August 23, 2016

3 Bad Men

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John Ford - 1926
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

One of my favorite moments in this silent western is the introduction of the character, Dan O'Malley, played by George O'Brien. A large wagon train of settlers is traveling to Dakota in 1876. The movement on screen is from left to right. O'Brien is on horseback, very casually, with his left leg down in the stirrup, while his right leg is draped around the saddle horn. And he's playing his harmonica. The title card reads, "Dan O'Malley had come from Ireland at a smile-a-minute pace."

What is charming about 3 Bad Men is that, except for the land rush, there's an easy going spirit to much of what occurs in the film. O'Brien has no problem appearing goofy, as he does when he first encounters the petite Olive Borden and states the obvious when he sees that the wheel has fallen off the wagon belonging to her father. And what may strike some out of of context as being racist is, to my eyes, John Ford's casual sense of inclusiveness of a frontier with "Dagoes" and "Chinks", as well as a budding entrepreneur who addresses a pastor as "rabbi". Consider that that the film takes place less than ten years before the publication of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

While Ford's characterization of a multi-culti America might raise some eyebrows use to only understanding art through a contemporary prism, the one possibly gay character may indicate a more forward thinking filmmaker. The title characters are looking in a bar for a possible husband for Olive Borden. A couple of the men survey a well dressed and well scrubbed dandy who is ruffled caught between two ruffians, not known that their intentions are harmless. One of the bad men states, "If a man's heart is in the right place, it don't matter what sex he belongs to."

Having Joseph McBride provide commentary provides an extra bonus to this blu-ray upgrade from the previous "Ford at Fox" DVD set. McBride discusses both the making of the film, as well as some general observations about John Ford from his own interviews and research. McBride also shares information on the making of 3 Bad Men from interviewing Priscilla Bonner, who's role in the film, the sister of one of the "bad men", was severely cut by the studio.

I wish there was more information regarding what had been cut from Ford's original version. The three bad men of the title, wanted for robbing a bank, inexplicably come to the aid of Olive Borden, discovering her following an ambush by an outlaw gang. That gang works for the sheriff of Custer, the ramshackle Dakota town that passes for civilization. The sheriff, played by Lou Tellegen, is the real villain here, trying to bully a prospector into revealing the location of gold found in protected Indian territory, as well as riding roughshod over the townspeople. While Ford's heroes here are a trio of outlaws who function independently, Ford has no sympathy for the outlaws protected by the sheriff's badge. Whatever makes the three men "bad" is considered lightly, with more emphasis placed on their idiosyncratic sartorial choices.

Tellegen's sheriff is notable for his fancy suit, and his white had with a very wide brim. The hat looks very similar to the one worn by James Stewart in Ford's last western, Cheyenne Autumn. In that film, Stewart plays a comic version of Wyatt Earp. Cheyenne Autumn also marked the last screen appearance of George O'Brien.

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August 21, 2016

Coffee Break

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Amber Heard in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine - 2006)

August 16, 2016

Italian Horror Cinema

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Edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter
Edinburgh University Press - 2016

Presented by and primarily for academics, this is a collection of essays that should have some value for those interested in Italian genre films and also Italian film history. What I like is that the editors position their book as part of an on-going discussion of film studies, and none of the authors act as gatekeepers, demanding agreement as to the worthiness of specific filmmakers. Rather than a chronological history or survey of filmmakers, we have a collection of thirteen essays on different aspects of Italian horror films.

Two of the essays are devoted to Dario Argento. No surprise as Argento is the best known, and most commercially successful filmmaker, with several English language books discussing his work. These are also the most academic of the essays. Marcia Landy quotes Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Antonin Artaud and Gilles Deleuze, making me think I was reading the work of a Ph.D. candidate desperate to justify Argento to a group of professors who wouldn't be caught dead watching a film titled Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Landy points to various markers in Deep Red as pointing to Italy's fascist past, but fails to mention that Clara Calamai, in her final film role, was a top star during that era. Karl Schoonover's essay discussing Argento in terms of neoliberalism and global capitalism goes into area that Argento probably hadn't intended. Schoonover writes about sexual ambiguity in Tenebre without mentioning the presence of transgender actress Eva Robin's (sic) in the key flashback scene. If there is a second edition, I hope someone correctly names the editor of Four Flies, the Oscar winning Francoise Bonnot.

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Better are the essays devoted to Mario Bava. I'm tempted to say that Tim Lucas should be getting some kind of co-author credit as his epic study of Bava is referred to repeatedly. Peter Hutchings uses Lucas' study as an argument both for and against Bava as an auteur. Adam Lowenstein details the relationship between Bava's Bay of Blood and Friday the 13th, as well as examining the significance of the location where the Bava film takes place. Several times, it is discussed whether the genre of the giallo film really began with Bava's The Girl who Knew Too Much or Blood and Black Lace, especially linking the latter film with the fumetti, adult comic books that featured extreme violence carried out by disguised assailants, or the German krimi films that were adapted from the books by Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Edgar Wallace. Blood and Black Lace was co-produced by a German company that made krimi films, but what is not mentioned are several other giallo films by Italian filmmakers that also adapted Edgar Wallace.

Of interest is a look at Italian cinema during the silent era, with its elements of horror such as the cinematic versions of Dante's Inferno, and a since lost adventure film featuring the Frankenstein monster. What is also notable is the pointing out that the genre known as the horror film was not named as such until several years after the advent of Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula.

A look at contemporary cinema by Johnny Walker is primarily devoted to Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio and the two giallo inspired films by Helen Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Italian cinema is limited to Emanuele De Santi's Adam Chaplin and the films by Ivan Zuccon. Not mentioned are several other younger Italian filmmakers like Domiziano Cristopharo and Luigi Pastore, who were not only inspired by Argento, but also the less critically esteemed Rino Di Silvestro and Joe D'Amato.

Mark Bernard's look at the cannibal films reviews the arguments for and against these films and especially their use of animal cruelty, their roots in the Mondo documentaries of the Sixties, and the changes in how contemporary audiences view these films.

Certainly, there is more excavating to be done as films continue to be rediscovered and made more widely available in home video formats. What is gleaned from the introduction, and the look at the Italian film criticism at the time the films were made, is that film genre studies are continually evolving, and that there is sometimes more than meets the eye regarding films dismissed at the time of initial release.

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August 14, 2016

Coffee Break

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Shirley MacLaine and Anita Ekberg in Woman Times Seven (Vittorio De Sica - 1967)

August 11, 2016

Observance

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Joseph Sims-Dennett - 2015
Artsploitation Films BD

A man is hired to observe a woman, photographing her and listening to her phone conversations, in a run down townhouse directly across from her apartment. Nothing seems to happen. The woman doesn't leave her apartment. From the phone conversations, there seems to be some kind of relationship with a man, and a possible connection to a murder that took place a couple decades ago.

Cinephiles will not be surprised to see echoes of Rear Window and The Conversation. What is unexpected is the turn towards body horror. Not quite Cronenberg territory, but close enough as the investigator, Parker, wakes up to unexplained bruises and abrasions. There is also a nod to Polanski when work and dreams collide into a nocturnal nightmare.

There is also the influence of the so-called "experimental films", Impressionistic close-ups of water dripping from a faucet, a jar collecting some kind of black liquid, rust stains (or is that blood?) on the wall.
The film open with shots of a shoreline on a rocky coast. There are several overhead shots of the ocean. What are eventually understood to be flashbacks are rendered subjective with surreal touches, when Parker remembers his recently deceased young son.

As several critics have noted, Observance is notable for the feeling of dread. As in The Conversation questions are raised as to what exactly is being seen and heard, for what purpose, and to whose benefit. One scene that initially begs credibility is when Parker sneaks into the apartment of Tenneal, the woman being observed. At first glance it might seem that Tenneal is oblivious to Parker's attempts to hiding from her, walking right past him as he crouches in a corner. The film hints that Parker's subterfuge may not have been a secret.

Especially at a time when studio productions hit budgets that are nearly impossible to recoup, Observance shows that you can make an effective, professional film for the cost of a Honda Civic.

August 09, 2016

The Tiger

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Daeho
Park Hoon-Jung - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

The tiger is best seen in the first half of this film. Fleetingly and short bursts, the viewer is kept from seeing the animal in full form. It's not like Track of the Cat, where the audience never sees the mountain lion pursued by Robert Mitchum, but during that time that the tiger is barely seen, it works best as a metaphor for Korean resistance during the occupation by Japan. Once the tiger is seen in full view, one is conscious that this is a computer generated creature. The mystery and suspense are lost from that point.

I suppose some of this may be due to audiences that hate ambiguity and are literal-minded in their demand to see rather than imagine. Some of this may also be because of the requirements of the story, about the hunt for the last wild tiger in Korea. For myself, the film worked best during the moment when the tiger was only seen in brief glimpses in the forest.

Taking place in 1925, the capturing and killing the tiger is the goal of the Japanese governor in the Korean region where the film takes place. The pursuit has dual purposes, as the governor is a collector of big game animals displayed in his office, and because the tiger has killed Japanese soldiers pursuing resistance fighters hidden in the mountains. Eventually forced to participate in the hunt is the former hunter, Man-Duk, because of his knowledge of the mountain area. Eventually it is shown that Man-Duk and the tiger have a symbiotic relationship.

Symbolic stories of men hunting for legendary animals, goes at least as far back as Moby Dick. The historical aspects give The Tiger an extra twist. Park also makes the story something of an ecological fable showing the extreme measures taken as part of the hunt. The Korean title translates as "Great Tiger". Historically, the last Korean tiger was killed in 1921.

There are recurring moments of the tiger outwitting the hunters. As might be expected, some of the hunters become the hunted, shredded and tossed like so many rag dolls in the jaws of the tiger. The scenes of strategy are reminiscent of Park's previous film, the impressive gangster film, New World. This is a simpler film, one that was written by Park earlier, but produced following the success of New World. There is a thematic thread regarding the uses of power and manipulation of others.

August 07, 2016

Coffee Break

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Aaron Kwok and Gordon Lam in Cold War (Sunny Luk & Longman Leung - 2012)