September 01, 2015

Wolf Warrior

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Wu Jing - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

This may not have been entirely intended, but Wu Jing's Wolf Warrior made me think of that discarded Hollywood genre, the military adventure movie. Older cinephiles will have memories of a time, primarily from the middle of World War II through the mid-Sixties, when movies were made about men at war. These were not epics, but small or mid-range films more concerned with male camaraderie and fulfilling a mission. There was some acknowledgment of lofty ideas and ideals, but those were dispensed with in a sentence or two. Not to make Wolf Warrior seem like a much better film than it is, but in its own way, it's close to the spirit of a film from Raoul Walsh, with its hero who's known to operate independently of authority, but also knows when to pull for the group.

The film is about a group of soldiers, the elite of the elite, who in the midst of war game exercises find themselves in real battle with an army of mercenaries that work on behalf of a drug kingpin. The newest member of the Wolf Warriors, Leng, is a sniper who killed the kingpin's brother. While Leng is the target of the mercenaries, led by a former American veteran, known as Tom Cat, it's a battle between the two armies, finally ending with the inevitable encounter of the two enemies. For those looking for a display of martial arts between Wu and Scott Adkins, it comes near the end. Most of the fighting comes in the form bullets, bombs, and big explosions.

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There are a couple of moments that should have been reconsidered. Before fighting the mercenary army, a group of the Wolf Warriors encounter a pack of wolves. Aside from the wolves being mostly computer generated, the scene pulls the film into an unnecessarily supernatural direction. Also, it is revealed that the drug lord is working on some kind of bio-chemical scheme with some kind of formula that will attack only those with "Chinese genes".

I wish Yu Nan, who displayed her own martial arts ability with Wu Jing in Wind Blast, had done more than show up in uniform, as the commander of the Wolf Warriors. The film is essentially a vehicle of Wu Jing, and as such, is an improvement over Wu's directorial debut, Legendary Assassin. As the chief bad guy, Scott Adkins snarls, sneers and never bothers to disguise his British accent.

A sequel is promised at the end of the credits. Fortunately for those concerned, Wolf Warrior was a major hit in mainland China. The film was made with the cooperation of the Chinese military, and the nationalistic elements are not too different from what might have been found in a World War II era film from Hollywood.

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August 30, 2015

Coffee Break

Carole Bouquet in Unforgivable (Andre Techine - 2011)

August 27, 2015

The Summer House

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Das Sommerhaus
Curtis Burz - 2014
Artsploitation Films Region 1 DVD

Watching The Summer House is like watching something like a car crash in slow motion. You know that several vehicles are going to collide, it is something inevitable, but what is not known is how bad the damage will be. Some of the elements here are classic, the family torn apart by the presence of an outsider has been told many times. The adult male with the attraction to a young boy plays in part like a contemporary version of Death in Venice.

The film is also a study in dualities. The husband is established as a closeted gay man. It is suggested that the wife seeks some sexual gratification outside the marriage as well. The daughter, junior high school age, speaks German with her father, English with her mother. The outsider, the son of the husband's business partner, not yet 12 years old, has his own agenda. The action largely takes place between two locations, the family's apartment in Berlin, and the summer house, in an area with an abundance of foliage. It is never made clear how far the two places are from each other, but it is enough of a distance to allow activity unknown to others.

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Where supplements are helpful is when director Curtis Burz explains how his film was largely improvised, following establishment of the basic premise. How this works in the film's favor is that certain part of the narrative are kept open for interpretation. This is especially important in a scene with the husband and the boy, in the summer house. The two plan to spend the night together, the camera pans to left, away from the shelter and to the lush vegetation in the area, while their conversation is still heard. In an earlier scene, the boy bolts away from the husband when he receives a small kiss on the cheek. Still, the boy visits the husband on a regular basis at the summer house. The exact nature of the relationship is never made clear so that we never know if the husband has actually acted on his desires. There may also be the question of who was actually the seducer or the seduced?

The daughter, not yet an adolescent, is starting to question what it means to be a female. In one scene, she attempts to try putting on some of her mother's make-up. The mother constantly denies the daughter the chance to play, suggesting that whatever sense of denial she is dealing with is to be passed on to the younger generation. Whatever affection the wife seeks from the husband seems to be played out in the warm relationship between father and daughter.

Burz admits that there are elements in his film that are uncomfortable and challenging, even for himself. The cast is largely made up of actors who have worked with Burz previously, with all of them, even the children, discussing their respective roles as well as having a hand in determining the story arc. It is remarkable that had it not been explained in Burz's interview, I would never have guessed that this film was improvised, especially with an ending that brings up some very unexpected implications.

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August 25, 2015

Play Motel

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Mario Gariazzo - 1979
Raro Video BD Region A

I was totally unfamiliar with Mario Gariazzo until almost a year ago. Another DVD company, one that specializes in relatively obscure European films, sent me a copy of L'attrazione, retitled Top Model. Something of a thriller with erotic moments, neither very thrilling or erotic. The most I could find about Gariazzo is this interview about his favorite topic, UFOs. Play Motel is an attempt to meld the giallo with eroticism. The eroticism in question reminded me of photo spreads from Penthouse magazine. Neither the giallo elements nor the erotic scenes are very effective, with the film coming off as a bad hybrid of Dario Argento and Tinto Brass as imagined by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione.

People are having rendezvous at Room Three of the Play Motel, cosplay with sex. Afterwards, some get murdered by an unseen killer with the required pair of black leather gloves. In Room Four, photos are taken of the action in Room Three, for purposes of blackmail. A young couple that discover the corpse of a woman placed in the trunk of their car do their own investigation on behalf of the police. Figuring out who the killer is was no mystery. What is a mystery is how he seems to be at two places at once in one scene? Another mystery is how the photographer of the blackmail photos is using a Fuji AZ-1 camera, which uses 35 mm film, but when a snooping model checks out his dark room, the negatives are from medium format film? Even more illogical is the killer appearing from the back seat of a car, and bonking his victim on the head with a large wrench while she's driving.

Younger audiences might find it of interest to see a movie that takes place in olden times, in the days before home computers and online streaming, when people took photographs with film, and porn was something available in printed magazines. The one part of the film that almost passes as contemporary would be the Fiat 500s some of the characters drive.

The supplements offer the biggest mystery - who made parts of this movie? The movie is signed by Roy Garrett, Gariazzo's occasional pseudonym. There's plenty of nudity, tongue wrestling, simulated sex. In the blu-ray supplements, there is discussion of the hard core inserts that Gariazzo denies filming, though in at least one instance, the same actors are clearly used rather than doubles in graphic close-ups. The hard core scenes were added to Play Motel for certain markets, distributed simultaneously with the version that received mainstream release. What is certain is that star Ray Lovelock found himself in a movie that strayed from the more conventional mystery he had signed up for.

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August 23, 2015

Coffee Break

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Michelle Pfeiffer in Dark Shadows (Tim Burton - 2012)

August 18, 2015

British Noir

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They Met in the Dark
Karel Lamac - 1943

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The October Man
Roy Baker - 1947

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David MacDonald - 1948

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The Golden Salamander
Ronald Neame - 1950

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The Assassin
Ralph Thomas - 1952
Kino Classics Region 1 Five DVD set

The five films in this package may not all fit but the loosest definition of film noir, but they all are entertaining. Made between 1943 and 1952, each film comes on its own disc. The filmmakers represented here range from the obscure, to a future Oscar nominee. Some of the supporting crew plus one of the directors will be familiar names to fans of Hammer Studios. World War II, and its affects on life, both during and after the war years, informs much of the action in most of these films. What also links these films is that they were either produced or distributed by the British J. Arthur Rank, the company with the giant gong for a logo, or an affiliated company.

They Met in the Dark has a couple of brief moments that take place in the dark, but it's more truly an espionage thriller with some comic elements. James Mason, first seen sporting a beard, plays a naval commander formally dismissed from service, due to unproven sabotage. Attempting to retrace his steps, Mason goes to Blackpool, and makes an arrangement to meet with a woman he recalls from his last days before his ship sailed. The woman, a manicurist named Mary, asks that they meet an an out of the way house. Mary is found dead, with Mason following a lead to a talent agency that's a cover for a nest of spies.

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The film was directed by the Czech Karel Lamac, one of his handful of British films. More credit should go to screenwriters Anatole de Grunwald and Miles Malleson, both of whom would go on to more notable work. Malleson, as a character actor, appears in The Golden Salamander and The Assassin. What to look for are some of the smaller moments, a naval officer's date getting two slices of pie, the main villain barging in on a card trick in progress, and the discovery of a missing corpse. Perennial screen Nazi, Karel Stepanek, plays one of the talent agency's stars, a mind reader named The Great Riccardo. The other highlight is a barroom brawl instigated by Mason's mischievous right hand man, played by character actor Edward Rigby. Joyce Howard provides the romantic interest, though she's no match for the more comely Phyllis Stanley as the talent agency's star chanteuse. Stanley, twice, sings the what was intended to be a morale boosting tune for wartime Britons, "Toddle Along".

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Roy Baker worked as an Assistant Director to Alfred Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes, and Carol Reed on Night Train to Munich, but it was his his military service under writer-producer Eric Ambler that got Baker promoted to the directors chair. The October Man, Baker's directorial debut, is about a brain injured man who suffers from guilt, surviving a bus crash, but unable to protect the child of family friends. There is some tangential connection with the earlier films, with a suicidal John Mills contemplating suicide several times, standing over a bridge while a train is coming towards him. The plot is Hitchcockian with Mills accused of a murder he did not commit, with no proof of his innocence, and his paranoia so deep he starts to wonder if he maybe is the murderer. It doesn't help that Mills has a nervous habit of tying his handkerchief into a knot.

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As the chemist gingerly trying to integrate himself back into the world at large, Mills finds himself in a rooming house with several residents arguably in greater need of psychiatric intervention. Among the boarders is a creepy guy named Mr. Peachy. There is support to be found in Joyce Greenwood as the sister of a co-worker. Even if the identity of the murderer is hardy a mystery, what makes The October Man watchable is the cinematography by Edwin Hillier. Having begun his career with Fritz Lang's M, and honing is skills with Michael Powell, Hillier is at his best with several scenes that take place in the dark. There's a scene with a blown fuse causing a blackout in the boarding house, with an encounter between Mills and femme fatale Kay Walsh illuminated by match light. Best are the extreme close ups of Mills and Greenwood under a street lamp. When the film was released in 1947, the New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers complained the story was was "virtually a clichee" (sic). Sometimes, dynamic cinematography can provide an otherwise modest production with unanticipated staying power.

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David MacDonald might seem to have a predilection for movies that take place in enclosed locations. His most famous, or infamous if you will, work is Devil Girl from Mars, about a family and some travelers trapped in a hotel in a remote part of Scotland by a dominatrix from outer space. Snowbound has a slightly more realistic premise, with several people trapped inside a hotel on a remote mountaintop in the Italian Alps, both by a raging snow storm on the outside, and an unreconstructed Nazi inside.

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The initial premise is equally bizarre, with film director Robert Newton putting extra player Dennis Price on his personal payroll, and sending him off to the Alps hotel to look for a mystery woman, in the guise of a screenplay writer accompanied by photographer Stanley Holloway. Perhaps taking a queue from Thomas Mann, our cast of characters all claim to be rooming at this mountainside retreat for their health. More than an hour has past before it's revealed that there is stolen gold that has brought everyone together. In addition to the previously mentioned actors, we have Herbert Lom as the unrepentant former Gestapo officer, British character actor Guy Middleton as another schemer, Marcel Dalio wildly hamming it up as an Italian gentleman, French actress Mila Parely as an Italian countess, also after the gold. Considering their personal circumstances, the most chilling scene is of Price and Newton in conversation, drinking alcohol.

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Ronald Neame began his film career as an Assistant Camerman on Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail. The connections don't end there. The Golden Salamander, Neame's second film as director, competed against Hitchcock's Stagefright at the Locarno Film Festival in 1950, where both films lost to John Ford's When Willie comes Marching Home. The Golden Salamander is based on a novel by Victor Canning, whose novel, The Rainbird Pattern was the source for Hitchcock's Family Plot.

The story here is of an archeologist who stumbles upon a gun running operation in an out of the way town in Tunisia. He stays at the combination hotel-bar run by a young French proprietress. While preparing for antique treasures to be catalogued and shipped to a British museum, the archeologist finds himself in trouble for trying to reveal the gun running operation, though he doesn't know who really is in charge. People get killed, and the archeologist falls in love with his hostess. There's a nod or two towards Casablanca, and a glance to The Maltese Falcon. With his form fitting leather jacket, Herbert Lom looks like an overaged juvenile delinquent. Wilfred Hyde-White is uncharacteristically disheveled as the bar's piano player.

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Much of the action takes place at the hotel-bar, Cafe des Amis, Cafe of Friends. There is almost some wordplay here as the place could have been called Cafe d'Aimee after the actress who plays the proprietress. Anouk Aimee was only eighteen at the time of film, and billed here under the mononym of Anouk. Of course Trevor Howard, Herbert Lom and virtually most of the other men would be drawn to her. The appeal of Trevor Howard as a romantic lead has eluded me. I'm even less convinced of Howard as a two-fisted hero, but the guy was a big star in British films at the time, with a history of working with Ronald Neame since Brief Encounters. As might be expected from a director who started out as a cameraman, this is the most visually accomplished films in this collection, with exteriors shot on location in Tunisia.

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My first encounter that I recall with films by Ralph Thomas was when I saw his version of The 39 Steps on television. I knew that there was an Alfred Hitchcock movie with that title, but I didn't see Hitchcock's name anywhere on the credits. I was maybe in my early teens at the time, and my cinephilia was embryonic at best. Anyways, my mother asked me what was on television, and decided that this was not the 39 Steps I should be watching. I did finally see the Hitchcock film years later, but have yet to revisit Kenneth More following the steps taken by Robert Donat.

Victor Canning's novel, The Venetian Bird also provides source material for Ralph Thomas. The film, released in the U.S. as The Assassin is about a private detective seeking the former Italian partisan who saved the life of a U.S. airman. The partisan is difficult to find, and as it turns out, does not want to be found. A woman running a large gallery of antiques and artifacts may know more than she is willing to reveal. The private eye, who doggedly is trying to find out the truth about the partisan, ends up getting framed for the assassination of a popular politician.

For most of the 1950s, Richard Todd was a very popular actor, first in Britain, and later is the U.S. Todd's forte was playing very physically able heroes, which he did quite well. Eva Bartok is the femme fatale here. While most of the cast is British, they play Italians without the wild gesticulations found in Snowbound. Included in the cast is future Carry On mainstay, Sid James. The film was shot in Venice, climaxing with a rooftop chase, with an ending that visually looks Hitchcockian. Extra bonus, a score by Nino Rota, who happened to begin collaborations with a young writer-director named Federico Fellini that same year.

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August 16, 2015

Coffee Break

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Trevor Howard in The Golden Salamander (Ronald Neame 1950)