April 23, 2015

Fire Line

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Kasen chitai
Hiromichi Takebe - 1961
Beam Entertainment All Region DVD

Taking the opportunity to see and write about something purely by choice, I took this DVD I've had for well over a year, but hadn't gotten around to seeing. I wrote about three other films in the Shintoho "Line" series, and this entry is equally entertaining.

Cowritten by Teruo Ishii, the screenplay credit is shared with director Hiromichi Takebe. There is very little about Takebe that I could find online. What little I could glean would indicate that Fire Line was one of the last releases of Shintoho prior to bankruptcy, ending the "Line" series, and apparently, Takebe's filmmaking career.

The film begins with the sound of gunfire while we see the Shintoho logo, instead of the usual studio fanfare. Cutting immediate to footage shot at a racetrack, the thought ran through my head that this might be a Japanese version of something like Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Instead, we are introduced to two punks, Shinichi and Kenji, who have a scam involving phony racetrack betting. They're caught by a hood dressed in black who suckers them when it turns out that his gun is actually a cigarette lighter. The pair is soon chased down by a yakuza gang. Shinichi has a gun and is able to ward then off long enough to hide temporarily in town. The yakuza catches up with the two who hide out in a car, a car that turns out to belong to Yumi, the girlfriend of the chief of a rival yakuza gang. Shinichi and Kenji are invited to join the gang, which almost immediately puts them into more trouble.

I'm not sure where Fire Line was filmed, but based on some of the locations, with nearby docks, I would guess some of the exteriors were in and around Yokohama. As in the other films of the "Line" series, there is a documentary quality to the exterior footage. One shot definitely appears to have been shot with the camera carried by the cinematographer, chasing after the actors. Some of the interior, studio based shots, would seem to have been composed under the influence of John Huston, with the use of space and especially the use of several characters within a shot, with the use of contrasting positions and sizes.

Several of the actors from the "Line" movies are here. While Teruo Yoshida, as Shinichi, is the nominal star, the narrative mostly shifts to being about Yumi, played by series regular Yoko Mihara. There is a psychological can of worms that gets opened later in the film, when Shinichi confesses to wanting to kill the mother who abandoned him as a young boy. There is the suggestion that Shinichi's attraction to the more sophisticated, and somewhat older Yumi may be some kind of transference. Compounding that is Yumi's calling her gang boss lover "Papa", giving this movie a bit of Oedipal subtext.

Even without reading too much into this story of gang rivalries, double crosses and unrequited love, there is enough going on in Fire Line to indicate that there is more here than what was presented as a low budget exploitation film for less than discerning viewers.

April 21, 2015

The Beyond

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Lucio Fulci - 1981
Grindhouse Releasing BD Region A

I first saw The Beyond as a midnight show in the summer of 1998. At the time I had mistakenly thought that the re-issuing of the film was primarily the work of Quentin Tarantino, only to learn much later that most of the heavy lifting was done by Grindhouse founders Bob Murawski and Sage Stallone. Tarantino's participation was in his clout as a brand name, bringing attention to a handful of films through his short-lived Rolling Thunder distribution company. I had recalled the original American release title, Seven Doors of Death, but had never seen anything by Fulci, limiting myself in my pre-DVD/Netflix days exclusively to films by Dario Argento when it came to Italian horror.

Like others who have seen The Beyond, I loved the final minutes of the film when the two main characters, Liza and John, try to escape from the zombies, only to end up in a desert-like environment with a few scattered bodies in the landscape. It is the landscape that is in a painting made by an artist, murdered for black magic at the beginning of the film. Are they in hell? We know that the flooded basement passageway covered a legendary portal to hell. A white film covers their eyes. They are blind with nowhere to go. And then they seem to evaporate, to disappear into the painting. Those final minutes provide some wonderful dreamlike imagery.

What put my off that first viewing was that The Beyond made no sense. Especially distressing was that John would figure out that the only way to stop marauding zombies was to shoot them in the head, only to forget seconds later, and ineffectively shoot them in the chest, wasting bullets. There seemed to be an absence of any kind of internal logic.

Over the years, I've seen several Fulci films. My own preference is for the films that might be considered more conventional, One on Top of the Other and Lizard in a Woman's Skin. I might not be an enthusiast, but I figure that I should have some familiarity with Fulci, as well as now being more familiar with several of his peers. Also, I am more aware of the some of the requirements of popular Italian cinema as opposed to the films that appear at the art house and film festival. In terms of writing seriously about Lucio Fulci, the best approach may be as if one is watching a film by Terrence Malick - don't expect or demand a traditional narrative, and allow yourself to encounter the film on its own terms.

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So back to The Beyond. The blu-ray is gorgeous. Of course this is subjective on my part, but I think that the best way to appreciate The Beyond is to think of it as the cinematic equivalent to an amusement park haunted house ride. There is no story. It's a short journey with ghosts, goblins, witches and skeletons popping out of the dark to scare you, make you laugh, or maybe both at the same time. And when you really think about dreams, they don't make any sense, especially when at one point you're in some kind of room, and then you're suddenly in the mountains (at least in my dreams). So when John and Liza exit the zombie ravaged hospital and suddenly find themselves in the flooded basement, there may be no literal connection, but it is the kind of connection one might find in a dream.

Even though the top billed actors are Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck, the real star is Cinzia Monreale. As the mysterious and blind Emily, it is her image that has become iconic for The Beyond. That Catriona MacColl is driving the long and empty Lake Pontchartrain Causeway alone is magical in itself. Looking ahead and seeing nothing but a straight line that seems to have no end is strange enough. But stranger is a blind woman with her guide dog, standing in the middle of this highway. How did she get there? How could she know that Liza was driving? It's a terrific image that keeps on getting reproduced in various posters, and even inspired what is euphemistically called an action figure.

The nice thing about the blu-ray is seeing just how good the special effects are. The bristles on those flesh eating tarantulas really stand out. And while one might argue on who would dumb enough to leave an open bottle of sulphuric acid on a table, that scene with the melting face is effective. Eyes are gouged, flesh is ripped, and blood spurts out by the gallon. What ever arguments are to be made for or against this vivid presentation of violence, there can be no argument regarding the artistry at work here.

On a purely aesthetic level, a shot of MacColl, illuminated in part by the light filtered through a blue curtain, took my breath away. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati supervised the transfer. There are enough quiet moments to appreciate the use of color, especially the warm brown tones in many of the interior shots. The film takes place in New Orleans, and the exterior shots in and around the city help in creating the sometimes other worldly atmosphere.

There are loads of extras, but among the best is a brief introduction to The Beyond by a still very attractive Catriona MacColl. Definitely make a point of listening to the commentary track recorded by MacColl and the very funny David Warbeck. Done for a laserdisc release shortly before Warbeck's death in 1997, the two exchange stories about their experiences not only in making The Beyond, but their other work with Fulci. There is also Warbeck's joke about a pair of cannibals that almost made me fall out of my seat from laughter.

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April 19, 2015

Coffee Break

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Jordana Brewster in Fast & Furious (Justin Lin - 2009)

April 16, 2015

The Wicked Lady

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Michael Winner - 1983
Scorpion Releasing / Kino Lorber BD Region A

With the DVD release of Leslie Arliss' original version of The Wicked Lady, it is now easy to compare it with Michael Winner's remake. Winner must have thought that taking advantage of what could be shown onscreen instead of merely suggested would bring in an audience that might have at least heard of the first version. Winner was never known for being subtle, and the sex and violence are generously served, but really do not help make her version more entertaining. The casting of Faye Dunaway was also a bad decision, lacking the charm and sauciness of Margaret Lockwood, and being at least a decade too old for the part.

For those unfamiliar with either version, the story is about a young woman, Barbara Skelton, in 17th Century England, who connives to marry for money, finds herself bored living away from the social hubbub of London, and impersonates a highwayman initially to regain jewelry lost in a card game, and finds a thrill in stalking unwary coach passengers. She meets the real highwayman, Jerry Jackson, that she has pretended to be, and the two become lovers and partners, temporarily.

Leslie Arliss is credited along with Winner for the screenplay, and for very good reason, most of the dialogue is from the original film. Winner, with cinematographer Jack Cardiff, also duplicates several of the shots, especially the iconic shot of a highwayman in black, silhouette against the sky. What Winner lacks, though, is the light touch of the original, where the décolletage of Lockwood and Patricia Roc, and the brief glimpse of Margaret Lockwood's leg are enough, and were actually more than enough for American censors in 1945. Rather than tease the viewer, Winner literally opens the doors wide enough to reveal various couplings. More troubling, in addition to unnecessary is a scene with Barbara and Jackson's mistress whipping each other as part of an extended fight scene.

Not that Winner's version is a total wash. There are plentiful scenes of celebration, dancing around the Maypole, to give some idea of life for the common townspeople. Winner probably presents a truer vision of 17th Century life with the hanged men seen in various states of decomposition along what then passed for a highway. The rats certainly were healthy looking.

The main difference is that Margaret Lockwood appeared not only to conspire to get what ever she wanted, but did so with the viewer. When Barbara appears to have lost control of a galloping horse as a means of attracting the attention of her best friend's fiancé, she also makes her horse a partner in crime, letting it know when she is ready to fall to the ground. In comparison, Faye Dunaway, in Winner's version, is less spontaneous appearing in her fall, which is on a relatively comfortable bed of leaves. Arliss allowed Lockwood to charm the audience, while Winner relies on the shorthand that we would be on the side of Faye Dunaway simply because she is the star of his film.

LIkewise, for Jerry Jackson, under Arliss, James Mason gives a modulated performance. He is filmed in medium close-up for most of the scene where Jackson is to be hanged, given a hero's welcome on his way to the gallows, and giving a speech about love and betrayal. Winner undercuts Alan Bates, like Dunaway, too old for his role, by filming him in long shots or completely cutting away from Bates altogether, while reciting the same lines used by Mason.

If Leslie Arliss saw the remake, his impressions of that film have gone with him. There is a small connection in the casting, with Maggie Rennie, the former wife of the original's Michael Rennie, as an unlucky coach passenger.

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April 14, 2015

William S. Burroughs in the Dreamachine

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Jon Aes-Nihil and David Woodard
Cult Epics Region 0 DVD

The dreamachine was a device created by the artist Brion Gysin and mathematician Ian Sommerville as a brain wave simulator. The object was to induce hallucinations and visions without drugs. The stroboscopic effect created with light coming out of holes matched alpha waves. The way to use the dreamachine is with eyes closed for hypnagogic visions.

Those special brownies attributed to Alice B. Toklas originated as a joke inserted by Gysin. His collaborations with William S. Burroughs lead to the cut up technique of literary assemblage usually credited solely to Burroughs. What I wish we had here would have been a documentary on Gysin and Burroughs.

What we have is probably more of interest to the Burroughs scholar or completist. Part of the film is video footage of Burroughs holding court at an outdoor table at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with Allen Ginsberg sitting next to him. The event was a 1996 exhibit of paintings by Burroughs. People come by to get an autograph. Not the kind of image one usually associates with Burroughs, but we see him briefly cradling an infant, like a wizened old grandpa.

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Writer and composer David Woodard has built his own dreamachines. One was used in the 1996 Burroughs exhibit, and one was given to Burroughs as a gift. Part of this film is of Woodard and Burroughs in conversation in Burroughs' small, unassuming house in Lawrence, Kansas. Woodard is also filmed making one of his dreamachines, and ruminating on the highway that once was numbered 666. A bonus feature is of Woodard presenting a dreamachine at the Freud Museum of Dreams in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2007

The significance of the Burroughs footage here is that it was shot shortly before his death in 1997. I'm not sure if any of the video tapes were intended for public consumption. For those passionate about all things related to William Burroughs, this film may be of some interest.

April 12, 2015

Coffee Break

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Andrey Smirnov and Nadezhda Markina in Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev - 2011)

April 09, 2015

Vengeance of an Assassin

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Rew thalu rew
Panna Rittikrai - 3014
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Panna Rittkrai begins his last film with a soccer game. Not just an ordinary soccer game, but one played indoors, in a warehouse, dusty, and with shelves of abandoned tools, and a sizable motorboat. And it's soccer combined with Muay Thai fighting so that players are giving and receiving roundhouse kicks. And if that's not enough, there are a couple of open grills knocked over so that the game continues on a floor of hot, flaming coal. It turns out that it's only a dream, but it is one of several memorable set pieces, reminders that when it came to filming martial arts, Panna Rittkai not only thought outside the box, but he smashed it to smithereens with his imaginative use of his athletic performers. The title roughly translates as "Faster than fast" which is appropriate for the action and camerawork seen here.

Panna's visual sense is also displayed in an extended tracking shot done roughly from the perspective of a hit man. The camera pans across patrons at a restaurant from underneath the table tops. We see the arm of a man circling around the waist of his female date, another man scratching his leg, and follow the legs of the unseen hit man as he shoots his intended victims. It's a nice bit giving some mystery to the proceedings.

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There is a story involving a young mechanic, Thee, who's curiosity about the death of his parents gets the best of him. His search brings him in contact with a man who claims that Thee's parents saved his life. The man is now part of some clandestine organization. Not that everything has been answered, but Thee decides to join this same organization, with contract killers nattily dressed in dark slacks and gray cardigans. Thee finds himself acting as protector to a young actress, the granddaughter of an influential politician, following a failed kidnapping attempt.

If you demand logic in your movies, don't even try to look for it here. Vengeance of an Assassin makes about as much sense as that soccer game inside an abandoned warehouse. On the other hand, if it's delirious kick assery you're seeking, look no further.

It's been eight years since Dynamite Warrior, and Dan Chupong doesn't look any older. He may not have the balletic grace of Tony Jaa, but he's still amazingly quick with his hands and feet. In a second warehouse scene, he fights off the bad guys with any available tool, throwing a license plate with enough force that it cuts into a guy's arm, while another man's face gets bloodied by an open electric fan. People, including Dan, get shot, cut and maimed, and it doesn't look pretty. If that's not enough, there's a face off with a female killer, the gorgeous Kessarin Ektawatkul, a former taekwondo champion, so yeah, your not just watching an attractive actress pretending to do martial arts moves.

And then there's a chase with a Range Rover loaded with some big guns, a helicopter, and a fast moving train with guys doing Muay Thai fighting on top. And an old Chinese doctor with some deadly kung fu. Want more? How about a chicken wing grabbed from someone's lunch, used as a lethal weapon?

Sadly, Panna died at the relatively young age of 53. It's too soon to know if any Thai filmmakers will even try to match or surpass the kind of nuttiness Panna was known for either as a director or as stunt coordinator. It is nice that for a filmmaker who helped bring greater attention to Thai cinema, he goes out with a very loud bang.

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