April 16, 2021

The Rookies

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Su ren te gong
Alan Yuen - 2019
Shout! Studios

When it comes to making films for Alan Yuen, the spectacle takes precedence over any kind of coherent story. Even more so than Firestorm (2014), we have a collection of sometimes spectacular set pieces strung together with a plot that does not make a whole lot of sense. The rookies of the title are four youngish people, eccentric in their own ways, who accidentally become involved in saving the world from a villain who has a chemical gas that turns people into plants. The action jumps from Hong Kong to Budapest, with our quartet working in conjunction with a secret international crime fighting organization.

The film is mostly comic although some moments of violence undermine the general good cheer. But it is also a mixed bag, with lots of special effects that are a reminder that Yuen intended his film to ideally be seen in 3D. Also mixed is the comedy, with visual humor easily winning over some of the verbal jousting that may have been lost in translation. The version being made available here is entirely in English, jarring when seeing Johnny To supporting player Lam Suet speaking in a voice I know is not his own. A side note here - there seems to be a law that Lam must be seen eating in all film appearances. Lam is a police chief who sends incompetent underling Sandrine Pinna to Budapest. The normally attractive Pinna is unrecognizable with heavy glasses and clothing. Milla Jovovich is sold as the film's main attraction but she is really more of a supporting character here. Yuen's idea of humor is to have her play a secret agent named Bruce, speak with a raspy voice, and wear a man's suit with her hair tightly in place. Imagine a somewhat glammed up Fran Lebowitz as an action star.

The best moments involves the rookies disguised as a Kiss cover band, and a Volkswagen Beetle souped beyond anything imagined for James Bond. That Yuen will try almost anything for a laugh includes a dumb-funny scene with an inflatable sex doll. The Rookies would still have benefitted from tightening up or simply cutting out some of the footage.

The Rookies is available on PVOD and limited theatrical engagements.

April 13, 2021

Dynasty

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Qian dao wan li zhu
Mei-Chung Chang - 1977
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I was curious about Dynasty based on having a bit more knowledge about Chinese language cinema than at the time of the film's initial release. Also, I have had a continual interest in 3D films, either those of a certain vintage, or by certain filmmakers. What I was not aware of until I did my research prior to viewing Dynasty was the involvement of Michael Findlay. And yes, indeed, this was the same Michael Findlay most infamously known for the rough sex films made primarily with his wife, Roberta. Those of more delicate dispositions may not want to know some of the seamier aspects of Findlay's life by those who knew him, but it seemed like his invention of of a single camera 3D attachment might have changed his life instead of indirectly being the cause of his death. Then again, 3D films seemed to trend in and out of popularity at the time. While King Hu's A Touch of Zen played recently at the New York Film Festival, Chinese language martial arts films were generally considered a step down from porn in the mid-1970s, dismissed, if reviewed at all, as "chopsocky".

Findlay served as a technical adviser on three films, all Hong Kong-Taiwanese coproductions. A second film directed by Chang, Revenge of the Shogun Women is reportedly even more extreme in its depiction of violence. The third film, Magnificent Bodyguards (1978), directed by Wei Lo, features an early starring role for Jackie Chan. The title translates from Mandarin to "Chase after a thousand knives". Basically, the evil eunuch, Lord Chao, is plotting to rule China. It is up to a young man, Tan, to stop Lord Chao. There follows various battles, ambushes and assorted mayhem. Heads and hands are lopped off. Spears, knives, bricks and arrow fly towards the camera. Not being aware of the quality of the competition, I can only report that Chang's film was regarded well enough in Taiwan to be nominated as Best Film for the Golden Horse awards, the Taiwanese equivalent to the Oscars. Ying Bai won as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Chao. The film, as presented here, is only in an English dubbed version, which makes judging the quality of the performances difficult. Whatever qualities Dynasty has might be more credited to stunt coordinator Ying Chieh-Han and the production's uncredited editors for cleverly piecing together the extended action scenes.

The blu-ray has offered two ways of watching Dynasty. There is the polarized version for those with the television and the glasses. For myself, I watched the anaglyph version with an enclosed cardboard set of glasses. The viewing experience may be different depending on how one watches the film as well as the variables pertaining to the viewer's vision. My own take is that the 3D worked best in shots involving depth and distance. Objects coming towards the camera tended to vibrate and appear less solid. The intended effect is lost when that sword pointing at you seems very flimsy. Some leeway may be needed here as there were reportedly some technical imperfections at the time of production, and the 3D Archives was tasked with restoring a film that was probably not well preserved since its run through various drive-ins and grind houses.

The blu-ray comes with an assortment of extras. The most useful in relation to Dynasty is an explanation of how Michael Findlay created his Supertouch 3D system and its subsequent history. Also a couple of shorts on how 3D was used as a sales device, as well as 3D cameras for consumers. The animated music video, "Go Away I Like You Too Much" is cute and funny. The one misfire is the inclusion of a 1953 3D comic book, The House of Terror. Two full pages are on the screen, but the panels are still too small and wordy. Reproduction of individual panels or two at a time would have worked better in this case.

April 06, 2021

Western Classics II

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The Redhead from Wyoming
Lee Sholem - 1953

Pillars of the Sky
George Marshall - 1957

Gun for a Coward
Abner Biberman - 1958
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Three-disc set

Doing some research prior to watching the films in this set, I was reminded of how different film exhibition was at the time these films made their respective theatrical runs. Westerns kept within a certain budget were almost guaranteed to make a profit, and were produced as way of keeping the studios financially afloat. Unless they were prestige productions, these films were usually seen in urban areas in second-tier theaters as part of a double feature, and as single features for a run of two days in the small town and rural theaters. There were the series of westerns starring James Stewart, directed by Anthony Mann, and the unexpected career resurgence of Randolph Scott beginning with his first collaboration with director Budd Boetticher. But more frequently, the films featured aging stars who had commercially peaked a decade or more earlier. To call the films in this collection "classics" might be a stretch, but they are representative of the Universal-International released of their time.

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Star Maureen O'Hara described The Redhead from Wyoming as "another western stinkeroo for Universal". It is mildly entertaining, and can charitably be considered the high point in the career of Lee "Roll-em" Sholem. The prolific director was known for keeping within tight budgets and schedules, which kept him in good stead churning out TV westerns on the Warner Brothers lot in the Fifties. O'Hara plays the part of a saloon owner caught up in the conflict between a local cattle baron and the newer settlers, and a triangle between a politically ambitious former lover and the town's sheriff. Fans of television westerns can catch future stars Dennis Weaver and Jack Kelly in supporting roles. The best part of this film would be the costumes for the dance hall gals from costume designer Edward Stevenson. Technicolor is used to, pardon the cliche, eye popping effect here. Samm Deighan provides a well-prepared commentary track, mostly discussing O'Hara, the historical inspirations for the film, and aspects of the cultural context, gold polish on a cinematic brass ring.

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George Marshall might be best remembered for directing three types of films - westerns, comedies, and comic westerns. Most serious critics consider Destry Rides Again, the comic western with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich to be his best film. I much prefer Red Garters starring Rosemary Clooney, Gene Barry and Jack Carson. Much of that film takes place on a sparse, abstract set, kind of like Lars von Triers' Dogville, but more fun. Not as much fun is Pillars of the Sky.

Again there are two triangles. Taking place in 1868, Jeff Chandler is a sergeant who overseas an Indian reservation in Oregon, then still a territory. His job is to keep the peace between several tribes and enforce a treaty with the federal government. Due to a loophole soldiers come to build a bridge and create a trail through the tribal land. Added to this, Dorothy Malone, long in love with Chandler, but married to army captain Keith Andes, shows up. Along for the ride are a perpetually inebriated Lee Marvin, television's go to guy for playing Native Americans - Frank de Kova, and if you look close enough, Martin Milner. More significantly in the supporting cast is Olive Carey, who starred with husband Harry Carey in the wester, Love's Lariat, co-directed by George Marshall in 1916.

What makes this film very problematic for contemporary viewers is that the "good" Indians have been converted to Christianity by missionary/medical doctor Ward Bond. Several of the Native Americans have taken biblical names. The message of the film is that white people and Native Americans should and can live together, but only if the Native Americans negate their traditional beliefs. On the plus side, George Marshall fills the CinemaScope frame nicely with on location filming in Oregon. Western genre expert Toby Roan's commentary track includes pointing out many of the cast members and crew with overviews of their careers, a look at some of the production methods of the time at Universal-International, and a plethora of information not found in Wikipedia or IMDb.

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There is not much subtlety with the hell raising youngest brother nicknamed Hade, while the meeker middle brother is named Bless. A bit of suspension of disbelief might be required to have the oldest rancher brother played by Fred MacMurray. If with this questionable casting, Gun for a Coward is the strongest of the three films in this set. With Jeffrey Hunter as Bless, Dean Stockwell as Hade, plus Chill Wills and Janice Rule, MacMurray has strong support. The film might be read as a parable about toxic masculinity. It should be a surprise to no one that Hunter redeems himself in the end, but not in the way that the title might suggest.

This is the only film currently available by actor turned director Abner Biberman. Not to be confused with the blacklisted Herbert Biberman, Abner Biberman does have an interesting, if small, filmography that includes a couple of thrillers from 1956 that respectively star Merle Oberon and Sylvia Sidney. Biberman makes use of the wide CinemaScope frame not only in his placement of people across the screen but also in composing shots that use as much of the depth within the frame. Unlike many wide screen films that emphasized lateral compositions, Biberman sometimes employs multiple planes in some of his group shots forcing greater active viewing. One standout scene is of Hunter and Stockwell making a late night visit to a virtually empty bar, the only business open in a what appears to be a late night. The pair are soon to be surrounded by a gang of bad hombres. In a film where much of the action can be anticipated in advance, this is the one scene with some genuine tension. Lee Gambin's commentary track places the film within the context of both the western genre and films made roughly within the same time that explored expressions of masculinity.

April 02, 2021

The Man in Search of his Murderer

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Der Mann, der seinen Morder sucht / Jim, der Mann mit der Narbe
Robert Siodmak - 1931
Kino Classics BD Region A

First, an explanation is needed regarding the two German titles. While the blu-ray is released with the English language translation of the original title, the actual film we see has the second title, translated as "Jim, the Man with the Scar", hereafter referred to as Jim. The original version, now considered lost, had a running time of 96 minutes. The blu-ray is the abridged version with a running time of 53 minutes. There is no online material discussing what is in the missing footage, nor is any information provided in the commentary track. Even with the excised footage, the narrative is still fairly cohesive.

While Robert Siodmak is known almost exclusively for his noir made during the 1940s, he has had a couple of comedies even after this film. And yet, I was overwhelmed by the how much of the film seemed connected to Billy Wilder, one of the film's three credited screenwriters. The basic plot is of a bumbling man, Hans Herfort, who can not bring himself to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. A burglar breaks into Hans' apartment. Hans negotiates with the burglar to murder Hans for an agreed upon price by Noon the next day. The burglar bungles the job of assassin which is handed over to the titular Jim. In the meantime, Hans finds himself in love with Kitty, a young woman he meets in an overcrowded cabaret. Now in love, Hans attempts to cancel the contract on his life. The film is a black comedy that the creative team enjoyed making. Among the identifiable influences are the social satire of Brecht, the romantic misunderstandings of Lubitsch, and the boisterous mayhem of Buster Keaton and peers. Man/Jim was also a commercial failure, not connecting with the audience of the time.

With that opening scene, with Heinz Ruhmann as Hans, I thought immediately of how Wilder had used suicide as a source of humor in his films. That the initial set-up recalls Wilder's last film, Buddy, Buddy made me wonder if that film's original source author, Francis Veber, had at least seen the remake of Man that came out in 1952. That remake was written and directed by Ernst Neubach, author of the play that was the source for Siodmak's film. As for what changes were made and any specific contributions made by the writers, that is unknown. In an interview, Curt Siodmak only briefly mentions that he was working on the yet completed screenplay when producer Erich Pommer put the film in production. Having worked with him previously, Robert Siodmak brought in Wilder who was transitioning from working as a journalist. The third screen writer, Ludwig Hirschfeld, was primarily known for writing several travel books, stage plays and novellas. One play, Geschaft mit Amerika ("Doing Business in America") was filmed in four different language versions between 1932 and 1933. A play co-written by Hirschfeld was the source for a low budget American comedy, The Mad Martindales, released in 1942, the year Hirschfeld died in Auschwitz. It is sobering to note that the least known of the the creative team was the one who stayed in Germany while the others achieved varying degrees of success in Hollywood.

Visually, one can recognize Robert Siodmak's use of high and low angle shots. There is also the expressive use of lighting, especially in night time street scenes. The cabaret scene in particular is notbable in that we see the various dancing couple in the foreground moving in an out of the frame, while behind them, sitting at a table is the first view of Kitty with a would-be lover she is trying to shake off. The music score was by Friedrich Hollaender, known later as Frederick Hollander, with supervision by Franz Waxman. Hollander also has a small role in the film. The two composers would work again with Billy Wilder.

The commentary track by historian Josh Nelson primarily discusses the film as early work by Robert Siodmak. Stars Heinz Ruhmann and Dutch actress Lien Deyers have brief overviews of their respective careers. While the commentary is a well prepared presentation, I still wish I knew more about the film we can not see. As it is, the surviving Jim is a 2013 restoration from the F. W. Murnau Foundation which has done outstanding work with early German films.

March 30, 2021

Stiletto

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Bernard L. Kowalski - 1969
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

This is essentially a pulp movie from a pulp novel. I do not think anyone ever has read a novel by Harold Robbins or seen a film adaptation from his novels expecting anything more than escapist entertainment. If a Robbins novel is something to be read while lounging by the beach on a summer day, Stiletto, the movie, might ideally be seen at home while sipping martinis.

For me, the real star of Stiletto is composer Sid Ramin. His score, a mix of lounge music, Herb Alpert style trumpet and a smattering of imitation Jimmy Smith doodling on the Hammond organ heard during the opening credit sequence informs the rest of the film. Ramin is most famous for his hit instrumental, "Music to Watch Girls By", back in 1967. No, I will not apologize for the attitudes of a past era. Sure, there are many "what were they thinking?" moments, but the film has be enjoyed on its own terms.

Cesare Cardinali is a mafia hit man from Italy who uses a stiletto knife to murder his victims. His front is his New York City import auto store plus racing customized cars. Cardinali also maintains relationships simultaneously with two women. Cardinali's victims are all mobsters under federal investigation. Wanting to retire from "the society" as it is euphemistically called here proves impossible.

Alex Cord never quite achieved the stardom some expected in the late Sixties, but he is well cast here. Born Alexander Viespi, Jr., Cord is able to slip in and out of speaking Italian in a few scenes. Patrick O'Neal appears as the federal prosecutor who has his eye on Cardinali as well as Cardinali's boss, played by Joseph Wiseman. Barbara McNair and Britt Ekland share Cord's affections. The still relatively unknown Roy Scheider appears as a mob attorney. Also making uncredited appearances are Olympia Dukakis, Charles Durning and M. Emmet Walsh. There is also some celebrity spotting when Cardinali shows up at a movie premiere, integrating footage of Cord with that of Peter O'Toole, Henry Fonda and William Buckley (!), presumably for The Lion in Winter, like Stiletto an Avco Embassy production.

A flashback scene at the beginning that is meant to establish Cardinali's character is a bit unclear. Processed using a sepia tone, the lack of a period appropriate haircut for Cardinali and his victim, a similarly aged man he has cuckolded, makes a time period difficult to ascertain. Also, making the scene dialogue free does not help. There are several moments of ill-advised artistic touches which might be attributed to editor Frank Mazzola, who has previously edited the montage-filled Performance ( filmed in 1968 but shelved until 1970), a frequent collaborator of director Donald Cammell.

The commentary track is from historian David Del Valle and director David DeCoteau. This is mostly casual banter between two friends that touches upon the life and career of Harold Robbins, as well as the careers of the main actors. The two note that due to the pandemic, access to research material has been limited. Still, much like Stiletto, the commentary track is reasonably entertaining.

March 23, 2021

The Projectionist

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Abel Ferrara - 2019
Kino Lorber BD Region A

I am not sure why Abel Ferrara chose to title his film The Projectionist. His subject, Nicolas Nicolaou is not noted as having served in that capacity. In a career spanning roughly forty-five years, Nicolaou, in immigrant from Cyprus, has risen from teenage usher, to management, eventually owning a small chain of theaters, and owning real estate in New York City. Ferrara's film ends with a high note, showing Nicolaou's high tech operation, allowing him to remotely run his New York City theaters from his luxurious home in Cypress. It almost goes without saying that this documentary of a man who totally loves film and the film-going experience needs a postscript, if not a full sequel.

I do not know the status of all of Nicoloau's theaters, but the one featured prominently, located in Brooklyn, is closed due to Covid-19. As the expression goes, it is not just business, but personal. There is a new story to be told about how Nicoloau navigates his way through forced closures, retrofitting theaters air conditioning, seating restrictions, even thinner profit margins, and uncertain availability of films with some given quick availablilty on streaming platforms.

Where the film held the most interest for me was Nicoloau and Ferrara taking a tour around Manhattan where the theaters use to stand, intercut with old documentary footage and photographs from the 1970s. I visited many of the theaters seen or mentioned from my time living in New York City between 1969 and 1977. This was when most theaters were single screen, with a handful of exceptions. As a film student, I could easily watch nothing but vintage classics in 35mm prints at several theaters dedicated to cinema's past. I understood Nicoloau and Ferrara's nostalgia for the corner of 59th Street and Third Avenue where on one block stood the Coronet and the smaller Baronet theaters, and nearby, Cinema I and Cinema II. These were theaters that showed films like Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver and other films from the "new" Hollywood as well as the so-called "art" films from Europe.

It is also fun to hear the stories of Nicoloau's former employers, how he got his first theater, and tales of a long gone New York City. Part of Nicoloau's chain, both as an employee and eventual theater owner, were several porno theaters, both straight and gay. Nicoloau has a live and let live attitude towards both what was happening on screen as well among the audiences.

More time is spent in an actual projection booth in Matt Barry's short, Cinevangelist: A Life in Revival Film. This bonus extra is a recording of George Figgs, telling about how movies took over his life as a young boy in Baltimore, some of the history of the exhibition of art and revival films, and his own operation of a small revival theater, The Orpheum. A second short could probably be made simply of Figgs recounting his association with Baltimore legend John Waters.

March 19, 2021

Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker

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Chris McKim - 2021
Produced by WOW Docs/World of Wonder's Randy Barbato & Fenton Bailey
Kino Lorber

In case anyone is wondering, the film title does not have asterisks, and I take full responsibility should there actually be someone reading this who gets offended.

My own awareness of artist David Wojnarowicz comes from reading about him in the performance art magazine, High Performance. This was in the late 1980s when congressional Republicans, looking for a new enemy following the apparent end of the Cold War, turned to attacking artists. In particular, artists and artists that received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, using tax dollars for art that was deemed objectionable, usually for reasons of sexuality. David Wojnarowicz was one of the artists cited for his artwork infomed by being gay and living in what was then considered a rougher part of the Lower East Side in New York City, between 1979 and 1992.

The documentary is cobbled together from Wojnarowicz's collection of cassette tapes of his own speaking, recorded phone calls, and city sounds, combined with his own Super 8 movies. Added to that are the voiceover recollections of friends and relatives, as well as photos by friend and former lover, the photographer Peter Hujar. Wojnarowicz's life is the story of a difficult childhood, with a street hustler turned self-taught artist and writer, who achieves greater notoriety than commercial success. While there had always been a political edge to much of Wojnarowicz's work, it became more pronounced and urgent when he was diagnosed with AIDS.

Chris McKim also incorporates other documentary footage and photos from more recent sources that try to give some contemporary resonance to his material. The various forms of bigotry and homophobia of the past have not gone away. Our own still fresh memories of how Covid-19 has been handled or mishandled show are another example of government indifference to an epidemic. But I also feel that even the briefest inclusion of Donald Trump, while well intended, is also a too easy target of anger.

As it is, the Trump connection is not entirely unwarranted. One of the stories is of Wojnarowicz getting a commission to create a piece in the basement of the brownstone of Robert and Adriana Mnuchin. The Mnuchins are high end art dealers and collectors. Their son, Steven, was Donald Trump's Secretary of the Treasury. Wojnarowicz gladly accepts the money and does the work, but part of his assemblage includes detritus from the New York City streets, and to Adriana Mnuchin's horror, live cockroaches.

Wojnarowicz is available for streaming on the Kino Marquee app.