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SHAOLIN MANTIS: A Masterpiece of Acting, Design, and Choreography

11 May

I recently re-watched SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978), one of the greatest kung fu movies ever made, for the first time in seven years and I wanted to highlight three elements of the Shaw Bros. production that really strike me now as key to its success. (The film’s English-dubbed edition was known as DEADLY MANTIS when it played theaters in the U.S. and ran on American television in the 1980s. For the record, I watched the Dragon Dynasty Region 1 DVD edition, in Mandarin with English subtitles, for this review.)

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Toshiro Mifune Centennial, Part 1: The Samurai Trilogy

11 Mar

April 1, 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, arguably the greatest film actor in history. (He died in 1997.) I have tons of Mifune films I want to write about and I realize I can’t do it all in one piece, so I’m putting together a series on Mifune leading up to his centennial date. I’ve written about the Samurai Trilogy before, including a planned blog post that got delayed once I learned Criterion had released a new, updated, remastered edition that I needed to acquire and watch first. (The previous Criterion edition suffered from inferior print quality and inadequate subtitles.) I watched the new edition this month.

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The Cinematic Landscape of 1969: A Film Buff’s Coming of Age

28 Aug

I’d been planning a piece about the films of 1969, but I decided to wait until I’d seen Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD before finalizing my approach to it. I was curious to see what films from that period would be referenced and how that contrasted with my own experience at the movies that year. I was glad to see posters and marquees in the film highlighting films I’d seen back then, but his film takes place mostly on two weekends in 1969, one in February and one in August, so there was a limit to the references he could make. Besides, most of the film’s recreated production scenes focused on TV shows of the time, most of which I didn’t see because my household didn’t have a TV set for that entire year. More on OUATIH later.

For me, 1969 was the year I got an after-school job and was able to go to many more movies than I previously could on my meager allowance. It was also the year I started seeing movies in Manhattan by myself, usually in Times Square near my high school, the High School of Performing Arts (the “Fame” school).

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD and the Art of Recreating an Era

29 Jul

Quentin Tarantino’s newest film offers a love-letter to the pop culture of the 1960s—films, television, music, celebrities, parties, etc. He takes the careers of three distinct individuals, two fictional, one real, employed in the film and TV industry in 1969 and uses incidents in their lives, including numerous flashbacks spanning the 1960s, to depict what it was like to live and work in the industry town of Los Angeles at the time. The key figure is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a onetime star of a TV western now reduced to guest shots as “villain of the week” in assorted network TV dramas and faced with the dilemma of how to resuscitate his stardom or just settle for life as a working actor. The second figure is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s stuntman, who, when not doubling Dalton in a film or TV role, is acting as Dalton’s chauffeur, handyman and paid companion. (Dalton lives in a sprawling ranch house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills, while Booth lives miles away in a trailer parked near an oil rig behind a drive-in theater in Van Nuys.)

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THE WILD BUNCH: 50th Anniversary of an American Classic

11 Jun

Sam Peckinpah’s provocative western, THE WILD BUNCH, opened in the U.S. on June 25, 1969, 50 years ago this month. I’ve seen the film many times over the years, including at least 20 times on the big screen and multiple times in a variety of formats: broadcast TV, VHS, DVD and Blu-ray. It was a sprawling epic western full of action, gunplay and bloodshed, rated R and featuring a predominantly male cast of Hollywood stars, dependable character actors, a couple of newcomers, and veteran Mexican performers, but only a handful of women with small speaking parts (mostly as prostitutes). The stars were William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, and Emilio Fernandez. In the leadup to the film’s release, I saw all the print ads—in newspapers and on the subway–with lines like, “Nine men who came too late and stayed too long.” I read all the pre-release articles and finally the reviews–the negative ones which criticized the blood-spurting and called William Holden “dissipated” and the positive ones like Vincent Canby’s in The New York Times who ranked it way above the other big westerns of that season, TRUE GRIT and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST also opened that summer, a week after THE WILD BUNCH.

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Filming Across Cultures: Cowboys, Samurai and Kung Fu Champs in the 1970s

17 May

In the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood theater functioned as a Cinematheque of global genre films, offering Italian westerns, French crime thrillers, English horror, Soviet fantasy, Japanese samurai films and Hong Kong kung fu films, among other genres. I still marvel at the recollection of seeing such international movie icons as John Wayne, Jean Gabin and Toshiro Mifune in new movies at local theaters when I was still a teenager. I once wrote about this particular movie culture in a chapter for a proposed book on 42nd Street theaters. I’d like to share an excerpt from the chapter, after a few paragraphs of introduction.

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Remembering 20th Century Fox

24 Mar

As a result of the recent acquisition of parts of the Fox empire by the Walt Disney Co., which took effect on March 20, 2019, 20th Century Fox no longer exists as a major studio.

From an article by Jake Coyle on the Fox Business website, In End of 20th Century Fox, a New Era Dawns for Hollywood:

When the Walt Disney Co.’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox is completed at 12:02 a.m. Wednesday, the storied lot — the birthplace of CinemaScope, “The Sound of Music” and “Titanic” — will no longer house one of the six major studios. It will become the headquarters for Rupert Murdoch’s new Fox Corp., (he is keeping Fox News and Fox Broadcasting) and Fox’s film operations, now a Disney label, will stay on for now as renters under a seven-year lease agreement.

The history of Hollywood is littered with changes of studio ownership; even Fox Film Corporation founder William Fox, amid the Depression, lost control of the studio that still bears his name. But the demise of 20th Century Fox as a standalone studio is an epochal event in Hollywood, one that casts long shadows over a movie industry grappling with new digital competitors from Silicon Valley and facing the possibility of further contraction. After more than eight decades of supremacy, the Big Six are down one.

It’s not clear yet how Fox productions will be branded or if the fabled 20th Century Fox studio logo will even be displayed or not. That logo (see above) has adorned thousands of movies made from 1935 to this year.

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