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Revisiting THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)

24 May

I recently picked up a used 2-disc set containing THE FRENCH CONNECTION and various extras, including two documentaries on the film, deleted scenes, and separate audio commentaries by stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider and director William Friedkin. First, I re-watched the film for the first time since seeing it on cable sometime in the 1990s. I then went through all the extras. But before I get to my reevaluation, a little history is in order.

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Yoshiko Kawashima – Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: Four Films

23 Jun

Earlier this year, I attended five films in a series at Japan Society in New York entitled “The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi and Setsuko Hara,” curated by Aiko Masubuchi, and wound up seeing five films there, three of them starring Yamaguchi, more widely known as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, and two of them starring Hara, all made in the years 1937-1943, during the period of Japan’s occupation of China. As preparation for seeing these films, I began reading a novel about Yamaguchi called The China Lover, by historian Ian Buruma, who has written several books about Japanese history and culture, two of which I’ve read. In the novel, there’s a character named Yoshiko Kawashima, who is also known as Eastern Jewel, a historical figure who was a princess of the Manchu royal family and a cousin of Pu Yi, the famed “Last Emperor” of China. She got her Japanese name when she was sent to Japan at the age of six to be raised by Naniwa Kawashima, a Japanese translator of Chinese and friend of Yoshiko’s father, Prince Su. She self-identified as Japanese for much of her life. I realized as I was reading about her that I own a DVD of a Hong Kong film called KAWASHIMA YOSHIKO (1990), a full-scale biopic starring Anita Mui in the title role. I’d never seen it, so I resolved to do so at the earliest opportunity.

Anita Mui as Yoshiko Kawashima

Anita Mui as Yoshiko Kawashima

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Oscars 2015: Shorten the Speeches, Amp Up the Stars

27 Feb

Every year the Oscar show unfolds and seems to last forever and every year everyone complains about it. I always tell myself I’m not gonna watch anymore and then, of course, I do. All the way to the end, which is way past my bedtime. This year, the Oscar show was more like the Independent Spirit Awards, with virtually the same movies in competition. Lots of indie people filled the auditorium and few bonafide Hollywood stars of any magnitude were around. There were lots of presenters I didn’t recognize, some of whom I’ve heard of but wouldn’t have been able to recognize (e.g. Chris Pratt), some of whom I’ve never heard of (Ansel Elgort, anyone?), and some whom I’ve heard of but was seeing live for the first time (Margot Robbie). And there were frequent cuts to audience members, presumably nominees, whom I was clearly supposed to know but didn’t.

Eddie Redmayne, eventual Best Actor winner for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, although I didn’t recognize him when they first showed him

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History on Film: Lincoln vs. Django

16 Jan

DJANGO UNCHAINED and LINCOLN complement each other in many ways. Both deal with historical events from time periods that are very close to each other—DJANGO is set in 1858, LINCOLN in 1865. Both deal with the subject of slavery. Several of the important characters in DJANGO are slaves and the film shows what life was like for them on the ground. LINCOLN talks about slavery but never shows us a single slave. DJANGO offers a fanciful approach to history, with entirely fictional characters and events; LINCOLN recounts events that actually happened and uses actual historical figures as its main characters. DJANGO is like the eccentric substitute social studies teacher who comes in and throws out the textbook to offer students a revisionist history and wild stories about what “really” happened, while LINCOLN is the Establishment Historian who comes in with impeccable credentials and lays out a detailed view of the subject based on rigorous study of original documents and the actual written words of the participants. In terms of precedents of historical filmmaking, I would argue that Steven Spielberg, director of LINCOLN, follows in the tradition of someone like Darryl Zanuck, who made carefully wrought historical dramas a centerpiece of the 20th Century Fox film lineup for nearly 40 years (YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, WILSON, THE LONGEST DAY, PATTON), while Quentin Tarantino, director of DJANGO, adopts the more freewheeling approach to history taken in the past by Sam Fuller (I SHOT JESSE JAMES, RUN OF THE ARROW) and Larry Cohen (THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER), in addition to Sergio Leone and the other Italian filmmakers who offered a highly stylized view of western (and western movie) history in their films. Tarantino highly exaggerates to make his points, while Spielberg sticks to the historical record and dots all the i’s, crosses all the t’s and gets all the facial hair and suitcoats right. (As opposed to Django’s green vaquero-style “Little Joe” jacket, taken from “Bonanza.”)

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The Oscars – A few things that made me happy this year

27 Feb

Well, another year and another tepid Oscar ceremony marked by few surprises, lackluster Best Picture nominees, low-watt star presenters and their dreary scripted antics, and little in the way of actual entertainment value. Still, it went by pretty fast (comparatively) and didn’t get bogged down along the way. I was able to pay bills and do other business while it was on.

However, there were a few bright spots for me. For one, there was Rooney Mara, Best Actress nominee for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Granted, I knew she didn’t stand a chance of winning but I was pleased she was nominated and thought she looked pretty awesome sitting there, adorned with some old-school glamour and a touch of the exotic.

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Best Picture Winners – When they were popular and prestigious

25 Feb

In the course of recent years, Oscar watchers have been lamenting the lack of truly popular films among the nominees for Best Picture, a race that, more often than not in the last 10-12 years, has favored smaller, independent films at the expense of the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. The omission of THE DARK KNIGHT from the Best Picture nominees for 2008 led to a new set of rules in 2009 that allowed for a greater number of nominees, thus allowing popular favorites like James Cameron’s AVATAR and Pixar’s UP to be included among the Best Picture nominees of 2009. Still, a small, relatively low-budget independent film, THE HURT LOCKER, wound up winning that year. And in 2010, this allowed INCEPTION and TOY STORY 3 to be nominated, although both lost to THE KING’S SPEECH. This year there are nine nominees and some indeed are big-budget prestige productions, e.g. HUGO and WAR HORSE, both by veteran filmmakers in Hollywood’s top tier of directorial talent, but, alas, only one of the nine is a popular hit at all (THE HELP).

I can recall a time when Best Picture winners/nominees were both popular with moviegoers and acclaimed by critics. It was once the norm for enough films to come out every year to find five Best Picture nominees which had both popularity and prestige.

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