Thursday 30 July 2020

Tom Ryan retrieves a key film of its time - On King Vidor's SO RED THE ROSE (USA, 1935)

The pain of loss and an irreparable air of sadness pervade King Vidor’s Civil War melodrama, which begins in 1861 and ends four years later. However, most of the fighting remains offscreen and the film’s focus is forcefully domestic, the imagery tightly-framed as it deals with the war’s impact on the life of the well-to-do Bedford family, landed Southern gentry: patriarch Malcolm (Walter Connolly), his wife, Sallie (Janet Beecher), their daughter, Valette (Margaret Sullavan), sons Edward (Harry Ellerbe) and 10-year-old Middleton (Dickie Moore), loyal black manservant William (Daniel L. Haynes), and cousin Duncan (Randolph Scott), who runs the family’s business affairs. Most of the action is set in and around the family home, a grand mansion which sits on the grounds of a slave plantation, an opening credit introducing it as “Portobello, the proudest plantation in Mississippi”. 

Loosely based on Stark Young’s 1934 novel, this is a film filled with arrivals and departures, a plot strategy classically deployed by Hollywood melodramas (and by Young’s novel). The approach ensures that the dramatic impact of each event is grounded in the family’s emotional response to it. Featuring a garden setting, the mansion is depicted as an idyll, a sanctuary where Malcolm can sip cocktails undisturbed on the verandah. Elsewhere, daily life on the plantation suggests that a comfortable state of affairs exists, at least on the surface, between the slaves and the family.

Edward’s return from university, with his friend, George Pendleton (Robert Cummings, delivering a very broad performance), is a joyous occasion, the welcoming home of a family member who has long been absent. Pendleton’s departure soon afterwards, following the arrival of news about the beginnings of the Civil War, finds Valette’s sweet-voiced rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer” to an enraptured Pendleton giving way to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, accompanying the arrival of the soldiers who are soon to depart for uncertain futures. Their eagerness for new adventures is countered by the over-arching sense of storm clouds gathering. 

What lies ahead has already been prefigured by an exchange between Malcolm and Sallie in the opening sequence (and by the viewer’s knowledge of the history of the time). He is certain that the rumours of war are false, reassuring her that her dream from the night before is just a dream. “The roses were dripping with blood,” she has fearfully told him (the allusion lending a specific meaning to the title). “But they smell just as fragrant this morning, my dear,” he responds with a benign complacency, insisting that theirs is a way of life that will never change. “Plantations will continue to run, birds will continue to sing, and I’ll continue to reach for the bottle.”

Edward initially reassures his mother that he’ll stay at home with the family, although his manner suggests otherwise. And it’s not until news arrives of Pendleton’s death that he finally makes the decision to take up arms. Another departure, this time an anguished one. Duncan, however, is determined not to become involved. This is a film in which a Scott character is, initially at least, firmly resistant to the idea of donning a uniform (something which isn’t the case with his character in the novel). And when a Confederate officer, Captain George MacGehee (Charles Starrett), urges him to join up, he remains firm in his resolve: “I don’t believe in your cause… I don’t believe that Americans should fight Americans.”

Margaret Sullavan
The film’s evocative cycle of comings and goings takes on a new dimension after the war arrives on the family’s doorstep. At first, the appearance of Union soldiers at the plantation is without threat, the polite intrusion of a commanding officer seeking directions, even if Malcolm takes his presence at Portobello as a personal insult, subsequently donning the Confederate uniform and heading off to war. But later, there’s a real sense of violation when other Union soldiers turn up and plunder the property, eventually burning down the family home by way of avenging themselves on the Southerners who’ve been executing Union prisoners. By this point, Malcolm has come home to die as a result of wounds he’d received in battle, George’s (offscreen) death has led Duncan to take up arms for the South, the slaves have been freed, and the women have been left to fend for themselves in the face of the invading forces.

Alongside the gradual disintegration of the Bedfords’ lives as a result of the war, Duncan’s relationship with Valette has blossomed. At the start, she’s like a sister to him (in the novel, she ishis step-sister). “You’re a flower of the old South,” he tells her. “You represent all its virtues and you embody all its faults.” But her flirtatious response to the soldiers who visit the property – Pendleton, MacGehee – induces a response from him that is more than brotherly. And her initial hostility to his pacificist inclinations, accusing him of being afraid, unsettles his determination to do what he has believed is right. 

Her censure at least partially motivates his eventual enlistment. However, when he returns, his harshness horrifies her. “How cruel you’ve grown,” she tells him when he commands his fellow soldiers to find the Union soldier who has sought refuge in their house and to “string him up”. 

His transformation has largely taken place off-screen, only a stunning shot as he initially takes up a rifle and runs towards the battle suggesting the changes he’s to undergo on the battlefield, the image evoking his transformation from a man hesitant and uncertain about what he’s doing to someone caught up in the frenzy of battle. Its subsequent impact on him is cryptically conveyed in his response to Valette, explaining what’s hardened him: “It’s war.” He eventually rediscovers his humanity and pretends to his comrades that the soldier is Edward, a decision that leads to his imprisonment by Confederate forces. 

Despite keeping the fighting almost completely off-screen, the film offers a powerful depiction of the tragedy that was the Civil War, a conflict whose wounds remain unhealed more than 150 years later. While our sympathies are clearly with the family, Vidor’s depiction of the national trauma that destroys their paradise takes no sides. 

Randolph Scott, Margaret Sullavan
Viewed from today, more than 80 years since the film was made, the film’s perspective on slavery is unsettling, as John Baxter notes in his Vidor book (1). Its proposal is that the workers, on this plantation at least, are perfectly content with their lot and that the war being fought to free them is not something they’re especially interested in. “What’s that got to do with us?” asks Mose (Clarence Muse), when Duncan attempts to talk to him about the war. 

Later, during the course of the war, the slaves on the plantation receive word that they’re about to gain their freedom. They are excited but uncomprehending. And, through William’s disapproving eyes, we’re invited to see them as little more a rabble when Scipio (Alex Hill) begins to whoop it up – “All this is yours. Go’n’ git it” – and they join him looting the plantation and taking William prisoner. The same point about their apparent inability to grasp the implications of their circumstances is further underlined when they revert to their former selves after Valette and Middleton silence them with their disapproving presence.

This reservation aside, though – and it’s a serious one –So Red the Rose offers a potent portrait of a world in the process of tearing itself apart. Its approach is intimate rather than epic (that kind of method was still four years away with Gone with the Wind), but its dismay at the consequences of war for its characters’ humanity is palpable. Even the strong moral centre that Scott’s Duncan provides in the film’s first half is shattered by his experiences of the fighting, and it’s only Valette’s ability to make him see himself through her eyes that allows the film to move towards a happy ending. An embrace on a bridge crossing a river!

It’s difficult to see why Vidor’s film didn’t turn Scott into an overnight star. He’s officially in a supporting role – Sullavan’s name appears above the title on the credits page, Connolly’s below, Scott’s at the head of the following “also starring” page – but he’s pivotal to the drama’s emotional curve and the studio clearly saw him as an actor on the rise. In the novel, his character remains offscreen until near the end of the book (2.), although he’s frequently referred to via others’ observations about him and his letters from the battlefront serve as a regular reference point. In the film, however, he’s introduced early on and plays a central role throughout.

A prestigious production, So Red the Rose was Scott’s first major film. Inexplicably, it failed at the box-office. It might be disorientingly elliptical at times in its storytelling, yet it’s a moving drama about the inglorious consequences of men going into battle against each other, suffused with a dismay about what it does to the civilizations they represent. And Scott brings a winning mixture of wry humour and steadfast determination to his role as the guiding force of the Bedford family.

Like Young’s ambitious but racially retrograde novel, the film is driven by a sense of the movement of history, both in the way the settings reflect times that have gone before and in the terms in which the characters ponder the implications of the events unfolding around them. It was adapted for the screen by playwright Maxwell Anderson (Key LargoThe Bad SeedThe Wrong Man), Edwin Justus Mayer (To Be or Not To BeA Royal Scandal) and Laurence Stallings, who also collaborated with Anderson on What Price Glory, wrote the story for Vidor’s The Big Parade as well as a later Scott feature, Christmas Eve, and worked with John Ford on 3 GodfathersShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Sun Shines Bright.

1.         John BaxterKing Vidor, Monarch Film Studies, Simon & Schuster, 1976, p. 53
2.         On page 356 (the novel is made up of 431 pages). See Stark Young, So Red the Rose, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1962 edition

Editor's Note: The film used to screen occasionally on TCM but regrettably that channel is no longer on the Foxtel movie offering. An unrestored copy of the film is streaming if you click here

Wednesday 29 July 2020

At the Randwick Ritz - A feast of retrospective titles for August including Hitchcock, Fellini, Renoir, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Bunuel, Kubrick, Polanski, Blake Edwards and Scorsese.

Massive August Retro Calendar at Ritz Cinemas

Ritz Cinemas is reminding audiences of the movies that made them fall in love with cinema with their mammoth calendar of retro films throughout August. 
Every single day at Ritz there's a retro film playing, with some days screening up to seven retro choices at various times. 
Some of the featured programs include the continuing Hitchcock Retrospective, which started last year at Ritz and sees Hitchcock's films playing in chronological order of release every Wednesday and Sunday at 2pm. 
Then there's the Fellini Centenary Retrospective, celebrating what would have been Italian maestro filmmaker Federico Fellini's 100th birthday this year. Fellini's films screen in chronological order of release every Monday night at 7pm. 
The Bondathon starts on Wednesday 19 August, with every (Eons Productions official) James Bond film playing in chronological order of release on Wednesday and Sunday nights at 007pm, in the lead up to the release of the 25th film in the series, No Time to Die, on November 12 this year.

Babs Fest highlights nine of Barbra Streisand's best films on Monday nights at 7pm starting from Monday 31 August.

The film that launched a cinematic space adventure that's still continuing to this day, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope screens nightly at 6.30pm for a week from Thursday 13 – Wednesday 19 August. 
Other highlights include several 70mm screenings of The Mission in tribute to the great and prolific Italian composer Ennio Morricone who died earlier in July this year; a double feature of Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2 on Saturday 29 August; 2001: A Space Odysseyscreening in 70mm this Thursday 30 July at 7pm; films showing on 35mm prints including Fight ClubThat's Entertainment!Heat for its 25th anniversary, and Goodfellas for its 30th anniversary. 

There's also a quote-along/audience interactive screening of the so-bad-it's-hilarious film The Room for the first time ever at Ritz Cinemas on Friday 7 August at 9pm. 


Thursday 30 July
7pm – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) on 70mm
7.15pm – Raging Bull (1980) – 40th anniversary
Friday 31 July
6.30pm – The Blues Brothers (1980) – 40th anniversary
9pm – Fight Club (1999) on 35mm
Saturday 1 August
12pm – Mary Poppins (1964)
3pm – Fight Club (1999) on 35mm
4pm – Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
7pm – The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
7.15pm – Akira (1988)
Sunday 2 August
12pm – Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
2pm – North by Northwest (1959) – Hitchcock Retrospective
4pm –  (1963) – Fellini Centenary Retrospective
7pm – Harold and Maude (1971)
7.15pm – Predator (1987)
Monday 3 August
7pm – Satyricon (1969) – Fellini Centenary Retrospective
7.15pm – The Wicker Man (1973)
Tuesday 4 August
7pm – This is Spinal Tap (1984)
7.15pm – Clueless (1995) – 25th anniversary
Wednesday 5 August
2pm – North by Northwest (1959) – Hitchcock Retrospective
7pm – Blood Simple (1984)
7.15pm – Jaws (1975) – 45th anniversary
Thursday 6 August
7pm – Wayne's World (1992)
7.15pm – Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Friday 7 August
6.30pm – The Mission (1986) in 70mm – Ennio Morricone tribute
7pm – Rosemary's Baby (1968)
9pm – The Room (2003) – Quote-along screening
Saturday 8 August
12pm – Matilda (1996)
2pm – The Mission (1986) in 70mm – Ennio Morricone tribute
2pm – Sunset Boulevard (1950) – 70th anniversary
4pm – My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
7pm – Beetlejuice (1988)
7.15pm – Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Sunday 9 August
12pm – Roman Holiday (1953)
2pm – Psycho (1960) – Hitchcock Retrospective and 60th anniversary
4pm – Satyricon (1969) – Fellini Centenary Retrospective
7pm – Nashville (1975) – 45th anniversary
7.15pm – Videodrome (1983)
Monday 10 August
7pm – Roma (1972) – Fellini Centenary Retrospective
7.15pm – Blade Runner: Final Cut (1982)
Tuesday 11 August
7pm – Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)
7.15pm – They Live (1988)
Wednesday 12 August
2pm – Psycho (1960) – Hitchcock Retrospective and 60th anniversary
7pm – When Harry Met Sally (1989)
7.15pm – From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Thursday 13 August
6.30pm – Star Wars: Episide IV – A New Hope (1976)
7pm – Pretty in Pink (1986)
7.15pm – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Friday 14 August
6.25pm – Star Wars: Episide IV – A New Hope (1976)
7pm – Call Me By Your Name (2017)
9pm – That's Entertainment! (1974) on 35mm
Saturday 15 August
12pm – The Witches (1990) – 30th anniversary
3pm – That's Entertainment! (1974) on 35mm
4pm – Princess Mononoke (1997)
6.30pm – Star Wars: Episide IV – A New Hope (1976)
7pm – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
9pm – The Thing (1982)
Sunday 16 August
12pm – Funny Face (1957)
2pm – The Birds (1963) – Hitchcock Retrospective
4pm – Roma (1972) – Fellini Centenary Retrospective
6.30pm – Star Wars: Episide IV – A New Hope (1976)
7pm – Chinatown (1974)
7.15pm – Apocalypse Now (1979) in 4K
Monday 17 August
6.30pm – Star Wars: Episide IV – A New Hope (1976)
7pm – Amarcord (1973) – Fellini Centenary Retrospective
7.15pm – Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) – 10th anniversary
Tuesday 18 August
6.30pm – Star Wars: Episide IV – A New Hope (1976)
7pm – Serenity (2005) – 15th anniversary
7.15pm – The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Wednesday 19 August
6.30pm – Star Wars: Episide IV – A New Hope (1976)
2pm – The Birds (1963) – Hitchcock Retrospective
7pm – Dr No (1962) – Bondathon
7.15pm – Django Unchained (2012)
Thursday 20 August
7pm – Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
7.15pm – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – Black & Chrome edition
Friday 21 August
7pm – Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
8.30pm – Heat (1995) on 35mm – 25th anniversary
Saturday 22 August
12pm – Bugsy Malone (1976)
2.30pm – Heat (1995) on 35mm – 25th anniversary
4pm – Castle in the Sky (1986)
7pm – Fargo (1996)
9pm – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Sunday 23 August
12pm – Sabrina (1954)
2pm – Marnie (1964) – Hitchcock Retrospective
4pm – Amarcord (1973) – Fellini Centenary Retrospective
7pm – From Russia with Love (1963) – Bondathon
7.15pm – The Graduate (1967)
Monday 24 August
7pm – Casanova (1976) – Fellini Centenary Retrospective
7.15pm – The Craft (1996)
Tuesday 25 August
7pm – Belle de Jour (1967)
7.15pm – Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Wednesday 26 August
2pm – Marnie (1964) – Hitchcock Retrospective
7pm – Goldfinger (1964) – Bondathon
7.15pm – True Romance (1993)
Thursday 27 August
7pm – Sixteen Candles (1984)
7.15pm – Ghostbusters (1984)
Friday 28 August
7pm – Dazed and Confused (1993)
9pm – Goodfellas (1990) on 35mm – 30th anniversary
Saturday 29 August
12pm – Oliver! (1968)
3pm – Goodfellas (1990) on 35mm – 30th anniversary
4pm – Spirited Away (2001)
6.30pm – Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
9pm – Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Sunday 30 August
12pm – The Sound of Music (1965) – 55th anniversary
2pm – Torn Curtain (1966) – Hitchcock Retrospective
4pm – Casanova (1976) – Fellini Centenary Retrospective
7pm – Thunderball (1965) – Bondathon and 55th anniversary
7.15pm – Don't Look Now (1973)
Monday 31 August
7pm – Funny Girl (1968) – Babs Fest
7.15pm – The Grand Illusion (1937)

Ritz Cinemas, 45 St Pauls Street, Randwick, NSW 2031. 

The Hitchcock Retrospective continues at Ritz, picking up where it left off before the cinema closure. 

Films screen on Sundays and Wednesdays at 2pm.
The Fellini Centenary Retrospective continues at Ritz, screening eight of the Italian maestro filmmaker's best films in honour of what would have been his 100th birthday this year.

Films screen on Mondays at 7pm, with encore screenings on the following Sunday at 4pm.

Tuesday 28 July 2020

On YouTube - John Baxter revels in a perfect specimen of its kind, UNDERSEA KINGDOM (A twelve part serial, B Reeves Eason and Joseph Kane, Republic, USA, 1936)

         In hopes of capturing in Raiders of the Lost Ark the first fine careless rapture of the old serials as they remembered them, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg screened the 1942 Don Winslow of the Navy.They quit at Chapter Six - Menaced by Man Eaters. “Boy,” said Lucas, “these things don’t hold up on re-viewing.”  

         Anyone who ever, as a kid, laid down a sticky sixpence for a seat at the Saturday matinee could have told him that. Like the cheap candy we crunched and the noxious sodas we drank, serials pandered to the uncritical tastes of pre-pubescent males, soon to be radically revised by the discovery of sex. (Watching lines forming around the block for the 1982 Zapped,a teen comedy notable only for some modest female nudity, a cinema manager observed contentedly “Look at ‘em. Sixteen, and never seen tits before.” How could you return to George Reeves in his baggy Supermanoutfit after seeing firm young flesh in no costume at all?Innocence, once lost, is gone forever.)

Republic’s 1936 Undersea Kingdom belongs to the wave of science fiction serials that followed the western action cycle of the late silent days and preceded wartime anti-Nazi/anti-Jap efforts such as the 1943 Batman, where the Caped Crusader foils efforts by J. Carroll Naish’s evil Asiatic to steal the US supply of radium. The films of each cycle generally shared a family resemblance, engendered by the ceaseless circulation and re-use of costumes, performers, ideas, even entire sequences. Some of the survivors from the lost continent of Mu lurking beneath Gene Autry’s Texas ranch in The Phantom Empire no doubt also played Atlanteans in Undersea Kingdom. Atlantis supposedly survived under a dome of a gold/copper alloy called, if I heard correctly, Auricop, on which I would be disinclined to risk even a footstep, let alone the weight of the Atlantic.

True to the ecumenical tradition, Undersea Kingdom’s Unga Khan, creating earthquakes as a prelude to invading the surface, is clearly a first cousin to Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon, directing a ray from planet Mongo with something similar in mind. (Beating Universal’s Flash into cinemaswas apparently Republic’s motive for making Undersea Kingdom.) The gadgetry is equally familiar, or would become so. Its robots (below) turn up in The Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940) and again in Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), while an earthquake detector,  inspired by Ken Strickfaden’s arcing, spitting electrical gadgets for Frankenstein, had already appeared as a death ray machine in Blake of Scotland Yard (1937).

More puzzling is the presence among the Atlantean’s military resources of some four-horse chariots that sit oddly next to robots and tanks. A clue lies in the co-director of this and numerous other serials, B. Reeves Eason. “Breezy” Eason also directed second-unit on the 1925 Ben Hur, in particular its chariot race. Undersea Kingdom must have seemed the perfect opportunity to squeeze more mileage out of those old quadrigae gathering dust in the barn. 

Most familiar of all is the setting shared by all these productions. Atlantis, Arizona, Mu, Missouri, Mars or the furthest reaches of the universe; generations of film-makers have not gone, boldly or otherwise, any further than Vasquez Rocks (below). An easy drive from Hollywood, these three square kilometres of jagged weather-eroded stones, ranging from boulders and spires to crags and monoliths, split with defiles and crevasses, and backed by desert, with mountains in the distance, have been a gift for those seeking cheap locations.

“Cheap” also described acting in serials. The primary requirement in a performer was durability. Undersea Kingdom’s impressively athletic Ray “Crash” Corrigan (above) had been a personal trainer, Johnny Weissmuller and Larry “Buster” Crabbe champion swimmers. Crabbe for one would have liked to work on his performances. “I could have been a lot better,” he told me plaintively, “if they had let me.” But producers discouraged him. They knew their market. The closer to the standards of a nine-year-old, the better. 

But Undersea Kingdom’s  performances – or, more accurately, performers - deserve some attention.Unga Khan is played by Monte Blue, and William Farnum is his opponent Sharad, High Priest of Atlantis (social and governmental structures in serial empires have the same comic improbability as those in Star Wars) whose badge of office is a head-dress apparently recycled from a tea cosy. Easy to joke, but Blue’s career began with Birth of Nation and progressed through Huston’s Key Largo to episodes of Wagon Train and Rawhide. As for William Farnum, a distinguished stage and screen career was cut short by a 1925 accident, after which he subsisted on roles such as this. The pallbearers at his funeral in 1953 were Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky, Frank Lloyd, Clarence Brown, Charles Coburn and Leo Carillo. Pat O'Brien read the eulogy. Not bad for an old man in a funny hat.

Editor’s Note: UNDERSEA KINGDOM’s 12 parts are available on YouTube. click here to go to Chapter One. Earlier posts about serials and those who dwelt in them were contributed by Geoff Mayer author of The Encyclopaedia of American film serials

Monte Blue, William Farnum, Undersea Kingdom

On Free to Air TV - 9 Gem’s Saturday Cinephile Bonanza (with countless advertisements) - 1 August 2020

Standards somewhat lower than last week’s bonanza of, inter alia, Powell & Pressburger, Fritz Lang, Anthony Minghella, Terence Fisher and more.

11.00 am– Take Me High (David Askey, UK, 1974) Stars Cliff Richard. Whoever heard of this. Was it ever released here? Did Cliff Richard’s fame last this long. "Hear Cliff Sing 12 Great New Hits." Did Cliff really have 12 hits..ever..?

12.55 pm - Cairo Road  (David McDonald, UK, 1950) Eric Portman, Laurence Harvey

2.50 pm – Crossplot (Alvin Rakoff, UK, 1969) Roger Moore's very first British theatrical film made after his TV series The Saint.

4.50 pm – Geronimo (Arnold Laven, USA, 1962)

7.00 pm – Shane (George Stevens, USA, 1953) – The best of the day)

9.20 pm – The Mechanic  (Michael Winner, USA, 1972, script by Lewis John Carlino) Charles Bronson

Monday 27 July 2020

A request for a new Blu-ray edition - David Hare extols the greatness of Mitchell Leisen's MIDNIGHT (USA, 1939)

Claudette Colbert, Midnight
I rate Midnight above and beyond such masterpieces as Stagecoach, Only Angles Have Wings, La Règle du Jeu and Zangiku Monogatari for starters.

Midnight is simply a perfect film. The perfect screenplay from Wilder and Brackett, one that might easily have been directed by Wilder, Lubitsch or Leisen, but in Leisen’s hands it takes on an air of privileged rapture that only Lube might have even come near creating.

Perfect, flawless performances from everyone, encouraged by the most actor-friendly of American directors. Ameche relishes exploring a part that he only matches three years later for Lube in Heaven Can Wait in which he plays a cad.

"...astonishing", John Barrymore, Midnight
Here Leisen’s direction keeps withholding his chances to expose/humiliate Colbert until the climax of the full rondelay of coupling and uncoupling including Astor and Lounge Lizard Charles Lederer which brings her back to an astonishing John Barrymore.

This was Barrymore’s last great performance and Leisen doesn’t take a step wrong with his direction. The final “bows” the cast take to the audience as they leave the court at the end of the trial are a Renoirian gesture that out Renoir’s Renoir. 

Here’s hoping Kino Lorber will include Midnight in its hinted further release of more Leisen titles over the next year. 

Sunday 26 July 2020

The Current Cinema - Asian film specialist John Snadden recommends two films PENINSULA (Yang Jin-mo, South Korea, 2020) and NEOMANILA (Mikhail Red, Phillipines, 2017

Two films which won't be screening at the 2020 Melb International Faux Film Festival are PENINSULA (2020) and NEOMANILA (2017). 

The former title is a sequel to the hugely entertaining 2016 South Korean zombie flick, Train to Busan. On its home ground opening last week, Peninsula is already a box-office hit. Pandemic allowing, an Asia-wide release is set for coming weeks, except mainland China where the CCP regularly ban horror movies - esp those of the zombie persuasion. It looks likely to begin a local season from mid-August (at least for people living outside Victoria).

Neomanila  is from Filipino genre director Mikhail Red who is a talent to definitely keep an eye on. His 2017 crime thriller is a timely tale set in the Manila slums where politicians are paying low level street criminals to murder known drug dealers. Most of the filming taking place on locations which are unflinchingly shown as fetid and near unliveable. The story's main action takes place at night in an underworld of uninhibited sexual deviancy and Darwinian-like gangland brutality. 

There's a plot twist in the final minutes which will leave your head spinning - and remain in your mind for days after. 

Neomanila  is streaming on Youtube  on a free download in a very nice HD transfer.

Streaming - Barrie Pattison checks out two titles from the online Taiwanese Film Festival 2020

I decided I’d stream this year’s Taiwanese Film Festival, online from 9-30 July, as a test run for Pordenone which they advise will be online this year. Click on this link to go through to the program and make selections. (Not all titles are still available.) 

I dialed up the 2019 Fanxiao/
Detention, spun off a video game and director John Hsu’s first feature. It was not without ambition. In 1962 Taiwan is oppressed under White Terror martial law - bet you didn’t know about that one.  Gingle Wang the school girl protagonist has nightmares of making her way by candle light through the now decrepit Greenwood High corridors while being followed by a school uniformed lookalike with melted features. The dream recollections and black and white insets gradually flashback to reveal a kind of Dead Poets Society where sympathetic school teachers Cecilia Choi and Meng-Po Fu  secretly read Turgenyev and Tagore (opposed to colonial authorities) with pupils in the school store room, despite the prohibition against such “Communist” literature.

They are nearly caught when one of the boys with a forbidden text still in his bag, next to his puppet figure, is pulled up by military uniformed Inspector Hung Chang Chu (dialogue coach for Lust Caution). Fellow member Jing-Hua Tseng chides the boy. The group are betrayed by an informer among them and suspicion focuses on Gingle, jealous of teacher Choi involved with Gingle's mentor, Meng  who had given her the soap stone keep sake and draws lotus petals - “a leaf becomes a flower when it loves”.

In her dream (?) the group’s members and the teachers are trucked off by the troops with sacks over their heads for torture - being lowered hands tied into water tanks or beaten and stood on chairs with a noose round their throats in the school auditorium, which features a Chang Kai-Shek poster. The janitor key-holder turns up with half his face missing. A dust covered ‘phone rings.
The realistic recollection of events is replaced by visions of the paper lamp carrying, mirror face stilt man and bodies hung like stored puppets from the rafters in the now decayed school hall.

The filming is expert, the subject matter unfamiliar enough to catch interest and the idea of mixing activist history and horror movie has some daring to it but when they throw in the art cinema’s broken time structure (second one this week after French Film fest’s Seules les bêtes) Mr. Hsu and his lot are pushing their luck and it’s easier to think of this as just another shapeless Asian teen horror movie with added pretensions.

The transmission was exceptionally sharp and sub-titling excellent.

Shao-hua Lung and Yi Ti Yao : The Gang, the Oscars and the Walking Dead
I preferred Pin-Chuan Kao’s  The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Deadwhich builds up expectations early with unrelated images which will return in the finale - an animated story board, the traffic cloverleaf montage and rather nice coverage of  a human nose lost among the empty gin bottles washing about on the bottom of a swimming pool. 
The makers have the technical knowhow and they’ve absorbed sophisticated movie modelseven though they can only occasionally make their would be outrageous material ignite.

We wonder how much of the exposition is autobiographical. Roy Chiu and Di-Yang Huang are a couple of struggling young film makers who want to launch their careers with a zombie movie. Unfortunately, they can’t get past low level AV chores. Their attempt to enliven coverage of a gangster funeral ends in disaster when their drone camera crashes into the coffin starting a fire -  so far pretty good.

Rather than punish the boys, gang boss Shao-hua Lung (Kun-Chang Chen) is caught up in their enthusiasm seeing Di-Yang Huang  as the next Ang Lee.  He offers to bank roll their project but (think Pete Kelly’s Blues) they have to star his squeezeYi Ti Yao whose appearance has been modified by cosmetic surgery to resemble the star ladyboy. Doesn’t matter that the character is meant to be a dewy eyed school girl. The guys ponder rejuvenating her in the computer.

However, the question doesn’t arise as the girl manages to off herself partying and they have to work with her remains (Weekend at Bernies). This is not something the boss is going to take kindly and he has a side kick who feeds antagonists into a live catfish pool. After a few experiments with Mission Impossible masks they recruit the original ladyboy.

Stolen diamonds hidden in a body, Japanese gangsters, the boss become star of the production, a pet incinerator, a shoot out ending in a shower of bank notes and a mean henchman who has figured it all out get mixed in as the plot evolves counter plot (FX). The scene with the severed finger is pretty good.

Unfortunately the  makers cant sustain the opening’s impetus. Their dramatic shortcomings  dissipate our interest. The lead duo never emerge as individuals. The handling of  Yi Ti Yao’s role (Tootsie) is  uneasy despite all the frenzied attention they give it.

This one had minor pixilation problems.

Two films or indeed the event’s eleven are not a large enough sample of the Taiwanese industry but this pair do recall the productions that made their way into those Asian Film Festivals years back. While they were an interesting indicator to what their own public watched, they were films that (outside of the Hong Kong and Japanese entries) had not managed to develop the sophistication to play to an international audience. 

Still, this lot is valuable as a glimpse into an area where our access seems to be shrinking. The last two Asian DVD stores in down town Sydney have closed and SBS was never much interested. We know the films are still coming but it’s getting harder to check them out.

Saturday 25 July 2020

On Blu-ray - David Hare takes a break from the drudgery of daily life to soak up Universal's ARABIAN NIGHTS (1942), COBRA WOMAN (1943) and ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944)

The ageless, ever enchanting boy-man, Sabu (above) as "Ali-ben-Ali" and the endlessly entertaining and gorgeous Maria Montez as "Sherezade" (The movie's own unique spelling) in the first of Universal's series of Maria Montez/Jon Hall Technicolor Exotica B-unit adventure pictures, Arabian Nights from 1942. It was produced by the great Walter Wanger and had enough money and taste behind it to drive it into a very lavish level of spectacle, even while the incredibly busy screeenplay keeps tripping  over itself. 

Lurking elsewhere in the snarling plot Jon Hall who ably partnered Maria (below) in all these wartime confectionaries, plus backgrounded male eye-candy Tuhran Bey and Leif Erickson for bonus. 

While this (and Universal's 1944 Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves directed by ever reliable stalwart and "discoverer" of Clint Eastwood, Arthur Lubin) never rise to the delirious level of Siodmak's 1943 masterpiece of anti-fascist camp, Cobra Woman, they are completely enjoyable on their own modest but very satisfying terms.

The three movies, including Cobra Woman from last year, are now released in totally eye-breaking Technicolor remasters on Kino Lobber Blu-ray. 

I hate to say these things but sometimes you really need a break from the drudgery of daily life, and not unlike WW2, these little gems of escapism are great relief from a present and imminent future of appalling plague.