midnight. The heart might well be the rooms upstairs, a couple of conventional spaces for living, and several that are decorated for use for people with specialized tastes. Among the spaces is what appears to be a child's bedroom, with a permanently placed Christmas tree, and a teddy bear that is always face down. When Carol, the young woman who has inherited the club from her Uncle Fletcher, first enters the upper floor of the nightclub, we notice that the hallway is painted red, and round lamps decorating the hallway resemble breasts.

Carol may, or may not, be hallucinating or hearing sounds, and the nightclub may, or may not, have a life of its own. Either way, Heart of Midnight owes a bit to The House of Usher and Repulsion. This is apparent in an early scene when Carol undresses by an open window, spotted by three young men (including a young Steve Buscemi) sitting across the street. The doors of the night club open, suggesting an invitation. That two of the men might have an unacknowledged homoerotic attraction to each other is suggested when the two make a few sinewy dance moves, before an abrupt cut shows the two simultaneously attempting to rape Carol. When Carol attempts to escape from the men, and the men try to escape when a desperate Carol pulls a fire alarm, the doors are discovered to be locked. The situation is not dissimilar to that of a haunted house where the guests enter easily, and then finds themselves trapped.

Especially in the earlier scenes, with her hair blonde, and with the deep red lipstick, Leigh looks closer to a movie star from an earlier era. A scene with her smoking and singing definitely belongs to an earlier time when a musical number in a smoky joint was not out of place in a primarily dramatic film. Leigh appears with a knee length cast on one of her legs until the final scene. Matthew Chapman, in the commentary track, explains that Leigh already had the cast when she took the role. There's no back story provided, and there is no sense that Leigh's physical performance would have been significantly different had there been no cast.

Chapman, joined by co-star Peter Coyote, discuss the making of Heart of Midnight, but mostly leave any interpretation of the film to the audience. There's a red apple that mysteriously appears in a refrigerator, a painting of apples, and dozens found gathered on a floor. Not coincidentally, a clip from Hitchcock's The 39 Steps appears on television, with Madeleine Carroll undoing her stockings, setting up a scene involving bondage and fetish wear. And where a film might conventionally fade to black, Chapman fades to red. Not everything works here. I have to respect Matthew Chapman for making a film that makes no attempt to appeal to popular tastes. And Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance is worthy of greater attention than has been given to this otherwise little seen film.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:23 AM

October 20, 2015

Northern Limit Line

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Yeonpyeong Haejeon
Kim Hak-soon - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The tensions between North and South Korea are usually abstract for those of us in the U.S. Northern Limit Line might not substantially change that viewpoint, but it does give a sense of how serious things have gotten between the two countries. Based on a true incident, the film is the dramatic recounting of the attack of a South Korean patrol ship by the North Korean naval forces. The battle took place on June 29, 2002 while many people around the world were watching the World Soccer game between South Korea and Turkey. The title refers to the maritime border between the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea, with the event officially knows as the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong.

The film begins with the entry of Petty Officer Dong joining ship 357. Assigned as the ship's medical officer, Dong finds out that there is no sick bay, and the medical supplies consist of a few rolls of gauze, and treatment for cuts and bruises. Kim cuts to subplots about helmsman Han and the ship's commander, Yoon. Kim establishes how the three men evolve, in their relationship with each other, a look at their respective families, and finally, courage under fire. The narrative follows a familiar template of personalizing history, including scenes of camaraderie among the sailors, and a few moments of humor.

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The battle is presented graphically. Blood is shed, a leg is dismembered, a sailor's fingers are shot off. What caught me by surprise was seeing how close the main North Korean ship was to ship 357. In addition to the expected cannons and machine guns, North Korean forces included snipers to shoot at individuals. Dong is seen initial overwhelmed by the carnage that is more than he can take care of, taking initiative to tear off a bed sheet to in attempt to staunch bleeding of several of the sailors when possible, and taking a machine gun in hand when there is no one else available for battle.

With a local box office of almost Forty million dollars, Northern Limit Line is currently the most successful South Korean film for 2015. Amazingly, this is Kim's debut feature, made for a relatively modest Six million dollars, with a third of the budget reportedly crowd funded. Kim closes the film with documentary footage from the military funeral of the sailor, as well as photographs of the real life participants. Kim Hak-soon isn't John Ford, but the film is an honorable effort. The reviews I've read criticizing Northern Limit Line for "jingoism" strike me as being condescending. As for the influence of Saving Private Ryan, I have to wonder if some critics have not watched any South Korean films made in the past decade. This is primarily a South Korean film made for a South Korean audience, and the popular response should be considered. Northern Limit Line is hardly flawless, but is worth seeing for its glimpse of an otherwise overlooked piece of history.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:43 AM

October 19, 2015

Denver Film Festival: The Line-up

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For the first time in too many years, the 38th version of the Denver Film Festival will be launched without the added appellation of the name of the main corporate sponsor. While I understand that film festivals, at least the big ones, can't exist without corporate sponsorship, I never understood why Denver seemed to be the only one that had to include it in their name. Prior to Starz, there was the Village Voice wannabe, Westword that held that honor. Starz is still the main sponsor, but really, it's not like anyone refers to the GLP Far East Film Festival or the American Airlines New York Film Festival.

As for the tag line, "Come sit and be swept away". OK, I get it. Film at its best can be an immersive experience where the only thing the viewer is thinking about is what's happening on the big screen. Maybe my long memory of cinema past is getting in the way, but I am unintentionally reminded of the last Lina Wertmuller film I was able to watch in its entirety. I guess this is still better than had someone decided the tag line would be "Come and See".

Several films that have been featured in earlier festivals will be featured, including Carol, Anomalisa, Where to Invade Next and Cannes winner, Son of Saul. Totally under the radar is the closing night film, Coming through the Rye, about a teen boy's attempt to persuade J.D. Salinger to let him adapt Salinger's most famous novel into a play. The high schooler is convinced he is destined to play Salinger's famous (or infamous) literary creation.

For myself, there is more interest in the series of recent Polish films, with several titles recommended to me by those more familiar with current Eastern European cinema. Also, there is a more substantial representation of Asian films this year including festival entries Cemetery of Splendor and Mountains may Depart, along with Peter Chan's newest film, Dearest and the new film by Kamikaze Girls filmmaker, Tetsuya Nakashima, The World of Kanako. Martial arts will be represented by Roy Chow's Rise of the Legend, the newest version of the Wong Fei Hung story, with Eddie Peng stepping into the role played by, among others, Jet Li in Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China series. On a somewhat related note, I keep hoping the film festival organizers will bring Josephine Siao back to Denver. A star of Hong Kong films since childhood, and a pioneering female action star as well, Siao's connection to Denver is her time at Regis University studying Child Psychology.

This year's "Stan Brakhage Award" will be given to Nathaniel Dorsky.

As in previous years, the festival venues will be shared between the Denver Film Society's Sie Film Center and the UA Pavilion 15, the downtown Denver multiplex. Taking advantage of the Pavilion's ability to show 3D films, there will be a late night screening of Gaspar Noe's Love.

Two films conspicuously missing are Don Cheadle's Miles Ahead and The Assassin. The Sie Film Center is almost across the street from Denver East High where Cheadle, and yours truly, are graduates. As for The Assassin, it has a one night screening about thirty miles away in Boulder, simultaneous with the festival, with no indication of even a theatrical run for Denver according to Well Go USA's website.

My own coverage will be a mix of what I want to see, what I want to write about, and what films I can see from available screeners and screenings. That said, it will be just a fraction of what's scheduled between November 4th through the 15th. Even with what might not be on the schedule, and this can be said about virtually every film festival, this year's festival line-up is, for myself, stronger than some previous years.

The official website is here.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:33 AM

October 18, 2015

Coffee Break

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Hugh Franklin and Helen Warren in The Curse of the Living Corpse (Del Tenney - 1964)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:14 AM

October 15, 2015


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Gary Jones - 1995
Synapse Films BD Regions ABC

The cover of the blu-ray proclaims the 20th Anniversary Edition. So why do I not know about this film, or recall it ever playing at a theater remotely near me? The answer is in one of the supplements, where Jones explains that the distribution rights were bought by the Hemdale Film Corporation, just months before the company when bankrupt. Not only did Mosquito not get the release Jones had anticipated, but he only received a third of the payment promised.

Someone should write, if not a book, at least a good, detailed article about how a group of Michigan based filmmakers made it to Hollywood. There is the Sam Raimi connection. Gary Jones started out working on special effects for Thou Shalt not Kill, except . . . and Evil Dead II. By the time he was ready to make his own directorial debut, almost ten years later, Jones was more than ready.

Mosquito has no greater aspirations than to be an entertaining creature feature. And for the most part, Gary Jones is successful. There are some shots of very obviously animated giant mosquitos chasing the main characters. Where it counts, in scenes of the mosquitos coming in for the kill, the special effects are better than might be expected. There is no CGI here. It's all practical effects, with mechanical mosquitos and a miniature set used for the climax. There's some T & A, as well as comic book gore - in other words, a movie designed for the drive-in and neighborhood theater circuit.

Gunnar Hansen, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the best known name here. He plays the leader of a trio of bank robbers who collide with the quartet of a park ranger, a meteorologist, a recent college grad and her boyfriend. Hansen and company wear military type garb, suggesting that they might be survivalists, although that possible thread is never explored. The unlikely group realizes that they have to join forces in order to beat the threat of the giant mosquitos. Hansen gets to wield a chainsaw and make verbal reference to the film that first brought him fame.

The rest of the cast is made up of Detroit and Ann Arbor based actors, including Ron Asheton, from the band, The Stooges. Asheton provides most of the comic moments as the well meaning, if incompetent, park ranger. Several cast members provide memories of working on the film with several humorous anecdotes. Gary Jones has since had a successful career as a director. It's not just that Mosquito is a better film than might be expected, but that Jones and his team made the most of the limited resources.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:32 AM

October 13, 2015

Diary of a Lost Girl


Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen
G.W. Pabst - 1929
Kino Classics BD Region A

Two of the greatest close-ups are here. The first comes a bit after fifteen minutes, when a smarmy pharmacist, the family business partner, sets himself up to seduce teenage Thymian. Louise Brooks' face is seen in profile against Fritz Rasp. Light reflects off of Brooks' lower lip. The second close-up is more conventional, but still effective, of Thymian looking out a window while it's raining. She's gazing out at her step-mother, and the step-mother's two young children, suddenly reduced from a cozy middle class life to immediate penury following the death of her husband, Thymian's father. Stills barely convey the power of these images. And as wonderful as they appear in blu-ray on a good sized television, I can only imagine the impact made when seen as nitrate film projected on a large movie screen.

Louise Brooks was about eight years older than the character she portrays, a girl whose day of confirmation is follow by a downward spiral of unwed motherhood, internment in a reformatory, and star attraction at an brothel servicing wealthy men. After the first few minutes, it doesn't even matter that Brooks doesn't pass for someone thirteen or fourteen years old. Mostly, it's about the face as it expresses curiosity, skepticism, and trust.

The blu-ray is from the reconstruction supervised by the F. W. Murnau Foundation. Censored almost immediately upon release, what we see is a composite version with scenes and shots from several archives. This may not be exactly the film Pabst intended, but it's as close as we have for now. The piano score uses a couple of classic themes, but is otherwise unremarkable. Commentary by Thomas Gladysz, director of the Louise Brooks Society, is informative, pointing out the identity of the actors with some biographical information, discussion of the source novel by Margarethe Bohme, as well as covering some of Pabst' career and the critical reception of Diary.

There is more than Brooks. This is a film where the value of a person is measured monetarily, with close-ups of hands exchanging or grasping money. While not a horror movie, two of the male characters are presented as monstrous - such as the pharmacist Meinert, played by the previously mentioned Fritz Rasp, is seen glancing at his collection of pornographic photos, there is something feral in his smile, with hands that constantly need to possess a person or an object of value. Even creepier is Andrews Engelmann as the enforcer at the reformatory, tall, bald, ready to clutch one of the girls by the back of her neck or poke her in the shoulder lest she forget her place. There is also the grandmotherly madame of the brothel, the client with the goat-like beard, and even a toddler who pointedly resembles a pint sized Louise Brooks.

The blu-ray comes with the short, Windy Riley Goes Hollywood. Produced by a poverty row outfit in 1931, with Brooks getting second billing to forgotten comic actor Jack Shutta, it's one of the last films Brooks made before calling it quits a few years later. The direction is credited to William Goodrich, the pseudonym for another silent era castoff, Fatty Arbuckle. Brooks expresses the experience of making this film best: He made no attempt to direct this picture at all. He just sat silently all through the three days of filming in his director's chair like a dead man. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career. But it was such an amazing thing for me to come in to make this broken down picture, and to find my director 'William Goodrich' was in fact the great Roscoe Arbuckle.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:33 AM

October 11, 2015

Coffee Break

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Eulabelle Moore and Allan Gavin in The Horror of Party Beach (Del Tenney - 1964)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:09 AM

October 09, 2015

Manos: The Hands of Fate


Harold P. Warren - 1966
Synapse Films BD Regions ABC

I seem to be the only person I know who never saw Manos: Hands of Fate on Mystery Science Theater 3000. And I did see that show on a regular basis during the peak of its popularity. That said, while I can see where Manos could generate snarky comments, it is hardly the worse film ever made. I was able to watch Manos from beginning to end, which is more than I can say about some other films.

I don’t think that Manos could have ever been a good film. It might have been less bad had director-writer-producer-star Hal Warren been a bit more visually adept. One thing the best filmmakers working with limited budgets understood best is that film is not always about what you see, but what you don’t see. Warren undercuts the sense that his vacationing family is lost in the middle of nowhere, when a wide shot shows a highway within view. The bigger problem is that neither the characters nor the premise is very interesting.

Manos sets itself up for snark when one of the characters, the grotesque caretaker, Torgo, appears to be slapped and jostled to death. The cat fight between members of The Master’s harem is so badly staged that I wished that Edward D. Wood, Jr. was on the set to show Warren how it’s done. I’m not sure what Tom Neyman had in mind when he designed the costumes for the harem, but adding those wide red strips hanging from the waist, on the front and back of the women otherwise dressed in white may have an unintended meaning.

There is a supplement where we get to see Tom Neyman discussing his work as actor and set and costume designer. If anyone decides to make a film about John Carradine in his later years, Neyman is a dead ringer for the actor who spent most of the late Sixties and early Seventies in bargain basement claptrap. Diane Adelseon, billed as Diane Mahree, the young wife coveted by Torgo and The Master, talks about stifling laughter at the film's premiere. A former fashion model, Adelson is still very attractive almost fifty years later.

Ben Solovey gets a supplement of his own, very much worth seeing regardless of how one feels about Manos. The restoration process is discussed, as well as the decisions made on what where an improvements would be made, while keeping the essential visual qualities of this 16mm production.

Sure, the budget for Manos was the relatively tiny $19,000.00, not very much even in 1966, but I refuse to buy the argument that this was the best that could be done with the resources available. Consider that there have been more recent and better films done for the same amount or less, with proportionately less buying power, such as Primer, the original Paranormal Activity, Eraserhead and Christopher Nolan's Following. For those who love Manos for whatever reason, go ahead and get the new blu-ray. For myself, this is one cult movie that does not hold me under its spell.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:26 AM

October 07, 2015

Blasts from Hong Kong Past

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The Raid / Cai shu zhi heng sao qian jun
Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung - 1991

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The Avenging Fist / Kuen Sun
Andrew Lau and Corey Yuen - 2001
both Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Well Go USA has reissued a couple of films from two old masters of the Hong Kong action film. Not solo works, both are collaborative efforts, one worth checking out, the other probably to be chucked out by all but the most dedicated fan of Hong Kong cinema.

The Raid, directed by Tsui and Ching Sui-tung, is somewhat reminiscent of Peking Opera Blues. Based on a popular Chinese comic book adventure of the elderly Dr. Choy, this is a combination of action adventure and that unique Hong Kong staple, the nonsense film. Those demanding tonal consistency may be put off by the spurting blood when characters are shooting each other. In addition to the gun play is plenty of old fashioned martial arts, wire work, editing tricks, and pre-CGI special effects. As a reminder of the source material, the film occasionally has animated links between scenes.

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Taking place in Manchuria in 1932, Dr. Choy is brought in to aid some soldiers in the field. Advised to stay at home, Choy sneaks back to join the soldiers. Along with his young niece, Nancy, a budding pole fighter, and boy known as Smartie, Choy is caught up in a plot to stop “The Last Emperor”, Pu Yi, collaborating with the Japanese, by blowing up a factory used to create poison gas. Adding to the confusion is the sibling rivalry of two brothers, Bobo Bear (Jacky Cheung) and Big Nose (Corey Yuen), and their respective factions, and a couple of women with secret identities. (And shouldn't Jacky Cheung be playing a character named Big Nose?)

Best are a Nazi inspired musical number that rivals any of Mel Brooks’ Third Reich satires, and a scene of several lovers hiding from each other in a bed room. I would hope that some more of the earlier works by Tsui Hark get some DVD love. On my wish list, the hard to see Shanghai Blues, and the madcap The Chinese Feast with improved English subtitles.

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Uncle Choy was Dean Shek's final film performance before retiring at age 42. Shek started as a Shaw Brothers actor in 1968 at age 18. Still reportedly alive, to be 65 on October 17, there is nothing about Shek's life since a final credit as the producer of the film Angel Hunter. The Raid also was the last role for Joyce Godenzi, seen here as a Chinese star who turns out to be a Japanese agent. Godenzi is married to Sammo Hung. Which brings us to the other DVD here . .

As for The Avenging Fist, one would have hoped for something better from Andrew Lau and Corey Yuen. That the film is a mish-mash of elements, off the top of my head, Metropolis, Blade Runner, Star Wars and Clockwork Orange is the least of the problems. How to make sense of a film in which the premise involves wearing a special glove that helps the wearer use significantly more than ten percent of the brain, but is shown used for powerful, cosmic punching? Somehow, this glove also turns the person wearing it into a killer, except for Sammo Hung, who blames the glove for making him fat.

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This is an hour and a half of cheesy special effects, and poorly thought out plot points. As soon as I saw the name of schlockmeister Wong Jing in the credits, I knew there was trouble ahead. More trouble than I knew when doing some research - the film was intended to be adapted from the video game, Tekken - but due to the failure to properly get rights to the property, there is an awkward disclaimer at the close of this film. Lau and Yuen redeemed themselves in 2002, Lau with Infernal Affairs, and Yuen turning Shu Qi into a formidable martial arts star in So Close, and the two collaborating again with the first entry of The Transporter.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:59 PM

October 05, 2015

The Phantom of the Opera


Rupert Julian - 1925
Kino Classics BD Region A

Somehow, I had it fixed in my memory that I had actually seen the silent Phantom of the Opera. What I saw was a highly edited version. I know that I had seen the unmasking scene quite a few times. But until I got the Kino two disc set, I never saw the actual feature length film.

What we have primarily is the original 1925 version taken from a 16mm print, plus the 1929 re-issue shown at 24 frames per second with two different music tracks, or at 20 fps, the correct projection speed, with a music track or a commentary track. The 1929 version originally had a synchronized track of music and sound effects, no longer available. The print, reported taken from a European release version, is the best preserved, and has color tinting, plus the early Technicolor footage in the masked ball sequence. The 1929 version also improves upon the 1925 version in a couple of other ways.

Rupert Julian's original version takes a lot of time setting things up, mostly with the romance of Christine and Raoul. Julian shoots the dance numbers as if from the back row of the auditorium. As visually unimaginative as Julian was, he was also not very observant, as there is an audience member furiously waving a fan in the long shots. The dance scenes were reshot for 1929 version to go with the soundtrack, and were filmed by someone who knew a thing or two about editing and camera angles. Additionally, the 1929 version runs for about an hour and a half. Not only is there little of narrative import missed, but Lon Chaney shows up earlier. It should also be noted that while Julian was listed as the director, with Chaney reportedly directing himself, other uncredited studio hands contributed to both the 1925 and 1929 version. This is a rare case where studio interference improved the film.

In retrospect, while the Phantom is Lon Chaney's most iconic role, it is neither the best film to showcase his talents, nor is it really that good a film. What makes Phantom memorable are Chaney's make-up and Ben Carre's incredible sets, especially the giant demon face with the doorway in the mouth leading to a mysterious passageway. For myself, Tod Browning's The Unknown remains not only a much better made film, but one that is better as a showcase for Lon Chaney's skills as an actor, with an ending that continues to horrify.

That the sound reissue of Phantom is the version that is considered definitive is somewhat ironic in that the careers of most of the principle participants were undone by talking pictures. Mary Philbin, the would be opera star, could not sing in real life, and had a high pitched voice. His speaking voice also hampered Norman Kerry, a popular star who appeared in other films with Chaney. Rupert Julian made his last movie in 1930. Even Lon Chaney's career in talkies was short-lived, most cruelly with death at the age of 47 from throat cancer.

One of my favorite moments is the scene of the ballerinas backstage running in fear of rumors of the Phantom, with giant shadows against the wall. There is also Chaney's grand entrance in the masked ball, dressed in red, with the skull mask. Unlike the remakes, there's no back story to explain how the Phantom has a deformed face, nor is there any attempt to make the Phantom sympathetic beyond Chaney's own characterization. Whatever thoughts I have about the film, I can not deny the impact made ninety years after the initial release, and this new blu-ray set is the version to have for any personal collection.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:40 PM

October 04, 2015

Coffee Break

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Christina von Blanc and Britt Nichols in A Virgin Among the Living Dead (Jesus Franco - 1973)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:32 AM