September 22, 2014

Firestorm

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Feng Bao
Alan Yuen - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Firestorm may well be symbolic of not only what's has happened with the Hong Kong action movie, but Hong Kong itself - it's more sophisticated and more expensive, but not necessarily better than what was available in the past. It's obvious that Alan Yuen wants to take the police thriller to a couple of places were it's never been, both in terms of characters and set pieces, yet nothing in these efforts is more than surface deep.

Yuen seems to want to make a vague comment on the randomness of life, done with vehicle fatalities that come near the beginning and end of the film. In the first instance, a car driven by an ex-con, Tong, slams into cop Andy Lau's car while Lau is in the midst of chasing after crooks involved in an armored truck heist. Tong had nothing to do with the heist but is at the wrong place, wrong time, and his forced to act as a mole on behalf of Lau, who is trying to bust a major crime boss. The heist itself is one of Yuen's attempts to up the action film ante by having the armored truck picked up by a large construction crane, and lifted off the road.

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Tong also has a young daughter. There are explanations, but I am going to assume that as the daughter only communicates by screaming, that she is meant be Yuen's idea of an autistic child. I don't know whether Tong is suppose to be a loving, but ignorant, father, or if Yuen really didn't think things through, but slapping a screaming autistic child probably isn't the best choice for trying to calm her down.

Lau plays a detective Liu, in charge of a squad that is trying to bust gangster kingpin Cao. Liu is so intent on making his case that he does what he can to incriminate Cao, only to to find himself compromised by hidden surveillance camera footage. Electronic surveillance is all over the place, used by cops and criminals alike. In one scene, Tong is about to participate in a robbery, but stops to make a call to make sure his daughter is looked after by an "auntie". Actually, the call is to Liu. The leader of this criminal gang checks to make sure about whom is receiving the call. Liu and company anticipate this kind of follow-up with a woman receiving the verification call by Tong's partner in crime.

Firestorm was shown theatrically in 3D in Chinese theaters. The final scene, especially, would be set up to wow the audience. Cars fly and crash, guns are blazing, and there are lots of fiery explosions. As Liu, Andy Lau takes one beating after another, including a chase that concludes with his falling from a ten story building into the kitchen of a little old lady. The "Making of . . . " supplements are interesting in showing how the film was produced. For all the flash and noise, Firestorm manages to be forgotten as soon as it is over.

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September 21, 2014

Coffee Break

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Angelina Jolie in The Tourist (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck - 2010)

September 18, 2014

Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotic Cinema

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Cheeky! / Trasgredire
Tinto Brass - 2000

Black Angel / Senso '45
Tinto Brass - 2002

Private / Fallo!
Tinto Brass - 2003

Monamour
Tinto Brass - 2006
Cult Epics BD Region A Five Disc Set

On the package jacket for this set is the anonymous quote describing Giovanni "Tintoretto" Brass as, "The Hitchcock of erotic cinema". I'm going to have to assume this is based more on Brass making appearances in his own films. With that constant, a very large, cigar in his mouth, Brass reminds me more of cigar chomping Ernst Lubitsch or William Castle. I would suspect Brass might even appreciate the comparison to Lubitsch as there are some thematic similarities the two share, although what is hinted at by Lubitsch is totally uncovered by Brass. As for that Hitchcock comparison, one guy is famous for Rear Window, while several of Brass's films could have been titled Rear End.

I also hardly think it coincidental that the picture of the new Blu-ray set has as disc partially out, reading "Ass Cinema".

The five disc set includes the last four features by Brass, plus an interview with Brass discussing his career as a filmmaker, with clips from several of his films. There is also a forty page booklet that has a transcription of the interview, done in 2001. Missing in the interview is any discussion of a name that appears frequently in the credits, Carla Cipriani, Brass's wife and a collaborator on several of the screenplays. My own familiarity with Brass's films prior to this set has been limited to Attraction, a somewhat experimental film from 1967, and The Key, something of a key film in Brass's filmography with a more constant emphasis on eroticism. What the documentary on Brass reveals is that female nudity has been a part of his work since the first feature.

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It may be no surprise that the best of the films here is the one with the least nudity. For Black Angel, Brass took the same literary source used for Luchino Visconti's Senso, but updated the story to the last days of World War II, when German troops occupied Italy, still barely under the control of Mussolini. The woman, "of a certain age", is played by a real actress, Anna Galiena, a David di Donatello (italian Oscar) nominee both as Best Actress (No Skin and Best Supporting Actress (But Forever in my Mind. Entranced by an icy blond German officer, Galiena plays a woman who tries to avoid facing the realities of war, as well as Italy's precarious position, months away from liberation by Allied troops. There is an orgy that might well be a tip of the hat to Visconti's own World War II drama, The Damned. I wish Brass had resisted the need to show that the wife of a partisan, shot dead on the streets by a German soldier, was not wearing any underwear. The film is so handsomely produced that it looks like it was filmed in a more classic style than a film from 2002. Galiena, forty-eight at the time of filming, reminded me of the leading ladies from 1940s Warner Brothers movies, particularly Joan Crawford and Kay Francis. The soundtrack also includes the song made famous in The Blue Angel, "Falling in Love Again", sung in German by Marlene Dietrich. Visually, Brass takes some queues from the German artist, George Grosz, whose unflinching, and often exaggerated look at Germany after World War I. Grosz's work was classified by the Nazis as entartete Kunst - degenerate art.

Of the other three films, Monamour is the best, and might well be interpreted as Tinto Brass's final summation on film, art, and philosophy. The film also has the closest Hitchcockian moment when Anna Jimskaia is stalked by a man in an art museum, bringing to mind Kim Novak in Vertigo. Still, if one is to compare Brass with a more classical filmmaker, it would be Ernst Lubitsch. Several films by Lubitsch are about imagined infidelities, while very real infidelities are part of Brass's films. Whether sexual jealousy, real or imagined, is an aphrodisiac, is subject for debate. The female protagonists in both Brass and Lubitsch films live life on their own terms. In a Lubitsch film, these women are often elegantly dressed, while in a Brass film, the women live in a universe where you're overdressed if you're wearing panties. Ultimately, Brass makes explicit what Lubitsch could only hint at in the relationships between men and women.

The "Making of" supplements are worthwhile just to have Brass explain the wordplay involved with the Italian titles of his erotic films. In this regard, I would hope no one needs an explanation for the double entendre English language title, Cheeky!. Brass also shows himself to be a "hands on" director with his actresses. The frequent motif of mirror shots in these films, as well as the incorporation of large paintings, especially pop art, make Brass's films of visual interest. The frequent close-ups of bush, tush, poles and holes are more interesting in theory as Brass blurs the line between art and pornography. Even a comparison with Courbet's painting, "Origin of the World" will only get you so far. Whether or not one agrees with Tinto Brass and whether his stated intentions actually are realized with what is onscreen, makes this series of interest to the more serious film scholar. And to quote Sir Mix-A-Lot, "I like big butts and I cannot lie".

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September 16, 2014

Faust

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Alexander Sukurov - 2011
Kino Lorber BD Region A

Winning the top prize at a film festival doesn't guarantee very much, if it ever did. Winning at the the 2011 edition of the Venice Film Festival didn't do much for the other winners, as the buzz on Michael Fassbender's exposed penis in Shame eclipsed everything else. After that, Alexander Sukurov's film made a couple more festival appearances, and only recently has been made available on home video, with a new blu-ray release.

This is not an easy film to watch like Russian Ark, although like that film, Sukurov reframes a good part of the narrative as a constant journey. The film takes its inspiration from Geothe's version, with a setting in early 19th Century Germany. Except for part near the end, Sukurov dispenses with the more fantastic elements of the story. The effect is that Sukurov keeps the essence of story, with the more literal aspects tossed aside in favor of a more abstract interpretation.

Where there is a fantasy element is in the very beginning, an opening shot that resembles the kind of special effects work for something like Frank Capra's version of Lost Horizon. The image is in a hard matte 1.33:1, with most of the colors desaturated to give the film something of the monochromatic look of an older movie. There are a couple of moments when parts of the film are specially tinted, not quite what one would see in some films from the silent era, but close enough. Some of the imagery, especially those scenes in the crowded town, seem inspired by the paintings of Pieter Bruegel. Sukurov is probably well aware of his own similarities to his character, from having the film made in no small part due to the intercession of Vladimir Putin, as well as being a filmmaker who chooses to work on his own terms with total disregard for commercial demands.

September 14, 2014

Coffee Break

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Jake Gyllenhaal and Oliver Platt in Love and other Drugs (Edward Zwick - 2010)

September 11, 2014

Friend 2: The Legacy

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Chingu 2
Kwak Kyung-Taek - 2013
CJ Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Even before it was actually stated in one of the DVD supplements, I suspected that Kwak Kyung-Taek had The Godfather II on his mind when he made Friend 2. The ambition, though not the running time, is there. The film shifts around at various time periods, showing a brief history of organized crime in Korea, from small independent gangs, to the much larger, formally assembled families. I only wish that CJ Entertainment had issued a new DVD of the first Friend from 2001, or better, included that film as part of a set, making the narrative of Friend II a bit easier to follow.

This is a story of fathers and sons, and mentors and proteges. The main story is about a crime boss, Joon-seok, newly out of prison in 2010 after serving a seventeen year sentence for the murder of a friend who was in a rival gang. Joon-seok takes on Sung-hoon, the son of a high school acquaintance, as a new recruit for his gang upon release. The film contrasts the loyalties of biological families with crime families, as well as the different ways of male bonding, whether through shared experiences, or purely mercenary.

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There is an impressive scene when Joon-seok is released from prison and goes to a formal dinner welcoming him back to his organization. There is a procession of black Mercedes, all the same model. The gang is composed of men dressed identically in black suits with open collar white shirts. The scene tells the viewer everything needed about how formalized gang life is at the moment. There is another scene of formal elegance, that of the cremation of the crime family chairman, with the casket moving forward down a long, golden corridor. Even if one loses track regarding how the characters are related to each other, Friend 2 is full of beautiful composed visual moments.

The original film is said to have autobiographical elements, taking place in Kwak's home region around Busan. The flashback section to 1963 is a capsule view of how Korea's organized crime was able to capitalize of Busan's location as a port city. The flashback also includes the rivalry between the street gang led by Jeon-seok's father against the yakuza, which at the time had control over port activity with unstated cooperation by the U.S. military. Especially as Korean films usually have present-day settings, and this part of Korean history is generally unknown to western viewers, it suggests that perhaps Kwak Kyung-taek should take on a film that takes place entirely in Busan, fifty years ago.

September 09, 2014

Prom Night

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Paul Lynch - 1980
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

In it's own idiosyncratic way, Prom Night is more interesting as a time capsule than as a horror movie. The film takes place in a time when the people communicated by rotary phones, which plays a major part in the story. One of the side character drives a van, a reminder of that very brief moment when being a "vanner" had status among young adults. As a slasher movie, this is pretty mild compared to the Halloween movies, but it does offer the spectacle of watching Jamie Lee Curtis dance.

The film begins with a group of ten year old kids playing in an old, decrepit building. Their game involves chanting, "the killer is coming". Essentially, they scare one girl who accidentally falls out a window. Somehow, the kids manage to keep their promise to each other not to reveal their part in the accident. The death of the girl is blamed on the neighborhood "catatonic schizophrenic" who has terrorized the community. Forward six years later, and the kids are about to go to the big prom at Disco Alexander Hamilton High School, the crazed killer has escaped from the local loony bin, and someone is making threatening phone calls to those guilty kids.

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Truthfully, and without giving too much away, the film is based on a premise that really makes no sense. Why would the person who knows knows who was responsible for the accidental death, bother to wait six years, and then chase everyone involved with an ax while wearing a mask, when it would have been a whole lot easier to just call a cop or some authority figure? I would guess there's something to taking revenge in your own hands, and of course, without it, there wouldn't have been much of a story here.

There is some use of frames within frames, shots using windows and mirrors, as well as reflecting surfaces, that give the film some visual interest. Leslie Nielsen, as both the high school principal and father to Curtis, doesn't do much here, although it is fun to watch him awkwardly on bust a move on the dance floor while Curtis vigorously dances up a storm.

The DVD comes with a supplement with Lynch and several cast members sharing their memories, as well as a commentary track by Lynch and screenwriter William Gray. One revelation, if you will, is that one of the subplots, one of a couple MacGuffins, was contributed by uncredited writer John Hunter. Lynch mentions how he wanted to use the song, "Born to be Alive", although some might argue that "I Will Survive" might have been more fitting. The filmmakers got away with using a song that sounds very similar to the Gloria Gaynor hit, appropriate for a film that liberally reflects and barrows from, if not always intentionally, the zeitgeist of a very specific time.

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