July 30, 2015

Storm Fear

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Cornel Wilde - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Not a exactly a classic, but Storm Fear is worth seeing for some of its counter-intuitive casting. I wasn't prepared to see Dan Duryea, usually cast as a smarmy, sadistic weasel cast here as a hypersensitive writer in ill health. Duryea is so sick that he walks around the house with a big woolen scarf around his throat, and is on the verge of coughing and wheezing off this mortal coil at any moment. What kind of writer is he? It's never clear whether Duryea's character writes novels, inspirational bromides, or self-help books, just that he had something published about four years earlier. Duryea also plays husband to Jean Wallace, as he says later, because it was the noble thing to do, hinting that he got a pregnant Wallace on the rebound after she's ditched by true love Cornel Wilde.

And Cornel Wilde, casting himself as the anti-hero, a bank robber on the lam. A very skinny Dennis Weaver is the unlikely hero. Steven Hill gets an "introducing" credit for his first significant screen appearance as one of Wilde's partners in crime, a very nattily dressed thug who Wilde attempts to keep on a short leash lest he impulsively pummels or shoots anyone considered in the way. Hill's character tries to come of with ways to keep the stolen money for himself, and has no sympathy for anyone. Best of all is Lee Grant, as a peroxide blonde moll whose relationship to Wilde and Hill is never made clear. Her mink coat is her prized possession. Grant has the best line in the film when she pours some whiskey in a glass and proclaims that she can't drink her milk straight. Grant may look cheap and trashy, but when Duryea and Wallace's eleven year old son sets his eyes on her, it's clear that adolescent hormones are starting to jump.

Most of the film is about this volatile mix of characters stuck in a mountain cabin during a December snow storm. Aside from a glimpse of a calendar, there's a big tree in the house, decorated with tinsel. This is where Duryea and Wallace call home, with a crank telephone, and the home entertainment center consisting of a radio, a gift from the love-struck Weaver. The opening scene establishes family tensions with Duryea's son having a closer relationship with Weaver than with his purported father, and the arguments Duryea has with Wallace, disturbed by the music from the radio. Duryea and Wilde are brothers, one a failed writer, the other, not much of a crook. There's no love between brothers, husband and wife, or the hoodlum trio. It's not a question of whether somebody's going to get killed, but an inevitable who and when.

This was Cornel Wilde's directorial debut, and unsurprisingly, stronger regarding the acting than in any kind of visual style. There are some nice images via cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, such as a close ups alternating between Wilde and Wallace while a bullet is crudely extracted from Wilde's legs, with Wilde flexing his muscles gripping the headboard of a bed. Also, Lee Grant looking up at a mountain path, lying in snow, ankle broken, unable to move, with wads of money at arms length, abandoned by her partners. Wilde gave Elmer Bernstein freedom to compose a score that weaves between jazzy riffs and abstract percussion. The adapted screenplay was by Horton Foote, his first theatrical film credit, hardly a harbinger of the acclaim to come just a few years later.

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July 28, 2015

He Ran All the Way

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John Berry - 1951
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

For me, another example of a film that serves as a metaphor for an actor's career. Blacklisted by the studios while being investigated by the House of Un-American Activities Committee, it was fitting that John Garfield was able to make one last film with United Artists, a company that for the most part was home for filmmakers with liberal leanings. Also affected by HUAC were Dalton Trumbo, with his contribution to the screenplay credited to Guy Endore, screenplay writer Hugo Butler, who soon fled to Mexico, and director John Berry, who continued his career in France. By the time He Ran All the Way was released, John Garfield's film career was dead in Hollywood, while the character he plays, Nick Robey, dies face first in the gutter.

Garfield's Nick Robey is a small time hood who always lets his worst instincts get in his way. Even before his botched payroll robbery takes place, Robey is trapped in his shambles of a slum apartment, sweating, and nervous. Robey lives with his mother, who is seen in a shabby nightgown that hints at slightly better days of being someone's floozy, probably when Calvin Coolidge was president. The two would sooner engage in a bare knuckles brawl than anything resembling family affection. With a pile of unwashed dishes, clothes and trash strewn around, the clutter and disrepair of Robey's apartment is such that the rats have left for more hospitable lodgings.

Even when Robey is on the run, there is a constant sense of entrapment. Following the robbery, Robey runs through several hallways and staircases, spaces that allow limited movement. Even in the outside, Robey runs between several freight train cars, with the camera positioned to emphasize the small space of light between each car. Robey temporarily evades police capture in yet another enclosed space, a public swimming pool called Plunge. And plunge Robey does, ingratiating himself on Peggy Dobbs, a young woman who visits the pool regularly even though she can not swim.

Robey holes up in the apartment belonging to Peggy's parents. Again, there is a sense of setting that seems realistic. The Dobbs are presented as lower middle class. The apartment is bigger, but nothing looks new. A nice touch is the peeling wallpaper seen in the background. That the Dobbs are lower middle class is also indicated with the father working at a newspaper press plant, while Peggy works the assembly line boxing cakes in a bakery.

What I liked best were the exterior shots, filmed around the streets of Los Angeles. John Berry may well have been influenced by the then recent works of Italian neo-realism. The street where Robey and his partner-in-crime meet, the aforementioned train yard, and even some of the shots of the swimming pool and its surround environment, have an authenticity that could not be recreated in a studio. There are a number of traveling shots by James Wong Howe, with the camera movement providing visual correlation to Robery's nervousness.

Nick Robey couldn't escape from the law, and John Garfield couldn't escape from the effects of appearing before HUAC. In several shots, Garfield appears visibly aged, older than his thirty-eight years. While Garfield's film career ends here, the film may have provided the opportunity for Shelley Winter's to show off her ability as a serious actress. There may be something about Shelley Winters and water. Following He Ran All the Way, Shelley Winters played another character whose lack of swimming ability, and questionable choice in men, is part of A Place in the Sun.

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July 26, 2015

Coffee Break

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Hanna Stanbridge in Let Us Prey (Brian O'Malley - 2014)

July 23, 2015

Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and Transnational Stardom

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Sabrina Qiong Yu - 2012
Edinburgh University Press

What I did find most useful here is a discussion on the difference between martial arts as practiced in life, as opposed to martial arts as a performance for film. This is a point of contention for some audience members who have concerns about authenticity. Jet Li had already established himself as a mainland Chinese national champion well before he became a movie star, first in Chinese language cinema, and eventually, with uneven results, with English language films. It was through working with Tsui Hark on the Once Upon a Time in China series that Li understood the difference in how his physical performance appeared on film, and has adjusted that performance to fit the camera. Li's ease of accommodating the camera is contrasted with the two martial arts stars that preceded him, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. As Yu points out, Lee proves his authenticity by performing bare chested, while Chan uses outtakes during the final credits to reiterate that he is doing his own stunts.

In terms of representations of Chinese masculinity, Yu is interested in the dual readings generated by several of the films starring Li. Yu's methods may be called into question as there is no consistency regarding her sources for these readings, whether they be professional critics, fans, or in one case, a captive audience of fellow former students. What is clarified, is that Jet Li sexual chasteness in most of his films is his own choice, that he is uncomfortable expressing romantic feelings in his own life as well as before a camera.

Too much information? Maybe. On the other hand, it does help explain why Li and Brigit Fonda don't do much more than exchange glances in Kiss of the Dragon. Without understanding this aspect of Jet Li, this makes Kiss of the Dragon appear to be not much more than an updated version of Broken Blossoms, but with an actual Chinese star and martial arts, rather than Richard Bathelmess or Emlyn Williams in yellow face saving the white woman. And fortunately, we are also beyond calling someone "Chinky" as a term of endearment. Why Li's choice of onscreen chastity is important is that it is sometimes interpreted as a continuation of the Chinese man in western screens as being asexual in western films opposite Fonda, or Aaliyah in Romeo must Die.

A bigger problem exists in discussing Swordsman II. Essentially, Li's character falls in love with a character played by Brigitte Lin, a transgender, a man who castrated himself to become more female, and attain certain martial arts secrets. The questions raised here are whether or not Swordsman II is a portrayal of same sex attraction, and whether or not Brigitte Lin's taking of the role as the object of Jet Li's affection defines their relationship. What confounds me in this examination of how Swordsman II is that Ms. Yu does not even mention the Chinese theatrical tradition of two men or two women portraying a heterosexual couple. Yu is right about one thing regarding Swordsman II, with Brigitte Lin as the appropriately named Asia the Invincible, it's difficult to remember who else is in this film.

Even within the span of three years since initial publication, Yu's assessment of Jet Li's career indicates that it may be too early to draw any conclusions. Li's sole performance as a dramatic actor, in Oceans Heaven is an anomaly. At age 52, Li has continued to be in films produced primarily for Chinese language audiences where he still displays virtuoso physical dexterity, alternating with increasingly thankless appearances in Sylvester Stallone's Expendables series, I would think primarily to maintain a presence for western audiences. That Jet Li has achieved a measure of stardom in English language films, something that eluded Chow Yun-Fat, brings up the question that not only applies to Chinese actors, is mastery in martial arts a prerequisite for for an Asian actor to any degree of western stardom? It is also quite possible that there will be no transnational actor like Jet Li, or Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, as with the commercial explosion of mainland Chinese film, there is a diminished need to appeal to western audiences.

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July 21, 2015

House of 1,000 Dolls

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Jeremy Summers - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

What would Jesus do? Had Jesus "Jess" Franco directed House of 1,000 Dolls, maybe this film would have truly been the sleaze-fest alleged by various detractors. What we have are a dozen reasonably attractive young women running around in their underwear, plus one whipping of one of those women. Not family viewing as commonly understood, but mildly transgressive by most standards. That the film was shot in Spain, from a producer would be associated with Franco, Harry Alan Towers, makes me wonder what might have happened had this film been made a year or so later.

Towers wrote the screenplay, with the lurid premise of a magician and his assistant making unsuspecting young women disappear on stage, on for them to wake up as captives of a white slavery ring for a very exclusive house of ill-repute in Tangiers. The real slaves were stars Vincent Price and Martha Hyer, both in the film to fulfill contractual obligations. More screen time is given to George Nader, at the time a very popular star in Germany, important for a film that was a Spanish-German co-production. Mrs. Towers, better known as Maria Rohm, wakes up screaming in the opening minutes.

This was the last of three films Jeremy Summers did for Towers. The only other work I've seen was Ferry Cross the Mersey, essential produced as consolation for the various musical acts managed by Brian Epstein who were not The Beatles. The only thing I recall is Gerry Marsden, of Gerry and the Pacemakers, looking visibly excited as the camera tilts up, while he is playing his guitar. I am not sure if there is any significant meaning, but Summers does have something of a visual style here, filming several of the action scenes with shots partially obscured by window frames, fences, or what every he can use as a momentary framing device. There are several shots making use of the reflections of mirrors, with a shot of Yelena Samarina, reflected in Price's sunglasses, used in some of the posters. There is also one beautifully lit shot of a man coming out of the shadows to threaten Price. What ever one might say about the story, or the questionable Orientalism presented here, there can be no question regarding Summers' craftsmanship.

The Blu-ray comes with a commentary track by two Davids, DeCoteau and Del Valle. Somehow, the only Double Ds that are part of a movie about sexually exploited women are the voices of two men. David DeCoteau is a film director with a slew of titles primarily made for the home video market. Del Valle, who's commentary for The Crimson Cult was mentioned a couple of weeks ago, shares his knowledge of genre films and filmmakers. Aside from explaining the how this film evolved from one of Tower's unrealized projects, there are stories about the producer, whose life was often more colorful than some of the films he produced. We are assured by the Davids that this is the most complete version of the film, which was abridged in its initial theatrical release in the U.S., and may well have had some more explicit nudity in versions for other markets.

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July 19, 2015

Coffee Break

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John Lloyd Young and Erich Bergen in Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood - 2014)

July 16, 2015

Gangs of Wasseypur

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Anurag Kashyap - 2012
Cinelicious Pics BD Region A

The Blu-ray cover comes with an endorsement from Martin Scorsese. The blurbs used to sell Gangs of Wasseypur appear to be aimed towards an audience that is more familiar with several high profile gangster films from the likes of Coppola, Scorsese and Tarantino. While this is understandable given the story about the decades long conflict between to criminal families, and the increasingly brutal violence that takes place, it may also diminish what makes this an Indian film. And at a total of almost five hours and twenty minutes, describing this film as an epic is not inaccurate.

The first film periodically breaks into documentary footage, providing historical context to the narrative which begins during the final years of British rule over India. Part of the country has been turned over to the coal mining industry. Workers, paid paltry wages, steal coal and grain for survival. Even when India becomes an independent country, the situation does not improve for many workers as the British are replaced by an equally ruthless coterie of Indian industrialists. With the first half hour, Kashyap establishes a story not simply about gang warfare, but a history of a country that can not, or will not, break the cycle of exploiting its resources or people. The film can also be said to be about how easily even those who profess to have certain ideals can be corrupted, personifying the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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Indian popular culture is also intertwined here. There are a couple of scenes of people watching television, movie posters are everywhere, there are a couple of scenes of film-going, and a couple discussing which Bollywood film, if any, they will go see. The chief villain explains that the reason he has out-lived his rivals is due to his not watching any films, not imagining himself as whoever the current screen "hero" is at the time. Even if one is not well versed in Bollywood film, some familiarity may be helpful in appreciating how Kashyap uses that staple that characterizes the popular Indian film, the use of song. In the past few years, films have been using songs in the background as commentary, cutting down, if not always eliminating, the song and dance numbers that break up the dramatic portions of the film. The songs are a combination of original work created for the film, some folk songs, and songs from older Indian films. Most of the songs are heard as background commentary, although there are scenes with a singer performing "live" as part of street rallies. Where Gangs of Wasseypur songs make a significant break from other Bollywood films is that they are not designed for music video play, and the lyrics are sexually more frank than what is found from a film industry that has historically shied away from onscreen kissing.

Kashyap also makes clear that most of his characters are Muslim, making the taking of a Hindu woman from Bengal as a gangster's mistress a point of contention. In one scene, when a dinner is to be set up, a wife asks if the "meat plates" should be used. There is also reference to the remnants of the caste system, with one of the extended families noted as historically working as butchers.

Almost unbelievably, the story, though fictionalized, is based on the very real rivalry between two families in Wasseypur. Most of the film is about the Kahns, with the descendants more brazen in their predecessors. It's as if being a criminal is in the DNA. We go from mere bludgeoning, shootings and stabbings, to the beheading of a drug dealer, and one of the younger generation holding a double edged razor in his mouth, while another walks around threatening others with a live cobra. The bloodshed is not only between the crime families, but between family members. Pride and power trump everything else.

The Blu-ray comes with a booklet, with an essay by journalist Aseem Chhabra, that provides some helpful information on the making of the film, and the work of Anurag Kashyap. There are also two family trees, valuable in keeping track of the characters and their relationships.