June 30, 2016

Napoli Napoli Napoli

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Abel Ferrera - 2009
Raro Video BD Region A

Most of Abel Ferrera's films are about about people living in the margins of society. Even in this portrait of Naples, there is the impression that the city itself has a tenuous relationship with the rest of Italy. Ferrara skips between documentary and staged sequences. There are interviews with some inmate of a women's prison, social activists and local government officials. In between these scenes, there is the murder of a small time gangster, a dysfunctional family with an out of work father and a prostitute daughter, and a crowded cell of prisoners trying to make it through another day. Ferrera also includes older documentary footage of Naples in World War II, and city leaders in the 1960s trying to initiate improvements to the city.

The city is as much a character as any of the people who live there. The impression is that Naples is in the condition it is in due to a combination of ineffectual government, and residents forced into bad short term solutions for immediate problems. Everyone, regardless of class or profession, appears to be frustrated by the city. Like several other major cities, oversized apartment buildings were created for public housing, buildings that became instant slums. There are no jobs, no social services and no visible alternatives.

The fictional elements were written by Ferrera, along with Neapolitans Maurizio Braucci, Gaetano di Vaio, and Peppe Lanzetta, who also appears as brutal father whose favorite refrain to his family is that they should kill themselves. Ferrera's fictional family includes Anita Pallenberg as Lanzetta's wife and Ferrara collaborator Shanyn Leigh as the daughter. And while I would not dispute that there may some truth to Ferrara's view of the city and its people, I would have to think that Naples is not entirely the hell presented here. Anyone who has seen a fair sample of his other films would recognize that in the world of Abel Ferrara, the sun never shines, evil is everywhere, and everyone comes to a bad end.

I have yet to see Ferrara's film about Pier Paolo Pasolini, but there may be some similarity here. Pasolini's Rome, in his films and writings, is primarily the rougher part of the Ostia section of the city. Ferrara's Naples, likewise, ignores the tourist attractions for the inner city. There is a glimpse of optimism on the part of one of the female prisoners, looking forward to her release following time served for drug dealing. That would be the brief bit of sunshine in a vision of urban decay and hopelessness.

June 28, 2016

Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe


Gui chui deng zhi jiu ceng yao ta
Lu Chuan - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

Another Chinese special effects driven movie, that was seen in 3D by the mainland Chinese audience. And similar to Mojin, which I covered a couple of months ago, there a some similarities in the basic set-up, with the discovery of an ancient, alien civilization, hidden in a remote are in western China. There are also scenes that take a jaundiced view of China's more recent past. Somehow, the two films, adapted from the same literary source, were produced almost simultaneously, though Lu's film was the first to be in the theaters.

And it's the presentation of China's past that are intriguing. The opening scene introducing the hero, Hu Bayi, takes place in 1979. We see a man singing the kind of song that might have been heard in a musical approved by Mao or the Gang of Four, extolling the virtues of working hard on behalf of China. Lu cuts to a shot of Hu, exhausted, moving dirt from an archeological excavation site. A young woman follows Hu, acting as a kind of coach. Even shouting at someone on behalf of the revolution can take it toll as she faints, only to be replaced by another young woman. What I liked about this scene is that it initially appears as the imitation of a revolutionary musical, the kind that idealized Mao's proclamations, only to reveal a harsh reality.

A later scene, taking place a few years later, is of a China that has opened its doors in a very limited way to the west. Hu is taken to a restaurant that is primarily for westerners. The place is virtually empty. The main entree is steak. And there's a chubby guy, energetically singing in Chinese, dressed up like Elvis Presley. As it turns out, the Elvis impersonator is a long-lost friend of Hu's. But the scene is also of interest in what it shows of China's first faltering steps to accommodate westerners following the Cultural Revolution.

The exteriors were filmed in Gansu, in northwest China. Shots of the actors traveling by camel across desert and mountain regions are gorgeous. It's the countryside of China that is more awe inspiring than any green screen special effects.

The ghostly tribe are the descendants of people who were part alien and part human. Hu is revealed to have some kind of connection being the descendant of the prince who stopped the aliens from taking over earth about 10,000 years ago. There are these creatures that looks like a combination of wolf and stegosaurus that terrorize several characters, as well as little bat-like creatures. There are also some very large creatures that make brief appearances. Yet none of this is as compelling as the scenes of China still very much under the influence of the Red Guard.

Chronicles is Lu Chuan's first deliberately commercial film after a string of mostly critically acclaimed work. Of the two films adapted from the 2006 Chinese novel, The Ghost Blows Out the Light, Lu's film is marginally better. One of the unexpected credits is with the screenplay, with former independent filmmaker Bobby Roth, and his son, Nick, as collaborators. More riveting, is Lu's low budget debut, The Missing Gun, which bears some resemblance to Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog. While contemporary Chinese audiences apparently can't get enough green-screen mayhem, there's more genuine excitement in following Jiang Wen as the small town cop in search of a thief.

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June 26, 2016

Coffee Break

Nina Hoss in Barbara (Christian Petzold - 2012)

June 21, 2016

Shield for Murder


Edmond O'Brien and Howard W. Koch - 1954
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Shield for Murder was based on a novel by William McGivern, who had also written the novel, The Big Heat. Fritz Lang's film came out in 1953. What made me think of that film was not the shared author of the two films' source novels, but Carolyn Jones' brief appearance in Shield for Murder. Normally a brunette, Jones is seen here as a blonde, a floozie sitting and drinking alone at a bar, her eye on O'Brien who comes in alone, trying to figure out how he can cover up another murder he committed. Jones seems to be made up to look like Gloria Grahame, the good bad girl of The Big Heat, so much so, that I started to wonder if Jones was the cheaper, in every way, "sister under the mink".

I found no information regarding how the responsibility for directing Shield for Murder was split or shared by O'Brien and Koch. It's possible that after appearing in two films helmed by Ida Lupino, that O'Brien decided to give directing a shot. One other film, Man-Trap from 1961, was directed solely by O'Brien. This is also Koch's debut directorial credit. Even with several credits directing both modestly budgeted studio films and television serial episodes, Koch is probably better remembered for his producer credits, most famously for Frank Sinatra, and being head of production at Paramount during the mid-Sixties.

O'Brien plays a corrupt cop who's suspected of murdering a bookie, and making off with the $25,000 the bookie was carrying. O'Brien's partner, John Agar, who looks up to O'Brien as a mentor, is sure O'Brien is innocent, just as he was with the several other people killed in the line of duty, but is forced to investigate this latest incident. O'Brien's hoping to buy a new house if the suburbs to share with young nightclub hostess Marla English. Especially for contemporary viewers, seeing O'Brien with English probably elicits thoughts of O'Brien being overly optimistic. A little research indicates that O'Brien, 39 at the time of this film, was extremely popular among female film-goers during this time.

Marla English is introduced with the camera tilting up from her feet, emphasizing the fishnet stockings she's to wear as a "cigarette girl" at the nightclub. One immediately imagined the kind of fish that English could catch with little effort. O'Brien immediately flies into a rage, forcing English to change clothing prior to a visit to his dream home. That house is so full of bric-a-brac and tchotchkes that it suffocates any opportunity to make the place seem more personal.

Visually efficient, but not stylish, with a story that may strike the jaded contemporary viewer as unoriginal, Shield for Murder should be seen for the performances of its cast. Especially when not speaking, but with the use of his facial expressions, one can see O'Brien's stage training and background in Shakespearean roles. Going from out of control anger to panic, I began to wonder what we might have missed in not seeing O'Brien as Macbeth. There is also the fun of seeing character actors, Emile Meyer as O'Brien's police captain, a young Claude Akins as a mob enforcer, William Schallert as an attorney, and an uncredited Richard Deacon helping O'Brien escape to Argentina.

The bar where Carolyn Jones meets O'Brien is also a restaurant that eventually gets a few hungry customers. Claude Akins and partner show up, trying to get the loot they know O'Brien stole of behalf of their boss. O'Brien, once again, lets loose with his anger, fiercely beating the two men. The film cuts to the faces of the other restaurant patrons, looking at the scene of violence in horror. One of the patrons, a man, has strands of spaghetti hanging out of his mouth. It's this scene that makes me think that Shield for Murder can be enjoyed for the visceral pleasures of watching a dirty cop in action, finally getting caught, yet simultaneously, if unintentionally anticipating some of Guy Debord's arguments in The Society of the Spectacle almost a decade in advance. Then again, it may not be a good idea to overthink a film that features a key character who reminds everyone that he's stone deaf, only to reveal a bit later that he had somehow gotten by in life as a street accordion player.


June 19, 2016

Coffee Break

Bette Davis and James Cagney in The Bride came C.O.D. (William Keighley - 1941)

June 16, 2016

The Midnight After


Na yeh ling san, ngo joa seung liu Wong Gok hoi wong dai bou dik hung Van
Fruit Chan - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Battling a cold during the first few days when I attended the Far East Film Festival in 2014, I passed up the late screening of The Midnight After. Almost two years later, and Fruit Chan's film is now getting a DVD only release in the U.S. Now that I've seen The Midnight After, I can understand why there may have been little rush to make the film available stateside. The film serves as something of a a two hour metaphor for Hong Kong following the handover to mainland China, and as such, may be limited in terms how the film will be understood. Even setting aside the politics, those viewers who demand explanations for everything they see on screen will probably feel frustrated by the several unanswered questions.

A mini bus leaves from the main part of Hong Kong to an outlying city. While underneath the tunnel that links the two sections, other motor vehicles disappear. There are no cars or people on the other side, and no communications available. Several of the passengers die mysterious, violent deaths, bodies spontaneously crumbling or exploding. The remaining survivors stay in a small restaurant, trying to figure out what has become of the world they've known, and trying to work together in spite of various tensions.

One of several seemingly random messages received turns out to be the lyrics to David Bowie's "Space Oddity". While in no way intended on Chan's part, the scene with the survivors singing along to Bowie's song is inescapably affecting. Bowie's song is appropriate here as it's from the point of view of someone trying to maintain the illusion of having some control in a situation where there is total loss of control of the space ship. The scene with "Space Oddity" also provides a turning point in the narrative as there appears to be an unexplained shift of time, and the laws of gravity don't apply when the mini-bus is pursued by several large military vehicles.

Unlike some of the recent Hong Kong films that have been produced with companies from mainland China, The Midnight After is pointedly a film made by and for Hong Kongers. The best known stars here are to Johnny To regulars, Lam Suet and Simon Lam, although this is very much an ensemble piece. Chan's film is, in retrospect, one of the first of a new series of Hong Kong films that have expressed renewed anxieties about the handover, with more recent films being more direct about the concerns of being part of mainland China. For Fruit Chan, Hong Kong might be less of a country than a state of mind, one that is caught between a disappearing past, and a unclear, hostile future.


June 14, 2016

Hidden Fear

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Andre De Toth - 1957
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Probably the clearest indication that John Payne's time as a star of modestly budgeted action films was over can be seen in the posters for Hidden Fear. Not only is starlet Anne Neyland featured prominently, but is seen in a couple of suggestive poses not even in the film. Similar to Peter O'Toole being "introduced" in Lawrence of Arabia, disregarding several previous big screen roles, Ms. Neyland had been kicking around Hollywood for five years. 1957 turned out to be Neyland's banner year with featured roles also in Jailhouse Rock and the American International programmer, Motorcycle Gang. After that, Neyland went back to guest spots on television series for a few more years. The cheesecake promised in the Hidden Fear posters is barely fulfilled with a suggestive shot of Neyland in silhouette against a window, and a couple shots of her cleavage while in conversation with Payne in the Danish countryside.

Payne is mostly seen scowling his way, an American cop trying to clear his mousy sister who's been accused of murdering her boyfriend. It turns out that the guy's been part of a ring of counterfeiters. The sister's best friend is an American girl, played by Neyland, who also happens to be the occasional mistress to one of the ringleaders, played by Conrad Nagel. Alexander Knox is the guy who behind the counterfeit plates, an unrepentant ex-Nazi seeking revenge by creating two million dollars in fake Alexander Hamiltons to damage the economy of the U.S. and several European countries. The film takes place in Copenhagen, although I suspect it could have been filmed almost anywhere.

Anne Neyland is superficially attractive, no more so than several other young or youngish actresses of the day. More viewers will probably be infatuated with the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL that Neyland drives, later seen with Payne behind the wheel in a high speed chase seen through Copenhagen and beyond. The gull wing sports car is the real sexy co-star here.

Payne's journey into Copenhagen nightlife briefly indicates the Americanization of Denmark with a scene at the Texas bar, with a band playing a kind of variation of western swing, while at the Gold Digger bar, Payne walks into a crowd dancing to rock and roll.

De Toth wrote Hidden Fear with John Hawkins. Some of the same themes appear as in previous De Toth films, such as the main character being assumed guilty by a mob of citizens, as when Payne is chased though the streets of Copenhagen after being seen with a murder victim. There are a number of high angle shots, and shots of the characters by windows, visual motifs used frequently by De Toth.

While not credited, one of the cinematographers of Hidden Fear was Henning Bendtsen. Listed in IMDb and also, more critically, confirmed in the Danish Film Institute database, Bendtsen had also filmed the English language film film, Escape from Terror, starring Jackie Coogan, the first Danish film in color. Bendtsen also served as cinematographer for Carl Dreyer, ending his career with Lars von Trier.

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