Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Not on DVD: Tuxedo Warrior

Wow ...

I never knew it could be like this!

Casablanca re-imagined in Rhodesia, diamond thieves, the transition to black rule, bodice ripping, soap opera music, Hawk the Slayer, Escrima action, sons and daughters of big stars, and British Cult Movie hero Cliff Twemlow ...

... all in one remarkably terrible, yet fairly entertaining, film, Tuxedo Warrior (aka The Africa Run aka The Omega Connection)

John Wyman is Cliff, a fallen engineer who now runs a seedy bar near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, with illegal gambling in the back. He wears a white linen jacket at all times, and yes, Holly Palance does actually call him "Tuxedo Warrior."

Carol Royle is Lisa, a lady with a gambling addiction, on the run with her husband (John Terry, from Hawk the Slayer), who has stolen to feed her habit. Of all the lousy joints in the world, she has to walk in to the Omega, run by her former lover Cliff. She and hubby need Cliff to help them get across the border. I don't know, kind of reminds me of some other movie ...

The Casablanca love story plot is exploited to give us all manner of ridiculous flashbacks of Cliff and Lisa set to syrupy soap opera style music. But the dialouge is even more sacharine:

"What if I have to leave you?"
"You won't."
"What if HAVE to leave you?"
"You ... WON'T!"

It is tough to be too critical of the actors with such a bad script.

The diamond thieves action subplot is more fun. They're trying to escape into Zimbabwe with stolen jewels. Young James Coburn Jr. re-steals the stolen jewels, with angry former partners in hot pursuit. Of course they end up at the Omega, where kung fu ensues. Best of all, a couple of sticks are taken off the wall in the middle of fight, and Escrima (Filipino stick fighting) happens -- in Zimbabwe. Actually the fight scenes are by far the best part of this movie.

The end of British colonialism is also mined for effect, with stalwart Ken Gampu playing the new police inspector about to take over from a Brit expatriate. Cliff admits that he likes Africa the way it used to be. The white police inspector complains that the motherland doesn't want the expats back. Are white colonials the target audience?

This movie marks the beginning of Cliff Twemlow's brief yet fascinating film career. Twemlow did not write this movie, but the title is borrowed from his memoir, an account of his days as a bouncer in Manchester. Twemlow has a supporting role here as Chaser, a thug working for gambling interests, and for himself. The title, and fights and stunts, which Twemlow coordinated, are really the best things about this film. Over the next decade, Twemlow went on a b-movie binge, starring in and writing a string of low-budget actioners that have achieved minor cult status.
He also did the music for Tuxedo Warrior and all his other films.

Twemlow died in 1993 at age 59. While none of his films are available on DVD, it kind of makes him an appealing cult movie figure, doesn't it?

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Wire -- Winners and Losers


Herc -- Totally unexpected winner. Plays both ends against the middle and gets away with it, screwing his old bosses, his new boss, and Marlo.
Perlman -- With risk comes opportunity. That's Judge Perlman to you. Also a winner for surviving McNulty personally and professionally and scoring Daniels.
Carcetti -- His ability to put on a show for the cameras is like an evangelical preacher, somewhere underneath all that BS there might actually be a heart, albeit a tiny one that needs watering.
Rawls -- Hanging on by his fingernails all the way to a cushy state police job.
Bubs -- Growing as a person, getting closure on his past.
Greeks -- Slingers come and go, but the "Greeks" stay powerful behind the scenes.
Slim Charles -- Staying in the game long enough to outlast his bosses
Scott -- Corporate journailsm at its finest
Valchek -- Pro Quid Joe Po-Po
Developers -- No surprise!
Clay Davis -- Still running his game with his silvery tongue.


McNulty -- No surprise! But he does get Beadie.
Freamon -- Maybe he went along with McNulty because he's has a little McNulty in him. When he first joined the MCU, he had been stuck in Property for 13 years on a political beef. On the plus side ... Shardeen!
Daniels -- Got to be Commissioner for what, a week? Too many scruples for the job.
Chris -- Sadly OK with incarceration if his people are taken care of.
Snoop -- Not smarter than "the Young-in'"
DuQuan -- Too sensitive to live, so now he's a zombie
Cheese -- A punk with big ideas, in over his head.
Prop Joe -- Smart, but not smart enough. Why didn't he just kill Marlo?
Omar -- Like Daniels, too principled.
Gus -- Also like Daniels.
Alma -- More Daniels.
Butchie -- Surprised he lived that long.

RIP Snoop

Winners or Losers? You Decide:
Levy -- Came out OK, but got compromised as the cops have evidence against him
Michael -- The New Omar. Makes sense, since he's got the balls for it, and has no repsect for Marlo and the other bosses.
Marlo -- He walks, but is banned from the streets. How long will he be able to abide by that?
Avon -- Making a comeback from his cell?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Equinox: On DVD At Last

The 1970 low-budget, high-creativity film Equinox was a staple of the San Francisco and Sacramento area Creature Features show with the legendary Bob Wilkins. Several years ago I bought a grainy VHS dub, which reminded me a bit of watching Creatures Features on a little TV with the rabbit ears antenna.

Now you can get it on DVD, complete with extras including the original film (with commentary), before it was edited and partially re-shot by the theatrical distributor.

Producer/Director/Special Effects guru Dennis Muren, along with writer and co-director Mark McGee and special effects man Jim Danforth, provides self-effacing commentary, explaining that they were only teenagers at the time they made the original film (1965-1967). During the filming, they realized that their script wasn't nearly long enough, so they added all sorts of padding scenes. Looking back on the film today, Muren notes that they didn't know anything about directing actors either.

Equinox is most famous for its stop animation work and camera tricks, which caught the eye of producer Jack Harris, who bought the film and reworked it for realease. The film is also pioneering in its use of front projection, putting the actors and the animated monsters on screen together. Muren later worked on a little project called Star Wars, and Danforth and McGee also have long film resumes.

While the continuity problems, dialogue and some of the acting are negatives (for some), the animation and effects are well-crafted. While the film cost only $6500 to make, you can't put a price tag on the thousands of hours put into the creative elements of this film.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

South Korean Film Blow-Out

Joint Security Area

An early Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) film worth watching is his Joint Security Area, which presents an incident where North and South Korean troops actually meet at the center of the Demilitarized Zone.

The Joint Security Area is the heart of the DMZ. South Korean and North Korean soldiers are in outposts just yards away from each other, each patrolling the woods nearby. There have been many incidents over the decades.

In this film, North and South Korean soldiers come into repeated social contact in the wooded area of the JSA. As the soldiers develop friendships, they find much in common. But how much longer can this secret relationship continue without being discovered by two militaries at odds with each other, just yards apart?

Joint Security Area stars the husky Song Kang-ho, who plays the lead in our next recommended film, the excellent Memories of Murder, an early film from the director of The Host, Bong Joon-ho.

Memories of Murder

A serial killer stalks young women in the countryside during the last years of South Korea’s military dictatorship. When the air raid drill sirens sound at night, everyone must get off the street and go home. But if you are walking on a country road, that could take a while, and the killer is waiting for you.

A cop from Seoul is brought in to help the incompetent local police, who are more likely to beat a confession out of an innocent man than find the killer. With DNA testing in its infancy and not available in South Korea, how will they match any evidence to the killer?

Nowhere To Hide

People either love or hate the cinematic tour de force, Nowhere to Hide. You’ll never see a crime film with so much beautiful imagery and intriguing camera work. It’s probably too stylized for action fans, but maybe too rough for the art house crowd.

The story features a bad boy cop chasing a slippery villain through the Fall and into the freezing Korean winter. Park Joon-hoon gives a commanding performance as Detective Woo, a flawed, violent and relentless cop. Ahn Sung-kee is also excellent as the cunning villain, who the police come close to, but just can’t seem to catch.

The other stars of this movie are the Korean seasons. The murder at the heart of the case takes place in a gloriously colorful Fall. The chase leads into the deep cold of a Korean winter. When Dectective Woo makes one barefoot pursuit of his suspect through a labyrinth of back alleys, you really get a sense of just how cold that winter is.

The music is noteable as well. Great use of an obscure early Bee Gee’s song, Holiday, and a Korean rock band modeled after Deep Purple, of all things.

Director Lee Myung-se is definitely a stylist, rapidly shifting from one technique to another,and yes sometimes he goes way over the top with them. But his direction and production design creates a constant stream of distinctive imagery.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Mega Mall Moment

I wandered into a theater in Manila's Mega Mall in the early 90s on a weekday afternoon. Among the previews was a trailer for a Debbie Harry movie in which she played a phone sex worker. In the U.S., this movie never saw the inside of a theater and was titled Intimate Stranger. In other countries, it could play in a first-run theater, and since it starred Blondie was given the more appropriate title Call Me.

The feature film was the cage fighting masterpiece Cage 2. I didn't even know there was a Cage 1, but here was the sequel playing to a half-filled theater. That afternoon, I became a Reb Brown fan, for better or worse. As I left the theater, I thought, "A Reb Brown-Lou Ferrigno flick playing in a real theater. Cynthia Rothrock movie posters lacquered to telephone poles all over town. What a country!"

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A God Walks Among Us -- Ray Harryhausen

Interesting article on special effects God Ray Harryhausen in today's SF Chronicle. The animators at Industrial Light and Magic worship him -- as well they should!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Seasons of Sleaze, Part II

While Hardcore is more cerebral, Vice Squad is a more visceral look into the Hollywood sex underworld, specifically pimps and prostitutes.

Season Hubley plays a sex worker in both pictures. In Vice Squad, she plays a surburban mom who for some reason goes to work as a freelance Hollywood street hustler -- named Princess. The premise turns out to be unnecessary as the film really isn't about her having a dual life, but rather about her helping the police catch a brutal pimp who has murdered one of his girls. The problem is, because of the premise, Hubley is never really dressed like a hooker. Still, Hubley gives a fine performance.

The other obvious flaw in Vice Squad is the pimp. Ramrod is a white Cowboy with all the trimmings -- western shirts, boots, 4x4 with custom paint job. Now asking an audience to believe in a white Cowboy pimp is a lot for a film or an actor to overcome. But Wings Hauser actually makes it work, turning the unlikely Ramrod into a truly intense and frightening villian. Unfortuantely, I don't know if giving a great performance in a low-budget exploitation movie as a white pimp is something you can add to your demo reel. But Wings Hauser can act, damn it!

Good pacing and the performances of the two leads will help you get past the way Princess the hooker dresses, the Cowboy-style pimp, and the uninteresting supporting cast, because once the battle between Ramrod and Princess is on, it's on like Donkey Kong.

Vice Squad list:

  • Ramrod vs. Princess
  • Pimp Stick (and you thought Mommie Dearest was the master of the wire hanger)
  • Fred Berry as a Sugar Pimp
  • Black male undercover cop with braided hair with beads in it, like Venus Williams.
  • Rich old man with weird marriage/funeral fetish
  • Extremely painful comic relief
  • Bit by Stack Pierce
  • Blink and you'll miss Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith in one of her last film roles
  • No Reb Brown (unlike Hardcore)
Some of the writing team would mine this vein for more with the (not as good) Angel series.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Two Seasons of Sleaze

Hardcore and Vice Squad are two gritty looks at West Coast vice realesed three years apart. Hardcore is a cerebral look at a conservative midwesterner searching for his runaway daughter in the underworld of the seventies LA porno scene, plus you get Calvinist theology! Vice Squad is a classic sleazy, violent 1982 exploitation film that, although flawed, is genuinely dramatic with some great performances.

Hardcore writer-director Paul Schrader drew upon his own background growing up in the Dutch Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. George C. Scott plays Jake, a pious middle-aged businessman with no wife and a teenage daughter. His daughter disappears on a church trip to a Calvinst youth convention in Southern California.

The film contrasts the simple piety of the Grand Rapids church members with the seedy world of Hollywood (the city, not the industry). Scott travels to SoCal to meet with the police, who are of little assistance. He hires a low-rent Private Investigator (Peter Boyle), who is as coarse as Scott is refined, and openly contemptuous of Scott's midwetern values. Boyle refers to his client as Pilgrim. After several weeks, the PI brings the news home, suddenly appearing in Grand Rapids to show Scott a porno reel featuring his missing daughter.

Scott returns to LA and slowly begins edging himself into the porn world. He meets a stripper/porn actress/prostitute (Season Hubley) who he pays to help him find his daughter.

While Hardcore sure is gritty, it has some light comic moments, especially with Scott and Hubley together. The Calvinist background really develops Scott's character, who seems to have gone through a metamorphosis when relative Dick Sargeant tracks him down in LA.


  • Scott calmly explaining the tenants of Calvinism to porno-stripper-whore Hubley
  • Scott going undercover with toupee and designer jeans
  • Scott beating up the guy from RoboJox
  • Strippers doing Star Wars light sabre routine in club
  • San Francisco's North Beach porno area circa 1979
  • Reb Brown is the bouncer at a massage parlor

Season Hubley, convincing here, would also play a very different kind of prostitute in 1982's Vice Squad, which I'll get to next ...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Shaq as Old White Beard

From the AP--

O’Neal says he has no desire to be a star with his new team. Those roles belong to Nash and Amare Stoudemire, he said.

“I’m more like a senior adviser so I don’t like to come in here and try to take over,” O’Neal said. … “Just like your basic karate movie where the young guys come to the old guys with beards who have them do weird stuff to get to the other side. That’s who I am, the old guy with a long beard.”

Long pause.

“You like that analogy?” he said, obviously pleased with himself. “That was pretty good?”

Nash was a willing sidekick.

“I think this is his 73rd Asian martial arts film,” he said. “We’re excited to learn from the great master.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

More Chicago Hallyu

Here's another speaker from the recent Chicago Hallyu event. Full audio of the event is available thanks to Chicago Public Radio's Chicago Amplified series.

Dr. Laura Miller, Professor of Anthroplogy at Loyola University Chicago, is author of the books Beauty Up and Bad Girls of Japan, and admitted avid fan of Korean TV drama Dae Jung Geum . Miller focused on the cultural impact of the successful Korean TV shows Winter Sonata and Dae Jung Geum in Japan. Since I'm reporting from the audio, I didn't get to see the slides and examples of Hallyu inspired products that got a big response from the audience.

In 2004 “Japanese newspapers were full of denigrating reports of Bae Yong Joon's reception by fans of Winter Sonata" at the Tokyo airport. The fans were portrayed as a “horde of hysterical nymphomanic old biddies” who were said to swarm the airport. “Estimates grew from 3,500 in early news reports like in the Japan Times, to 5,000, and then yesterday I found a source that 6,000 women were there.”

“The old girls were reported on with much contempt for buying expensive memorabilia and for doing things like holding group birthday parties” in honor of Winter Sonata star Bae Yong Joon. "The Winter Sonata boom is important for many reasons, besides the juicy opportunity for journalists to poke fun at female fans.” “The Korean Wave also put a formerly denigrated and neglected market segment, women over thirty -- and by the way, whenever the news accounts say middle aged women, they include women right at thirty -- into the public limelight and presented them as active cultural agents.”

“If it were only female fandom that was at stake, interest in the phenomenom would have passed quickly." However, “in Japan, the Winter Sonata machine alone generated billions in revenue,” from sales of DVD sets, soundtracks, novels guide books, photo books, Korean language texts, biographies and testimonials. Also from items such as a $291 teddy bear, hand cream, socks, treats and chocolates, tours, Korean food and theme restaurants.

“Scholars have pointed out that there was already an increasing interest in Korean popular culture among young people prior to the Winter Sonata explosion,” evidenced by World Cup soccer mania, travel to Korea, interest in Korean food, and a 1990s fad of aesthetic travel to Korea for “mug work“ and sauna treatments. The term Korean Wave, thought to originate in Taiwan or China, predates Winter Sonata in Japan, appearing in a newspaper in 2001.

While travel to Korea has fallen from its peak, in January 2004 through October 2004, 2 million Japanese traveled to Korea, up 40% from the previous year. Many of these tourists flocked to Korean drama locations.

Other cultural effects of Winter Sonata include influence on fashion, hair, and glasses. There were also Winter Sonata style weddings, and specualtion of Winter Sonata inspired divorces “due to women who suddenly became disenchanted with fuddy duddy husbands who didn’t compare well with Yon-sama (Japanese honorific name given to Bae Yong Joon and his character by the fans)."

Yon-sama “also changed Japanese willingness to give donations, not a normal part of Japanese culture," by giving 300 million Won to tsunami victims. Former Prime Minister Koezumi said ”I will make great efforts so that I will be popular as Yon-sama." The New York Times speculated that Yon-sama had qualities lacking in the average Japanese man: “sincere , pure, giving, passionate and soothing.”

In the book Japanese Style Korean Wave, Japanese sociologist Mori Yoshitaka, Interviewed many Japanese fans (including his own mother -- how's that for sourcing) and was unable to “find any easy generalization that could characterize why fans were drawn to the series.”

The Dae Jung Geum series “offers even more ideas for why Korean dramas are popular in Japan.” A historical drama about the first female physician to the Korean court. The story involved not only her rise, but Korean cuisine and herbal medicine. “The series generated a lot of interest in Japan in traditional Chinese medicine and in Korean cooking.”

“It had great historical interest for Japanese viewers of all ages, both male and female. They recognized a shared continuity in ancient East Asian cultural flows, and Chinese cultural elements suchas a writing system, Confucian norms, and herbal medicine.”

“The story appealed to Japanese self-help ideology as well. The inspirational tale of personal struggle and success was presented in an imagined world of fair competition in which Jung Geum succeeds by studying and working hard.”

“The series portrays modern gender models that many found redeeming.” Strong female characters who combined traditional traits ("Hard-working, obedient, pretty, cultured"), with modern traits ("professional, focused,scientific, innovative, self-reliant, and independent").

“Optimists have expressed the idea that this new Japanese fascination with things Korean might help ease political tensions between the two countries. However, most scholars haven’t found evidence that the political situation has changed very much.”

“Even so, the Korean Wave has had a very positive effect on people’s general image of Korean and their interest in Korean culture and history."

The Chicago Hallyu event featured other speakers including Robert Cagle, who contributed some fascinating analysis to Cult Film Confidential via a recent interview.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Not on DVD: Windprints

Serial Killer in Apartheid South Africa

Windprints is an interesting film that tells a story of a black serial killer in rural Namibia during the last years of Apartheid. The killer's identity is known, but he is able to disappear into the wilderness and escape capture. He only kills local blacks, and some of the locals believe he has magical powers.

Two journalists, an Englishman (John Hurt) and a white South African cameraman (Sean Bean) from Johannesburg, arrive to make a documentary film about the murders. The tension between the city-bred cameraman and the rural whites who are hard-core apartheid supporters is palpable. Is there more to the story of the murders that just a crazy man in the bush?

An intriguing crime drama that makes great use of an unusual location, and gives a rare look into life in rural South Africa during Aparthied.

This film is not available on DVD, but has aired on the Encore cable channels.

Also, someone has posted it in chunks on YouTube.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hallyu in Chicago

“The Korean Wave is rising.”

Man-Sung Son, head of SMS Productions, was one of the speakers at a recent event in Chicago on the Korean Wave or Hallyu (the recent surge of Korean culture, especially film and TV, throughout Asia).

Film was “once thought of as an undignified field,” by Korean parents, who were more likely to encourage their children to become doctors, engineers, or lawyers. "Currently in Korea, it is more difficult to get into film school than medical or law school”. Sung added that many young Koreans come to the US to study film, returning to Korea to direct or pursue cinematography.

Noting that Korea has been attacked from outside 931 times, Sung addressed the concept of Han, "a gross wound to one’s soul," a longing for unfulfilled desires. According to Sung, repressed emotions of many generations are now pouring out in Korean drama. "Oppression breeds artistic talent," Sung explained.

As a film producer, Sung feels that Korean cinema has vastly inproved, but lighting and sound still have a way to go, with low wages impacting quality.

On Hallyu's economic impact, Sung pointed out several examples:

  • Yong-Jun Bae, star of internationally viewed Korean TV drama Winter Sonata is worth about $2 billion, and replicas of the sunglasses he wears on the show sell for over $200.
  • Restaurants in China suddenly serving Korean food is similar to the expansion of Japances cuisine in America after the 1980 US miniseries Shogun.
  • Incidents of women seeking expensive plastic surgery to look more like the star of a Korean TV show.
  • Some Asian women are looking for Korean husbands, seeking "strong men who express emotion."

On what is next for Korean film:

  • Some Korean dramas will be produced in US, in English, within two years.
  • There are many Korean-Americans in Hollywood, as actors, directors, distributors, producers and animators.
  • There will be more US adaptations of Korean films.
  • In Japan, Korean TV episodes are being turned into theatrically released films.

According to Sung, "excellent storytelling, romance, strong yet emotional characters, and most importantly, old fashioned moral values are worked into Korean drama."

The Hallyu event featured other speakers including Robert Cagle, who contributed some fascinating analysis to Cult Film Confidential via a recent interview. Full audio of the event is available thank to Chicago Public Radio's Chicago Amplified series.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Popsy Pop Song

Here is Claudia Cardinale performing a brief version of the Popsy Pop song on a TV show.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Angela Morley Story

The fascinating story of a young British girl who became a pro musician during WWII and went on to an amazing career as a film composer and arranger.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Not on DVD: Popsy Pop

Popsy Pop (AKA Queen of Diamonds) is quite possibly the best Franco-Italian co-production shot on location in a Venezuelan mining town -- ever.
If you're a fan of low-budget international action, you will probably enjoy it, as Popsy Pop maxes out on its assets: Claudia Cardinale, Stanley Baker, a controversial author, and locations, especially the mining town.

The 1971 film was written by and co-stars Henri Charrière, then world-famous for writing Papillion, about his supposed escape from the notorious Devil's Island prison, located in nearby French Guyana. Like Mickey Spillane starring in I, The Jury, this movie features a famous author/character who probably has no business acting. Henri plays an old man out for one last score. He's not as bad as Spillane was -- the old man part is definitely convincing. Charrière is the main supporting player here, as Baker and Cardinale star.

The film opens with a voiceover intoning that the region at the Northern tip of South America is where most bad men go. Did not know that. A map of the region is next, with an animated arrow that shows the action taking place here (E. Venezuela), then here (Santo Domingo, aka Dominican Republic), and lastly here (Haiti). Just so you know, in advance. Will there be a quiz at the end of the movie?

The diamond mining town is lively, with hundreds of residents mixed in with Cardinal, Baker, Charrière, and a few supporting players. Baker is in charge of security for the mining company. Cardinale and Charrière arrive on a boat together, but pretend not to know each other once they arrive. Cardinale is brought in by the mining company to enterain the workers. She ingratiates herself immediately with Baker, who guards the diamonds.

Cardinale sports all kinds of ridiculously flashy outfits, whether working or not, at this filthy remote jungle outpost. When she performs at the local bar, she gives a three-minute Parisian show girl routine, with costumes and a song which regales Popsy Pop as the toast of Caracas. I kinda think the miners would have preferred a stripper, but since it's a movie they all go nuts for it. Then a fat lady comes out to sing and flaunt her huge ass, to even wider acclaim.

Aside from the catchy Popsy Pop theme, there is also a nice presumably Venezuelan theme, that is repeatedly "played" by two guys in blackface, wearing tuxes and carrying mandolins.

The mining town is suitably gritty and the hundreds of locals onscreen add some real atmosphere. Being a low-budget effort, much of this film is shot in natural light, and there is some nice location work here. The few interior scenes look they were either not lit or very poorly lit.

When we eventually get to Santo Domingo and Haiti, we also get an intersting new character, a preacher/voodoo/huckster who might also be a diamond fence. He leads a strange cult that seems to only attract women. Plus he sings spirituals in a rich baritone, and plays the organ.

The print I saw (retitled "Queen of Diamonds") had a rather abrupt cut in the ending scene. I'm thinking there is probably another version with a different outcome.

This is a pretty minor entry for Cardinale, who worked with Fellini, Leone and Herzog. Having entered the business after winning a beuaty pageant, she's custom-made for the role of Popsy Pop. My favorite outfits: the yellow sundress, the Popsy Pop costume with the male backup dancers sewn into it, and the electric blue glam mini-dress with matching leg-strapped boots. While eye candy is part of the role, Cardinale is a capable actress who get the best role as the clever Popsy Pop easily outwits man after man.

Baker, a respected British star who mainly played villains, really isn't given much to work with here, but plays his role with authority. He doesn't get to wear any kicky outfits.

Definitely worth a look if you can find it.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Cloverfield: A Reason to Visit the Multiplex

Cloverfield is smart, for a PG-13er. Blair Witch sold the sizzle, not the steak. Cloverfield got some sizzle and some steak.

The one-shaky-camera approach obviously is a budget saver, although it may cause problems for anyone prone to motion sickness. Will this film actually cause someone to have a seizure? It's a definite possibility. Some theaters have reportedly warned their patrons that the film may induce motion sickness!

Aside from the low-rent camera work, the film uses unknown actors. There are a variety of set pieces in "canned" locations: a party in an apartment, a journey through subway tunnels, searching in a badly listing high-rise. The high-rise scene is inventive, reminiscent of the upside-down sinking ship in The Posideon Adventure.

They saved their money so you could have a bit of CGI, but even that is doled out in brief snippets. You don't really see the monster a whole lot, but that's OK. The simple plot of a group of friends searching for another friend is delivered with such rapid pace and real urgency that the monster is really a bit player. Cloverfield definitely is more of a disaster movie than a monster movie. Since it's not about terrorism, it can't be accused of direct 9-11-sploitation, but scenes of Manhattan destruction certainly do evoke familiar 9-11 images.

The fact that our cameraman/character is so annoying also is a simple way to lend some dramatic tension, as you can't help wondering what, if anything, will make him finally stop filming his friends in the midst of a calamity.

The casting is also smart. Talented but relatively unknown leads. Lizzy Caplan steals the show as Marlena Diamond. She can look forward to decades of signing stuff at Sci-Fi conventions just for this role. But I think she'll be pretty busy acting for the foreseeable future. Michael Stahl-David looks like a movie star and turns in a good performance as the male lead. T.J. Miller is extremely annoying as cameraman/best friend Hud, and that's what he was supposed to do, right? His largely off-camera performance really holds this film together. Caplan and Miller get the best lines and run with them.

The PG-13 Cloverfield is definitely in line with the current media trend of objectifying the young wealthy, as our early-twenties hero lives in a unusually spacious Mahanttan apartment (condo?), and his damsel-in-distress abodes in a fancy high-rise. Our Prince must save his Princess, after all.

Cloverfield is an entertaining box office hit that I enjoyed. That doesn't happen too often. Can you say sequel? It's already in the works ...

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Noir City 6: Castro Theater Organist David Hegarty

A unique feature of an evening show at San Francisco's Castro Theater is the introduction and intermission music provided most nights by David H. Hegarty, played on a beautiful pipe organ that rises from below the stage during the first song. For the finale, the organ is lowered to the ground while San Francisco is played, the audience clapping along.

Do you make any special preparations for Noir City or other festivals?

I try to choose appropriate repertoire for whatever is playing at the theatre, although it's not always possible. I try to stay in the right time period, and make some gesture of recognition of nationality. But for the most part, the organ interludes are just independent mini-concerts. Of course, if the movie is a musical, I play music from the show--sort of an organ overture. And I often can play themes from the classic films--those from the Golden Age of Hollywood ('30s through the 50's).

Can you give us a brief tour of the organ, (keyboards, drawbars, pipes, etc). Also, how do you make it go up and down?

This Wurlitzer console was originally built for the State Theatre in Detroit in the '20s. The pipework (21 ranks) has been garnered from several Wurlitzers and integrated as though it was a new organ--totally authentic, as it would have been built by the Wurlitzer factory. This is the work of the organ's owners, the Taylor family of San Mateo -- particularly Dick Taylor and his partner in the organ business, Edward Millington Stout, a nationally recognized authority on Wurlitzer and Skinner voicing.

The pneumatic scissors-lift is triggered by a button to my left on the console. I get a signal from the projectionist when it's time to play "San Francisco" and bring the console down.

That castanet sound is great on Latin tunes. Is it synced to one of the keyboards? Are there other unusual sounds you like to use?

The percussion instruments are triggered by the keyboards and the pedalboard when the appropriate stops are engaged, and are actual instruments that are struck pneumatically. The tambourine, castanets, and wood block are particularly effective. There are also several tuned percussions that I use frequently: harp (like a marimba), chrysoglott, xylophone, glockenspiel, and chimes.

Is there a slight delay from when you press the keys until the sound emerges from the pipes?

There is no perceptible delay in this installation. It is very responsive. Some of the bass pipes, played by the pedals, are installed behind the screen, so they speak directly toward the organist. (The opposite is true of the Skinner organ at the Legion of Honor, where I play Pops concerts every month. The pipes are located two rooms away, in the attic, so the sound gets to the organist AFTER we've played the notes. It takes considerable experience to maintain the proper tempo in that environment; the natural inclination is to slow down as you wait to hear what you've played.)

Do you practice in the theater when it's empty?

This is my 30th year as the Castro organist (the first few were on a Conn electronic organ before the Wurlitzer was installed in the early '80s), so I know the instrument well and don't generally need any rehearsal time, although I do come in and prepare for certain special performances. I also do some teaching on the Wurlitzer. Students come from as far as Reno to take lessons on that instrument.

You are known to adapt film music for the organ. What are some of your favorites?

My specialization as a concert organist, particularly on "classical" organs, is the music of the Golden Age Hollywood film composers: Korngold, Waxman, Steiner, Tiomkin, Herrmann, Raksin, Newman, and others. I am particularly fond of Korngold's scores, and especially like his themes for Kings Row and The Adventures of Robinhood. I'm particularly interested in the Hitchcock films and the composers who wrote for him. I am also very fond of Angela Morley's music. She's a British composer who began working in Hollywood in the '80s. (She also wrote much of the underscoring for Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Dallas, Hotel, and the like.) She's now living in Scottsdale, AZ., and I am her personal archivist--organizing and catalogueing thousands of her manuscripts that reside at her house. Of course, I love playing her music: Snow Ride, Kehaar's Theme from Watership Down, etc. Check out her web site:

Any plans for a CD of you playing the Castro organ?

No immediate plans for recording on that organ, although I have a couple of symphonic organ CDs available online at "CD Baby."

What new projects are you working on?

I'm working on a recording on a big symphonic organ in San Francisco. Details to be revealed later.

What question do you wish someone would ask you?

Just happy that you were interested enough to ask ANY questions!

David also appears weekly at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, and presents monthly pops concerts on the Skinner organ at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. For more info go to

Monday, February 4, 2008

Noir City 6: Peter Lorre in Face Behind The Mask

In The Face Behind The Mask, Peter Lorre arrives in America as a naive immigre watchmaker. Practicing his English on the deck of the ship sailing into New York harbor, he asks a man "Do you have a match?" The man lights a match. Lorre says "Thank You. I do not smoke." Dependable character player Don Beddoe is an NYC cop who befriends him. On his first night in America, a fire starts in his cheap hotel, and Lorre's face is badly burned.

After a montage of job interviews that go nowhere because of his ghastly visage, Lorre is down at the docks, about to throw himself into the river. A chance encounter with a friendly criminal leads Lorre into a life of crime, in which he proves to be a genius.

When he learns of plastic surgery, he goes straight away to a clinic. But the doctors tell him it's is too late to fix the damage. What they can do is make him a life-like mask to wear. So we have Peter Lorre wearing makeup to make it look like he's wearing a mask that looks like Peter Lorre.

Of course, the man with the unsightly face meets and falls for a beautiful blind girl, Evelyn Keyes. Complicating matters is the release from prison of Jeff, whose gang Lorre has taken over.

The Face Behind the Mask is maybe a transitional film, a little early to the Noir party in 1941, but sporting 1930s-style cliches like the impossibly good and virginal female lead, and the small-time crook with a heart of gold. Lorre's character is almost a super villian, leaving no clues at the crime scene, easily overpowering a much bigger man, and masterminding a fiendish plot of revenge.

The story would have easily fit into a formulaic detective series like the Falcon or Boston Blackie, except that Beddoe's cop is barely in the movie. However the quality of the script, Lorre's performance, the cinematography and direction raise this film to a much higher plateau.

The Noir City crowd almost didn't get to see this entertaining obscurity. Sony Pictures, owners of the Columbia catalogue, had doubled-booked the only print, sending it to an Austrian film festival held the same week. When someone from Sony apologetically broke the news to Noir City founder Eddie Muller earlier in the week, they asked if they could do anything to make up for their mistake. Muller requested that they strike a new print. It arrived at the Castro Theater on Sunday at noon, just a few hours before that day's first showing.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Wire -- These Spoilers are Criminal

Sudhir Venkatesh and his thugs are back, commenting on every new episode of The Wire in the NYT Freakonomics blog.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Noir City 6: Barbara Stanwyck in Jeopardy

"She did it ... because her fear was greater than her shame!"
-- tagline from Jeopardy

In noir, piers in Mexico are always a bad sign. Usually, we reach the pier at the end of the movie, and it's like reaching the end of the earth, no going back (Kansas City Confidential, The Hitcher).

In Jeopardy, we get there early on, for a family fun fishing and camping vacation. But as soon as we reach that pier in Mexico, right on schedule things start to go horribly wrong.

is a low-budget independent picture, with four main characters shot on location, only occasionally interrupted by a few bit players. With the studio system in shambles by 1953, you could have Barbara Stanwyck in a non-glamorous picture like this one.

Barry Sullivan is the army-trained dad who is prepared for anything, even bringing a gun. But a fishing pier column falls and pins his leg in the surf. They try several methods of extrating the log, but to no avail. They were unable to hear the voice in my head yelling "Fulcrum, Fulrum, Fulcrum!" as I watched helplessly in my seat at the Castro.

Sullivan must send Stanwyck for help, while his young son Bobby tries to, well, do something for his Dad at the pier. Stanwyck gets a tow rope from a shack, and then suddenly finds Ralph Meeker is there. Meeker, an escaped prisoner, takes control of the car and Stanwyck. Savvy in the ways of noir, he is not interested in going to the pier and saving Barry Sullivan.

If you thought Meeker was cool in Kiss Me Deadly, he is even cooler here. His character would sound out of place today, but look-wise would fit right in with slightly shaggy hair.

Meeker asks Stanwyck to switch seats with him while driving, taking advantage of the bench-style front seat as generations of American men have. He takes a long pause as she's on top of him, and when she squirms back to her side, she is humiliated -- he is smiling. Pretty racy stuff for 1953.

Meeker shows some manly knowledge while repairing a flat tire in the desert with no car jack available.

While speeding down the back roads, director John Sturges lets Stanwyck's face tells us in advance what she plans to do to convince Meeker to go to the pier so she can save Sullivan. A Stanwyck voice over will soon materialize, asking what would any woman do in this situation? When Stanwyck switches from vulnerable to steely, it is instant and total.

Will Meeker take her to the pier? Will he just ... take her? Will Barry Sullivan drown in front of his son? Will Meeker's clever criminal Think Fulcrum?

It's on DVD, people.

The Tijuana street vendor is Natividad Vacio, a musician and character actor who was a close friend of George Reeves and is portrayed in the film Hollywoodland.

Child actor Lee Aaker was a busy boy throughout the 1950s, appearing in many films and the Rin-Tin-Tin TV series.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Noir City 6: Ida Lupino in Woman In Hiding

"This is -- pinch, pinch, pinch -- a Monday night and the theater is almost full." -- Eddie Muller, on the crowd at Noir City

In Woman In Hiding, Lupino plays Deborah Chandler, heir to a mill in a Southern town with no accents. The mill is run by her wanna-be son-in-law, Selden Clark (Steven McNally), scion of the namesake family of Clarksville.

The set up has Lupino driving an out of control car at furious speeds through the mountains. We see the car crash through the wooden rails of bridge and plunge into a river. A huge organ chord swells, as the car sinks, with the wooden rails floating away. Shades of Carnival of Souls. Then, Lupino's voice from the grave ... or is she still alive?

Now watching people search for your body while your still alive is a bit Tom Sawyerish, but just in case you didn't get it, one of the search party at the river mentions Tom Sawyer as a couple of old-timers fire cannon balls in the river, trying to make the body come up.

From there, we flash back to the events leading up to the car crash, the creepy courtship conducted by Selden Clark. He asks her to marry him on the day of her father's funeral. Her father fell from a catwalk in the factory, alone up there with one Selden Clark.

An incident on their honeymoon convinces Chandler that Clark (a) killed Daddy (b) plans to kill her next. Getting away unseen from the scene of the car crash, she declares, "I've got to stay dead!" If that's not noir, I don't know what is.

While in hiding she meets up with educated drifter Keith Ramsey (Howard Duff). Master character player Irving Bacon, Duff's boss at the bus station newsstand, tells him: "Do me a favor. Please quit. It would be a shame for a man like you to get fired from a job like this."

Like Lupino's character this movie just keeps moving along. There a lot of cool set pieces: a drunken spree of a convention in a hotel (featuring a raft of colorful character actors), a fire exit staircase chase and struggle, an escape from a train (yes, they take the train to Clarksville), and a catwalk game of cat and mouse in a dark factory, with all the loud machinery running.

McNally often played villains and is very menacing here. Lupino's character is perpetually anxious and frightened, but is tough enough to fight back and even jump from her speeding car. Nice performances also from Duff and Peggy Dow as McNally's sexy accomplice.

This a noir crowd pleaser with fast pace, great stars and plenty of action. See it!

Noir City host Eddie Muller waited until after the movie to give some casting background, saying "it would have totally spoiled your chance to enjoy that movie" if he had revealed that the original choice to play Duff's part was none other than Ronald Reagan. Reagan broke his leg two weeks before shooting began. Duff not only got the role, but ended up marrying Lupino in real life.

"Think about it for a second. The course of American history would've changed," said Muller, imaging that Reagan, not Duff, might have ended up as Mr. Ida Lupino. "He would of been happy playing second fiddle to the smartest,toughest woman in Hollwood," instead of marrying the "power mad bitch" Nancy Davis.

Muller also thanked Bob O'Neill, Universal Pictures VP of Asset Management, saying "Univeral is a studio that really appreaciates what we do here at Noir City. They are willing to strike new prints at their own expense for this festival."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Noir City 6: Notes from the Margins

  • Friday's opening night was near-capacity, despite a raging rain storm. Saturday's program did in fact sell out the 1400-seat Castro Theater. Yes, San Francisco is film mad!
  • Noir City always has a literary bent, not surprising when you think of all the great writers associated with the genre. A book table is always doing a brisk business. Saturday evening featured a book sigining from the authors of a new noir fiction collection, A Hell of A Woman. See The Evening Class for interviews with the authors at from the signing.
  • Host Eddie Muller not only wrote a story for the Hell of a Woman book, he then went out a made a 20-minute movie out of it, featuring the venerable noir icon Marsha Hunt. The Grand Inquisitor premiered (favorably) on the Saturday night bill, and Marsha Hunt herself graced us with her considerable presence.
  • Crime writer extraordinaire James Ellroy proved to be a great warm-up act for Saturday's showing of one his favorites, The Prowler, leaving us all "reamed, steamed, and dry-cleaned." Muller revealed that he put the touch on Ellroy for some funds toward the new print.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Noir City 6: Opening Night with Joan Leslie

Noir City 6 started with, what else, a murder, in the rare 1947 Joan Leslie vehicle Repeat Performance -- followed by an onstage interview Leslie, and then her 1943 film, The Hard Way. The festival audience greeted Leslie with a standing ovation. After the crowd quieted, a man yelled out, "You look great!"

Repeat Performance:

This one starts with a bang, a murder on New Year's Eve. Then a twist -- the woman who pulled the trigger wishes she could live the last year over. Soon she realizes she is getting her wish.

Now I didn't really think that set-up would hold up, but the writing, cat-fighting and fast pace drew me in and kept me there.

Leslie plays a recently minted young Broadway star struggling with an alcoholic womanizer writer's-block playwright husband (Louis Hayward). The clothes -- Oleg Cassini. "I never got clothes like that at Warner Brothers!" Leslie told host Eddie Muller in the interview after the showing.

Richard Basehart makes a brilliant screen debut as a dreamy poet, who is fated to become shackled to slutty rich widow Natalie Schafer(aka Mrs. Howell from Gilligan's Island). "He had that role down pat," according to Leslie. Virginia Field is a beautiful bag of ice cubes and razors as scheming playwright Paula Costello. Tom Conway is requisitely British as friend and producer John Friday.

Repeat Performance was Leslie's first picture after breaking her Warners contract. She was unable to work for a year while the contract expired. She took Warners to court and lost finding that only "jockeys, prizefighters and actresses" were not allowed to break contracts they signed when underage.

Repeat Performance was re-made as a TV movie in 1989 as "Turn Back The Clock" with Connie Seleca, and featuring a bit by ... Joan Leslie, as a party guest.

Before the film, Noir City host Eddie Muller said the first print they received was so damaged it could not be shown. Fortunately, prior to the festival, two locals contacted Muller offering their personal prints as backups, bolstering his case for San Francisco as new Capitol of Noir.

The Hard Way:

The Morgan Twins: [in unison] Mr. Wade? We're playing in Jersey City. Can you catch our act? We're the Morgan Twins.
Max Wade: When you're triplets, come back and see me.

In The Hard Way, Leslie plays Ida Lupino's teen-aged sister, just graduated from high school. Desperate to escape a coal mining town and a bad marriage, Lupino hatches a plot for both sisters to escape with a vaudeville team. Jack Carson is the nice-guy actor who agrees to marry Leslie, put her in the act, and let Lupino come along for the ride. Big mistake.

Carson's partner, Dennis Morgan, is right to be wary of the scheming Lupino. Eventually, Carson and Morgan split, and the act becomes a husband and wife duo. But Leslie catches the eye of a producer -- and Carson gets the heave-ho. Eventually Lupino's back-stabbing catches up with her, at about the same time Leslie begins to assert her independence.

The Hard Way features sharp dialogue, good leads, hokey vaudeville numbers, and a plethora of nice bits from an army of character actors, including Nestor Paiva as the creepy agent Max Wade, and Jody Gilbert as Anderson, the hangover nurse. Leslie's spectacular Broadway dance scene drew wild cheers from the Noir City audience. She suffered for that art, telling Muller she sprained a ligament in the performance, which sidelined her for six weeks of production.

While The Hard Way is a very entertaining film, Leslie stated "that's a show I'd like to have another crack at." Still a teenager, Leslie was required to do three hours of school while on the set. The film was plagued by re-writes. "When I'd come back (from the studio school) sometimes I'd be handed a new scene."

Leslie had worked with Lupino before, in High Sierra. "It was lovely working with Ida Lupino. She was a finished, wonderful performer." She revealed that producer Mark Hellinger, aware of Leslie's childhood days in vaudeville, asked her to do an impersonation of Lupino in Thank Your Luck Stars (1943). He insisted though, that she first ask Lupino's permission. Lupino thought the impression hysterical and greenlighted it.


Muller highlighted the significance of Leslie, then a teenager, playing aside stars Bogart, Lupino, Gary Cooper and James Cagney. Leslie shared that when she went to the set of Seargant York, she had never met Cooper and wasn't sure how she should address him. Cooper helped her out by approaching her and speaking to her in character, as Alvin York to Gracie Williams. A routine they followed during the whole production.

After performing in Howard Hughes' Born to be Bad (1950), she turned down a Jane Russell-type production deal from Hughes: "I had the nerve to do that!" But Leslie had long wanted to choose her own roles, which led her away from Warner Brothers, and she wasn't about to let Howard Hughes decide what pictures she worked.

She married in 1950 and raised a family, occasionally appearing in films and TV.

As her birthday is this weekend, the Noir City crowd saw her off with a loud Happy Birthday.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Noir City 6: Not on DVD

Noir City 6 starts tonight in SF, with a bunch of NOT ON DVD rarities.

  • Repeat Performance
  • The Hard Way
  • The Prowler
  • The Night Has 1000 Eyes
  • Story of Molly X
  • Conflict
  • The Suspect
  • 3rd Voice
  • Face Behind The Mask
  • Roadhouse

I will blog on as many of them as I can.

Joan Leslie will appear for tonight's screening of Repeat Performance and The Hard Way. James Ellroy will be on hand Saturday night for The Prowler.

Point of Information: This year's festival is 15% Lupino, which I think is the bare minimum!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

PTL Club -- Hawaii Style

It is time to Praise The Lord -- Jack Lord -- with today's release of Hawaii Five-0 Season 3 on DVD.

Some highlights of the first two seasons:

  • It's Danny Williams. Dan-O has not been invented yet.
  • Repeated perfromances of the 60s Hawaiian tune It Ain't No Big Thing, including an intentionaly bad one by Sal Mineo
  • Latin revolutionairies! In Hawaii?
  • An evil dictator coming to the islands, opposed by the local exile community, who have Hispanic names. Can you say based on Ferdinand Marcos, Philippines?
  • Drug freak-outs
  • Biochemical terrorism by proto-unabomber
  • Ricardo Montalban as a Japanese bad guy who deserted the Japanese Army at Pearl Harbor!
  • Capt Stubing as a local crime lord
  • William Windom with a record-setting scenery-chew in McGarret's office, picking up every single knick-knack in the office and examining them while explaining to The Lord that he's just in Hawaii for pleasure, not safecracking.
  • Hot Lips Houlihan (Loretta Swit) being insufferably ... hot
  • And of course, various Wo Fat intrigues

And now, a revisionist imaging of the title credits:

By today's standards, Five-0 is not a very realistic cop show. Would a guy who meets with the governor all the time really be out solving crimes and apprehending perps? He'd probably have his staff take care of that. But not The Lord.

Maybe that's because his staff is incapable of solving crimes. When the team sits around the big glass board that The Lord draws upon with markers, only He can connect the dots. Not Danny, Kono or Chin Ho.

Who finds the clues? None but The Lord. When he visits the crime scene alone, he is usually presented with a a big fat clue. A little boy comes along. "Gee Meeester, I saw a guy leaving here last night. It was kinda dark, but I think he was 5'11 1/2, 215 lbs, has a mole on his left cheek, shoe size is 10-and-a-half, and his social security number starts with 4." Who apprehends the criminal everytime? Say it with me y'all: The Lord.

While fairly ridiculous, Five-0 is vastly entertaining, in part due to Lord's unintentionally campy acting style. Behind the scenes, his intensity burned too bright for cast and crew:

From TV Guide, via the Hawaii Five-0 Homepage:

"Let's face it," he said. "This is Lord's last chance to hit it, and he's uptight. He wasn't the first choice for the part, but we're stuck with him now. He owns a piece of it, with Freeman. Just do your job and stay loose -- and keep away from that airport detail."

Another great feature of the show is each week's guest criminal, and the assorted bit players, whether local folks just being themselves, or various rising/falling supporting thesps. While Five-0 can be hokey, the guest stars almost always turn in good performances.

Some Cult fave actors to watch for in Season 3:

Barry Atwater (The Night Stalker)
Don Stroud (Bloody Mama, Angel Unchained)
Marianne McAndrew (Bat People, Hello Dolly!)
Royal Dano (Western character actor)
John Marley (a little thing in the Godfather, something about a horse's head)
Jock Mahoney (Glorystompers!)
Joy Bang (all-time great stripper name, but she wasn't a stripper. Great in Night of the Cobra Woman)
Donna Kai Benz (The Challenge, Pray for Death)
Paul Carr (Brute Corps, Dirt Gang, Severed Arm, Sisters of Death, Bat People, Truck Stop Women)
Sabrina Scharf (Hell's Angels on Wheels, Easy Rider, California State Senate)
Khigh Dhiegh (Wo Fat)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mystery Writer Mark Coggins on Noir and more

The fabled Noir City festival is set to open this Friday in San Francisco, so I decided to interrogate mystery writer Mark Coggins, author of an acclaimed series of modern San Francisco mysteries featuring the jazz-bass-playing detective August Riordan.

What is your favorite Film Noir and why?

Bill Wilder's 1944 Double Indemnity because of the great dialog (which was co-written by Raymond Chandler). This exchange between insurance salesman Walter Neff and femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson is classic:

Dietrichson: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. 45 miles an hour.
Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Dietrichson: I'd say around 90.
Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Dietrichson: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Neff: Suppose it doesn't take.
Dietrichson: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Dietrichson: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Neff: That tears it...

But my favorite line is uttered by claims adjuster Barton Keyes when Neff turns down the office job Keyes is offering him: "I thought you were a shade less dumb than the rest of the outfit. Guess I was wrong. You're not smarter, just taller."

Since I'm a Stanford alum, I also got a kick out of the fact that the murdered husband is strangled en route to Palo Alto for an alumni event. Chandler used to attend the "Big Game" against Cal, so I'm convinced he interjected that detail into the script based on his experience.

Who would you like to play August Riordan in a film?

My first book, THE IMMORTAL GAME, was actually optioned for film and a script was written, but never produced. I did discuss casting with the producer and he was interested in having either Chris Noth (Mr. Big from Sex in the City) or Jeff Goldblum.

At the time, I thought Clint Eastwood would be good because of his connection to San Francisco and--since Riordan plays bass--his interest in jazz. Eastwood is probably a bit long in the tooth for the role now, so I might go with Denis Leary. He's Irish and he's got a smart mouth, both of which are qualities Riordan shares.

What's your next project?

My next book is tentatively titled The Deadbeat Scroll, in which Riordan investigates the theft of a hitherto unknown manuscript by Jack Kerouac.


Coggins' new book, Runoff, has been named one of the best crime novels of the year by January magazine, and selected by Sons of Spade for best wisecracks. He has posted a cool photo slidehow of the book's locations.

For more on Coggins and August Riordan, see

One Missed Call

I saw a lady run out of One Missed Call -- to answer her cell phone.

I guess she didn't want to ... miss ... one ... call ...

Must be a very effective "message" film.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Wire -- Real Talk

OK, TV critics and commentators, move aside. I know you've all been typing furiously about the last season of The Wire, but all y'all need to check yourself before you wreck yourself, 'cause you just been served -- by Mr. Sudhir Venkatesh. Check this tremendously entertaining and informative piece in the NYT's Freakonomics blog.

Sudhir Venkatesh, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, and author of the just-published book Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, invited a group of NYC fellows experienced in the drug trade to watch and comment on The Wire's fifth season.

"Ever since I began watching HBO’s The Wire, I felt that the show was fairly authentic in terms of its portrayal of modern urban life — not just the world of gangs and drugs, but the connections between gangland and City Hall, the police, the unions, and practically everything else. It certainly accorded with my own fieldwork in Chicago and New York. And it was much better than most academic and journalistic reportage in showing how the inner city weaves into the social fabric of a city.

Last year, I learned a lot by watching a few episodes of The Wire with gang leaders in Chicago. So, a few weeks ago, I called a few respected street figures in the New York metro region to watch the upcoming fifth season. I couldn’t think of a better way to ensure quality control."

For Vankatesh's guys, the Wire cops are not dirty enough. In their world, they expect more corruption, with all sorts of side deals between dealers and cops. An acquaintance of mine who is a police in a notoriously crime-ridden city backs this up, saying that The Shield, with its focus on corrupt cops, is the most realistic cop show.

But The Wire is by far the most compelling. If you read the comments on Freakonomics, people are practically begging for this to be a weekly feature.

Val Lewton Blogathon

Cheers to The Evening Class for its Val Lewton Blogathon, in conjunction with this past Monday's premiere of Martin Scorcese's doc on Lewton (accompanied by a 10-film marathon).

Bloggers were invited to throw down with Lewton entries and many did, myself included -- and some are still submitting late in the week. If you're ready to read up on Lewton, Evening Class is the place to start.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

RSA in the USA

Weird micro-genre: low-budget action films not shot in the US that pretend they are set in the US.

From South Africa, I give you American Kickboxer (aka American Kickboxer 1). It sets up with some exterior LA shots and the hero, BJ, wears a UCLA shirt often. There are a few Americans in the cast, but most of the players are South Africans trying desperately to disguise their accents ... and failing miserably.

Yet AK1 is an entertaining, so bad it's good, movie starring actual martial artists John Barrett, Keith Vitale (karate champion, Superfights, Revenge of the Ninja), and awesome villian Brad Morris. Highlights include workout scenes to hilarious 80s rock songs, they way they make it so thoroughly impossible to like the hero even a little bit, the nebbish sports reporter, and the incredibly pro-looking signage for the broadcasting company carrying the big fight.

Yes there is a sequel (not as good -- don't even think about it).

Another like film is the multi-faceted Kick or Die. This movie announces it takes place in America by having a highway patrolman pull our hero over and say, "Welcome to California." Fooling no one. Again, there are US imports in the cast.

STORY: Kickboxer who left town under a cloud comes back, teaches the local college girls self-defense against the insane rapist/killer stalking them. Takes up with college girl soft-rock singer, who is being managed by his old rival, once a boxer, who wants singer girl for his own. Oh yeah, but who is the crazy killer?

Not only is Kick or Die a film for all countries, it is a film for all audiences. It is a kick-boxing movie, a feminist fight-back against male violence movie, a Star-is-Born story of a woman singer, her mysterious Svengali and the kickboxer who completes their love triangle. A slasher movie, a criminal mastermind movie, and possibly an Amway recruitment film. Investing in this movie was like putting your money in mutual hedged fund instead of a stock. Somebody, somewhere was going to like this movie. Or so they thought.

OK, I liked it, but I might be the only one.

Not on DVD ... yet ...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cagle's Top Five Korean Films

Today, Robert Cagle from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recommends five Korean films not yet available in the US:

I've always found it difficult to name one single favorite film (or even a top five) because I like so many movies for widely differing reasons. Because many of your readers are most likely already familiar with some of the most famous recent Korean films — Old Boy (Park Chan-wook, 2003); JSA (Park Chan-wook,2000); Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003); A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Ji-woon, 2003); and The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006), for example — I'd like to mention a handful of works that I consider well worth watching, but unfortunately that, at present, have not yet secured a North American release.

Maeumi… (a.k.a. Heart is…; a.k.a Hearty Paws) (Oh Dal-gyoon, 2007) A devastatingly poignant film about two abandoned children and the tan Labrador retriever dog they raise together. To borrow the tagline used to market a popular Japanese film (Helen the Baby Fox), "If you don't cry after watching this movie, you have no soul."

Our Happy Time (Song Hae-seong, 2007) Saddled with the ridiculously
unsuitable English title, Maundy Thursday, which in no way communicates the ambivalence — both a heartfelt sincerity and a bitter irony — of the original title, this film is an adaptation of a novel by noted South Korean writer Gong Ji-young. The film tells the story of a chronically depressed young woman (played superbly by Lee Na-young), forced to pay regular visits to a young man on death row (Kang Dong-won) as punishment for her repeated attempts at suicide.

Miracle on First Street (Yoon Je-jyoon, 2006) Like Yoon's 2002 film Sex is Zero, Miracle on First Street also pairs Ha Ji-won and Im Chang-jeong, and offers an unsettling but highly effective combination of broad, even vulgar comedy, and moments of tender pathos. Make no mistake, though: Despite its decidedly scatological approach to humor, this film is no Farrelly-brothers movie; it is a stirring commentary on Korean politics and society.

The Crescent Moon (Jang Kil-soo, 2002) Of all the Korean films that I have watched, none has had such a profound effect on me as The Crescent Moon has. The film, an independent and deeply personal project funded by the Korean Film Council, seamlessly blends gritty social realism with elements of the fairy tale to challenge viewers in creative ways. It is a work that truly deserves to be called "beautiful." The final sequence, which features the crescent moon of the title, is strikingly simple and extremely touching. Although this one may be hard to find — it's unlikely that American video shops will carry it as a rental — it is readily available for purchase from online vendors such as,, and

Princess Aurora (Pang Eun-jin, 2005) First-time director Pang Eun-jin is better known to audiences as an actress, especially after having appeared in such landmark films as The Taebaek Mountains (Im Kwon-taek, 1994); 30 1/302(Park Cheol-su, 1995); and Address Unknown (Kim Ki-duk, 2001). This film, described by the director as a "dark melodrama," starts out looking a lot like a serial killer film, and ends up in art house territory. With apparent nods to such international classics as Truffaut's classic The Bride Wore Black (France, 1968), Pang's film traces the breakdown of a young woman (Eom Jeong-hwa) driven mad by a horrific tragedy. The film's turning point features a dazzling flashback sequence that reenacts a series of events leading up to a dreadful and unavoidable conclusion that has already been revealed. The sequence is brutal, and offers what is certainly one of the most stinging critiques of Korean society's under-valuation of children. With this spectacular work, Pang reveals herself to be just as talented a director as she is an actress. I am very much looking forward to her next work.

I've just realized, looking back over my list of favorite films, that all of the titles I've chosen feature child actors in key roles. This would most certainly not be the case with American films, as for the most part, the cloyingly practiced, faux-innocent juvenile performers that populate Hollywood fare make late career Shelley Winters look like an ingénue. The youngsters in South Korean films, though, are never so coarse, so artificial, as to strike the viewer as performers, but come off, instead, as real children—the type one might see anywhere. The same is true, despite their incredible beauty, of all of the adult actors as well. Their naturalistic performances lend a strangely incongruous air of believability to the highly unlikely narratives, filled with the standard plot twists, coincidences, and shocking conclusions characteristic of the melodrama. Perhaps it is simply that—the ability to make us believe in the unbelievable — that has made South Korean films and television so immensely popular.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Robert Cagle on Korean Hallyu

Robert Cagle is the Library Cinema Studies Specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and an Assistant Professor in the Unit for Cinema Studies. He has an essay in the recent book, Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema. He was kind enough to provide some insight on the Hallyu (Korean Wave), and current issues impacting the Korean film industry.

What is it about contemporary Korean film, TV, and music that is so
appealing to other consumers in other Asian nations?

It's difficult to say what is so appealing about Korean film, TV, and music, because although it's possible to identify any number of factors that could contribute to the sudden, widespread acceptance of Korean pop culture, it's impossible to quantify, in any way, just how great an influence any one of these might be.

Of course, the most obvious reason might be simply that the performers — the actors, actresses, and singers—are, almost without exception, incredibly good-looking: Bae Yong-joon, Choi Ji-woo, Kwon Sang-woo, Song Hye-kyo, Jeong Woo-seong, Son Hye-jin, Jang Dong-gun, and Yeom Jeong-ah, to name only a few of the most famous actors and actresses, personify widely held standards of beauty both for Eastern and Western audiences. In addition, some performers— Ahn Jae-wook and Cha Tae-hyeon, for example—combine good looks and talent, and enjoy dual careers as popular actors and singers. All of these individuals are, in an old-fashioned Hollywood sense, stars.

In addition, the lush soundtracks that underscore Korean TV dramas play no small part in establishing these programs in viewers' hearts, too, and often go on to score successes of their own as CD releases. Not long ago while having dinner at a Chinese restaurant I was surprised to realize that the music playing was a selection of highlights from Korean drama soundtracks played on traditional Chinese instruments.

The picturesque settings and gorgeous photography, too, give these television programs a kind of cinematic feel that appeals to the viewers' shared sense of nostalgia—so much so, that the Korean tourism industry developed a series of TV Drama tour packages that allow viewers to visit the settings of key sequences from their favorite shows.

Korean television dramas generally contain none of the sex and violence characteristic of American television programming (and of some South Korean films as well), but instead, focus on storylines about lost love rediscovered too late—the kind of tragic, romantic storyline typical of classical Hollywood films of the studio era. The youthful performers (most Korean wave stars are in their twenties or, at oldest, thirties); the temporal settings (stories routinely take place at high schools or universities); and the old-fashioned themes and values(programs seem to conform to moral standards of a past era), then, all work together to create a longing for a past that never really existed, for South Korea or anywhere else for that matter, and that can only be realized in the space of the television drama.

What challenges lie ahead for the Korean film industry?

The past two years have been very difficult ones for the Korean film industry. Under pressure from the US government in its "free trade" negotiations, the Korean government was convinced to reduce by half the screen quota that had for decades guaranteed a home audience for South Korean productions. This move was met by loud and persistent protests from the entertainment industry, but has, as yet, not been overturned. Compounding this problem even more is the fact that exports of Korean films and television dramas dropped to a devastating low over the past year, as the Japanese market for Korean entertainment seemed to dry up overnight.

Koreans began to worry, too, that because of the high number of films and television dramas based on Japanese source material (200 lb. Beauty and White Tower, for example) that Korea's own culture was being co-opted by Japan's. Finally, the unionization, as of this July, of the industry, created all sorts of unforeseen problems, as some production companies chose to slow or even halt projects to see how things would work out.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, that South Korean film faces in other markets—most notably in the American market—is its mischaracterization by critics as a national cinema defined by excessive violence—something that became painfully evident in news coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings in which journalists and "experts" scrambled to manufacture connections between the actions of Seung Cho, referred to by his Korean name "Cho Seung-hui" in reports of the incident, and images of violence from Park Chan-wook's Old Boy(2003), a film that the troubled young man may have never even seen.

Tomorrow: Some recommended films.

Calypso Dreams @ Egyptian in LA

Having just discussed the acting career of Calypso singer Sir Lancelot, it's a good time to note that Gregory Dunn's Calypso Dreams screens tonight at the Egyptian Theater in LA.

There is a long interview with Dunn at There aren't a lot of films out there exploring Calypso, so this one fills a need. I have not seen it yet (not on DVD, it has played at some rep houses here in the SF Bay).

Monday, January 14, 2008

Lewton's Calypsonian: Sir Lancelot

Shame and sorrow for the family

Calypso singer Sir Lancelot's motion picture career is not surprisingly overlooked. After all, he played bit roles in a handful of films. Yet I think he is a somewhat important figure in American film. At a time when black males could only play servants and shoe-shine men, Sir Lancelot was allowed to portray more dignified characters, who could sometimes offer commentary on the story's events.

In I Walked With A Zombie, Lancelot gets his best role, and it's over in a hurry. Nevertheless, the role is tailor-made for a Calypsonian, as he sings a topical song which comments on local controversies. Instead of just being tossed in for diversion, his song actually introduces the back story of brothers feuding over a woman.

While Lancelot feels compelled to apologize when Wesley Rand overhears his song, later he sings it again when Rand has passed out drunk and Betsy tries to roust him. In this scence, he warns Betsy of impending disaster and shame with new lyrics, all the while advancing in menacing fashion. What other black actor got to scold a white woman in 1943?

Perhaps his status as a foreign-born black with an exotic job description, Calypso Singer, made it easier for him to be cast this way in the 1940s. While Lancelot never became a star, others followed in his path. America would later embrace fellow Caribbeans Harry Belafonte and Sidney Portier, long before it could accept black actors from places like New York as leading men.

He appeared in two other Lewton films, playing a crew member in Ghost Ship, and yes, a servant, in Curse of the Cat People. You can also see him in To Have and Have Not, and hear his observational singing in Jules Dassin's Brute Force.

More on his career at

Monster From Bikini Beach Interview

There's something going in in River City, aka Sacramento. Sacramento is chock full of cult film activity, including the Sacramento Horror Film Festival, TV Host Mr. Lobo's events, and the long-running Trash Film Orgy (TFO).

TFO producer Amy and about 100 friends recently graduated from putting on their own film events to producing a movie themselves. The retro-themed Monster From Bikini Beach premiered Jan 11 at the Crest Theater in Sacramento.

Can you describe the Trash Film Orgy experience?

It is pretty much indescribable because of it‘s complexity… it is definitely more then just a film fest. There is also an interactive lobby, games, The Retro Crush Lounge, and an over the top stage show.

Why is Sacramento such a hotbed of film events?

It is an interesting phenomenon. I think it is that in Sacramento there wasn’t much going on for a long time, so you have to make up things to do out of boredom. It’s a starvation for something entertaining, creative and not giving in or settling for mainstream culture, it stems from a punk idealism and do-it-yourself approach to producing art.

What inspired you to make this film?

We have been doing the TFO for eight years now and the stage shows starting getting more and more elaborate. That segued into using all the talent gathered into making films.

What did you learn from producing the movie?

That people skills are very important, we had over 100 people work on the movie, and it we could not have gotten this film done without each and every one of them. Also, special effects and gore take twice as long as you think they will.

After the premiere, what is next for you and Monster From Bikini Beach?

Well, it will still be all Monster From Bikini Beach all the time. We are going to be submitting it to festivals, and distributors and see where that can take us. The Trash Film Orgy Players will be participating in the Sacramento All Sketch Festival on Feb 21, 22, and 23rd.

Monday Bullets of Terror

  • TCM rolls out a Martin Scorcese doc on Val Lewton tonight, followed by ten Lewton films. The doc and most of the films are available on a new six-disc set, The Val Lewton Horror Collection. At the tail end of the marathon, TCM presents two early Val Lewton productions not on DVD, Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi. Set the DVR!

  • Modern day Horror Host Mr. Lobo has an appreciation of one of his predecessors, the recently deceased Vampira.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Odd Reels Night

One thing I've learned is if you're going to a film event in the SF Bay Area, buy a ticket in advance, because the most unlikely events can sell out. Odd Reels Night didn't quite sell out the small theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but it actually came close.

The rules of the game, as explained by Film/Video Curator Joel Shepard:

  • Film collectors often end up with "odd reels". An odd reel is when you have only a single reel from a film.
  • Five odd reels are strung together to make a 90-minute random "film."
  • The reels are placed in the order they would be shown in their true context, so the first reel is the beginning of a film, the last reel is the end of film, etc.
  • From the program announcement: "I have no idea if this is going to work, so we’re reducing the admission price to an el cheapo $5 for all seats … so, wtf, take the plunge."
  • If you get bored, it's like a new movie every 18 minutes

Now this could go horribly wrong if the reels weren't entertaining, but these reels were from:

  • Insane kung-fu comedy with incredibly bad subtitles. I have never seen anything quite like the "banana monster" sequence.
  • Sexy Proibitissimo, ridiculous Italian stripper-mondo film
  • Love Camp 7, Nazi soft porn from the master, Lee Frost
  • Devil's Nightmare, Seven Deadly Sins in a creepy ole mansion, with Erica Blanc
  • Finale: the ultimate in tacked-on endings, the conclusion from Snuff

Needless to say, a good time was had by all experiencing this Frankenstein monster. Much more entertaining than sitting through the full-length version of any these masterpieces.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

More Max Havoc ...

Here's a first-hand account of the Max Havoc: Curse of The Dragon production on Guam from a somewhat bitter crew member.

Believe it don't, there is a sequel -- shot in Vancouver, not Guam.

Guam marketing itself as a destination and improving its economy by serving as a filming location is not a bad idea at all. Now that they've had a lesson in how not to work with film-makers, perhaps the island, with it's strong ties to the film-producing Philippines, can work with some experienced Filipino talent.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Max Havoc: Guam Come On?

"The governor is standing next to me and we're behind Carmen Electra and he's looking down her bustier and he says to me, 'Wow, look at that. That's Hollywood!'"
-- John F.S. Laing, producer of Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon

Watching Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon, at first I thought it might turn out to be a soft porn flick. But it didn't. If the Olsen Twins made a kickboxing movie, it might look like this. I read somewhere the Twins made their fortune on super low-budget films shot at various resort locations, where they would meet nice boys and have adventures. Max Havoc is pretty much like that, except that Max is a nice 30ish boy who has adventures and meets nice twin girls. In between kickboxing various unconvincing villains. It's all very PG-13. I was surprised to see Albert Pyun (Heatseeker, Mean Guns) listed as the director. He's no Hitchcock, but he's better than this.

Still, the trailer is lots of fun ...

But the real deal story of Max Havoc is that the island of Guam got a $800,000 lesson in how not to get started in the film business.

Governments often work with producers to have films shot locally, but the producer of this film actually got Guam to put up an $800K loan guarantee, which is unheard of. Guam's expectations: some short-term local employment, a first-run film showcasing the beautiful island, and a few quickie PSAs starring Carmen Elecrtra. Oh, and more films shot there in the future, by the same production company.

What they got:
  • $800,000 gone
  • No ownership in the resultant Direct-to-DVD, shot on video kickboxing movie
  • Lawyers fees, for their suit against the producer
  • Lawyers fees, for the producer's suit against them

From the Los Angeles Times:

Guam officials contend that Laing snookered them into putting up $800,000 to guarantee a bank loan on which he later defaulted. Laing counters that they broke their promises of financial support and caused his company to lose $1.5 million.

Territorial Sen. Ben Pangelinan splits the blame, accusing the filmmakers of peddling "the glitz of Hollywood" to star-struck officials who were all too eager to buy it.

"If somebody on Guam wanted to meet Carmen Electra, there are a lot cheaper ways than backing a film in which she had a three-minute part," said Pangelinan, a lonely voice of dissent when the plan was hatched three years ago.

Here's the whole L.A Times story. You will have to scroll down like the wind till you hit June 17, 2007. Scroll for it!

Meanwhile, the lawyering continues ...

Embarassing Porno Rental Story #1

There used to be a video rental store up at the Westborough shopping center here in South San Francisco. I encountered the store during the dark days when they were slowly switching from VHS to DVD. Soon to be followed by the good times of their transition from DVD to out-of-business.

Behind the counter, there was a little bench against the wall. Sometimes movies would get marooned there for several decades before getting put back in the stacks. I remember going to the store several times over a six week period, and each time the same VHS box was sitting on the bench, on its side, collecting dust, with the title on the spine announcing to the world in big bold black letters:

Anal Blitzkreig.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Wire Bullets

  • Need to get up on The Wire? HBO On Demand has a five-minute Season 4 recap that will get you on track.

  • Aaron Barnhart has a great article on Season 5, plus a rundown on the main characters for the uninitiated at his deftly named TV Barn

  • The Wire Deluxe Complete Edition soundtrack CD ships today. The album features opening and closing themes and artists such as The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Neville Brothers, Tom Waits, Spearhead, Solomon Burke, The Pogues, Jesse Winchester, Paul Weller, Steve Earle, and many Baltimore artists. The CD includes photos and essays by creator David Simon, author George Pelecanos and hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang.