June 21, 2022

Charlotte

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Eric Warin & Tahir Rana - 2021
Good Deed Entertainment BD Region A

Charlotte Salomon (1917 - 1943) was a German-Jewish artist whose collection of 769 autobiographical paintings are grouped under the title Live? Or Theater. The paintings were gouache on paper, with people reminiscent in the style of Marc Chagall. Some of the paintings are combined with autobiographic text. Most of the artwork was done between 1941 and 1943, when Salomon was permitted a visa to stay with her grandparents in Nice, France. Salomon died in Auschwitz in 1943.

This is the second film about Charlotte Salomon, but the first to get wide distribution. There is a 1981 Dutch-German film that includes Derek Jacobi in the cast. This time, Charlotte Salomon's story has been recreated as an animated film with Keira Knightley's participation as the main selling point. What is troubling is that while the life of the artist is worth telling, I am not convinced that an animated film, or at least this animated film, is the best way of recounting her art and life. There is also the question of use of well known actors providing voices for animated films. Does the use of Knightley, Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn, etc. provide greater gravity for the film or bring about more attention, unlike an adult skewing animated film like Flee? Does it matter that the only Jewish actor of the well known names, Sophie Okonedo, provides the voice for voice for a non-Jewish character?

Even with a Wikipedia biography, it is obvious that some of the harsher aspects of Salomon's life have been smoothed out or completely ignored. I can accept that there will be some fictionalization and encapsulation of events. One might even argue that we do not need to see how vicious Nazis were toward Jews in public because it is common knowledge. That depression and suicide seemed to be family traits is only superficially addressed. And while Salomon's murder of her grandfather is depicted, the motivation is elided, with those only knowing the history from this film to assume Salomon was unhappy taking care of a demanding old man, rather than a family member whom it is suggested had sexual interest in his granddaughter. Animated films have explored various subject matter such as war, racism and sexuality, in some cases made primarily for an adult audience. It would seem that Charlotte Salomon's story was softened, with the filmmakers aiming to make the film marginally family friendly.

The blu-ray comes with several short supplements. One features the directors explaining the process in which they made the film. The producer, Knightley and several voice cast members briefly share what they hope is their sense of inspiration. This is a film made with the best of intentions and that may be why Charlotte is not quite the film it could, or definitely should be. Ultimately, its characters are as flat and two-dimensional as they are rendered here.

June 14, 2022

Last Passenger

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Omid Nooshin - 2013
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

I like movies that take place on trains. This runs the gamut from The Lady Vanishes to Runaway Train to films that tangentially involve trains like Fritz Lang's Human Desire. The restriction of interior space combined with the restriction of movement by the train, usually but not always, moving forward on its tracks towards an already defined destination. There are also the literal tracking shots, often overhead shots, of the tracks. Thinking of the combination of the tracks and the trains can be appreciated as metaphorical story-telling or for its own visceral appeal.

Taking place during the winter holiday season, Dr. Lewis Shaler and seven year old son, Max, are on a commuter train traveling from London to their southeastern town. What seems like a routine journey becomes increasingly dramatic when, with only a handful of passengers left, the train moves rapidly forward, skipping the scheduled stops. The identity and motives of the rogue train operator remain unknown. Shaler, with the help of a couple of other passengers, attempts to stop the train before its seemingly inevitable crash.

Omid Nooshin's only feature was reportedly produced with an austere budget of 2.5 million dollars. What makes this worth noting is that the film looks it costs more. The running time is 96 minutes. Just those two elements should be a reminder that you do not need inflated budgets and running times to make a reasonably entertaining film - and Last Passenger is more than reasonably entertaining. Most of the action takes place on the train with a small cast. There are a few brief exterior shots. The exteriors, when viewed from inside the train are too blurry to be more than abstract shapes and shadows. Nooshin does make use of a judicious combination of CGI and practical effects, but they pass by so quickly that the viewer does not have the time to fully register what is being seen in the most dramatic moments other than bursts of sparks and flames. Some of the imagery is closer to a vague memory rather than a detailed evocation.

There is very little information on Omid Nooshin. He had one produced screenplay in 2016 as well as a couple of short films, and died in 2018 at the age of 43. Last Passenger was nominated for the British Independent Film Awards in the directorial debut category. The blu-ray comes with a suite of supplements that cover some of the technical aspects of the film including how a special rig was created to film within the confines of an actual train car. One of the other aspects I liked was that even though most of the film was shot inside train cars inside a studio, the train cars were constantly shifting just enough from side to side for a sense of verisimilitude.

June 07, 2022

The Paramount Fu Manchu Double Feature

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The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu
Rowland V. Lee - 1929

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The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu
Rowland V. Lee - 1930
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Normally, I would pass on a film that starred a caucasian actor in yellow face. What caught my eye was that Jean Arthur was in the cast of these two films. This was about five years before Jean Arthur became a major star associated with films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, and especially George Stevens and Frank Capra. What really surprised me was that real stardom was attained when Arthur was 35 years old. Maybe it is age or maybe it is make-up, but the actress does not look fully formed in the earlier films. As for her acting, this was when filmmakers were still figuring out how to use sound technology and the studios were plucking stars from the Broadway stage. Arthur and her romantic partner, Neil Hamilton, get melodramatic, more so in the first film than the sequel.

My previous encounters with Fu Manchu were in a couple of the 1960s films starring Christopher Lee. The two Paramount films give the title character some nuance. The opening scene shows Dr. Fu as having dedicated himself to revenge following the accidental death of his wife and son during the Boxer Rebellion around 1900. Without going to deeply into the context, the nationalistic young men of China who fought against the influence of western culture practiced martial arts which was referred to by westerners as Chinese boxing. That they were responsible for the death of Christian missionaries was part of the reason why several western countries sent armed forces to China. Dr. Fu's victims are the western military officers. He has trained his ward, Lia, to be a trained assassin under hypnosis. The two are in London in pursuit of General Petrie and Petrie's son, Jack.

Taken on their own terms, both films are entertaining. Rowland Lee and his writers seem to acknowledge the pulp origins with some dialogue that borders on self-parody in the first film. The sequel shows how much the technology had improved over the year with the varied placement of the actors and shots that show greater depth of field. Visually, my favorite scene involves Lia locked in a cell with cross hatched bars on the ceiling. There are some nice alternating shots with the camera looking down at Jean Arthur or tilted up at Warner Oland, making use of light and shadow. In both films, Lee has scenes that take place in momentary darkness that would certainly have had a visceral effect on movie theater audiences at the time of release.

Much of Tim Lucas' commentary is devoted to author Sax Rohmer and how the films differ from Rohmer's novels. In addition to discussing the cast and crew, Lucas includes some notes on some of the otherwise uncredited contributions, as well as reviews of the films from 1929 and '30. Both films are sourced from new 2K masters. Both films are in their original aspect ratio of 1.20:1. The first film does show some signs of wear while the second appears to be in perfect condition. Some of the orientalism is certain to raise a few eyebrows, especially for those more familiar with Asian culture. As for a cast of white actors plus the black Noble Johnson in yellow face, I find that less offensive as a film of its time. On the other hand, when Peter Ustinov played Charlie Chan fifty years later, one would have assumed Hollywood would have known better.

May 24, 2022

One-Armed Boxer

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Dú bì quánwáng / The Chinese Professionals
Wang Yu - 1972
Arrow Video BD Region A

The new blu-ray edition of One-Armed Boxer comes with two different Mandarin soundtracks plus an English language soundtrack. Perhaps I should see the film again with the English track. The film was written, produced and directed by its star, known also as Jimmy Wang Yu. And while it may not have been intended as such, the film is what people with casual or no familiarity with Chinese martial arts films would imagine is similar to the most generic productions. This is not the only film where various forms of fighting are showcased, but the connective tissue of a plot virtually evaporates before the film's end. One could argue that that narrative concerns were besides the point, that Wang understood that his audience was their to see their hero in action, so the film is essentially a string of martial arts set pieces.

Taking place during an unspecified past era, the film starts of with Wang coming to the defense of a man bullied by the leader of the Hook Gang. The argument in the tea house escalates to a rumble between members of two martial arts schools. A face off between two rival martial arts masters and their best students leads to a rematch with the Hook Gang, who use hooks for fighting, come back with several foreign fighters. Among these villains is a karate master from Okinawa who inexplicably has vampire fangs. The karate master fights Wang and with one hand chop cleanly amputates Wang's right arm. Dragging himself away from the action, Wang is rescued by a herbalist and his beautiful daughter. The rehabilitation process includes Wang sticking his remaining good hand into a fire to destroy his nerves, followed by pounding his hand with large and heavy brick. With his powerful left hand, Wang goes in pursuit of the remaining Hook Gang members and the foreign fighters.

Frank Djeng provides an enthusiastic commentary track. Djeng reviews the historical context in which the film takes place, as well as why Hong Kong star Wang would make Mandarin language films in Taiwan. Booklet notes by Simon Abrams provide helpful information regarding Wang's work as a martial arts star and how Wang led the genre-shift from sword fighting wuxia to hand-to-hand combat.

The main video supplement is from French film documentarian Fred Ambroisine, and interview with Wang Yu from November 2001. Wang talks about his childhood as well as his entry as a contract player for Shaw Brothers Studios. He also explains his choice to follow producer Raymond Chow to the newly formed Golden Harvest Studios. A split screen is employed with Wang on the right side of the screen, and excerpts from films on the left. There is also over half an hour's worth of trailers from several of the films starring Wang, the highlight, at least for me, being the trailer for The Man from Hong Kong. This blu-ray release is also timely as it out just a little more than a month after the death of Wang Yu this past April.

May 17, 2022

Flower Drum Song

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Henry Koster - 1961
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

For those unfamiliar, Flower Drum Song was the penultimate musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, first staged in 1958. The story was adapted from the novel by C.Y. Lee. Stage producer Joseph Fields had a hand in crafting the play for Broadway, making it lighter than the novel, further emphasizing the comic aspects with the film's screenplay. The basic story is of an illegal Chinese immigrant, a young woman who expects to be the picture-bride of the very Americanized nightclub owner. He in turn is in love with his star performer who has begun setting her sights on a young college student, son of a wealth Chinatown patriarch. The film is essentially a comedy about cultural differences and degrees of assimilation, and radical for its time with an all Asian and Asian-American cast. Some of the points I bring up have been mentioned by others. What is offered here is hardly the last word on a film that has undergone multiple readings.

Although it would be easy to do, I will not bother enumerating most of the problems I have with Flower Drum Song. Several of those issues are addressed in the supplemental interviews. Those supplements are from the Universal Home Video DVD issued in 2006. The film itself is from a new 2K master which looks great. There are two audio options of 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound. What has stayed in my mind are some of the cultural shifts that have taken place since the time of the film's release. The watercolor paintings by Dong Kingman, seen in the opening credits depicting a ship traveling from Hong Kong to San Francisco, look spectacular.

Nancy Kwan was only 22 years old when she starred as Linda Low, the featured performer in the Celestial Gardens nightclub located in San Francisco's Chinatown. Kwan was not a singer, as was dubbed by B. J. (Betty Jane) Baker. Kwan was a trained dancer, and her energy is obvious from the first time she appears, but especially in the elaborate "Grant Avenue" number. In a more perfect world, Nancy Kwan would have made a film with Elvis that could have been up there with Viva Las Vegas. Kwan's also too brief duet with teenage Patrick Adiarte, "You be the rock, I'll be the roll", hints at what could have been. While Kwan had a relatively solid career, there was little that made use of her dramatic or dancing talents. Five years later, Kwan's co-star, James Shigeta would play Elvis' best friend in Paradise Hawaiian Style.

Patrick Adiarte was seventeen at the time of filming and one of the cast members from the original 1958 Broadway production. In one of the supplements, it is mentioned that his role as the thoroughly Americanized son of a Chinese patriarch was explanded to take advantage of his dancing abilities. Reiko Sato's dancing is showcased in a ballet as part of the song, "Love Look Away". Sato appeared in one more movie, while Adiarte had a short career in supporting roles in film and television.

In one of the supplements, playwright David Henry Kwang talks about how the original play and film both present a tourist's eye view of Chinese-Americans. Kwan attempted to correct some of the aspects of the original play with his revised version of the play that was staged in 2002. One of the steps Kwang took was to bring the play more in keeping with the more serious source novel by C. Y. Lee. The 1957 novel itself was unusual as a best seller about Chinese-Americans written by a Chinese immigrant. While issues of representation and cultural appropriation have not disappeared, in the seventeen years since the interviews were done for the Flower Drum Song, Asian-Americans have been more visible in telling there own stories including those where race is not a factor. While there has been progress, it is primarily in the realm of the independent films. A small news article from 2021 mentions a possible revised film version of Flower Drum Song although the disappointing box office of the new version of West Side Story and In the Height has probably put those plans on hold.

What makes Flower Drum Song still worth watching are the musical numbers. It might be worth noting that the Broadway version appeared a year after West Side Story. Both share the theme of cultural tensions of being the other in the United States. The big difference is that the Chinese-Americans in Flower Drum Song exist in an insular society with limited and cordial interaction with white society, while the Puerto Ricans of West Side Story are reminded by white society and each other of their outsider status. While the song, "America", in West Side Story points to the cultural tensions, "Chop Suey", in Flower Drum Song is a celebration of cultural assimilation, albeit one with some very dated references. Choreographer Hermes Pan uses "Chop Suey" as a starting off point for an extended dance scene that segues from cha-cha to square dance to rock.

The most famous song, "I Enjoy Being a Girl", is staged in a way to take advantage of the wide screen format. Nancy Kwan sings to herself with the reflection from three mirrors. The reflections turn into three differently dressed versions of Ms. Kwan, a celebration of being a fashionista. The dances are all filmed primarily with full shots with the occasional medium shot. The staging of the musical numbers for the camera is similar to the collaborations Fred Astaire did with Hermes Pan that it could well be that Pan had more to do with the direction in those scenes than credited director Henry Koster.

The commentary track with Nancy Kwan and film historian Nick Redman primarily splits between Kwan discussing the making of the film and her own life. There should be note on the blu-ray package to note that the commentary was part of the 2006 DVD. Kwan mentions how James Shigeta and co-star Miyoshi Umeki had known each other as popular singers in Japan prior to their acting careers in Hollywood films. Also pointed out is the appearance of Henry Koster's wife in a mock old movie seen on television. With the discussion of what David Henry Kwang did and did not do with revision of Flower Drum Song, I have to wonder what the late Nick Redman would have made of Tony Kushner's revisions to West Side Story for a contemporary audience.

Of the six Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to go from Broadway to film, Flower Drum Song is the only one that was not produced by 20th-Century Fox. One of the possible reasons is that Fox had already had their remake of Rodger and Hammerstein's State Fair in development at the same time. In any event, Flower Drum Song was the 11th or 12th most popular film of 1961, based on pre-computer box office tallies. Setting aside aspects of the screenplay that were reflected dated stereotypes at the time of release, the musical numbers remain entertaining and inventive.

May 10, 2022

Mamba

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Production still with (from left) Albert Rogell, Ralph Forbes, Eleanor Boardman and Jean Hersholt.

Albert Rogell - 1930
Kino Classics BD Regions ABC

Kino opens their blu-ray version of Mamba with a disclaimer noting the racist nature of the film. This probably unnecessary for those most interested in seeing the film as they presumably have a longer view of film history, and history in general. At the same time, the supplements center around the discovery and restoration of what was the most complete print of a "lost" film. After my first pass at viewing Mamba, I wonder if contemporary audiences might have been better served with a commentary track or an essay by someone like Donald Bogle or Jacqueline Stewart to help place the film in perspective with the changes that have taken place in the past ninety-two years since the initial release. There is a bit to unpack here with the unquestioning white supremacy and colonialism of the time.

The story by itself is mind-boggling. The bulk of the film takes place in a German colony in East Africa in 1913. Jean Hersholt plays the part of the area's biggest landowner, boasting of a plantation with 2000 workers. Overweight and slovenly, he literally tries to push his weight around, bossing the German and British soldiers who are there to keep the natives in line. Hersholt more or less buys the aristocratic daughter played by Eleanor Boardman to be his wife. The two get married, but Boardman refuses to consummate the relationship. On board the ship from Germany to Africa, Boardman meets Ralph Forbes, appearing as an officer in charge of the German colony. World War I causes the Germans and British to fight each other, with the natives taking advantage with tribes joining up to rebel against the Germans. The British troops save the overwhelmed Germans because nothing could be worse than Africans in control of their own land.

Those last couple of reels are unintentionally humorous as they play like the like the most cliched Western with African "savages" instead of Native Americans, and a British cavalry complete with bugle charge coming to the rescue. It is also not enough to note that Mamba is a pre-Code film. In the opening few minutes it is suggested that Hersholt not only fathered a child with a native woman, but also has a black mistress. The theme of adultery is also significant here. The restored version is from an Australian print missing three minutes that were censored locally. Dialogue was preserved from a complete set of soundtrack discs. What apparently crossed the red-line for Australian censors was Hersholt's pawing of the uncooperative Boardman on their honeymoon voyage.

Kino Classics has emphasized the historical nature of Mamba. The film is noted as being the first drama to be filmed in the two-strip technicolor process. At a time when before there was an industry standard for sound film, the movie was projected with separate synchronized RCA discs. The film was produced by Tiffany, a poverty row studio that at that time was helmed by director John Stahl. Tiffany Pictures basically put all their eggs in one basket with a budget of $500,000. The film was a hit, but not enough of one to keep the studio from going under a couple years later. The opening shot is riposte to the myth of early talkies being static, with the camera traveling for about two and a half minutes through the port of the German colony. The supplements cover the recovery of the only known print in Australia, the subsequent restoration of Mamba as well as a brief history of Tiffany Pictures.

In spite of directing over one-hundred films, with a career that began as a teenager, there is very little written about Albert Rogell. What can be gleaned from his filmography and the available films is of a journeyman director of B films who continually went from assignment to assignment without distinguishing himself. John Stahl left Tiffany for Universal around the time of the release of Mamba, directing the first versions of Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession, among his handful of highly regarded films.

The commentary track is by Ozploitation filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith. The more interesting points concern how the film was probably perceived by viewers at the time of release versus reading the film from a contemporary perspective. Even discussing Mamba as a product of its time, one can argue about the presentation of the Africans as savages in need of civilization while at the same time providing temporary employment for a large number of black actors and extras while the United States was feeling the effects of the Great Depression. My only dispute with Trenchard-Smith is in his characterization of the three top billed actors, all very recognizable names at the time of production. Still, Trenchard-Smith should get kudos for his research and insights.

May 06, 2022

Julietta

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Marc Allegret - 1953
Icarus Home Video Region 1 DVD

Julietta is the second of two films by Marc Allegret that has just been released as a DVD from a restored print. Perhaps because the stakes were not as high as filming a literary classic, I found this a better film than Allegret's version of Lady Chatterley's Lover. What is surprising is not just how funny this earlier film is, but that it works so well with the literary pedigree and two stars associated with more serious work. Again, Allegret adapted a novel, in this case by Louise de Vilmorin. The author's most famous novel was the basis for Max Ophul's Earrings of Madame de . . .. The screenplay was by Francoise Giroud, whose started as a script-girl on Alleget's Fanny in 1932, later becoming a journalist as well as briefly France's Minister of Culture. Jean Marais is better known for his more somber roles in films by Jean Cocteau, while Jeanne Moreau's only comparable excursion into comedy would come after stardom was established with Viva Maria!.

If Assistant Director Roger Vadim had his way, Julietta would have been the first time Brigiitte Bardot and Moreau would have been in the same film, though not sharing screen time. Dany Robin, who was a popular star at the time has the title role during a year that Bardot had only begun getting credited supporting parts. Julietta is a young woman, 18 years old, engaged to a wealthy older man, and having second thoughts about her engagement. On the train to Paris with her mother and older sister, she notices a cigarette case left behind by a passenger at a stop in Poitiers. The passenger is a well known local lawyer, Andre. Julietta catches Andre but loses her train. Talking Andre into letting her spend the night at his house, Julietta connives to extend her stay as a way of avoid the impending nuptials. Confusion reigns when Andre's fiancee, Rosie, comes to visit.

There are echoes of the classic screwball comedy at work here with Marais frenetically trying to hide the presence of Robin from Moreau, with physical bits such as completely spilling a tray filled with food and drink. Moreau is the hysteria prone fiancee shrieking at the sight of a spider, unexplained noises, a blown fuse while she is taking a bath, and mistaking Marais for a ghostly apparition when he is seen covered in one of the several bedsheets he is carrying. Moreau's performance is the most interesting to watch because it is both atypical, but also because Moreau's face is so smooth and unlined, as if she has yet to become the fully formed actress who would become more formidable a few years later. Dany Robin is attractive but so easily upstaged by Moreau and Marais. Robin's best moment is in the film's opening scene with her pirouetting on the beach towards the camera. A year after Lady Chatterley's Lover, Brigitte Bardot was now a top billed star in France with four of six films released that year, one directed by Marc Allegret.