February 11, 2016

The Challenge

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John Frankenheimer - 1982
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

One of the little ironies of John Frankenheimer's career is that he made a film titled Ronin about sixteen year after making a film with the actor who personified the ronin for western audiences. Among his handful of Hollywood films, The Challenge may cause some eye rolling on the part of those viewers who at least know Toshiro Mifune from his work with Akira Kurosawa. While Mifune's reputation as a beloved star of world cinema would not be disturbed by this particular misstep, a younger audience might be baffled by the notion that for a very brief moment, top billed Scott Glenn was considered a movie star.

Tall, thin, and perpetually glum, Glenn plays a down and out boxer who's been payed to sneak a coveted samurai sword back to Japan from Los Angeles. Somehow, this guy who lives in a low rent dump just happens to have a valid passport. The film jumps to Glenn showing up at Narita Airport where he promptly gets kidnapped by some hoods who are also looking for the sword. Glenn finds a way of breaking out of the car when it is somewhere outside of Tokyo. If anyone was looking for realism, it's not here, because I have travelled between Narita Airport and Tokyo, a trip that literally takes hours. In any event, Glenn finds himself caught in a deadly sibling rivalry between two brothers, Toshiro Mifune, who runs a school for samurai, even though there have been no samurai for about one hundred years. The younger brother is played by Atsuo Nakamura, who seems to claims full or partial ownership of several corporations, but feels his life is incomplete unless he has that damn sword. Making the most of his supporting role is Calvin Jung as Nakamura's chief thug, so Americanized that he complains about not understanding Japanese thought, and familiar enough with a Yiddish euphemism that makes him the most endearing character here.

Richard Maxwell and John Sayles share writing credit, but I have no idea who did what. Probably credit should go to Leonard and Paul Schrader. Even though The Yakuza was hardly the hit that it should have been back in 1975, I get the idea that the goal was some kind of one-upmanship of Sidney Pollack's film. Instead of the relatively unknown Ken Takakura, get the almost universally familiar Toshiro Mifune. Instead of a couple of shootouts, lets get swords, machine guns and arrows! The violence ante is upped from that moment in The Yakuza where an arm is lopped off while shooting a gun.

The cinematography is by Kozo Okazaki, who also worked on, yes, The Yakuza. Okazaki's work can be seen to better advantage in his work with Hideo Gosha. One wishes the climatic fight scene was staged better, but like the rest of the film, it is entertaining to watch Toshiro Mifune run around with a gray wig, with sword and bow and arrows, in what looks like the world's most opulent office building. There are also a couple of Frankenheimer signature shots involving television screens. And read those end credits closely - the martial arts coordinator was someone named Steven Seagal. That said, it is the very wrong-headedness of The Challenge that makes it a fun trifle of Orientalism, by a group of people who should have known better.


February 09, 2016


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Sergio Citti - 1970
One 7 Films Region 0 DVD

When is A Violent Life not A Violent Life? When it is used as the English language title for the Italian film, Ostia. Let me explain. There are three people involved here - Pier Paolo Pasolini, writer-director Sergio Citti, and actor Franco Citti. A Violent Life was originally the title of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1958 novel, made into a film released in 1962 that starred Franco Citti, with Sergio Citti contributing to the screenplay. Some of the same story elements would also be found in Pasolini's first film as a director, Accatone, which starred Pasolini's "discovery", Franco Citti, with Sergio Citti lending a hand to keep the dialogue representative of the Roman slums of that time. By the time that Ostia was made, Pasolini's filmmaking was in full gear, and he decided that Sergio Citti was ready to direct a film that they wrote, again starring Franco Citti. Also in the cast are the Swedish actress, Anita Sanders, who was briefly married to Franco Citti, and Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini's long time friend and former lover.

In the Guardian obituary for Sergio Citti, Ostia is discussed: Though Pasolini's many biographers barely mention this film, it was a script that reflected much of Pasolini's existential anguish at the time. Most of the film was shot around the very desolate area of the Roman beaches at Ostia, where the writer was to meet his come-uppance six years later. Citti did a competent job in filming it with his brother Franco playing one of two Accattone-type petty criminals (the other was Laurent Terzieff, whom Sergio himself would dub), but he couldn't give the story the autobiographical depth that it might have had if Pasolini had directed it himself.

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Setting aside the decision by someone at One 7 Films to cause confusion with the English language title, I would say that Ostia would be of most interest to Pasolini completists. The film centers on two brothers, petty thieves, whose relationship borders on the homoerotic. The are apparently not very good thieves according to the boss of their five man gang. The men discover a blonde woman asleep in a field, and bring her to the brothers home. The two brothers and the woman share stories from their lives, as well as visiting the most desolate parts of the beach on Ostia's coast. The tone of the film is mostly lighthearted, informed by Francesco De Masi's jaunty score, even in a scene of patricide by the brother when quite young. Pasolini's hand is most evident in the tragic conclusion.

The DVD transfer is decent, although what we get is the movie, with an English subtitle option, and no extras. One 7 Films periodically pulls something out of the vault that would probably get greater attention had it been given a home video release by Criterion or Kino. That the DVD is being released slightly less than a month after Franco Citti's death is coincidental.

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February 07, 2016

Coffee Break

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Jake Gyllenhaal in End of Watch (David Ayer - 2012)

February 04, 2016

Paolo Gioli: The Complete Filmworks

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Paolo Gioli - 1969-2014
Raro Video Region 1 DVD

It's been forty years since I took P. Adams Sitney's class at New York University on what has been called underground, avant-garde, or experimental films. I wish he was around to help me articulate what we have here. Not only does this three disc collection include all of Gioli's films, but there is also an interview, and a short documentary of Gioli trying to duplicate an experiment by Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid film, regarding color perception. There's over eight hours of stuff here, and it is a bit overwhelming to watch even over the course of two days. In Paola Gioli's case, the sometimes misapplied term of "experimental cinema" is appropriate as many of the films were made with in such a way that the results could not be anticipated.

Gioli primarily seems to be interested in the nature of film, specifically the strips of celluloid, how images are recorded and manipulated, as well as how film reacts to different kinds of elements both within and outside of nature. Gioli took up filmmaking after coming to New York City, a young painter, reacting to the explosion of the arts in the late Sixties, and how art and artists informed each other's work. The first film, Tracce di Tracce was created mostly by Gioli's fingerprints painted on the frames to create a series of abstract images. It's the kind of work that evokes Stan Brakhage or Len Lye. Gioli was unaware of Brakhage at the time, but, like Brakhage , most of his work is silent. Gioli's other films have similarities with other filmmakers. In his own way, Gioli makes me think of Ken Jacobs reworking the silent film, Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son. Taking the 1905 film, shot as a series of tableaus, with a stationary camera filming the action from a distance, Jacobs broke down the film into a series of shots, examining the the multiple bits of action within each of the original shots, stretching a five minute short to almost two hours.

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The comparison with Ken Jacobs is not to be taken too closely. What Gioli does, is take film either shot by himself, or from other sources, and in addition to closing in on parts of the original image, will create mirror, reverse or negative images. There are also smaller images inserted within the frame. There are film strips exposed through pin hole cameras, with Gioli's hand used as a shutter. Film strips are also seen traveling unmoored from the sprockets. Gioli also "animates" still photos, sometimes creating little narratives with unrelated shots, as well as using different film formats. Additionally, Gioli would build his own cameras to create films that were independent of exposing film at 18 or 24 frames per second, or restrained by the sprockets in a conventional camera.

The thirty-eight films, all of varying lengths, are grouped together roughly by theme, and techniques explored by Gioli. The DVD set comes with a booklet that includes an essay discussing the history of avant-garde and experimental films in Italy, and Gioli's place within that history, an essay by David Bordwell on what he calls Gioli's "vertical cinema", an interview with Gioli, and notes by Gioli that provide the English language translation of the film titles, and a brief description on how each film was created.


February 02, 2016

The Beauty Inside


Byuti Insaideu
Baik - 2015
Well Go USA BD Region A

In its first incarnation, The Beauty Inside was an episodic and interactive program made for Youtube, under the direction of Drake Doremus. The main character, Alex, wakes up every morning to find that he is physically a different person, with a possible change in age, and gender. From what I read about this version, the various actors who portrayed Alex gave the role their own interpretation.

The Korean film version keeps the essential premise, but as part of a narrative story. There are reportedly twenty actors as Woo-jin, some for several scenes, others for just a few seconds, but there the character has some shared mannerisms, providing consistent traits in the various incarnations. Woo-jin is a furniture maker who lives and works alone, his only contacts with the outside world being his mother and his long time friend, Sang-beck. The embrace of the solitary life is challenged upon meeting furniture saleswoman, E-soo. Attraction turns into a few days of dating when Woo-jin appears as a handsome young man. One can stay awake and not change appearances for only a few days. Woo-jin reveals his secret to E-soo. For a while, E-soo seems to be able to live with constant change of identity.

Both E-soo and Woo-jin are 29 years old. There is no discussion, but their relationship is chaste, where sleeping together is no euphemism. The film sidesteps any controversy over such matters as age, gender and race. Woo-jin appears as a European man, a grandmotherly Korean woman, a woman of African descent, and a young boy, among his many entities. One might argue that the relationship is platonic to emphasize the idea of inner beauty. What is interesting to note is that the only versions of Woo-jin that E-soo is seen kissing are played by Koreans, with Woo-jin in female form almost, but not quite pressing lips with E-soo.

I'm not certain about the significance, but both Woo-jin and his mother have their livelihoods based on craftwork. Woo-jin makes one of a kind pieces of furniture, often for customer specifications. The mother sells yarn, and in one scene demonstrates knitting for E-soo.

This is the first feature by Baik following a career of making commercials. There is some visual play, mostly in the use of jump cuts between the different actors as Woo-jin, usually in bridges between scenes. Han Hyo-joo, as E-soo, carries most of the dramatic weight, as has a couple of Best Actress nominations for her performance here. There are some humorous moments, as well as a couple that might tug at the heartstrings. Still, I wish that there was a filmmaker brave enough to address the possibilities and implications that are shied away from here.


January 31, 2016

Coffee Break

Dax Shepard and Tom Arnold in Hit & Run (Dax Shepard & David Palmer - 2012)

January 26, 2016

The Assassin


Cike Nie Yinniang
Hou Hsiao-Hsien - 2015
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

For those who may not have had the opportunity to see The Assassin theatrically, rest assured that the blu-ray keeps the 4:3 aspect ratio, with the exception of the "zither scene". The extraordinary use of color is here as well. Still, there are certain moments which may be lost unless the film is seen on a relatively large screen.

The blu-ray comes with four very short "making of" vignettes which are worth seeing because Hou discusses his intentions when he made the film, as well as his method of filmmaking. Cinematographer Mark Lee, costumer and production designer Hwarng Wern-Ying, and stars Shu Qi and Chang Chen also contribute their thoughts on working with Hou. What makes these bonus features important is that The Assassin needs to be understood and appreciated on its own terms, rather than the genre expectations that usually come with a wuxia film.

Hou undercuts those expectations by keeping the fight scenes brief, and by often filming those scenes from a distance. In a sword fight against several soldiers, Hou has a couple of shots of Shu Qi and her adversaries in medium shots before cutting to a long shot where the characters are barely seen in the distance, the action mostly obscured by trees in the forest. In a duel with a swords woman wearing a gold mask, Hou immediately begins with the two women engaged, sword against sword, jumping into what would be the middle of the scene in traditional narrative filmmaking. There is a little bit of wire work, including a scene with Chang Chen chasing Shu Qi across a roof top, a small nod to the more classic wuxia film.

Hou is known for his long takes. There are a couple of shots where the the camera doesn't move, where the viewer needs to concentrate to notice the movement within the frame. Hou talks about letting nature dictate some of the shots, waiting for the wind to blow, making him akin to David Lean, but on a more intimate scale. One of the advantages of being able to see The Assassin on home video is that allows the viewer the leisure to contemplate the carefully arranged palate of colors, the silk costumes and curtains, and use of light and shadow.

This is Shu Qi's third film with Hou. Mostly dialogue free, and seemingly expressionless, Hou deliberately makes Nie Yinniang enigmatic. It's a fitting performance in a film where family relationships also have much larger political meanings, and where what is unspoken can be more important that what is said.