Thursday, June 4, 2020

Review - The World

June 4, 2020

The World – China, 2005

It is interesting to note just how important and empowering leaving the familiar is in American films regardless of whether the familiar is a particular part of a country, a local hangout spot for a group of friends soon parting for university, or a physical building in which someone spent much or all of his childhood. In most of these films, the act of leaving is the birth of adulthood and the start of a significant adventure, and by the end of the film, more times than not the protagonist, having risen to the occasion and stared down adversity, stands victorious. In a way, the familiar has to be left for the mature adult to reach his potential.

This is not so in many films from Asia. In that part of the world, leaving home is often the start of a tragedy. After all, the city is cruel and lonely; capitalism has turned formerly decent people into money-hungry corner-cutters; and young women are often left to fend for themselves in a world looking to exploit them and throw them away. Rarely do people leave home because they are seeking the greener pastures of independence and adventure. Instead, the catalyst is often poverty or academic failure, and while most American protagonists find solace and true love in the arms of someone they meet along the way, love can be extremely disappointing in Asian films, promising much but leaving most people’s hopes utterly unfulfilled.

Jia Zhangke’s The World is such a film, and as such, some of the scenarios it depicts will hardly seem revolutionary. What separates it from the pack is its setting – World Park in present-day Beijing. The park is advertised as a way of seeing the world without actually leaving Beijing, and its replicated structures include Egyptian pyramids, downtown Manhattan (including the Twin Towers), the Eiffel Tower (which curiously plays “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”), and the Taj Mahal, each significantly smaller than the original. No matter. Throughout the film we see plenty of customers - arms extended, a look of feigned fear on their faces - next the “Leaning Tower of Pisa” taking early versions of selfies. In other words, the park is Las Vegas meets Disneyland.

As the film progresses, we meet the park’s employees, all of whom seem to have left home to find economic prosperity in the big city. Most of them are employees of the park; some of them find work in the budding construction industry; a few supplement their income through illegal activity, while one in particular turns to cards in the hopes of improving his fortunes. The film focuses mostly on a performer named Tao (played exceptionally well by Zhangke-regular Zhao Tao) and her security guard boyfriend, Taisheng (Taisheng Cheng). Tao is a dancer at the park, and at work she carries herself with confidence and assurance. Taisheng has achieved an advanced position and quite enjoys the responsibility and prestige that comes along with it.

Early in the film, Tao’s ex-boyfriend makes an unexpected appearance. He is in Beijing to catch a plane to the Mongolian capital, Ulan Batur, a place that curiously has its own exhibit at World Park. The meeting is awkward, to put it mildly. At a restaurant, the two of them mostly sit in silence, and Taisheng’s sudden appearance only makes it worse, for one of the first things he enquires is how quickly the ex’s plane departs. He even drives him to the airport. Later, at a somewhat dingy hotel, a suddenly jealous Taisheng gently grills Tao about her feelings toward him. When she says she loves him, he asks her to “prove” it. It is all downhill from there.

Interspersed into their collapsing romance are several other moving side stories involving, for example, a childhood friend whom Taisheng helps find employment, the owner of a fashion sweatshop that produces knock-offs on demand, an employee with a gambling problem, and a relationship between a female entertainer and her increasingly unhinged boyfriend. There’s also the touching friendship that forms between Tao and a Russian employee of the park named Anna. Each story is a part of the film’s overall presentation of life in the big city for migrant workers, and unlike its American counterparts, few of these characters get to walk off into the sunset having found both love and stability before the fade out to the closing credits.

And in not doing so, the characters reveal the broken promise of the very place that employs them. The park is, of course, selling a lie. Its customers do not really see the world; eventually their photos will look as awkward to them as the one of Truman standing with his family in front of a rather minuscule version of Mount Rushmore does in The Truman Show, and taking the park’s sky train to India or Africa will soon only remind them of their inability to go to the real thing. For example, the only airplane most of the characters have been on is the one on display at the park, and that reality eats away at them, amplifying feelings of insecurity and jealousy. It makes it vital that something in their life work out, and in the absence of the means to change their financial fortunes, their hopes are placed on either love or luck.

There have been complaints that The World is too slow and unfocused, and there is some truth to this; at 139 minutes, the film has its fair share of slow moments and a few unnecessary characters. I also failed to see the point of the film’s brief, but recurring moments of animation. However, taken together, the stories contained in the film create a powerful impression of life’s fragility and of how fleeting bliss can be, even in a land as surreal and magical as World Park. And there is a cautionary tale about what can be lost in the rush toward capitalism. I was moved by The World, and I cared about its characters, even the cads. That says something. Plus I’ll probably never look at theme parks in the same way again. (on DVD as part of Zeitgeist Film’s box set China On Film: The New Millennium)

3 stars

*The World is in Chinese and Russian with English subtitles.
*And no, I don't get the ending either.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Review - House By The River

May 28, 2020

House by the River – US, 1949

There is a moment in Fritz Lang’s House by the River that is incredibly revealing, yet it goes by so quickly that it can easily be missed. It occurs during a conversation between John Byrne (Lee Bowman) and Marjorie Byrne (Jane Wyatt), the wife of John’s brother, Stephen. In it, Marjorie is expressing her gratification for John’s undying support of her and Stephen when she mentions that John gave up his share of the family fortune upon his parents’ untimely death. Now, why would someone do this? I suppose it could be the result of guilt, a way of apologizing for prior mistreatment or neglect, but nothing in John’s behavior supports this interpretation. Instead, his motivation seems to have been the result of either his brother’s highly manipulative oral skills or John’s potentially dangerous feelings for his sister-in-law, Perhaps it was a little of both.

The character at the heart of Lang’s film is Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward), a man whose level of moral corruption is staggering. When we first meet him, he is cheerfully discussing the river that flows by his home with one of the maids in his employ. In an unfortunate bit of obvious foreshadowing, the maid complains about the tendency of the water to take things away only to bring them a few days later. In other words, the river is a haunting figure, a potential reminder of one’s past sins.

Stephen is a writer – at least that is how he would describe himself. The frequent letters of rejection that he receives from publishers suggest otherwise. After receiving one such letter, he sits down to write, only to find his mind wandering to his home’s second floor wash room. There, his young maid, Emily (Dorothy Patrick), having received Stephen’s permission, is taking a shower in his wife’s bathroom. Soon Stephen is lurking in the shadows of the first floor hallway, watching as Emily – in particular, her long, shiny legs - descends the stairs. He makes his move; she rejects his attempts to kiss her. A moment later, Emily lies dead.

At this point in the film, Stephen is a somewhat tragic figure, and Emily’s death seems to have been an accident, the result of a man’s shame at having given in to such lecherous impulses as well as his inclination to prevent them from coming into public view. So, when he spies someone at the front door, we can be forgiven for understanding his panic. After all, this is a man who earlier saw a bug encroach into his writing space, and instead of squashing it, gently returned it to its natural setting. So, when we hear him plead with his brother – the man at the front door – to help him cover up the murder, we can understand John’s initial willingness to keep his brother’s crime a secret. And yet, listen to him carefully. It is clear that Stephen is no stranger to trouble, and since some of the things he tells his brother we know to be lies, what are we to make of the remark that persuades his brother to go against his more ethical impulses – that Stephen is soon going to be a father?

If you’ve seen movies like this, it will not surprise you to learn that the crime eventually comes out. What sets House by the River apart from most of those films is the way it sets its characters on very different paths. We see the consequences of sudden fame, from Stephen’s embrace of the public’s interest in the case to John’s emotional downfall after public scrutiny falls upon him. And then there’s the role of Marjorie. In too many films from this time period, characters such as she are one-dimensional, either housewives or the romantic interest of the male protagonist. Marjorie is more. While there are moments in which she retreats into a more subservient position - perhaps as a result of Stephen’s expectations - she also possesses a drive and an awareness that a life without love is hardly desirable. And she does not care much for society’s expectations of her or for the way it defines decency. If she wants to pay a visit to a man who is not her husband, that is what she does.

The film stumbles a bit during a courtroom scene, particularly because it does not reveal much that the audience does not already know and because it relies on a character making her first (and last) appearance for fireworks. There is also mention of a shadowy figure trailing Marjorie when it would have made much more sense for him to follow Stephen if he is indeed the figure that Marjorie thinks he is. And the film’s big climax is a bit of a letdown. After building one character up as Marjorie’s knight in shining armor, screen writer Mel Dinelli elects to inject elements of either the supernatural or mental fragility into the film, despite the fact that neither makes any sense at that point.

Still, the film works more that it stumbles. The performances of the lead characters are all memorable. The film is also well shot and makes impressive use of light, dark, and half-revealed shadows. And it has intriguing characters, a plot that continually evolves and enthralls, and haunting shots of the all-knowing waters that flow daily past the cursed house. It is worth discovering. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Review - Fantomas (1964)

May 21, 2020

Fantomas – 1964, France

Andre Hunebelle’s Fantomas is not your great-grandfather’s Fantomas; it may, however, be your parents’. I realize this statement may not make much sense, but bear with me. The first appearance in print of Fantomas, a master of disguise and criminal mastermind, was in 1911. The creation of French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestie, the character appeared in thirty-two books from 1911 to 1913; after Souvestie’s death in 1914, Allain contributed an additional eleven, the last one hitting bookstores in 1963. Audiences were enthralled by the character, and the first Fantomas film was released in 1913. It was followed by four sequels, each one ending with the villain living to continue his reign of terror. Fortunately, hot in pursuit were the determined Inspector Juve and his resourceful reporter friend, Jerome Fandor. The character returned three more times from 1932 – 1949 – four if you include a 1937 comic short.

One interesting aspect of the original series is the seriousness with which the story is told. Fantomas is presented as menacing and capable of great cruelty, and he is such a methodical planner that it is a shock to hear that he has been captured in the opening moments of the fifth film. After all, this is a man who had previously anticipated his own capture and build in escape mechanisms. By the time 1964 rolled around, I suspect the public no longer saw evil as existing in the form of someone like Fantomas. It had been not been masked criminals or wicked hypnotists that had terrorized the world during World War II, and the defeat of the Axis Powers had dealt a devastating blow to any mad man’s dream of world conquest. By the time James Bond first appeared on the silver screen in 1962, most people likely recognized that organizations like SPECTRE were more fantasy than possibility.

It makes sense then that Fantomas’s return in 1964 was not the start of a dramatic trilogy. In fact, it is from that film that the character’s most popular image – the blue mask, black gloves, and impenetrable three-piece suit – emerged, and it is one that seems intentionally designed to evoke laughter rather than dread. The film finds France in the midst of a crime wave. Jewelry stores are being robbed and police stations firebombed; the public is in a panic. However, while the police seem convinced that Fantomas (Jean Marais) is behind the rash of criminal activity, some members of the public are unconvinced. This can happen when the enemy is faceless. While Juve (Louis de Funes) continually rages about the impunity with which Fantomas seems to operate, across town a local newsman –Fandor (although I don’t think his name is ever actually given) - has written a column in which he posits a peculiar theory – that Fantomas is the brainchild of local authorities intent on diverting the public’s attention from the economic and social failures of the government. Fandor (also played by Marais) follows up this blasphemy by publishing a fake interview with Fantomas. One guess how the real one responds. Soon there are kidnappings, framings, and an unexplored plot involving the creation of a monster resembling the one Dr. Frankenstein assembled in his lab.

Fantomas is an interesting amalgamation of two genres: the crime thriller and the crime parody. In the James Bond role is Fandor, here presented as a brave, muscular ladies man who is more than able to come out victorious even when he is outnumbered. As for Fantomas, he has been made to resemble one of those early improbable Bond villains, you know, the kind that are impervious to pain or use shoes as weapons. He’s got an underground lair and frequently demonstrates Bond-villain logic, such as capturing his antagonist and explaining his plans to him instead of just offing him. So who does Juve most resemble? Would you be surprised if I said Inspector Clouseau? Made a year after the first Pink Panther movie, the film even includes a scene in which Juve is present as witnesses are asked to describe Fantomas, only for them to give a perfect description of Juve. If that description rings a bell, there’s a reason for that. I’ll give you another example that demonstrates these characters. In one scene, the three of them each jump onto a moving train, and their fortunes grow increasingly ludicrous. Fantomas lands well and flees in the direction of the locomotive; Fandor’s landing is a bit more awkward – he lands on a stack of hay - yet is still able to get to his feet and continue the pursuit; poor Juve finds himself on the back of a horse.

One additional character warrants mention – Fandor’s tall, thin and blonde girlfriend, Helene. While originally Fantomas’s stepdaughter, here Helene is a photographer for the newspaper that employs Fandor, and she eventually finds herself in the kind of role usually associated with that of a Bond girl. Unexpectedly thrust into the action, she rises to the occasion and eventually trails Fantomas in a helicopter before being forced out so that the men can be the ones to make the final pursuit. The character is played by Mylene Demongeot, and she displays superb comic timing, especially in the film’s final moments and earlier when she is left stranded on a beach. Also giving a truly fun performance is de Funes. He is truly a master of facial expressions and verbal frustrations, and a scene that we see from his perspective is hilarious. All I’ll say about it is that his character has earplugs in. And as the protagonist, Marais is both quite charming and heroic. Had he been born in the UK, he might played Bond at some point. As Fantomas, Marais doesn’t have much to do except stand upright and look at the camera. However, he is still able to imbue with charisma and humor. In a clever bit, he explains, “I kill, of course, but always with a smile.” This from a guy with a permanent deadpan.

While Fantomas is not official canon, it was the start of its own trilogy. 1965 saw the release of Fantomas Unleashed, followed in 1967 by Fantomas Against Scotland Yard. If they are anything like this film, a good time will be had by all. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars

*Fantomas is in French with English subtitles.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Review - The Discarnates

May 14, 2020

The Discarnates – Japan, 1988

The central character in Obayashi Nobuhiko’s well-directed 1988 film The Discarnates, 40-year-old Hidemi Harada (Morio Kazama), is having a bad day – check that, a bad month. No, check that, too. It’s is much more accurate to say that he has had a hard twenty-eight years, for while he has succeeded professionally – he is a well-respected TV writer – his personal life is in tatters. We first see him sitting alone in a nearly vacant apartment complex in Tokyo watching a recording of a television show he wrote. Playing is a scene in which a woman lies dying in a hospital bed, an emotionally distraught young man by her side. It is the kind of scene that should bring tears to the eyes or make viewers marvel at the performances of the lead actors. Alas, all Hidemi cares about is that his preferred choice of background music was omitted from the scene. Later that evening, one of his co-workers – and perhaps the only real friend he has – informs him that the two of them can no longer work together. The reason: He loves Hidemi’s ex-wife and intends to pursue her now that their divorce is final. You know what they say about friends like these.

And then a series of increasingly unusual events occurs. That night, a slightly drunk, socially awkward female tenant, one who has an uncanny ability to flawlessly recite sentimental lines from Hidemi’s TV shows, appears outside his door looking for companionship. (She is rebuffed.) The next day, a subway train suddenly thunders its way along a track that has been out of use for some time, almost running over Hidemi in the process. Then after announcing that he is going home, Hidemi abruptly finds himself heading instead to Asakusa, his childhood home, as if drawn there by some internal need for the familiar. Interestingly, the setting does wonders for his mood, this despite frequent interruptions by men offering him the services of barely legal members of the opposite sex. At a local theater advertising “Vaudeville,” a voice in the crowd startles him. “Father!” we hear him think. Then he adds, “Impossible!” Yet there the man is, turning around, smiling at him, and saying, “Let’s go.” A moment later, it’s “Why not go to my place?” Personally, I could think of a few reasons why that would be a bad idea, but Hidemi has his own reasoning – The man’s simply too polite to reject. Never mind that his parents died when he was just twelve years of age. 

If that last part seems peculiar, there’s a reason for that: Simply put, most people would likely react somewhat differently to a possible sighting of the undead - think Bill Murray’s priceless expression during his first job as a Ghostbuster – and a calmer, much more accepting response may strike Western viewers as inappropriate. I remarked as much when I reviewed Yasuo Furuhata’s 1999 film Poppoya, in which a man simply remarks, “So, you’re a ghost” upon being told of the death some years earlier of the young girl he is engaged in a conversation with. Fortunately, Hidemi’s reaction is somewhat more natural. We hear him questioning his eyes, and during their first reunion, there is an unease that never completely leaves him. There are also ample times when he doubts the reliability of his memories, especially after a picture he took of his parents shows a low-lying table entirely devoid of people.

In most American films about ghosts – at least those not solidly a part of the horror genre – there is a purpose for celestial appearances. Not so here. By the end of the film, I was not at all certain what had brought the ghosts back other than an extremely powerful emotional longing to see their son once again, but even that is only really hinted at in one scene. I half-expected the ghosts to bring up the fact that Hidemi seems to be walking through life half dead, but they appear ignorant of this fact, which implies that they have not been monitoring him all these years. So, where have they been, and why did they take so long to return? We never get an answer, and because I expected one, the film felt less rewarding than, for example, Jerry Zucker’s Ghost, which came out two years later than this one. Having said that, the film has an intriguing plotline concerning the physical toll that communing with ghosts exacts on the human body, and it allows for a third, much more horrible explanation for the ghosts’ presence. Maybe they are here to take Hidemi away.

I haven’t mentioned much about the visitor to Hidemi’s apartment, for to do so would be to reveal too much. Suffice to say, she reappears, this time finding Hidemi much more receptive to her advances. Love – or perhaps it is best to describe it as an emotional dependency – blossoms, and her reactions to Hidemi’s physical changes are interesting, to say the least. She is well played by Atsuko Kawata. Also deserving of praise are Kumiko Akiyoshi and Tsurutaro Kataoka, who play Hidemi’s mother and father respectively. They are entirely believable as ghosts who died young and traditional, and have remained so in the afterlife. Absent from their faces is the weariness that so dominates Hidemi’s.

The Discarnates ends with a scene of surprising power. It does not provide all of the answers you might have by then, but such is life. With The Discarnates, Obayashi has given us a look into an event that Asian films and literature are far more likely to present as being somewhat normal. Ghosts exist. The dead can return. They may linger here out of love; sometimes their motivation is much less benevolent. But sometimes they just appear. There doesn’t always have to be more to it than that. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 stars

*The Discarnates is in Japanese with English subtitles.
*The film ranked #3 on film magazine Kinema Junpo’s list of the best films of 1988. 

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Review - Take

May 7, 2020

Take – U.S., 2007

There is a twist toward the end of Charles Oliver’s 2007 film Take that changes your perception of everything that has preceded it. I do not wish to reveal it; however, I was surprised how powerful the revelation was and how it made complete sense from both a personal and psychological perspective. In a way, it is a necessity, a form of both emotional self-torment and relief that reflects one of the normal functions of the human psyche – the need to believe the best of people we don’t know if only to give ourselves a way of letting go.

Take primarily follows two characters, Ana (Minnie Driver) and Saul (Jeremy Renner), on two different days in time. One is the beginning of their tragic interaction, the other the last, perhaps making it one of closure, whatever that means. We meet these two characters at a jail; one is on the inside; the other on the outside. The woman is on the phone with her husband, who is notably absent on what appears to be an important day. A shot of the kind of chair associated with lethal injections hints at the finality of what is about to transpire. In an emotionally devastating shot, we see a close-up of Saul’s lost stare and as the camera pans back, we see his full devastating expression. He doesn’t speak; in truth, he doesn’t need to. This is the face of a man full of remorse.

The film then flashes back – back to the woman’s trek to the jail, back to the young man’s final conversations with his best friend, who just happens to be a minister. Spliced into these flashbacks are scenes from another day years earlier. We see that Ana worked as a cleaning lady and that Saul was an employee of a mini-storage facility. We soon see that each of them was facing extreme challenges. Ana was trying to raise a son whose teacher and principal had given up on him; Saul had been informed that he had twenty-four hours to repay a gambling debt. They didn’t know each other; there was no reason to think they ever would. However, a snippet of a flashback early on hints at the utter devastation that their eventual crossed paths will have on their lives.

Some of what transpires is unfortunately par for the course. After all, how many movies about this kind contain scenes in which a religious figure mentions God only for the condemned man to reject the efforts to save his soul? Take doesn’t break any new ground in these scenes, but there is at least genuineness to them. A minister would likely argue for finding peace and accepting love before one meets his maker, and a man like Saul would probably be unreceptive to them, angry at the perceived irrationality of such sentiments. The film also makes the unfortunate choice of visually showing a series of conversations that are likely happening in Ana’s head, either as a means of coping with loss or as a possibly indicator of a mild form of madness. Showing us the conversation weakens those two possibilities, turning talking to someone who’s not actually there into just another common form of self-therapy A bolder film would have found a more realistic way of conveying her continued sorrow without having to rely of such a numbing narrative technique.

The film is much better when it devotes time to the circumstances that led to their eventual meeting. Ana is presented to us as the kind of self-sacrificing mother we so often admire in society – she works menial jobs, while raising a son whom society is almost certain to label as having either ADHD or mental challenges. Her husband, a high school teacher, seems to be a good man; he’s just not around enough. In Saul’s scenes, we witness a young man who seems to have decided that he’s destined for something other than normality. He’s wrong, of course, but that way of thinking has put him on an extremely destructive course and mixed him with entirely the wrong crowd. It has also put his life in danger, hence, his eventual desperate actions.

I felt for these characters. I saw the nobility in Ana’s path, and I detected a spark of decency in Saul’s troubled soul. In a perfect world, Ana’s choices would have resulted in a moment of triumph, as her son walked on stage to collect his diploma. There are many Anas out there - people who quietly live their lives as best as they can, who give their all so that someone else can eventually reach his or her potential. And there are numerous Sauls – individuals who are not so much evil as lost on a downward moral spiral that finds them less in control of their actions than they’d like to think they are. This is, of course, by design, a result of a characteristic common in all of us, without which, we’d truly be lost.

As Ana, Minnie Driver gives an unforgettable performance, taking us on a whirlwind of emotions – from Ana’s cheerful, determined demeanor before the tragedy, to the heart-wrenching incident at the film’s core, and finally to the inspiring resolve that she finds in the film’s closing moments. This is one I’ll remember for a while. Jeremy Renner is equally memorable. He takes us on a one-way descent to despair and desperation, while never letting us completely lose sight of the Saul’s humanity. Had the film been more successful, I have no doubt that at least one of them would have been in consideration for an Oscar. Take is not an easy film to watch – no film with this subject matter is – but it is thought-provoking and ultimately cathartic. I hope more people discover it. (on DVD)

3 stars

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Review - The Five Pennies

April 30, 2020

The Five Pennies – U.S., 1959

The late evenings of the past six years has seen me frequently leaning on the sweet odes of such artists as the Everly Brothers, The Righteous Brothers, Debbie Gibson, Howard Jones, and the great Elvis Presley in occasionally futile efforts to get my daughter to enter that magical world known as dreamland. If you do the math (365 days times 3 songs times 6 years), I think you’ll agree I’m fairly experienced with the notion of using popular tunes to sing someone to sleep, and never have the melodious sounds of an orchestra suddenly risen to assist me in my endeavors. It’s just been my voice and dumb luck. Compare that to a scene in Melville Shavelson’s The Five Pennies in which cornet master Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols, attempting to relax his rambunctious daughter, is joined by a full off-screen orchestra as he serenades her with a leisurely ditty about pennies. Ah, but this should be expected in a musical, you might be saying. True, but no other musical number in the film is shot in this way. Every other one is part of a live performance, so it’s a bit of a cheat. I would have preferred to just hear Nichols sing a cappella

Shavelson’s film is a Hollywood version of Nichols’s life, starting with his arrival in New York City in the 1920s to his triumphant comeback after leaving the music scene to give a normal life to his Polio-stricken daughter, Dorothy. The film is a reminder of the horror of that disease, and a scene in which Dorothy’s legs are wrapped with towels soaked with boiling water is particularly tough to watch. Other scenes are obviously the fictitious creations of Hollywood writers intent on giving viewers what they most want, and so we get a series of scenes involving Red and the legendary Louis Armstrong masterfully singing and scatting, as well as creating infectious grooves with their melodious instruments. Never mind that the film never actually establishes that they have a strong friendship. In fact, their initial meeting is so annoying constructed that it’s hard to believe they would ever form such a bond, but maybe musicians are like this. Maybe rudeness and drunken, obnoxious behavior can easily be forgiven if one of them recognizes real genius in the other.

As Red, Danny Kaye is impressive throughout most of the film, and it is a perfect vehicle for him, providing him ample opportunity to demonstrate his numerous skills. Watching him riff with Armstrong is a real treat, and a scene in which Red leads a crowd of a large night club in a 1920s version of a line dance is so delightful that I found myself wishing to be one of the participants. Come to think of it, why is it that practically every character is a movie set in the first half of the 20th century seems to have had so much time for dance lessons? One of the benefits of not having the Internet, perhaps. Also worth mentioning are the scenes between Red and his wife, Willa, perfectly played by Barbara Bel Geddes. They capture the whirlwind nature of their romance and the conflicts that come as a result, yet they also convey the emotional connection that exists between the two characters and how what joins two people in the early days of a romance can be the same things that pulls them apart later on.

Alas, the film is far too formulaic. After all, how many times have we seen a musician tell the other member of a band that one day they’ll all be working for him? For that matter, how many times have we seen a film end with a formerly famous singer taking the stage in what could be the beginning of a comeback? In one scene, we witness a number of Red’s fellow musicians criticizing his compositions, only to be accused by Willa of not having ever read them. Soon, one starts scanning them and low and behold they turn out to be pretty good. One guess who enters at that moment to sing with them?

The film has an additional fault, and this one lies at the feet of Shavelson and his fellow screen writer, Jack Rose. Several scenes call for Kaye to be annoyingly quirky, and the film is lesser for it. For example, in an early scene, Red overhears a woman disparaging him because he’s different. Red puts a wheat straw in his mouth, exaggerates a Southern accent, and makes comments that reinforce stereotypes of Southerners and their apparent lack of worldly experience. Later, he adopts a Germen accent during a scene in a hospital. Kaye handles these scenes as well as he can, but they have no reason for being in the film. The first doesn’t endear Red in any way, and the latter never seems truly authentic.

I suppose films such as this one succeed if they do a few things: tell a compelling story, contain Oscar-worthy performances, or make you interested in the film’s subject. Using this as a barometer, I’d say the film only partly succeeds. The story is interesting enough to make up for its paint-by-numbers structure. As for Kaye, he gives a pretty inspiring performance, believably conveying the addictive allure of playing and the loss artists can feel when life pulls them away from the thing they love. He has a great rapport with his co-stars, in particular Geddes, as well as Tuesday Weld and Susan Gordon, who each play Dorothy at different ages. As for the last criteria, I’ll leave you with this. After watching the film, I went to YouTube and listened to some of the real Red Nichols’s music. I was impressed. What more can I say? The film did its job. (on DVD)

3 stars

*The Five Pennies is the name of the band that Red forms.  
*If it doesn’t always look like Kaye is playing the cornet, it may be because Red Nichols performed the music himself.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Review - The Singing Killer

April 23, 2020

The Singing Killer – Hong Kong, 1970

Director Chang Cheh’s 1970 film The Singing Killer begins in a Hong Kong disco that looks to have enough space for about twenty spectators. Never mind. As a bad paraphrase of an old saying goes, with fans as rabid as these, who needs more? See, after every song – and I mean that literally - they euphorically rush the stage, while ecstatically screaming Johnny!, the name of the band’s lead singer. Apparently, no one associated with the club has heard of the concept of security. In the film’s opening moments, we watch as the crowd sways to a song entitled “The Singing Killer,” the lyrics for which include descriptions of a homicidal criminal stalking a city and spreading fear amongst the general populace – lyrics you’d probably not want your children repeating at home. No matter – the audience eats it up. They also quite enjoy his next number, a slow, sweet ditty called (I think) “My Dream Lily,” and yes, they flood the stage upon its completion, too. For their sake, let’s hope his sets are short.

While “The Singing Killer” seems unlikely to have ever been a Top 40 song, it does a decent job at introducing the film’s lead character. Yes, in his earlier incarnation, Johnny was the worst of the worst – a violent thief, a key forger, and a breaker of hearts. This last one is not necessarily a crime, but characters make it a better measure of someone’s character than their willingness to act violently. And yes, he broke the heart of a young woman named Lily and feels so bad about it that he’s asked the local police to ascertain her whereabouts. In an early scene, Johnny rushes to one of his and Lily’s old haunts after receiving a note indicating that she is there waiting for him. He is sadly mistaken. Instead, he finds himself face to face with his old gang, and it soon becomes clear that they will stop at nothing to enlist his services. Ultimately, their efforts involve the elusive Lily.

The set-up is undeniably silly, what unravels even more so. One character, for example, begins the film a relatively nice guy and ends it the head of a criminal gang so large it is impossible to believe that the authorities wouldn’t have him under constant surveillance. Another is first presented to us as a manipulative, uncaring character willing to use anything and anyone to gain an advantage; by the end, she’s lamenting that Johnny has given his heart to someone else. And then there’s the odd inclusion of martial arts. I can believe that a common criminal would find redemption in music; I can even accept that he may have needed self-defense skills to make it in the criminal world, but how he got this level of skill is beyond me. And don’t get me started on the other characters who are suddenly master martial artists. At times, it was like watching the premiere of Martial Law all over again.

I could go on, but here’s the thing. For all it ridiculousness – from the villain’s Bond-like lair to the film’s over-the-top musical numbers (one begins with the lyrics “I’m trapped in a jungle safari” and is sung by Johnny in a circular make-shift wooden cage a la King Kong) - the film works. It presents a realistic scenario of someone being coerced back into the criminal world, and it becomes quite suspenseful as we watch two concurrent storylines – one involving Johnny and his blackmailers, the other a friendly detective who suspects there is more to Johnny’s sudden return to crime than meets the eye. A critical scene in a bank is masterfully shot, and the film’s finale, while including some of the more ludicrous elements of martial arts finales, pulses with vitality and urgency. The acting is hit-and-miss, but as Johnny, David Chiang is excellent, fully conveying the emotions of a bad man trying not to revert back to what is likely his more natural nature, and Tina Chin-Fei is terrific as Ho Man, the temptress with the supposedly hard heart.

Unforgivably, the film’s biggest fault is its inability to fully convey Johnny’s connection with Lily. This is a couple that has been separated for two years, and life has been incredibly unkind to Lily since their break-up. Their reunion should be emotional; there should be anger and confusion, tears accompanied by looks that pierce the soul and reveal the depths of longing in them. Instead, we get silent stares, soft hugs, and the repetition of their love’s name. It’s not enough. In fact, there’s more emotion in Ho Man’s face when she realizes she has lost Johnny than there is during Johnny and Lily’s long-awaited reunion.

Still, the film succeeds more often than not. It opens with a bang, rises in suspense, and ends with a crowd-pleasing rendition of the standard one-man-vs.-an-army motif. Sure, it’s corny at times and its musical numbers will likely remind some viewers of the Austin Powers movies, but it also draws you in and makes you root for the good guys to come out of top. Interestingly, in one scene, Lily tells Johnny, “You are the hero. Don’t use the gun.” So, what does he do in the next scene? Yep, he grabs a machine gun and begins mowing down the bad guys. It’s not his most heroic moment, but remember, he is the singing killer. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 stars

*The Singing Killer is in Mandarin with English subtitles.