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May 29, 2018

The Sicilian Clan


Le clan des siciliens
Henri Verneuil - 1969
KL Studio Classics Region 1 DVD

I had seen The Sicilian Clan once, back at the time of its U.S. release in 1970. This was the version that was cut and dubbed into English. At the time, I had a little bit of familiarity with Jean Gabin from The Grand Illusion, and slightly more of Delon from TV viewings of The Leopard and Once a Thief. As for Verneuil, I was admittedly both snobbish and ignorant about French cinema, assuming that the only worthwhile stuff was made by those filmmakers associated with the Nouvelle Vague and approved elders. I saw the film in a private screening with Denver Post film critic Barry Morrison, and made a crack comparing Verneuil to Gordon Douglas, a journeyman director I have since grown to appreciate.

After almost forty-eight years, I was curious about revisiting this film. What fueled this curiosity was a combination of factors, seeing more films with the lead actors during my time in New York City when the only reliable way to see classic or foreign films was in a theater, followed by seeing more films following the advent of home video, especially when the market for DVDs exploded. Also the availability of information on the internet helped in making some of the other credited names more meaningful than they would be to all but the most devoted Francophile.


The Sicilian Clan originated from the novel by Auguste Le Breton. One of Le Breton's other novels was Riffifi, better remembered for the 1955 film by Jules Dassin. Between Le Breton's novels and Dassin's film, the genre, if you want to call it that, of the heist film, began, or at least became popular. What I call the heist film is one where a group of people, often strangers, get together to stage a seemingly impossible theft. One of the screenwriters was Jose Giovanni, a crime novelist who later wrote screenplays as well as becoming a film director as well. Giovanni's work was frequently in collaboration with Ventura, Delon and Gabin. An interesting footnote here: Jean-Pierre Melville filmed Giovanni's novel, and collaborated on the screenplay for Le Deuxieme Souffle. One wonders if the two would have worked together had Melville, Jewish and a member of the Resistance during World War II, had known that Giovanni, under his real name, had been actively part of the Vichy government, and committed as series of vicious crimes, including blackmail and murder, against French Jews both during and immediately after the war.

Alain Delon plays a killer whose escape is from Parisian police is facilitated by the son of Sicilian patriarch Jean Gabin. Delon is obsessively pursued by cop Lino Ventura. Delon shares plans concerning an exhibition of jewels in Rome. Gabin comes up with an usual plan to steal the jewels. Unfortunately for Delon, family comes first for Gabin, with Ventura neatly wrapping things up at the end.

The film holds up pretty well, with some of the twists and turns in the narrative. I still think that there were too many zoom shots, seen primarily in the first half. Where the Panavision screen works best is the scene where Delon is escaping from a prison van, crawling underneath the van to the one driven by the two clan brothers. I'm not sure if it was meant to be a visual joke, but in a later scene, by a beach, Delon is fishing, catching an eel. He glances at Gabin's daughter-in-law, played by Irina Demick, sunbathing nude (possibly a stand-in for Demick as it is a long shot, and Demick was the mistress of Fox chief Darryl Zanuck at the time). Delon is next seen flogging the eel against a nearby rock, then walks by Demick with the limp eel in hand. This is followed by the two making love somewhat discretely hidden by a very large rock.

The version of The Sicilian Clan I originally saw was dubbed in English, no real surprise there as it was still very much a common practice for foreign language films that were intended for a play outside the arthouse circuit. What I was unaware of was that Verneuil was contracted to film two versions, one primarily in French with some spoken Italian, and one in English. This meant that there are small differences with each shot, with some brief shots also eliminated or shortened in the English language version which Verneuil edited to a length under two hours per his contract with 20th Century-Fox. No changes were made for any of the sexually charged moments. It may surprise some to know that even with the bare breasts and bottoms, the MPAA at the time rated The Sicilian Clan GP, the rating with a note of caution that briefly existed after M, and before PG, for stateside viewers. For myself, I prefer the French version which clocks in at a little over two hours.

Appreciated as a supplement to the DVD is an hour long French documentary from 2013 on the making of The Sicilian Clan with excerpts of recorded interviews with Verneuil, Ventura, Delon and Gabin. There is also a very short appreciation by Fred Cavaye, director of Point Blank (2010) part of France's current crop of action filmmakers, a newer wave unencumbered by some of the orthodoxies regarding French cinema at the time The Sicilian Clan was made.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:18 AM

May 27, 2018

Coffee Break

Jason Statham in Wild Card (Simon West - 2015)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:42 AM

May 22, 2018

Irma Vep

maggie irma.jpg

Olivier Assayas - 1996
Arrow Academy BD Region B

Roughly twenty years since I had seen Irma Vep, on a much smaller television screen in the VHS version. Since that time, I have seen most of Assayas' films as well as a good chunk of films starring Maggie Cheung. In her 2003 interview, one of the supplements here, Cheung mentions that a viewer can enjoy Irma Vep simply as a comedy. But as others have noted, Irma Vep is Assayas' love letter to Cheung and the process of filmmaking.

The story as such is about a middle-aged director, Rene Vidal, well past his career peak, entrusted to remake the 1915 silent serial, The Vampires as a television feature film. Having seen Maggie Cheung in The Heroic Trio, Vidal decides her abilities as a female action star are what is needed to play the role of Irma Vep. The character's name is an anagram for vampire, the the vampires are actually a gang of thieves dress entirely in black. What narrative there is follows the backstage shenanigans and back-biting of members of the production crew as well as the catastrophic attempts at reviving a silent classic.

What struck me was how Irma Vep stands as a response to the currently hot debate about so-called cultural appropriation. Besides the various film references seen and spoken of within the film are others that appear in retrospect. A more perfect version of Irma Vep might have simultaneous annotation. In any event, my revisiting the film set off the kind of tangents familiar to the more hard corp cinephile.

It probably wasn't intended that way but using a clip by Johnny To, of all the film Hong Kong directors Maggie Cheung worked with, is perfect. As is known now, To has expressed his admiration for director Jean-Pierre Melville, a French filmmaker who adopted the surname of the American author of Moby Dick. To even tried to get Alain Delon to revive his character of Jef Costello, from Melville's Le Samourai, eventually settling for French pop star and actor Johnny Hallyday. Thanks to the greater availability of international films on the home video market, this dialogue of East and West is much easier to acknowledge.

Which brings me to the scene where Maggie Cheung is interviewed by a journalist who views cinema as a dichotomy between French art house and Hollywood action films. His only frame of reference to Hong Kong cinema is John Woo. In one of the other supplements from 2003, Assayas is critical of his character limiting his knowledge of Hong Kong cinema to one director. To which I say, lighten up Olivier! I kind of take this personally because the first Hong Kong film I ever saw was a midnight screening of Woo's The Killers. And maybe something was lost in the translation of that interview with Assayas and Charles Tesson, but serious film scholarship often begins in the middle, depending on the history of the filmmaker in question, going backwards as well as forwards, not only with the filmmaker in question, but peers and influences. On a somewhat related note, it was the Criterion Collection supplement to In the Mood for Love, with Wong Kar-wai discussing the films he watched when he was younger, that set me on the path to collecting several films starring Grace Chang from the 1950s.

Assayas and Tesson wrote about Hong Kong cinema for Cahiers du Cinema back in 1984, when Hong Kong cinema was virtually unknown and considered unworthy serious study. At the time of their interview in 2003, that had changed. What I found curious is that there was no mention of Luc Besson and his hybrid productions. Thanks to Besson, French filmmakers have proven to be as capable of making full-throttle action films as good, or often better than Hollywood. Additionally, Assayas and Tesson do not indicate awareness that Besson took a Chinese action star, Jet Li, placing him in Paris, in the English language Kiss of the Dragon. Not only was Hong Kong cinema better known in France, but it was now part of international film productions aimed for the global market.

I watched the blu-ray a second time with the subtitles turned off while listening to the commentary track by Assayas and critic Jean-Michel Frodon. Actually the track is their dialogue with an audience mostly discussing Assayas' career rather that one specifically about Irma Vep. That dialogue runs out before the film ends. But it was with delight watching the facial expressions of Nathalie Boutefeu, as Maggie Cheung's stunt double. In the scene, she tries to explain to the replacement director why Rene Vidal chose a Chinese actress in a role considered iconically French.

Finally, there's the use of the song, "Bonnie and Clyde" by Serge Gainsbourg. The song is really about the characters as embodied by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, not their less photogenic real-life counterparts. And as is well known, the film was once intended to be directed by either Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard. There is no cultural appropriation. I see it as a continuing international dialogue. Can't stop. Won't stop.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:45 AM

May 20, 2018

Coffee Break

Gord Rand and Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg - 2015)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:59 AM

May 15, 2018

Hong Kong Horror Cinema

hong kong horror cinema.jpg

Edited by Gary Bettinson and Daniel Martin
Edinburgh University Press - 2018

Probably the most helpful part of Hong Kong Horror Cinema is that a couple of the contributors explain how the creatures referred to as vampires, jiangshi, are misnamed in English. Rather than being vampires or zombies as is understood in most western horror films, they might be better named as hopping corpses. Hopping because rigor mortis limits the ability of these living dead to bending the knees a bit and extending their arms outwards.

As for the genre itself, as some of the authors suggest, it may have to go through some twists, turns and transformations in order to survive, much as what had been known as Hong Kong cinema has mostly morphed into a part of mainland China cinema. This change has not always been voluntary, the results of political and commercial forces.

While there is some discussion of older films inspired by folklore and ghost stories, more is devoted to specific films, particularly within the context of what may be implied about the state of Hong Kong at the time of production. Among the films, Fruit Chan's Dumplings and Herman Yau's The Untold Story examine the role of food in Hong Kong as well as anxiety about the impending changeover that took place in 1997. The violent and darkly funny Dream Home is dissected for how it plays with the viewer's sympathy towards actress Josie Ho's portrayal of a serial killer trapped not by the law but by unpredictable economics. Juno Mak's elegiac Rigor Mortis is a revival of sorts of the hopping corpse film made famous by Ricky Lau's Mr. Vampire.

Chapters are devoted to The Bride with White Hair, the two Detective Dee films by Tsui Hark, and the several film versions of the White Snake legend. Perspectives vary regarding pan-Asian horror, be it the portmanteau films such as Three . . . Extremes, or the work of the Pang Brothers, with The Eye, partially filmed in Thailand, starring Malaysian actress Angelica Lee. As part of the look at pan-Asian horror is how, for better or worse, those films have been labeled as part of "Asia Extreme", often consumed by viewers who don't bother to distinguish the cultural differences within these films.

Beyond considerations of genre, Hong Kong Horror Cinema is worth considering for what says about some of the rules of filmmaking imposed by mainland China. Definitely, we will no longer see anything like the spate of idiosyncratic and often deliberately risible films like Human Lanterns or Black Magic as produced by the Shaw Brothers primarily in the 70s and 80s. My own guess is that we may see a meager handful of films with hopping corpses, or a female ghost, but these new films will not be nearly as entertaining.

Mr. Vampire poster

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:04 AM

May 13, 2018

Coffee Break

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl (David Fincher - 2014)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:05 AM

May 06, 2018

Coffee Break

Sam Rockwell and Keira Knightly in Laggies (Lynn Shelton - 2014)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:15 AM

May 04, 2018

Legend of the Mountain


Shan zhong zhuan qi
King Hu - 1979
Kino Classics BD Region A

Even the larger widescreen televisions most people would have at home don't seem appropriate for viewing Legend of the Mountain. This is made most clear in several shots with characters seen from a distance, as well as the many panoramic shots within forests and along fields dominated by the sky. My first exposure to King Hu was with his most famous film, A Touch of Zen, presented as part of the New York Film Festival in 1976, seen on the famously big screen of the Ziegfeld Theater.

Unlike A Touch of Zen, or most of Hu's other films, Legend of the Mountain is not a martial arts story, with only a few short scenes of action. Taken from a story from Pu Songling, the story takes place in 11th Century China. Qingyun, getting by as a copyist of documents, takes the job of reproducing a Buddhist sutra on behalf of a temple. Qingyun is directed to a remote location to do his work in peace. The story is one of several legends revolved around scholars who fall in love with female ghosts. The sutra is said to give one power over the spirits of the dead, either for good or evil. Hu would revisit this material, also from Pu Songling, with his final film, Painted Skin.

The supplements to the blu-ray help in explaining how King Hu deliberately chose to make a film that was a departure in style and content. At over three hours, the leisurely pace imitates Qingyun's meandering hike to the location where he is to copy the sutras. On his way, Qingyun glimpses a woman playing a flute who appears to disappear at will. Even when he gets set up to do his work, Qingyun is distracted by two mother and daughter pairs, Taoist and Buddhist priests, and an old retainer with protruding teeth. Whatever thoughts Ho has about dismissing the supernatural are forgotten by the end of the film.

With frequent montages of animals and lotus ponds, only the natural world is to be trusted. Close-ups of spider webs indicate that even in nature there is treachery, a hint of what is to happen to Qingyun. The film was shot in Korea, where Hu was able to take advantage of the still well preserved old temples and stone buildings.

Shih Chun, the toothy star of several King Hu films, plays Qingyun. While virtually retired from acting, it seems less than coincidental that Shih returned to acting for an appearance in Hsiao-Hsien Hou's The Assassin, another period film that went against audience expectations. Hsu Feng, an actress who frequently worked with Hu, plays Melody, a young woman whose designs on Qingyun turn out to be less than harmonious. Hsu, who later turned to film production including Farewell, My Concubine, was largely responsible for financing the restoration of this film. The still very active Sylvia Chang plays Cloud, Melody's rival for the affections of Qingyun.

The blu-ray comes with an essay by Grady Hendrix that discusses the film primarily within the context of Hu's other work. Travis Crawford's visual essay also discusses Legend of the Mountain as part of Hu's career, also covering some of the changes in the Hong Kong film industry, where Hu got his start, initially as an actor. An interview with Tony Rayns was ported over from the recent British Eureka release. Taken from a 4K scan, this is the complete version of the film as intended by King Hu.

legend poster.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:44 AM

May 02, 2018

Moon Child

moon child blu.jpg

El Nino de la Luna
Augusti Villaronga - 1989
Cult Epics BD Regions ABC/Region 0 DVD two disc set

Augusti Villaronga's film was inspired by a 1923 novel by Aleister Crowley. Cinematically, Crowley is better known for his influence on the films by Kenneth Anger, usually depicting ancient and esoteric religious rituals. And it is possible that my own reaction to Moon Child is deeply subjective, but it helps to have some knowledge of the origins of the story. The title character is a young Spanish boy who claims to be the fulfillment of a prophesy, that he is to lead a tribe in a remote part of Africa. The trope of the white savior is markedly archaic at this time. Villaronga incorporates personal themes of otherness into his work, sexually as a gay filmmaker, and politically with his father's memories of the Spanish Civil War. Even for a fantasy, the racial element of the premise provides a challenge in appreciating Villaronga's film on its own terms.

The film takes place in what appears to be Spain in the 1930s. David, on the cusp of adolescence, has been told be a mysterious woman that he is the Moon Child, and his destiny is in Africa. David is suspected of having psychic abilities, and is taken by Victoria, distinguished by her Louise Brooks style bob, to an institute run by a severe directress. The unnamed institute appears to be run fascists based on style of clothing worn. Among the test subjects at the institute, Edgar and Georgina are chosen to mate to create a perfect being. Overhearing that the test subjects are to be murdered, David plans his escape. What follows are events that straddle the line between prophesy fulfillment and coincidence.

A recent video interview with Villaronga is included here, helping put Moon Child in the context of the filmmaker's intentions. Younger viewers may have trouble with some of the obviously dated special effects, suggesting that Villaronga's ambitions outweighed the some of tools available to him at the time. The film features an original scored by Dead Can Dance, primarily instrumental, with only a small amount of Lisa Gerrard's signature vocals. That score can also be heard as a standalone supplement. Additionally, Villaronga cast Gerrard in the role of Georgina, more unusual as Gerrard is not an actress, nor does she speak Spanish. Gerrard was fearless here, by turns loopy and wide-eyed, and unafraid to be completely nude. Victoria was portrayed by Maribel Martin, more widely seen in several Spanish horror classics including The Blood-Spattered Bride and The House that Screamed. Lucia Bose, the star of several Italian and Spanish classics in the early 1950s, appears here as the directress.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:53 AM