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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Remembering the 75th birthday of the original BATMAN (Lambert Hillyer) serial. Geoff Mayer recalls its production and the Manzanar Historical Site used to house Japanese Americans rounded up in WW2

The 1943 Columbia serial Batman, which has its 75th anniversary next month, is the first screen adaptation of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger’s creation that first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939. The serial, like many films released in 1942 and 1943, is a valuable historical document as well as one of Columbia’s better, if somewhat crazy, serials.

The serial retained some elements of the comic, such as wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) and his ward Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) as the crime avengers Batman and Robin. It also retained Wayne’s love interest Linda Page (Shirley Patterson), a character Wayne romanced throughout the war years in the comic. 

On the other hand, the serial introduced the Bat Cave (called the “Bat’s Cave”) that was eventually absorbed into the comic while Captain Arnold (Charles C. Wilson) replaced Commissioner Gordon in the serial. Distressingly, for some, Wayne drives a pedestrian black Cadillac in the serial.

Batman(1943) has, over the years, been subjected to derision (especially during the “camp” craze of the 1960s) and outrage due to its racial stereotyping that resulted in the censoring of early VHS copies of the serial.  Fortunately, the complete serial is now available (see image right try Ebayand it documents the intensity of American outrage following the “surprise” attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

While this attack had the effect of uniting a country divided between isolationists opposed to any involvement in World War 11 and those who supported President Roosevelt’s aid to Britain and its allies, it also had the effect of unleashing intense racial stereotyping, especially with regard to the Japanese. One unfortunate ramification of this was Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 (issued on February 19, 1942) that resulted in the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans in 10 camps in remote areas of the country. Sixty-two per cent of those incarcerated were American citizens. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, held in a less emotive time, concluded that the incarcerations were not justified by military necessity but a result of “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

What has this got to do with Batman (1943)? Well, during chapter 1, where Batman and Robin are described as representative of “American youth who love their country,” the serial interrupts the narrative to endorse Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. This occurs as the camera tracks through empty American streets formerly occupied by people of Japanese heritage. The narrator (Knox Manning):
This was part of a foreign land transplanted bodily to America and known as “Little Tokyo.” Since a wise government rounded up the shifty eyed Japs it’s become virtually a ghost street where only one business survives eking out a precarious existence on the dimes of curiosity seekers.

The “one business” is an amusement show called the “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” a sideshow involving tableaus depicting Japanese violence that serves as the hideout of the Japanese master villain, Dr. Daka (J. Carroll Naish). Here Daka, in an attempt to gain control of radium to fuel his atomic ray capable of mass destruction, transforms American industrialists into zombies. It also houses a concealed alligator pit in Daka’s office/laboratory.

Naish’s performance as Daka overwhelms, in a good way, the serial and Lewis Wilson is impressive as Batman despite his ill-fitting costume and cowl with horns attached. The cliff-hanger to chapter 13, even for a serial, is outrageously good with Linda Page subjected to Daka’s zombie converting machine while Batman faces “certain” death trapped in a collapsing room with steel spikes about to penetrate his body.

Manzanar National Historic Site
A final word on one of the internment camps, the first one, built at Manzanar, a few miles from Lone Pine at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California’s Owens Valley. To the credit of the American government the site remains as the Manzanar National Historic Site with a central area that documents the history of the internment camp plus a few huts. It is run by the National Park Service. I have visited the site more than a half a dozen times and I never fail to shed a tear at the persistence and courage of those Japanese Americans who tried to normalise their existence (with gardens, baseball games, marriages and births) in an area of extreme temperatures living in poorly equipped huts.

Manzanar National Historic Site
Anyone interested in more information on Batman(1943), Batman (1949) and the propaganda serials, including the similarly themed, and superior, 1943 Republic serial G-Men Vs. The Black Dragon (William Whitney), can consult my Encyclopaedia of American Film Serials  (McFarland, 2017, click on the title for a link to Amazon)
Manzanar National Historic Site

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

On DVD - John Snadden finds a double disc of THE NICKEL RIDE (Robert Mulligan) & 99 AND 44/100% DEAD (John Frankenheimer)

I very much enjoyed last Monday's day off, courtesy of the Windsor family and the matriarch's birthday. 
I watched a tremendous South Korean crime flick, Believer  and picked up a DVD I've been after for ages (at a reasonable price). This US double-disc from the Shout Factory is a must have for anyone who has more than a passing interest in 1970s crime-action films. 

THE NICKEL RIDE and 99 AND 44/100% DEAD,  from major Hollywood directors Robert Mulligan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, SUMMER OF '42) and John Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, BLACK SUNDAY) were released in 1974.  
99 44/100% DEAD is a near forgotten movie and not many cinema enthusiasts would even know of it as a Frankenheimer film. It's basically a weird pastiche of many film styles and is blackly comic. Richard Harris is the nominal star but it's Chuck Connors who makes his mark as a one-handed assassin who could well be Freddy Kreuger's long lost uncle. Ann Turkel has a co-starring role mainly because she was married to Harris at the time. I've only ever seen this pic on video and it's good to see this disc sports a nice widescreen transfer. 

99.44% Dead
THE NICKEL RIDE is an exceptionally good crime film from a decade which produced probably Hollywood's best crime movies. I didn't know much about this title except it was Robert Mulligan's next film after THE OTHER, one of the screen's great horror movies. He handles this gritty gangster drama with such ease I'm surprised he never did more in the genre. 
The Nickel Ride
Jason Miller (THE EXORCIST) is believable as the "key man", a mid-level mob figure who arranges the storage of stolen goods. His masters aren't impressed when he has trouble in arranging the sale of a large warehouse, and soon finds himself under extreme pressure from gangland associates and cowboy-like contract killers. It's not action-packed but delivers in storyline and atmosphere. John Hillerman and Bo Hopkins are first rate in secondary roles, and Linda Haynes does her best Tuesday Weld impersonation. It reminded me a lot of THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Sydney Film Festival - Links to Film Alert 101 reviews


Now that the Sydney Film Festival is over here are the links to the entire total (28) of films reviewed on the blog by moi, Barrie Pattison and Rod Bishop. Click on the film title to go through.

No Date, No Signature (Vahid Jalilvand, Iran)

Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany)reviewed by Geoff Gardner

The Insult (Ziad Doueiri, Lebanon/France)reviewed by Barrie Pattison

24 Frames(Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)

No Date, No Signature (Vahid Jalilvand, Iran) reviewed by Barrie Pattison

Dragonfly Eyes (Xu Bing, China)     

Monday, 18 June 2018

Sydney Film Festival (25) - STRANGE COLORS (Alena Lodkina, Australia)

Alena Lodkina
Watching Strange Colors only a matter of weeks after being reminded of Jane Campion’s feature length debut 2 Friends my first thought was about their similarities – intense personal experience, actors displaying a raw truth, the focus on a young woman/women. I was minded to be extravagant and call it the best first feature since 2 Friends  all the way back except some rudimentary googling came up with the names Shirley Barrett, Cate Shortland, Laurie McInnes, Anna Kokkinos, Samantha Lang, Rachel Ward,  Beck Cole, Jennifer Kent, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Elissa Down, Tracey Moffatt, Margot Nash, Rachel Perkins, Catriona McKenzie, Ann Turner, Alice Foulcher…and there are more. 

So the trick for Alena Lodkina now will be to have a career to rival the titans Campion and Gillian Armstrong each with substantial bodies of work stretching for decades, rather than just make a couple of movies over far too long and eking out a living doing TV. If my theory of film funding applied she would already have had a call from Screen Australia telling her she has a million bucks to make another one quick smart and get on with it, just bring us back a movie. (I thought the same thing about Alice Foulcher and Gregory Erdstein after seeing their debut That’s Not Me last year.) But in the land of the eternal ‘another draft please, here’s a morsel’, that’s not the way it works. As a result, the others mentioned have found much harder rows to hoe, some have seemingly given up. 

Strange Colors
But no mistake, Lodkina’s career kick off is quite something – a film which explores relationships between polar opposites and sets it way out in Wake in Fright country where life is hard, brutal and demanding and every man seems to have a can of beer permanently attached to their hand from morning refresher to evening stupor and no other women are seen. It’s very blokey, but Lodkina eschews making Kenneth Cook and Ted Kotcheff’s conclusion her own. There is little frustration and even less violence on show, even the animal slaughter is discreet and there’s not even a fight in the pub around the pool table, the most notorious area of any bar for starting fisticuffs.

The father/daughter relationship on show – reserved daughter looking for her father out at Lightning Ridge because she thinks he’s dying, father unwilling to do much to refresh the relationship, choosing rmostly to resume hostilities, is done very well. You feel some sense of lived experience. In the end the daughter moves on for exactly the same reason she left him behind before. She doesn’t like him very much. That was good. No phoney reconciliations, no promises. 

A fine debut and certainly the best of the Australian films I saw at the SFF. 

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Sydney Film Festival (24) - BROTHERS' NEST (Clayton Jacobson, Australia)

(Spoiler alert, large chunks of plot given away)

Shane & Clayton Jacobson
Shane and Clayton Jacobson came out of nowhere to make Kenny way back in 2007. It was a film that captured imaginations. Hearts even. At the screening I attended, I still remember the moment when Kenny says he cant get to Sydney because he has to supervise the portable dunnies at the Melbourne Cup. “Oh No! Not the Melbourne Cup” said half the audience (four of eight) and they got up and left. The joke had worn out.

It’s taken a decade or more for the brothers to do another movie and this time there was no movement from the audience at any stage. 

Playing brothers Terry and Jeff, the Jacobsons have assembled a comic thriller with some serious, deadly, moments.  A slow burn, slow reveal, approach is what they are after, a bit Highsmithian. From the start guilt and uncertainty are already preying on Terry as the brothers embark on a lunatic scheme to murder their hated step-father, the man who caused their natural father to hang himself. The plan hatched by Jeff is motivated by pure greed. They seem to have been cut out of their mother’s will.

For close to an hour it’s only the brothers on screen as they prepare the family home to make ready for what they hope will be seen as a suicide. At each step of the crazed plan, little things go wrong. Best joke is deciding what electrical implement they will throw into the bath in order to electrocute him. Then there’s a problem because they need an extension cord. Life’s little miseries. Jeff in particular is basing the plan on endless number of viewings of TV crime shows. He has half absorbed a million facts about DNA and evidence and he rattles them off at will to placate, but bamboozle, his dumber sibling.

Kim Gyngell, Brothers' Nest
Somewhere along the way you realise the progenitor of it. It’s an attempt to channel a movie into a down-under Coen Bros wanta-lookalike, Fargo in a cheap setting, the backblocks of Victoria.  Its filled to the brim with Jacobson brothers laconic, ironic humour. The dad (Kym Gyngell) continues on from the dad in Kenny, a mean-minded arsehole who cant stand his stepsons.   The mum (Lynette Curran) is a monster propped up by walking sticks but still able to smack her son in the same room where she gave him a childhood beating on the day of his dad’s funeral.

Shane Jacobson, Sarah Snook, Brothers' Nest
In the end it turns violent but again with a twist involving setting fire to a car. Very droll. All up  a handful of actors do some comic stuff.

Amazing end credits. The producer/distributor must have pre-sold/booked the film to a host of independent theatres, all of whom have their logo on the screen. Never seen that before.

It's opening on 21 June in all those independent theatres. If you wait till the end you’ll probably be able to see the logo of the theatre where you are watching the movie.
Lynette Curran, Brothers' Nest

Sydney Film Festival (23) - Barrie Pattison reviews SAMUI SONG (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand)

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Visitor Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is one of the most established of Thailand’s film makers. He’s worked with Christopher Doyle and Takashi Miike and his Monrak Transistor and Invisible Waves have had some circulation abroad. That last film has several connections with his new Samui Song- including a Double Indemnity husband murder and a pregnancy sub-plot. Its bloody fish tank anticipates the gore stained pottery wheel in this film. That one wasn’t at all bad. 

Samui Song is the first fiction feature the director has come up with in six years, and he spent two of them editing it. American trained, he acknowledges his debt to Fellini, Bergman, Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch & Hitchcock. There’s more of Dial M For Murder with the killing of spouse Stepane Sednaoui, than of Strangers on a Train which the writer-director nominates. 

Soap Opera star Laila Chermarn Boonyasak plays a soap opera star who gets fellow smoker (“a social stigma before lung cancer”) David Asavanond to off husband potter Sedanoui after the dastard turns her out for Vithaya Pansringarm the leader of his Bondayakava Buddhist sect.

We start off with a car crash seen from the eyes of a dog for no fathomable reason.  Asavanond, looking after his invalid mother in single element lens insets, has to flee, with her making her lightning recovery, after he downs a couple of gunmen sent in retaliation. Suddenly there’s a time shift and a Thai Whale NGO is boating out to the remote community of Koh Samui with a 35mm movie projector show, after which one of their team attempts to rape a local. Rescued, she gets into a vigorous kiss with our heroine now subject to plastic surgery and the girl wants to take showers naked with her. We are denied that, though we did get a protracted shot of Sedanoui masturbating.

Samui Song
Vengeful Asavanond shows up with the organs of his now deceased mother in a ziplock bag, wanting the star to eat them, only for him to get repeatedly stabbed with a broken bottle, and then mysteriously shot.  The cult leader re-appears for what seems to be a cynical conclusion pinpointing exploitation by the patriarchy.

This is all delivered at length in artificial, muted colour with the digital production values that we might associate with the day time soap drama it references. The mix of sensationalism and naiveté is not without some fascination. I wonder what its target audience made of it all. 

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang seems like a nice guy and he’s the visible tip of a lot of movie activity. I wish I liked Samui Song better.

Sydney Film Festival (22) - LEAVE NO TRACE (Debra Granik, USA)

Spoiler Alert: The whole plot is given away here.

In Winter’s Bone (USA, 2010), Debra Granik and her collaborator Anne Rosellini, adapted a novel by Daniel Woodrell set in the backblocks, the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. The economy of this cold, bleak and godforsaken place seemed to run entirely on the production of illegal methamphetamines. A late teenage young woman spends her time trying to keep the remnants of her family together. The mother is dead, the father is missing. 

Winter’s Bone got a lot of attention. It catapulted at least one of its principals to stardom. That was the then young Jennifer Lawrence. 

Debra Granik
The director and writer seem to have spent the next seven years or so getting another feature movie off the ground, though Granik wrote and directed a documentary, Stray Dog in 2014 and is reported to have been seeking a go ahead for the pilot of an HBO series American High Life back in 2012. Glacial career pace you might say but a pattern not unfamiliar to any number of highly-regarded independent film-makers in any number of countries.

The new movie is Leave No Trace, is also adapted from a novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock. The similarities with the earlier Winter’s Bone do stand out. Once again, at the centre is a young and very smart teenage girl. This time its Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who is a willing participant in the lifestyle of her father, an ex-Vietnam vet with problems who chooses to shun civilisation as much as possible and mostly lives hand to mouth deep in parks and forests on the edge of cities. In this case it’s Portland Oregon but you get the impression that the pair are always on the move, always feeling threatened. The fact that the little vegetable garden Tom has planted has barely emerging plants indicates that their time in the place has been short, as usual.

Anne Rossellini
 Tom and her father Will try to escape all scrutiny, cover their tracks, leave no trace. They are ‘caught’ and kind people help them out, put them up and force Will into taking a job. An overhead helicopter seems to be the catalyst for Will deciding they will bolt and again try and leave no trace. Again they wind up in a low rent trailer community living on the edge of a park – lots of kindness again plus some sense of community. Sitting round the campfire and singing, tending to some beehives, making relationships – Tom decides that when Will once again, for unfathomable/unspoken reasons wants to move on deeper into the forest, she’s had enough and refuses. 

There’s almost no violence, apart from the police apprehension. The father and daughter are utterly respectful of each other. Hardly a voice gets raised. But you understand a lot…that’s what so good about what Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini do. It’s remarkable. 

But surely it shouldn’t take seven years for them to be able to once again strut their very fine, very quiet, stuff.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Ben Foster, Leave No Trace