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 ingĂ©nue. 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.

Korean Wave in Chicago

The Japan America Society of Chicago is sponsoring a panel on the wave of Korean pop culture sweeping Asia Thurs Jan 10 in Chicago. From the announcement:

In recent years, a wave of South Korean pop culture has swept across East and Southeast Asia. In Japan, the wild popularity of a Korean television drama called “Winter Sonata” has led to throngs of Japanese women packing tourist buses to sites in Korea. South Korean movies, dramas, and music fly off the shelves in Singapore, China and the Philippines. This broad phenomenon is referred to as “hallyu” in Korean, meaning Korean Wave. This program will address various aspects of the “hallyu” phenomenon in Korea and the U.S.; the South Korean government’s involvement in the export of Korean cultural products; and the social and economic impact of Korean drama’s in Japan and East Asia.

Here's the flyer.

I'll have more on this event later in the week -- possibly even some audio!

In the meantime I'll pimp this Jeff Yang article again. Great background on the business side of the Korean film Wave.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Cult Soundtracks: Perseverance Records Interview

Robin Esterhammer issues interesting soundtracks through his Perseverance Records label. His releases include The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Martin, Dark Skies, Bloodsport, Kickboxer, The Punisher, and a new Jim Menzies collection that contains excerpts from

  • Bloodsurf
  • Leatherface - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre III
  • The Life and Times of Eddie Presley
  • Lurking Fear
  • Pumpkinhead 2
  • The Escape Clause
  • The Story Tellers

What inspired you to start your label?

I have been collecting soundtracks for the past 30 years as a fan. My big break came in 1997 when I was hired to work on Babylon 5 with Christopher Franke, who was doing the score for the show. I stayed with him for the next three years and also got involved a little bit in his Sonic Images record label that produced several soundtracks. Finally, in 2000, there was no way for me to go but leave. I had enjoyed my stay immensely, but after three years there was no room for me to grow, and they didn't want me to move over to the label, which is something I bitterly regret.

After a brief interval of of unemployment, I finally decided to produce a CD on my own, and within a few months I released David Bergeaud's beautiful music to Prince Valiant with a limited run of 1000 units, 400 of which went to the composer. Then followed Dr. Phibes Rises Again with MGM, and so on, and so on.

What are some of the challenges involved in securing a title and producing the final product?

The biggest challenge is that when you are small nobody wants to do business with you. Although most people are aware that film scores are not huge sellers, some still do think that they can put their kids through college by someone releasing their soundtrack. This goes for studios as well as composers. So getting the rights to do a soundtrack, especially a big one, is by far the most difficult thing. Once you have that, and you have access to the masters, the rest is more or less an easy task.

What are some of your favorite soundtracks?

Highlander by Michael Kamen and Queen, Conan, the Barbarian by Basil Poledouris and Chaplin by John Barry

What new projects are you working on?

Right now, we are working on an expanded version of Richard Band's Mutant score. We have all the music, and it will be mastered next week. Only artwork is hard to find.

Simultaneously, I am working with Hunt and Tony Sales on their first solo Blues album. They were in Tin Machine with David Bowie and toured with Iggy Pop and Todd Rundgren in the Seventies and Eighties. At one point they were scheduled to replace the Blues Brothers on Saturday Night Live, but Tony had a fatal car accident and was dead for a few hours. Luckily, they revived him, so now he is collaborating with me on this fantastic album. If you like Sam & Dave or the Blues Brothers, you will like Hired Guns.

What question do you wish someone would ask, and what is the answer?

What is the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything? 42.

The Wire

The Wire's last season just began, and if there was ever a Cult TV show, this is it. A show with a small but loyal fan base that goes where others shows don't dare to go.

Despite it's relative obscurity, The Wire has always been a critical favorite. Much has been written about the show's exceptional character development, in particular how the criminals are fleshed out as real as the cops are. The show is great on that strength alone, but there is more.

Beyond the compelling story arcs and great acting, the political subtext of The Wire is what makes it unique. No other U.S. TV show has ever thematically taken on such huge issues as the war on drugs, the war on terror, the plight of the inner city, the demise of labor unions and the working class, the state of public education, corporate journalism, gentrification and political corruption including drug money laundered into local politics.

If you've got HBO onDemand you can view each new episode several days before its Sunday night broadcast. Episode 52, which will broadcast Sunday 1/13, is up right now.

From Season 4, Snoop goes shopping ...

NW Film Center's 25th Annual Reel Music festival

Jan 11 through Feb 3, in Portland. This stupendous three-week festival has a staggering line-up of films.

I can definitely recommend Brasilerinho, by Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki, a close-up look into the work of Brazil's choro musicians.
Another worth seeing is You're Gonna Miss Me, about the legendary 13th Floor Elevators leader Roky Erickson. The strange story of Roky's career and family is thought and emotion provoking. Since I don't live in Portland, and you don't either (probably), both are out on DVD.

Also docs on the incredibly influential Les Paul, troubled-and-talented jazz singer Anita O'Day, and the brilliant/tragic British music producer Joe Meek, of Telstar fame.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Great Article on Development of South Korean Cinema

Follow the link for an interesting article from Jeff Yang on the emergence of South Korean cinema, particularly on the business side of things.