Thursday, March 24, 2011

Icons of Cool: Meiko Kaji

It’s been some time and a few blogs since I last decreed my affection for Japanese exploitation film goddess and ballad singer Meiko Kaji. In celebration of her 64th birthday today, I thought it time to induct her into Colonel Mortimer’s Icons of Cool alongside Vincent Price and John Lennon.

Despite the typical soft features that we associate with Japanese women, Kaji was adept at exhibiting an emotionless stony veneer that expressed simultaneous rage, contempt and righteous power, imagine Clint Eastwood, only as a hot Asian woman. She’s probably best known in the States for the two 1970s Japanese revenge series in which she played the titular characters: Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (4 films) and Lady Snowblood (2 films) which were key inspirations for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. I recommend all six films highly; they’re full of familiar women in prison and revenge tropes elevated by expressive filmmaking and minimal yet powerful work by Kaji. For a different perspective on Kaji, but still within the Japan 70’s genre wheelhouse, I’d recommend her performance in Kinji Fukasuku's Battles Without Honor or Humanity II: Death Match in Hiroshima, which maybe a smaller supporting role, but does provide her the opportunity to play a love interest, and she’s as sweet in the role as she is vicious in the previously mentioned work.

Meiko was also an accomplished singer, and most of her films (as well as Kill Bill) conclude with one of her ballads on the soundtrack. For the harshness of her characters and films, there’s a certain fragile beauty to the music and her vocals, as if there’s a sliver of sorrow rooted deep down within her character’s soul that is only expressed via music.

Happy Birthday Ms Kaji, the siren of this here blog. Our thoughts are with you and your family, friends and country mates in Japan at this time.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dead Video Format: RCA Selectavision CED Videodisc

As a bit of a nostalgiaholic, I am more than a little obsessed with dead audio and visual formats. I have in my lifetime lived in a household with a Betamax (my Dad purchased an early model when he was working at an Electronics store), VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-Ray players. A dream of mine is to one day have my own little room/portion of my house set up to play every format. In my last post I mentioned the RCA Selectavision CED player (Capacitane Electronic Disc) which appropriately was introduced to the marketplace in the year 1981, a friend of mine actually has a working player (he also has several working eight tracks!) and it got me thinking about the long deceased format.

The CED is a record like disc in a hard LP sized protective case, to play the film; you insert the entire case into the player which would then extract the disc before you then remove the case, an analog stylus similar to a audio record would then play the film. Like DVDs the CED allowed you to skip to chapters and like LPs and Laserdiscs, the player required flipping mid-way through the film.

What I like about the presentation is that the size allows for larger artwork displays versus the smaller and box shaped VHS and Beta tapes. We never had a Selectavision player, but I have a very specific memory of watching The Karate Kid in the format once at a facility while my mother was doing something (funny I can’t remember why I was there, but I remember the film and that it was a CED). I also recall that the Pettys, the parents of friends of my brother who some time would watch us, had a player and a lot of Disney cartoon collections for it.

Though the technology existed since the 1960's CED players and discs were not commercially produced until the year 1981 and were extinct by 1986.

Here are some fun related videos I found on YouTube

A commercial from the early 1980s—I like how the Dad in the first clip is kind of a dick, “Let’s just say I’m watching a great movie and you, you’re watching me”

And some demonstrations people made recently showing the intricacies of the player itself.

Anyone here ever own one of these? I am curious if the video quality was superior or on par with VHS. It doesn't look all that bad from the Saturday Night Fever clips, but the Blade Runner scenes look really fuzzy and full of ghosting.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Posterized: Now Playing: March 1981

This weekend I watched the documentary I Need That Record on Netflix Instant which details the economic, political, technological and cultural changes that has led to the shuttering of many an independent record shop in recent years. The film didn’t provide any revelatory information; however, it did a good job of putting human faces on this sad trend. At one point there was a statistic mentioned that while maybe exaggerated (but if so, not by a lot I’m guessing) posits that only 1% of all recorded music is actually available on iTunes. This has been a major concern of mine and why I steadfastly (fool heartedly you might say) still collect physical product

To bring this back to film related terms, here’s the scenario: out of all the films made before home video invention only a certain percentage ever were released on either VHS or Beta. Of that total, only a percentage ever made it to DVD, and of course, of that percentage of a percentage, only another percentage will ever make its way onto Blu-Ray, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu or even illegal internet downloads. Sure, the Godfathers, Indiana Jones and Star Wars films will always find their way onto whatever is the current format du jour, but the more exploitative, experimental, stranger, or marginalized titles will continue to evaporate.

I bring this up on this, the March 1981 Posterized entry, because while compiling this list, I was surprised at not only the amount of films released this month thirty years ago that I had never seen, but the eight plus titles I had never even heard of. Sure, you can chalk this to the fact I was a month away from celebrating my fifth birthday at this point in time, but I consider myself a learned historian of cinema, and have spent countless hours of my life mentally collecting data from either video store aisle browsing and film reference books or internet readings that it’s rare that there’s a title pre 1980 I’ve never come across, let alone eight that were all released within a one month span.

Sure thirty years is a pretty good chunk of time, but by 1981 cable and three home video formats: VHS, Betamax and Selectavision were in existence, so it seems odd that one month would yield so many obscurities. Though again, like any experience film related, perhaps this is my perspective, not counting the foreign releases, here are the title of the films from this month whose existence has thus far alluded me, please let me know in the comment field if any of these are favorites or worth checking out: Back Roads, Dirty Tricks, Harry’s War (this is on Netflix Instant), The High Country, Image Before My Eyes, Pickup Summer, Ruckus, Scared to Death.

And finally after that rambling preamble, here are the posters for films that opened theatrically in the United States during the month of March, 1981

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Every Sorcerer Will Have His Day

When it comes to a film’s success, its release date often plays a large role. In the summer of 1977, America was finally starting to move on from Watergate and the Vietnam War, and Star Wars with its nostalgic storytelling shean and clearly discernible good and bad guys (even symbolically wearing white and black) was definitely the right film at the right time. Sure, George Lucas’ space opera saga would probably have been a hit regardless of when it was released, but I don’t know that had it opened a few years earlier or even in the winter months, if it would have become quite the phenomenon that it did.

On the opposite of side of the spectrum, and with the poor luck to open just as Star Wars was expanding, and with a title that infers a fantasy film that is not representative of the end product, is William Freidkin’s Sorcerer. A remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, Friedkin’s follow-up to the commercial successes The Exorcist and The French Connection, Sorcerer is a dense, intense, harrowing experience with non-sympathetic leads speaking in four different languages. Not the stuff of modern summer blockbusters. It was a commercial failure, and seemed doomed to obscurity.

But as time as passed, Sorcerer’s reputation seems to be taking a turn in a positive light. And in the last few weeks two appreciations of the film came to my attention. First, the Gentleman’s Guide to Midnight Cinema, my favorite film related podcast (actually, the only one I listen to), covered it, and my blogging friend Leopard13 (check out his new blog, It Rains…You Get Wet) attended a screening at the Aero theatre (bummed I missed that one), and recorded the post film Q & A with Friedkin, where he revealed a Blu-Ray is in the early stages of development to replace the crappy full-frame DVD version that is currently the only readily available edition.

Here is part one of that Q & A (Leopard, please let me know if you have any issue with me reposting this)

For the rest of the discussion, click here.

And click here (it's episode #119 for the Gentleman’s Guide to Midnight Cinema podcast covering Sorcerer (and Forced Entry).

And here’s my Roy Scheider tribute piece where I discuss his role in Sorcerer.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Master Oscar Bait

Part of the 1981 Project

Astute readers may have noticed that my Top 10 and Honorable Mention lists for the 1980 Project was missing the Robert Redford directed Academy Award winning Best Picture, Ordinary People. Personally, I find the movie extremely average, outside of some good performance by both Timothy Hutton and Donald Sutherland, it plays to me like a more prestigious TV movie of the week than cinema. In fact, Ordinary People is one of the earliest examples I have where an adaptation of a novel yielded disappointing results. When I read Judith Guest’s book as a sophomore in High School it held a strong emotional wallop for me, I was the product of a divorced marriage, and I found a lot in the book relatable to my experience. No, I was not the product of a upper class upbringing, nor did I have a deceased sibling or ever saw a psychiatrist for that matter, but the ways the two parents subtly and not so subtly tore each other apart, the acceptance of the failings characters have to address and the ways the Conrad Jarett character rebels struck a familiar chord. I saw none of the depth of character or anything beneath the surface of Redford’s bland direction (seriously he beat Lynch and Scorsese?), and while she’s a prenatally gifted comedic actress, Mary Tyler Moore’s Mommie Dearest routine, with the requisite “for the Academy” breakdown never congealed to anything besides histrionics. A few years ago, with the novel not so fresh in my mind, I gave the film another watch, and I still held the some opinion.

Not to show my hand too early, but don’t count on seeing the 1981 Best Picture Chariots of Fire in my Top 20, or looking ahead to 1982, probably no Gandhi (great man, standard bio-pic). In fact a quick perusal of all the Best Picture winners for the 1980s, I can only see maybe two or possibly three making my personal list (in full admittance, I’ve never seen Out of Africa), and that my friend is the Academy Awards in a nutshell. Rewarding films that at that moment in time fulfill a sense of some importance whilst audience friendly (re: unchallenging, see this year’s winner The King’s Speech, a solid if unspectacular film that hits all the notes) usually results in films that (in my opinion, as if that qualifier is needed) don’t necessarily stand the test of time. Sure some great films have won the Best Picture statute: The Godfather (parts I and II), Lawrence of Arabia, Annie Hall, Casablanca, and two of the last four winners (No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker) actually place in my top five for their respected years, but those are the exceptions to the rule. It’s the nature of the game and I have long ago accepted this, probably at the age of eight when neither Cloak and Dagger, Ghostbusters or Gremlins managed to secure a Best Picture nomination. Getting upset about the Oscar results is as useful as getting angry at the Westminster Dog Show winner.

The two films I am looking at for today’s 1981 Project accrued a total of 16 Academy Award nominations and 3 wins. Both have their strengths and weakness, and par for the course, I am fairly certain neither are revisited heavily by today’s cinephiles.

On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell)

A long traditional Oscar tendency is to bestow an actor with a late career award for a lesser film as a mea culpa for that actor being neglected throughout their career. This means that Paul Newman’s only Best Actor Oscar is not for The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Hud, or The Verdict, but 1986’s The Color of Money; and Al Pacino’s satire worthy performance in Scent of a Woman netted him the reward that neither the Godfather part II, Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon did. A similar egregious example of this is Henry Fonda, who’s Academy Award is not engraved with the title of The Lady Eve, The Grapes of Wrath, The Ox Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine or Once Upon a Motherfucking Time in the West (to name a few), but for his final performance in the Mark Rydell directed adaptation of Ernest Thompson’s play On Golden Pond, or as I like to call it “Elderly People say the darndest thing!” Watch as an octogenarian Fonda repeatedly uses the word “bullshit”! Amaze as Katherine Hepburn goes skinny dipping! Aww as Fonda and Hepburn, in the parlance of the day, “suck face”. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, it’s funny because they’re old! Too bad Fonda didn’t live another few years, otherwise with the mainstream success of rap, they could have inserted him breakdancing into a special edition rerelease.

Fonda and Hepburn are a retired couple, vacationing for the summer in Lake Golden Pond as Fonda prepares to turn eighty. For his birthday the crotchy, yet oh so loveable, Fonda is visited by his estranged daughter (Henry’s real life daughter Jane Fonda), her new boyfriend (Dabney Coleman) and his thirteen year old son (Doug McKeon). Wanting some alone time, the younger couple leave the teenager to stay with her parents for a month. I am sure if you’ve ever seen a movie before, you can predict that after a few cultural (the elders are from upperstate New York, the younger from Southern California) and age based confrontations, the teenager and the senior citizen, both marginalized by society, form a tender bond.

On Golden Pond is a film of very meager scope, and after it gets over its base stereotyping in the establishing of its character’s traits, it finally settles into a nice rhythm, and though predictable as it may be, the relationship between Fonda and McKeon is the best portion of the film. But when more dramatic arcs are introduced into the film, most notably the rocky relationship between the Fondas, the film completely botches what, considering the true life relationship between father and daughter, should have been its strength. The issues that drove a wedge between them never feel fully form, and reconciliation is far too easily reached. The film is similar to the experience of watching a community theatre production with four ringers in the leads, even if Jane, who gets ample opportunities to show off the fruits of her Workout videos labor by wearing swimming suits multiple times, doesn’t bring her “A” game. With one or two exceptions, Rydell is satisfied to just point and shoot the actors with limited movement, adding to the “filmed play” feel.

As is often the case, prognosticators did not value the potential pull for older audiences, and On Golden Pond was produced and release by the small distributor ITC, where it became a big blockbuster in the winter of 1981-82 (earning over 120 million dollars and the second highest grossing American film released in 1981!). It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Fonda), Best Actress (Hepburn) Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Fonda) and Best Director, it would win three, for its screenplay, Hepburn and yes as previously mentioned, Henry Fonda, who would pass away within a year, on August 12th, 1982.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz)

Warning: While not necessarily a spoiler, there’s a central narrative conceit that I am going to reveal here, it’s introduced about twenty minutes into the film and it’s hard to discuss further without it, but since I went in fresh, you may like to do the same thing shall you ever visit the film.

Director Karel Reisz’s adaptation of John Fowles novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, opens with a slate announcing the title of the film, and a long single tracking shot as Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep) the titular woman looks onto the edge of a pier rife with crashing waves, waiting for a ship to bring forth her missing paramour. Addressing the artificiality of the filmmaking process is something that one expects from Jean-Luc Goddard or Robert Altman, but not this, a prestigious literary adaptation. Shortly the reason is revealed as there are two simultaneous narratives: one is the story of a love affair between an engaged scientist (Jeremy Irons) and Woodruff, who’s been chastised as a harlot by society’s upper crust in 19th Century England; the other is set in modern day, concerning the two actors playing these characters in the film French Lieutenant’s Woman, who are having an adulterous affair with each other.

The notion of the effect on their own reality that actors playing such passionate characters experience is compelling, however, the split storyline actually dampens the effect on both. The switch could be more organically inserted, and leads both portions to lose their story’s momentum. The film’s major problem is that the fictional story is more interesting and better developed, but once we know that everything in it is preordained and of no serious consequences, the viewer’s interest cannot help but wane. The modern day love affair seems to have little of the same risks—career, financial and societal ostracization—that their fictional counterparts have, and lower stakes here leads to lower interest.

The actor/fictional character diptych was the invention of the film’s screenwriter, noted playwright Harold Pinter, who had to find a unique way of transforming Fowles’ novel approach of giving the lovelorn couple three different potential outcomes and having the author himself appear, to a film script. The pull that actors may have when they delve deep into their characters and their relationships, and the way fiction can provide endings that reality never could, are interesting aspects raised in the film, but unfortunately, often at the expense of the actual narrative.

French Lieutenant’s Woman was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Costume Design and Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost in all five categories. This was Streep’s first nomination in the Best Actress category, she was nominated for her Supporting work in both The Deer Hunter and Kramer Vs. Kramer (for which she won). She has been nominated a grand total of 16 times, in fact, I believe there’s a movement to have the name of the ceremony change to the Streepies, the record and four more than Katherine Hepburn, who actually beat her in 1982 for her performance in On Golden Pond, which also took home the Best Adapted Screenplay honor. For what it’s worth, I think French Lieutenant’s Woman is the superior film.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Quixotic Foibles III: This is What We Call Progress

Part one of my attempt to actually watch all of the DVD and Blu-Rays I own is chronicled here. Part II is here.

It’s been over three months since my last update to this project, during that time I managed to watch a good number of my previously unviewed DVDs and Blu-Rays, however, since that period the Warner Archive collection had a tremendous sale on Black Friday weekend, Christmas happened, and I attended two Pasadena City College flea markets (my major supply for cheap used DVDs).

Additionally, a new discovery/obsession since November is the website Swapadvd which allows you trade in your unwanted DVDs for titles you want. Basically you post all the DVDs you don’t want, and if they are requested by another user, you ship them to the user. You pay for the shipping, but it balances out because you also get a credit for each DVD you swap towards a DVD that you want. You create a wishlist, be forewarned: a lot of stuff is not immediately available, but out of the 60+ titles I placed on my wishlist, I’ve already received or have in transit six title in two months. Since many stores and ebay don’t really give a lot of money for used DVDs anymore (unless they are out of print), this is a good way of getting value from your unwanted/duplicate pile.

But in relation to this project, while this helps with titles I have upgraded, the fact is that I have not traded many titles that were in the too watch pile (I did put up two films that I decided to wait for a Blu Ray copies of), so my unwatched collection continues to expand, I fully expect one day for it to became a sentient life form hellbent on the destruction of humankind.

Well, until then, here’s the stat updates:

Number of titles as of the start of the Project (September 7th, 2010): 444

Number of titles left after last update (November 15th, 2010): 450

Number of titles added to my collection since last update: 48

Number of titles traded/sold without ever being watched: 2

Number of titles watched since last update: 36

Number of titles to watch: 459 (shit)

As always, you can see the actual titles to watch on my Rate Your Music page here.

And...Coming Soon: a pile of grey market DVDs purchased from the big sale at Shocking Videos, two Blu-Rays from the Criterion half-off sale, and this Sunday, the Pasadena City College flea market!

An * = film I have never seen before, yes sometime I buy DVDs of films I have never seen before, sometime based on reputation or the other work of the director. Some of these were purchased on the grey market because of the rental unavailability. Some I inherited from my cousin and father.

I will forgo reviews this time, but I've included links for films I've discussed here in either reviews or other features.

Hot Potato*

The Night of the Juggler* (review)

The Ninth Configuration (the 1980 Project Honorable Mention list)

House* (Blu-Ray)

Permanent Vacation*

Black Christmas (Blu-Ray) (24 Frames; Bob Clark Tribute post)

Kagemusha (my 3rd favorite film of 1980)

Hide in Plain Sight*

The Silent Partner (Holiday as Backdrop)

Kelley’s Heroes*


Play it Again, Sam

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Blu-Ray)

Night of the Demon*

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Psycho IV: The Beginning (review)

Hell Up in Harlem*

Paris, Texas (Blu-Ray)

Planet of the Vampires

Hell Night*

Hard Rain*

The Night of the Hunter (Blu-Ray)

Major Dundee*

Wes Craven’s The New Nightmare

Dirty Harry

Horse Feathers

Creature from the Black Lagoon



Psycho (Blu-Ray) (here's a link to everything I've written about Psycho and its sequels)

Take the Money and Run

The Trip*

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

The Good, the Bad, the Weird*

The Cannonball Run

I plan to get this back to a monthly update with brief reviews/thoughts for the films watched starting in April, I also planned to limit the amount of films I buy, and you see how well that’s going.
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