« October 2015 | Main | December 2015 »

November 29, 2015

Coffee Break

duke of burgundy.jpg
Fatma Mohamed in The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland - 2014)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:46 AM

November 24, 2015

The Mask

Mask lc.jpg

Julian Roffman - 1961
Kino Classics BD Region A

Not to be confused with other films with the same title, this film was also known as The Eyes of Hell. I had to opportunity to see The Mask, part of it, when it was revived in the early 1970s in an attempt to lure the youth audience of the time with the "psychedelic" visuals. The audience at the late night show at the New York City theater was having none of it, bellowing loudly enough to force the theater to discontinue The Mask in favor of a documentary on Jimi Hendrix.

Without the 3D sequences, The Mask would probably of moderate historical interest, as both the first Canadian horror movie and the first Canadian 3D movie. I was able to see Julian Roffman's previous film, The Bloody Brood, mostly notable for showcasing a then unknown Peter Falk. That earlier film, about Toronto beatniks, and The Mask similarly frame the act of murder as some kind of intellectual adventure. Of interest is that Roffman's cinematographer on The Bloody Brood was Eugen Shufftan, who had worked with Georges Franju before and after working with Roffman. Why this is worth noting is because the masked characters in the 3D sequences have some similarity to Edit Scob in Franju's Eyes without a Face, with cinematography by, yes, Eugen Shufftan. There is also the more obvious similarity to Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the probable influence of William Castle.

For most cinephiles, the selling point of The Mask is the contribution of Slavko Vorkapich. Known for his montages, primarily during the "Golden Age" of Hollywood, Vorkaphich's contribution here is listed as writing the dream sequences. As it turned out, most of Vorkaphich's ideas were not used by Roffman due to the complexity, as well as budgetary considerations. The Blu-ray includes a montage of montages by Vorkapich, and based on the evidence, images of skulls, or in this case, the titular mask, flying towards the audience, was a favorite visual motif. While Vorkapich's participation in The Mask was a little less that has been advertised, one wonders what we might have had, had Roffman been able to use Vorkapich's ideas, or those of experimental filmmaker Len Lye, who sketched out a flying blade capable of beheading victims.

The story itself is about a scientist who stole the mask, an ancient South American artifact, from a museum, and is suffering from the nightmarish images when the mask is worn. He tries to convince a psychiatrist that the mask is the source of his troubles. Prior to committing suicide, the scientist mails the mask to the shrink, who in turn makes the mistake of wearing the mask, releasing his own murderous tendencies. For the viewer seeing The Mask theatrically, an off-screen voice would command, "Put on the mask now", which would signal the viewer to wear 3D glasses during the three special sequences.

Now about watching those 3D sequences - I don't have a 3D Blu-ray player so I can't tell you how that stands as a viewing experience. I do have a pair of the old fashioned red/green 3D glasses that were provided as part of another DVD, so I was able to see the 3D sequences pretty much the way as the original theatrical audience. However, those sequences are shown as separate supplements. The entire feature can be seen in 2D, with the dream sequences seen flat for those without glasses. The more ideal situation would have been for an option to allow The Mask to be seen in 2D with an option for those with two color glasses to see the 3D sequences as part of the feature for a truer theatrical experience.

The supplement about Julian Roffman should be of interest to cinephiles. Significantly, Roffman's earliest work of note was as a documentarian for the Film Board of Canada, with John Grierson as his mentor. There are some clips of Roffman's work from the Thirties and Forties. Additionally, the Blu-ray includes the famed experimental short Slavko Vorkapich made with Robert Florey, The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra. The commentary track by 3D specialist Jason Pichonsky discusses some of the technical aspects in making The Mask, as well as more historical information regarding the cast and crew. There is also a bonus supplement of a very entertaining 3D animation piece, One Night in Hell, that features music and the appearance of Queen's Brian May.

the mask german poster.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:37 AM

November 22, 2015

Coffee Break

Maruja Grifel and Ninon Sevilla in Aventurera (Alberto Gout - 1950)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:41 AM

November 20, 2015

A Hard Day


Kim Seong-hoon - 2014
Kino Lorber BD Region A

There's a scene in A Hard Day where a giant, and I mean over-sized, block falls on top of a car, virtually flattening it. Any potential laugh is undercut with the knowledge that there was a police officer in said car. Yet the exaggerated size of that block and the visual impact made me think of something that Chuck Jones would have done in a Road Runner cartoon. This is the story about a bad, corrupt cop being blackmailed by an even badder, more corrupt cup. Between the punches, explosions, and seemingly indestructible nature of these two, no matter how beaten and bruised, there are times when A Hard Day would seem like the Korean thriller as imagined by Chuck Jones.

Homicide Detective Ko drives to his mother's funeral drunk, hits some guy on the road, gets in trouble with the cops at a DUI checkpoint by trying to hide his inebriation and the body in the car trunk, and then tries to hide the body in his mother's coffin. Making things worse is when Ko finds out that far from being alone on the road, someone else has observed him, and that there's also a video camera that filmed his car at the time of the accident.

The Korean title translates as "Take it to the end", which is essentially what happens when Ko encounters fellow cop Park. Ko's job is on the line for the various bribes taken, small potatoes when he finds out about Park and Park's interest in the buried man. Kim presents the various factions of cops as a kind of boys' club where throwing things at each other, slapping, and hitting each other for real or imagined infractions, small scale violence, is the order of the day. Each team thinks of itself as a brotherhood, simultaneous with a sometimes vicious sibling rivalry.

Kim mixes things up visually, with a car chase shot low from the front of a car, virtually hurling the viewer into the action, tilted shots during the fights, and at one point filming Ko chasing a small-time hood with the camera high overhead with the two avoiding the rush of car traffic. As Park, Cho Jin-woong has been nominated, and in several events, won for Best Supporting Actor. Physically bigger than anyone else in the film, Cho plays Park as the overly friendly and helpful pal who let's you know in no uncertain terms when you are on his bad side.

The blu-ray come with interviews with Kim, Cho and star Lee Sun-kyun, as well as deleted scenes which primarily add a little more to the characterization of Detective Ko.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:45 AM

November 18, 2015

The Voyeur

voyeur bluray.jpg

L'uomo che guarda
Tinto Brass - 1994
Cult Epics BD

Two of my favorite films are The Conformist and Contempt. Both are generally considered to be the best films by their respective directors, Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean-Luc Godard. Both films also are adapted from novels by Alberto Moravia. Now it is possible that something got lost translating Moravia from Italian to English, but Bertolucci and Godard improved upon the source novels. With that in mind, I'm pretty sure that the film Tinto Brass made is probably better than Moravia's novel, or at least livelier.

While not officially credited, Brass pointedly has one of his female characters reading the original novel, L'uomo che guarda in bed. In the supplementary interview, Brass stated that Moravia encouraged him to not worry about fidelity to the novel. The basic set-up is there, a youngish professor of French literature, nicknamed Dodo, is trying to reunite with his wife. There is the unproven suspicion that she is having an affair. Dodo is not the most faithful of husbands. There is also the uneasy relationship with his bed-ridden father, marked by sexual competition. From what I have read about the novel, Brass has tossed aside the political segments.

There is briefly, a lecture given by Dodo discussing the concept of voyeurism, with mentions of Herodotus, Andre Gide and Stephane Mallarme. Dodo discusses a Mallarme poem in, um, greater depth, with a young African student, at least until the housemate, a female photographer, walks in. Some might accuse Tinto Brass of the same accusation aimed at Moravia, of providing a bit of intellectual veneer to justify an interest in eroticism.

And let's face it, the point of seeing a Tinto Brass movie is to see attractive women in various states of undress. As Sylvia, Dodo's wife, Polish actress Katarina Vasilissa is one of Brass's most photogenic stars. The camera lovingly, some might say too lovingly, explores all the peaks and valleys of Vasilissa's body. That she is often filmed wearing diaphanous lingerie and clothes that barely conceal, adds to the visual pleasure. The film opens with Dodo fantasizing about Sylvia, with one of the sexiest scenes of a woman getting dressed. There's also some male nudity on display here, the enjoyment of which I will leave to the individual viewer.

This is Brass's film as originally intended, at 104 minutes, significantly longer than the running time listed in IMDb. Aside from the thematic continuity of stories populated by voyeurs and exhibitionists, Brass makes use of several shots using mirrors and in one scene uses a refracted lens, adding to the unreal quality of Dodo's voyeurism. There's a nice sax-driven score by Riz Ortalani, an aural sweetener to the highly polished visuals.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:46 AM

November 16, 2015



Andre De Toth - 1948
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Supporting players in the late Forties, not yet the iconic television stars of Fifties, the two most interesting performers in Pitfall are Jane Wyatt and Raymond Burr. Wyatt's role as wife and mother is something of a warm-up as matriarch of the Anderson family, warm, wise and witty. What Wyatt shows in Pitfall as all of those aspects, plus a spine of steel when she discovers that husband Dick Powell is, to put it bluntly, a dick, seeing Lizabeth Scott on those late nights supposedly at work. Wyatt's clipped cadences are especially effective here in letting Powell, and the audience, know that she's nobody's fool.

Raymond Burr is seen wearing a black suit that emphasizes his bulk. With his marcelled hair and longish sideburns, Burr comes across as a self-styled Romeo, intimidating when he thinks he is being charming. De Toth films private eye Burr as a graceless elephant who barges into Powell's office or Lizabeth Scott's apartment.

Powell plays in insurance agent recovering items bought for Lizabeth Scott with embezzled money. Powell tries to keep things as business only. Scott might be famous for her low pitched voice, almost a whisper at times, but De Toth lets the audience know that Scott has a nice pair of gams as she enters wearing some stylish shorts. A ride in an old motor boat, and a couple of daytime drinks, and it's not much later when Burr, doing his own private investigation, spies Powell leaving Scott's apartment well after sunset.

The influence of Italian neorealism is felt here, with a significant portion of scenes shot in and around Los Angeles. We see the outside of the Macy's where Scott works as a model, as well as several scenes with Powell in the downtown area. There is also a nice series of tracking shots of Powell walking through downtown L.A. at night, with the reflection of the Brown Derby restaurant scene against a window.

Eddie Muller's commentary covers how the story changed from novel to film. Much of Muller's discussion is centered on the screenplay being the work of uncredited William Bowers and De Toth, rather than the screenwriter of record, Karl Kamb. Muller quotes from an interview with De Toth on the making of Pitfall, providing evidence that this was a personal project for the director. Pitfall was an independent production, as that term was understood in the Forties. One moment of cultural specificity that may raise eyebrows is when Powell and Wyatt's young son has a nightmare, blamed on the mayhem of comic books. If comic books are bad, movies are good. To shield the boy from anticipate violence, Powell announces an impromptu trip late night trip to "the movies". Wyatt talks Powell out of that plan, though the son brightly informs Dad that he's game for going to the movies anytime.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:49 PM

November 15, 2015

Coffee Break

Debbie Reynolds in Tammy and the Bachelor (Joseph Pevney - 1957)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:45 AM

November 14, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Golan: A Farewell to Mr Cinema

golan poster.jpg

Christopher Sykes - 2015
Christopher Sykes Productions

There seems to have been some kind of numeric coincidence at work. Christopher Sykes' documentary is his third about filmmaker Menahem Golan. As for the subject himself, this follows the two documentaries about Golan's company, Cannon Films. Sykes follows Golan during what turned out to be the last couple of years of Golan's life. Living in Jaffa, Israel, Golan is still trying hoping to make another movie, and still dreaming about winning an Oscar. And for those who might snicker at the thought, Golan's early production, Sallah, from 1964, was a Foreign Language Film nominee.

Sykes provides off screen narration, occasionally letting film clips, often with the actors Golan is still hoping to work with, provide some commentary. Even with several setbacks to his health, Golan could only be stopped by his death, which came at age 85.

Golan provides a personal tour of the exterior of the long defunct movie theater where he first developed his love of film, his childhood home where he had his personal cinema, as well as walks though his neighborhood where he was still loved for his Israeli films. There are also photographs of Golan in his younger days, clips from several films he directed, as well as excerpts from Sykes' previous documentaries on Golan.

I haven't seen the documentary by Golan's cousin, and former business partner, Yoram Globus, The Go-Go Boys, but I did see Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. Some of the same information is repeated, about the millions paid for Sylvester Stallone to star in the underwhelming Over the Top, and how Cannon also produced several films by some very idiosyncratic filmmakers, and pretty much gave them a free hand. Neither film mentions how the premature announcement of filming Elmore Leonard's La Brava backfired as presumed star Dustin Hoffman had not signed a contract, or how Leonard took this fiasco as the basis for his novel, Get Shorty.

The Cannon films have been receiving renewed attention, and I make no apologies for my affection for Lifeforce and Breakin' II: Electric Boogaloo. It did occur to me that Golan's own work as a director is probably in need of reevaluation. Out of forty-six films that Menahem Golan had directed, I've seen only three. Delta Force is at the bottom of that particular deck, but on the other hand, but where else are you going to see Lee Marvin and R.W. Fassbinder superstar Hanna Schygulla in the same film? I feel affection for Lepke because it's a movie about a legendary Jewish gangster that didn't dance around that aspect of Louis Buchalter's life, and, hey, I like Tony Curtis. The Magician of Lublin maybe unintentionally be the film that is most representative of Golan. Based on the novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, starring Alan Arkin, Valerie Perrine and Shelley Winters, this is the prestige film that misses its mark. That Menahem Golan had ambitions to make at least one great film can not be disputed.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:34 PM

November 13, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Ludo


Q & Nikon - 2015
Starfire Films

Q, otherwise known as Qaushiq Mukherjee, made his mark with the anarchic Gandu, seen at a past Denver Film Festival. That film was intriguing enough for me to check out his documentary, Love in India when that film was available on Netflix Instant. Q has since been aiming for more mainstream approval - his previous film, Tasher Desh was inspired by the writings Rabindranath Tagore, although his take on the same material is undoubtedly different from that of Satyajit Ray. In collaboration with the editor of that last film, Nikon, Q has made an even more commercial film. That attempt has apparently paid off as the Bengali filmmaker is to make a Hindi remake.

I'm not sure if Ludo would get much attention on this side of the globe. The couple of Herschell Gordon Lewis moments of gore, where an eyeball gets plucked out, and a tongue is ripped out of a poor guy's mouth, may appall the art house crowd, if they haven't been driven out by Bengali heavy metal and techno music on the soundtrack. The horror crowd might find Ludo relatively tame, with not enough horrific moments in between the shots of smeared blood.

The set-up of two young couples seems familiar enough. Two girls go out with two guys. Mom tells her daughter that she's dressed like a slut, though in a contemporary Bollywood film, she would be considered overdressed. Unable to find a hotel that will accommodate this quartet, one of the girls decides that the group should hide out in a mall in part to take advantage of the air-conditioning. The quartet thinks they are alone in the dark, dimly lit mall, when an older couple appear. The man looks like an aged hippie, while the woman has scar over her right eye. The four younger people are invited to play a strange game involving dice. And somehow the mall elevator has turned into a portal to a kind of hell.

Ludo is an actual game, related to the better known Pachesi. The film also offers a brief view of Kolkata by night, traveling by motor-bike. That this is to be the beginning of a franchise should also be of no surprise.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:55 AM

November 12, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Cemetery of Splendor


Rak ti Khon Kaen
Apichatpong Weerasethakul - 2015
Strand Releasing

I admit it. I've seen all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films, and I found Cemetery of Splendor to be a challenge. And my thoughts on this film may seem a bit disconnected. There is something of a narrative, of soldiers struck by a sleeping sickness, housed in a hospital in the northeast section of Thailand, Isan. The hospital building was formerly a schoolhouse, which is revealed to have been built on the cemetery grounds of former rulers. There is also the middle aged woman with one leg shorter than the other, who develops a friendship with one of the soldiers who does periodically awaken, and the woman who acts as a medium, sharing soldiers' dreams with family members.

A brief moment that struck me is a scene at a movie theater. On the screen is a trailer for an old Thai horror film, The Iron Coffin Killer, which I found out never was released in Thailand. Of course Apichatpong knows as thing or two about Thai films unseen in Thailand. At the end of the trailer, everyone in the audience stands up in unison. This is normal in a Thai movie theater, when the Thai national anthem is played, usually before the film begins. The last time I saw a movie in Thailand, I stood up, even though I'm not Thai, because to not do so is considered a criminal offense against the King of Thailand, and even though I astoundingly was the only paying customer in the theater. However . . . in Cemetery of Splendor, when the audience stands up, the screen is blank. And I'm not sure what Apichatpong is trying to say here, although it is probably not so much commentary on Thai royalty as much as a jab at a peculiar aspect of filmgoing in Thailand.

I have to understand Cemetery of Splendor as an allegory of contemporary Thailand. Apichatpong is interested in Thai identify, especially as it is currently expressed, without stating anything directly. The past, when the country was known as Siam, is revered. It may also be the devotion to that past that is hindering the present. The film begins with a large bulldozer digging a hole. It is later indicated that the digging is for a secret government project. The film ends with the hole refilled, and children running around over the dirt. Official Thailand can behave in ways that can cause native Thais to scratch their heads.

Apichatpong has indicated that this may be his last film shot in Thailand due to political considerations. As one who has followed Thai cinema, and read about the seemingly arbitrary rulings that have affected Apichatpong and other filmmakers, this comes as no surprise.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:11 AM

November 11, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Nude Area

nude area poster.jpg

Strefa nagosci
Urszula Antoniak - 2014
Topkapi Films

Filmed in Amsterdam, this is a mostly dialogue free film about two young women, and their encounters with each other, real and imagined. Those who demand clearly explained narratives will probably be frustrated here. Antoniak starts off with a quote from Roland Barthes' "A Lover's Discourse". There may be some irony at work here as Barthes discusses his idea of love in part from a male point of view, and much of what he writes about is language.

While the two young woman, played respectively by the Dutch Sammy Boonstra, and the Moroccan Imaan Hamman, do not speak to each other, except for a brief moment of unintelligible whispers, they communicate with each other with glances, body language, and eventually, touching. Antoniak might be a bit arch in giving several of the segments written titles, such as "Love", "Listless", and "Labour", all taken from Barthes. The scenes between the two women alternate between possible realities and dreams, briefly addressing race and class.

The opening images are certainly dreamlike. Water against the leg of a woman falls down like some many crystals. In slow motion and close up, the water looks like waves washing against the woman's skin. The two women see each other in a spa, later in an outdoor cafe. A letter with a heart shaped seal is received. An email letter is composed. Sometimes the idea of a relationship, or the dream of a relationship, is better than the reality of two people coming together.

One painterly image is of Sammy at a park. There are some couples, plus a trio in the back, a playful nod to Renoir's Picnic on the Grass. They look at Sammy, the only single person present, as if she was some kind of intruder. Nude Area is about spaces, both private and public, as well as how people may give a meaning to a space, be it the aforementioned park, or a table in an exclusive restaurant.

There is very little nudity in Nude Area, and what exists can not be considered exploitive. The film might be understood as a contemplation of mostly unexpressed longings between the two women. What takes place may be subject to individual interpretation by the viewer. What gives the film its power is not only the play between the two actresses, but the imagery by Piotr Sobocinski, Jr. Shots of faces reflected on glass, close-ups of Boonstra's fingers with black polish, the pause to study how Hamman wraps her headscarf are part of the story here. Appropriating the title of Barthes' collection of essays, the viewer should surrender to the pleasures of the cinematic text.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:23 PM

November 10, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Dearest


Qin ai de
Peter Chan Ho-Sun - 2014
Versatile Films

I surely can't be the only one who has noticed that independently and probably unknown in a couple of cases, filmmakers have made at least four new films dealing with parents searching for missing children. Two of these films are part of the current line-up at this year's Denver Film Festival. I wrote about The World of Kanako. The other two films I'm aware of are the U.S. indie, Reed Morano's Meadowland, and another Chinese film, Lost and Love starring Andy Lau.

Based on true events, Peter Chan's film is initial about the divorced parents search for their three year old son who was abducted on the streets of Shenzhen, China. The search and rescue of the boy is only part of the story, the first half of the film. What Chan examines are not only the unexpected consequences when the son is found three years later, but also some of the unintended effects of mainland China's one child policy. Additionally, issue of class and the use of dialect, with the official policy of having everyone speak standard Mandarin, are also touched on.

The film open with Wenjun, who runs a small, shabby cyber cafe in a side street, tinkering with the tangle of wires above the street. The internet and electric wires provides a visual metaphor for a story about human connections, bonded and severed. Wenjun's ex-wife, Xiaojuan has the upscale job, along with a car and a new husband, but Wenjun is the one awarded child custody. Out in the streets with friends about the same age, the son, known as Pengpeng, spots his mother's car and chases after it. We see a quick glimpse of someone picking up the small boy from a distance.

The search takes Wenjun to different parts of China, dealing with people who claim to know the whereabouts of Pengpeng. It is during this earlier part of the film that there is greater use of hand-held cinematography, emphasizing Wenjun's travels to unfamiliar places in his attempt to find his son, or at least get answers.

After a trio of star vehicles designed for pan-Asian appeal, Peter Chan has been making films that are more specifically Chinese with this film and his previous American Dreams in China. Top billed Vickie Zhao Wei has more of a supporting role as the widow of man known to have abducted children. Zhao is almost unrecognizable here as a naive, perhaps intellectually impaired, woman who learns too late about the true nature of her husband. Zhao won several Best Actress awards for her performance here.

The film ends with a gathering of the main cast members with their real life counterparts, as well as titles providing additional narrative closure. Only the most hard-hearted will not be touched by the little girl, often seen by herself, who plays Pengpeng's adopted little sister.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:53 PM

November 09, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Rise of the Legend

rise of the legend.jpg

Huang feihong zhi yingxiong you meng
Roy Chow Hin-Yeung - 2014
Edko Films

The legend in this case is Wong Fei-Hung. This is a new variation of the true life hero for a new generation. Eddie Peng probably has the bigger challenge of stepping into a role that may have had its best iteration with Jet Li as Wong in Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China series. Director Roy Chow is aided and abetted by action director Corey Yuen, himself a very capable filmmaker, in employing the various tricks with the most recent digital technology, building upon the martial arts films of masters like Tsui and King Hu.

This is, as perhaps fitting our times, a darker version of the legend. Peng's Wong is a more serious person. Chow cuts between scenes of Wong's youth as the son of a martial arts master, with his positioning himself as the adopted son of a top gangster. The film begins with an exhilarating street fight, with Wong taking on what seems like one hundred very angry guys, one hundred angry guys with swords. We've got the wire works, the slow-mo, and the cinematography is digitized to the Nth degree. It's kickassery of the highest order, and what a thrill it is to see large scale action done right.

And talk about a legend that rises, Sammo Hung leaps, flies and kicks way as the chief villain. More portly than I can recall, I wouldn't be positive about how much stunt work Hung does here. Even standing still, Hung cuts an imposing figure. That the film has peers Yuen and Hung provides an instant connection to the earlier wave of great martial arts films from Hong Kong. While this new film doesn't have the charm of the chaste romance between Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan in Tsui's films, Wang Luodan is formidable as Wong's childhood friend.

For those who hold onto the idea of purity in the presentation of martial arts, keep in mind that no less than Jet Li has discussed the difference between true martial arts and martial arts as screen performance. The philosophical underpinnings are devoted to why one would master martial arts, rather than how to correctly do the crane-tiger fist.

Roy Chow is a relatively new director, working again with screenwriter wife Christine To. Rise of the Legend is not quite as stylized as his previous film, the neo-noir Nightfall. Working with the kind of resources unavailable to the older filmmakers, Chow makes use of several traveling shots and crane shots both within the large interior spaces, as well as the buildings and alleys of the port city where the film takes place. Unsurprisingly, Corey Yuen won Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards nominations for his action choreography. It is more than likely that if Rise of the Legend is seen more widely stateside, it would be in home video release. See this on the big screen while you have the chance.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:03 AM

November 08, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Songs my Brother Taught Me

songs my brother taught me.jpg

Chloe Zhao - 2015

For the first few minutes, I thought I was watching a documentary, what use to be called cinema verite, of a teen brother and his young sister in their home. And in a way, Chloe Zhao is filming a version of reality with most of her cast playing characters with the same personal names.

As it turned out, reality was incorporated into the narrative. The scene of young Jashaun St. John in tears, exploring the ruins of a burned down house, was filmed at her actual house. The tattooed covered artist, Travis, is a real artist, with his work displayed in the film.

The film was shot at the Pine Ridge Reservation, in a community dotted mostly with aged prefabricated houses, isolated from the outside world. Most of the narrative is about Johnny, a high school senior, with no sense of what he wants to do with his life. He talks about following his girlfriend to Los Angeles, where she's going to college, with some vague idea about getting a job and finding a place to live. Time is spent hanging out with friends, getting drunk, and getting into fights. Zhao avoids making a coming of age story. There are no epiphanies, simply a little more self-understanding.

With the exception of Irene Bedard as Johnny and Jashaun's mother, the cast is mostly residents of Pine Ridge. There are no moments of high drama. Sometimes the most most dramatic element is the wind blowing against the faces of the people. Zhao is observational, and non-judgmental about her characters, whether it's Johnny's jailed older brother, the female photographer visiting the reservation, or the older white high school teacher who attempts to encourage his students. Contemporary culture alternates or mixes with Native American culture, sometimes incongruously. With effective use of a non-professional cast, Chloe Zhao pays quiet tribute to the oft cliched idea of home.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:13 AM

November 07, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Art of the Prank


Andrea Marini - 2015
Relight Films

There is some amusement to be found in Art of the Prank. That's inevitable when you see the younger Joey Skaggs riding around New York City, with his bicycle driven "Portofess", a mobile confessional for busy Catholics who may not have time to go to church.
Skaggs hoaxes place him somewhere between Dick Tuck, the prankster most famous for being the nemesis of another Dick, and Sacha Baron Cohen, who convinced more than enough people of his persona as Borat.

That Skaggs would appear on television claiming to be an expert of cockroaches named Dr. Gregor is yet another reminder that sometimes people are who should know better never take the time to do any research. While audience members may laugh at the gullibility of various journalists, and wonder why none of Skaggs claims in his various personas weren't viewed with more skepticism, there may perhaps be less of a distance between some of Joey Skaggs hoaxes, and the recently exposed terrorist expert featured on Fox News.

One of the more interesting aspects of Skaggs life is that he intended to be a more conventional kind of artist. It was hoaxes that first initiated media attention, after which Skaggs would find ways of making the media a co-conspirator, with such such publicized gags as a brothel for dogs, and a celebrity sperm bank.

The documentary cuts between Skaggs discussing his life, footage of past hoaxes including television appearances, and his most recent work in addressing the use of GMOs. Much of the work has been politically motivated, initially as part of anti-war activity in the late Sixties.

Marini also cuts to various people who have been involved with Skaggs work, sometimes posing as scientists or reporters. Actor Robert Forster, reportedly a friend of Skaggs, provides a bit of celebrity presence.

Explaining the joke is never as good as what you see and hear, but you have to hand it to a guy who has convinced a few people that with a few cell transplants, you can regrow teeth just like a shark, and have the choppers to prove it.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:07 PM

November 06, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Sea Fog

haemoo poster.jpg

Shim Sung-bo - 2014
Film Movement

Had I not done a little research, I might never have known that Sea Fog has been adapted from a stage play. That the play, in turn, was inspired by true events was also verified. This is the directorial debut of Shim Sung-bo, whose previous credits include co-writing Memories of Murder with director Bong Joon-ho. Bong, who's gone on to international acclaim with with The Host and Snowpiercer, has a hand in the screenplay here, as well as serving as producer.

The film takes place in 1998. The international monetary crises that his Asia dominates the news, even impacting a small village on the Korean coast. Kang is captain of a fishing boat that is having little luck with its catches. He is at the point where selling his boat would be more profitable than continuing to take his crew out to sea. Kang takes on smuggling job to make money, which turns out to be a job smuggling illegal immigrants. What begins as a story of people trying to survive financially turns into a life and death struggle that destroys nearly everyone involved on Kang's boat.

Such expressions as staying afloat or keeping one's head above water become literal here. The immigrants, Korean-Chinese, are, like many immigrants, hoping for a better life in Korea. Kang is superstitious about having women aboard his ship, claiming that it brings bad luck. Not only are several of the immigrants women, but their presence disturbs the camaraderie of Kang's crew. A seemingly altruistic act by one of the crew members is the catalyst for a rampage of death and destruction.

As Kang, Kim Yoon-seok cuts an improbably heroic figure, trying to save his ship by himself. Shim ably conveys Kang's seemingly superhuman efforts to move broken masts and other debris out of the way. The last scene with Kang, alone a his sinking ship, is almost enough to negate his more questionable actions, also done in the name of survival. Kim should be a familiar face to those following South Korean film, with appearances in the Tazza series, The Chaser, and a favorite of mine, The Thieves. The fog that envelops the boat is an obvious metaphor as well, but one that does not in any way diminish the drama at sea.

In explaining why Sea Fog was chosen by Shim to be his directorial debut: What interested me in the beginning was how panic and desperation can turn normal human beings into criminals. I wanted to take a story of this nature from a thriller perspective or slant. This film is about how any normal, run-of-the-mill person can become guilty, feel fear and become radical and dangerous.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:14 AM

November 05, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Sailing a Sinking Sea

sailing a sinking sea.jpg

Olivia Wyatt - 2015
Cargo Collective

It may not have been conscious on her part, but many of the images in Sailing a Sinking Sea made me think of the work of Stan Brakhage. There are the mottled surfaces of old documentary footage, with the unnatural, fading colors. The play of light and color, the bubbles of water, and the more recognizable imagery of underwater vegetation, and rainbow hued schools of fish, can be savored in the abstract.

Best of all, Wyatt allows her subjects, the nomadic Mokens, to speak for themselves. One might argue that the overly arty presentation is a form of editorialization. There is no guide, no off-screen narrator. And maybe what we see is a partial view. What commentary we get is that the Moken, who work as fishermen, and live primarily on or near the west coast of Thailand and parts of the Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar, survived the tsunami of 2005 with less loss due to their historic understanding of nature in the area. The film concludes with the note that there are less than three-thousand Moken. What is not mentioned is that the Moken, with their own distinct language and culture, have been subject to relocation by the Thai and Myanmar governments.

The film is an observation of some of the families and villagers at work and play, discussing their lives, singing folk songs. Life does not seem markedly different from how it was hundreds of years ago, with villagers wearing traditional clothing, and the villagers only known by personal names. Manhood is defined by building your own boat, while women are considered of age when they develop breasts. What concessions there were to modernity came in the form of goggles that some of the fishermen wore underwater, and motors for some of the boats. One of the few interior shots of one of the wooden houses included a glimpse of a small television. That there is a ceremony involving a small boat cast into the water as a gift to the sea made me think of the little ghost houses I saw around Thailand. As one of the men says, you have to be polite to ghosts.

There is also the ecological message expressed here. The Moken depend on the sea for their livelihood, but also note that life itself is dependent on water. The name Moken roughly translates as "Immersed in the sea". And while Sailing a Sinking Sea can be easily appreciated for its often stunning visual qualities, it also serves as an eye-opening introduction for some of us, to a disappearing way of life.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:55 AM

November 04, 2015

Denver Film Festival: The World of Kanako


Tetsuya Nakashima - 2014
Drafthouse Films

Tetsuya Nakashima has stated in an interview that as he has gotten older, he has become a less optimistic person. Much darker than his earlier films, and unexpectedly brutal, The World of Kanako is still very much thematically similar to Nakashima's previous films. After the more somber Confessions, Nakashima returns to sequences using bright, day-glo colors, but in a different kind of context. Again, his interest is in characters, usually female, who live outside the mainstream.

The Japanese title translates as "thirst". The thirst may be for love, or some kind of validation. To say that the film is about a father's search for his missing daughter is barely scratching the surface. Akio Fukamachi's novel, Hateshinaki Kawaki was a best selling novel in Japan, but initial thought of as too lurid to be made into a film. In another interview, Nakashima mentions the influence of Kinji Fukasaku. As one who has seen and loved Japanese exploitation films from the late Fifties through early Seventies, the effect is as if the Nakashima took the most shocking elements primarily from Nikkatsu and Toei Studios, and added or made more explicit, what could not have been hinted at previously. Sex, drugs, juvenile delinquents, bad cops, worse cops, rape, incest, and murder are all here.

There is the more serious side to Nakashima, which is that what we see of another person may not be the true image of that person, that people have hidden sides and hidden motivations. Akikazu Fujishima is a former cop, reduced to working security. He is the first to discover that multiple murders took place at a convenience store. At the same time as he is grilled by the police regarding the murder scene, he gets a call from his ex-wife telling him that their daughter, Kanako, has gone missing. Akikazu is no upstanding father, rather he an alcoholic, full of rage, barging into the lives of those who provide some clues about Kanako. Alice in Wonderland is referred to several times. If Kanako, like Alice, falls deeper and deeper into a hole, Akikazu not only follows her, but brings several people down that hole with him.

Nakashima would appear to have taken a few visual queues not only from Japanese films from previous decades, but also other filmmakers. The influence of Quentin Tarantino can be felt in a couple of animated moments, as well as the use of cars as deadly weapons. When a cop's fingers are shot off, it recalls a similar moment in Taxi Driver. There is the detective of Akikazu's trail, cooly observing, chuckling to himself, always with a Tootsie Pop in his mouth, perhaps inspired by Telly Savalas as Kojak. Nakashima deliberately ends the film without a true sense of closure. The cinematic gauntlet has been tossed, to be picked up by the more adventurous audience.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:09 AM

November 01, 2015

Coffee Break

werewolf of london.jpg
Henry Hull and Valerie Hobson in Werewolf of London (Stuart Walker - 1935)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:36 PM