April 20, 2014

Coffee Break

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Kelly Lin in Mad Detective (Johnie To & Wai Ka-Fai - 2007)

April 17, 2014

Death Occurred Last Night

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La morte risale a ieri sera
Ducio Tessari - 1970
Raro Video BD Region A

It was future screenplay writer Ric Menelllo who clued me in on Ducio Tessari. We saw Tessari's one foray into Hollywood filmmaking, Three Tough Guys, starring Fred Williamson, Isaac Hayes and Lino Ventura. On my own, I saw the Alain Delon crime thriller Tony Arzenta, released in the U.S. under the title of No Way Out. Tessari's most familiar work is as one of the writers for A Fistful of Dollars. Death Occurred Last Night has none of the exuberance of Three Tough Guys, nor is it an exercise in style like Tony Arzenta, but Tessari makes some interesting choices here.

Raf Vallone is a panicked father whose daughter has disappeared. The daughter, Donatella, is twenty-five, but is described as "mentally deficient". Vallone is seen in a series of full shots, some from a pronounced distance, that emphasize his isolation and sense of smallness in trying to find the truth about his daughter. The film takes place in Milan, and Tessari often uses shots where the scale of the city, the tall apartments, office buildings and even a stadium dwarf the characters. Police captain Frank Wolff reminds Vallone that his daughter is just one of many missing young women, and Tessari creates a visual motif to illustrate a sense of personal anguish in an indifferent environment.

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There is also a very unusual scene where Wolff and his wife, played by Eva Renzi, have alternating monologues. The wife has just published a book, it's suggested that it is pictorial, documenting the violent state of the world. It takes a little while to realize that the two are not having a dialogue, but are each commenting on the kind of void one feels after accomplishing something, whether it it solving a case, or getting a book published. It's not every genre movie that gives room for the characters to have a little existential crisis of justifying their lives.

Even though the film begins with Raf Vallone confronting the police, the narrative mostly follows cops Woff and Gabriele Tinti who persuade a former pimp to help them seek out Donatella. I was a bit thrown off when Wolff is seen with a syringe, and medically treats Vallone, until I learned that the source novel is one of several books about physician turned detective Duca Lamberti. The novel's author, Giorgio Scerbanenco, lived in Milan, where all of his books take place. The source novel's English language title is "The Milanese Kill on Saturday".

A couple more visual bits that I liked: a shot of Frank Wolff handing out cash to a couple of madams at one of several "houses" visited, while in the background, behind frosted glass, we can see one of the girls undressing. Also a shot with the camera tilted up at a staircase where several floors above, several oranges fall to the floor, dropped by one of Vallone's startled neighbors.

Chris Alexander, of Fangoria magazine, provides a video introduction, as well as an overview in the booklet to Death Occurred Last Night that in retrospect tries too hard to position the film within the dominant Italian genre films of the time. The problem is that this approach brings certain expectations for the viewer. There is also some discussion of the film score by Gianni Ferrio, that some critics have cited as inappropriate. I had no problem with the music, which would seem to coincide with Tessari's overall aim which would be to go against the grain of familiar genre conventions.

April 15, 2014

Seven Warriors

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Zhong yi qun ying
Terry Tong - 1989
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In Christopher Frayling's biography of Sergio Leone, Frayling recounts how issues of plagiarism held up the release of A Fistful of Dollars in the United States. After making millions of dollars, well more than a fistful, throughout most of the world, Leone had to settle a legal dispute over his publicly acknowledged use of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo before United Artists would introduce American audiences to what became known as a spaghetti western. Just a few years earlier, and with the same studio, Kurosawa made more money from the United Artists' remake of Seven Samurai than he had earned making the original film.

I wouldn't know if Kurosawa was unaware of the Hong Kong film that was very obviously inspired by both his work as well as the Hollywood remake by John Sturges. Maybe he thought any financial rewards would not be worth the effort. Certainly, at the time Seven Warriors was made, it was not seen by anyone outside of Hong Kong and some Chinese language areas in East Asia. If the film played in the U.S., it would have been seen in the circuit of Chinatown theaters. Whatever the case of the film's visibility, Kurosawa's name is nowhere to be seen in the credits.

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The concept is of some interest, transposing the story to China of the 1920s, known as a time of conflict between various warlords vying for regional rule. The more remote regions of China were similar to "the wild West" with people essentially fending for themselves. There is one scene that plays on that analogy, with one of the soon to be members of the seven, a tall man armed with several knives, facing a man in a very western style black suit, along with a cowboy hat. The story is essentially the same: a group of peasants wish to defend themselves against a gang of bandits, and hire some professionals to fight on their behalf. The professionals are men, down on their luck, who take on the job as a means of keeping what is left of their self-respect.

At a little more than ninety minutes, Seven Warriors is quite a bit shorter that either Kurosawa's original, or Sturges' popular remake. Character development is set aside for action. A couple of sources list Sammo Hung as having had a hand in the direction. Hung is quite visible in an opening scene, saving his sister from the clutches of a warlord, and showing off his kung fu moves. The most notable stars would be Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Jackie Cheung, both relatively early, when they were starting to gain traction as Hong Kong stars. Leung is more of a lover than a fighter, the idealist of the group. A scar-faced Cheung is a martinet, training the villagers in military tactics. Old school Shaw Brothers star, Lo Lieh, has the plum role are the warlord the seven are fighting against.

Seven Warriors hasn't aged as well as the films it was trying to emulate. Particularly grating are the sound effects, the punches and clanging of swords that sound like they came from the same library as countless other Hong Kong martial arts movies. There are a handful of nice action scenes, especially those with Ben Lam as the knife throwing Mao, and a heroic Jackie Cheung. I also like the inclusion of a point of view shot from blacksmith, the top screen grab, taking a peek through the burnt out bottom of a pot.

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April 13, 2014

Coffee Break

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Elizabeth Pena in Mother and Child (Rodrigo Garcia - 2009)

April 10, 2014

Confession of Murder

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Naega Salinbeomida;
Jung Byung-gil - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The best reason to see the South Korean Confession of Murder is for the action set pieces. This is the kind of stuff that reveals the conventionality and lack of imagination in big budget Hollywood. The first chase scene has the brother of one of the victims in pursuit of the confessed killer. When the two are not leaping around from one fast moving car to another, they are having a fist fight on one of the moving vehicles. The action is cut between point of view shots with the camera at bumper level. There is a lot of fact cutting, but Bung is able to organize the shots so that the sense of direction remains coherent. There is a second high speed chase with the dogged detective in a high speed chase driving one very large truck, following a man on a motorcycle. The dynamics of scale are immediately set up here, along with the constricted space of part of the chase filmed in a tunnel. Many of the scenes throughout the film take place in very restricted or enclosed spaces, but Bung amps up his chases with cars and trucks that spin sideways and upside down, and lots of breaking glass.

As a critique of celebrity, Confession of Murder takes a few pot shots at a familiar target. Shortly after the statute of limitations has expired, a book is published, written by a confessed serial killer. The book is a best seller, with the killer earning millions of dollars. There is still one death that the killer may have been responsible for, but he's not admitting to more than what's been published. Detective Choi, who sports a scar on his mouth from when he almost caught the killer, finds himself conflicted in still wanting to bring the man to justice, yet at the same time finding himself protecting the killer from relatives of the known victims. The killer, Lee, with his boy band good looks, enjoys his time appearing on television, and taking the admiration of his young female fans. In spite of the evidence, Choi is not totally convinced that Lee is the real killer.

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There are some scenes with the producers of a reality show, setting up a meeting with Choi and Lee. The producer is concerned that Choi might shoot Lee on live television. The station owner sees that possibility as an "exclusive". Several characters debate the use of celebrity and mass media manipulated for personal advantage. Whether Lee is the actual serial killer, and if so, is truly remorseful, are almost beside the point.

Where writer-director Jung excels is in setting up a sense of almost constant claustrophobia, of the action taking place in enclosed spaces. The first scene takes place on a dark, rainy night. This is one of those few times when use of a shaky-cam, with the camera lens smeary with rain drops, is used to good effect. The killer is introduced wearing a storm bucket hat, his face partially covered by a surgical mask. The is very little visibility, and the the surrounding darkness seems more like walls rather than an infinite space. The crowds who have come to see Lee, and the shots of multiple television screens add to the oppressive atmosphere. Jung also films a fight inside an elevator, alternating shots from the observational camera with some point of view shots, as well as overhead shots showing a little room there is for the two foes to maneuver.

It should be noted that Confession of Murder was inspired by a real life, unsolved case, of the murder of ten women in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province. Until 2007, there was a fifteen year statute of limitations for murder, later changed to twenty-five years. Currently, the South Korean government is considering a bill to abolish any statute of limitations for first degree mursder, making release quite timely.

April 08, 2014

A Touch of Sin

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Tian zhu ding
Jia Zhangke - 2013
Kino Lorber BD Region A

I saw the name of Office Kitano in the opening credits. I had forgotten that Jia had made past films in collaboration with this production company. And for those who don't know, that is the production company of Takeshi Kitano. Hopefully, anyone reading this has some familiarity with Takeshi Kitano. The context of the violence in Jia's film is quite different though.

I wouldn't pretend to know enough about life in China. The characters are those most marginalized in the changed economic landscape. The film is made up of four loosely connected stories of people who have nothing, and nothing to lose. Extreme actions are taken against those who become extremely wealthy at the expense of others, or simply find ways to exploit others for their own gain. And even though the film takes place in China, there is the uneasy feeling that some of the stories could well be transposed to other countries, including the U.S. One could say that the film lays a persuasive argument against privatization, especially of land and resources. All of the stories are based on true events. The title translates as "Ill-fated".

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Maybe it's my own reaction, but the sense of irony and wry humor of Jia's past films seems to have been replaced by a sense of despair. There are those who still have some appreciation for China's cultural legacy, but what brings in the rich male tourists are young women in sexed up Red Guard uniforms or Chinese opera headdresses worn with bikinis. Jia's films have been examinations of the effects of modernization in China, but this is certainly his harshest work.

For a good sense of context, there is Tony Rayn's article from Film Comment. It should be pointed out that Rayns was responsible for the English language subtitles. Still, I appreciate the explanation for the English language title with its phonetic resemblance to King Hu's A Touch of Zen.

As a cinephile, I found it interesting that the two films within the film were excerpts of films by Hong Kong filmmakers Johnny To (Exiled) and Tsui Hark (Green Snake). Unlike Jia, To and Hark have been making films that have been designed to cater to mainland Chinese audiences, keeping in mind the dictates required for approval prior to release. While there has been discussion by others on considering A Touch of Sin a wuxia film, it is helpful to know that the term literally translates as "armed hero", and more specifically someone from one of the lower classes that is compelled to use a weapon as a means of achieving social justice or to use against an oppressor. Stylistically, Jia doesn't share the flashy techniques of the other filmmakers mentioned. What the four have in common is rooted in the stories from the past.

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April 07, 2014

The Bold and the Brave

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Lewis R. Foster - 1956
Optimum Releasing Region 2 DVD

The Bold and the Brave is a film that use to appear on late night broadcast television every Veterans' Day. It was made back at a time when war films, and this usually meant taking place during World War II, were a Hollywood staple, much like those other almost extinct genres, the western and the smaller scale musical. The title belies a much more intimate film here. The first hour is devoted to establishing the shifting friendships and conflicts between three soldiers. Opening titles proclaim how man's biggest battles are those within himself rather than those in war. It might have been those philosophical moments that earned the screenplay an Oscar nomination. Until his nod for The Black Stallion in 1979, The Bold and the Brave was Mickey Rooney's last bid for Oscar glory.

Rooney plays a soldier who loves to eat and gamble. Even when playing with the available girls in a small Italian town, his dream is to gather enough cash to open his own restaurant in New Jersey. Rooney's Oscar competition that year included Robert Stack, Anthony Perkins, Don Murray and Anthony Quinn, the winner for Lust for Life. Considering that Rooney's film was a more modest production from the nearly on the ropes RKO, he was something of a long shot. Say what you want to about Mickey Rooney, he did great death scenes.

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My own viewing of Rooney's output has been scattershot, but his work in the Fifties and early Sixties has struck me as being the most interesting. The guy went straight from MGM to much lower budget, and less prestigious independent productions. It's appropriate that one of Rooney's earliest films after leaving MGM was titled Quicksand. More clearly in that film is the sense of sadness and not a little desperation, befitting someone who once was the top star of the top studio, now fighting to keep a small place as a constantly working actor rather than a former child star. Rooney's most interesting appearances for me were in dramas, the title role in Baby Face Nelson, and supporting turns in King of the Roaring 20s and Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Robert Lewin's screenplay reportedly has autobiographical elements. I know that you can't expect more than some broad strokes in creating even a few characters in a film that runs less than ninety minutes. And while it's great to watch Wendell Corey take on a German tank all by himself, his change from a guy whose sense of humanity overwhelms his ability to shoot a rifle seems inspired by the vaguest of motivations. More detailed is Don Taylor's performance as a soldier known as Preacher, whose world view has been determined by fundamentalist Christianity. What little Lewin seems to be saying is that survival is best served by compromise and flexibility, with Rooney killed and Taylor almost killed by their respective rigidity and sense of purpose.

Credited to journeyman director Lewis R. Foster, IMDb lists Rooney as having also served as director of The Bold and the Brave. Rooney did have a credited hand in writing the title song with Ross Bagdasarian. Just a couple of years away from introducing his novelty act, The Chipmunks, it should be noted that Bagdasarian was the cousin to William Saroyan, author of the play, The Human Comedy, which was made into a film starring, yes, Mickey Rooney, in, yes again, an Oscar nominated performance. What control Rooney may have had off screen, he generously cedes much of the movie to Corey and Taylor. Even if The Bold and the Brave might not be good enough to be accorded classic status, it's worth seeing as a high point in a very long career. In the best of his performances, Mickey Rooney conveyed his own experiences as someone who knew well both the pinnacle of success and the depth of failure.