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The Handmaiden (Review)


The Handmaiden

aka 아가씨 aka Agassi
The Handmaiden
2016
Written by Park Chan-wook & Chung Seo-kyung
Based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Directed by Park Chan-wook

The Handmaiden
If you aren’t a fan of Park Chan-wook by now, I’m not sure what it will take to convince you to get out and see The Handmaiden. But if you are one of the millions of his fans around the globe, you know that Park Chan-wook is a force of awesomeness in the movie community, and The Handmaiden continues that tradition of awesome movies from an awesome guy. Basically, run, don’t walk, to the theaters and check out a wonderful psychological thriller. There is a trio of amazing performances by Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, and newcomer Kim Tae-ri. Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith is moved to 1930s occupied Korea, where it still manages to work in a culture of repression and male dominance.

Kim Min-hee is heiress Lady Hideko. Hideko is isolated and lorded over by her cruel uncle, Kouzuki, who covets her money and title. Her mother died in childbirth, and her aunt was found hanging in a tree when she was a child. Hideko never leaves the family estate and her only contact with outsiders is a weekly reading of erotic literature to exclusive guests. If you are familiar with the concept of that literature, some of it is ridiculous, basically the dime store erotic trash novels peppered with flowery poetry and filled with imagery that at times stretches believability that the writers have even interacted with people who have sex. Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki has designs on becoming a Japanese nobleman despite being neither of those things and Hideko’s money and title his avenue to obtain them. Kouzuki rejects his Korean heritage in an admiration for the occupying Japanese, but his true passion is rare books, specifically the aforementioned erotic literature.

Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-hee, a gifted pickpocket and thief embedded as a handmaiden whose job it is to help convince Hideko to fall for the fake Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo — Assassination). Fujiwara has a knack for making forgeries and is just the thing Hideko’s creepy uncle needs, as he can’t bear to part with any of his rare books, but is perfectly fine with selling off faked replicas of them. This gives Fujiwara the access he needs to scope out Lady Hideko and enact his plan of seduction and asset seizure, enabled by Sook-hee as Hideko’s new handmaiden. And then it is seduction time.
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Posted by Tars Tarkas - November 1, 2016 at 8:06 am

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Youth of the Beast (Review)


Youth of the Beast

aka 野獣の青春 aka Yaju no Seishun aka Wild Youth
野獣の青春 Youth of the Beast
1963
Written by Ichiro Ikeda and Tadaki Yamazaki
Based on the novel by Haruhiko Oyabu
Directed by Seijun Suzuki

野獣の青春 Youth of the Beast
A random stranger coming to town to pit two rival groups against each other is a classic story done well in a variety of genres, and with Youth of the Beast we get the story set in the swinging 1960s yakuza beat, with director Seijun Suzuki determined to make the visuals by themselves a grand spectacle. Joe Shishido and his cheeks take their usual place as a Suzuki lead, as Shishido’s Joji Mizuno waltzes in to lead the sides to their collective dooms.

so what makes Youth of the Beast worth watching like similar tales Yojimbo, Red Harvest, Django, A Fistful of Dollars, or even The Warrior and the Sorceress? Aside from the story being well told again, there is the great Seijun Suzuki visuals. Suzuki starts showing off his boredom with the nonstop yakuza films by tossing in a bunch of visual flair. He must have had fun, because his films only seemed to escalate from here. Youth of the Beast opens with a bleak black and white scene of solemn police investigating a double suicide, a cop and a woman, the only point of color (and life) being a red flower. This sharply contrasts with the vibrant color and exciting city life full of laughing girls, violent fights at the drop of a hat, and a jazzy soundtrack that immediately follows, as Joji Mizuno beats through some Nomoto yakuza thugs to rob their money and blow it at their club.
野獣の青春 Youth of the Beast
The energetic club is full of life, sin, and sound, while the Nomoto yakuza bosses who control it observe though soundproof one way mirrors, giving the mirth a surreal quality. Mizuno’s ease of dispatching the thugs gains the interest of the boss, and after a bit of interrogation and some display of weapons skills, he’s on their team. Then just as quickly, Mizuno is ratting everything out to the boss of the rival Sanko gang. As he’s out for revenge against the groups that ruined his life, breaking them apart piece by piece becomes a fun game.
野獣の青春 Youth of the Beast
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Posted by Tars Tarkas - August 31, 2015 at 7:33 am

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Black Coal, Thin Ice (Review)


Black Coal, Thin Ice

aka 白日焰火 aka Bai Ri Yan Huo aka Daylight Fireworks
Black Coal Thin Ice 白日焰火
2014
Written and directed by Diao Yinan
Black Coal Thin Ice 白日焰火
In the bleak urban atmosphere of a rapidly industrializing China, body parts begin to appear at a coal processing plant mixed in with the incoming coal shipments. Those thought responsible are found, and after a bloody conclusion, things seemed solved. Years later a new crop of body parts appear, and things get darker from there. A disgraced cop who worked on the original case must put aside his own demons long enough to figure out the who-done-it before he becomes the next set of parts showing up in coal plants.

Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice paints a murder mystery backdropped by the new urban China, the landscape coated in layers of snow that mask the grit below. Glowing neon signs provide an aurora of human habitation among the snow, lighting many of the key locations. But the glow doesn’t show the warmth of humanity, it’s an unnatural presence that makes the night time illumination otherworldly. The inhabitants have their own secrets and shady lives, and who did what and why makes the mystery akin to peeling onions.
Black Coal Thin Ice 白日焰火
Officer Zhang Zili is an up and coming investigator with the police, though the first sign of trouble is his wife leaving him. The investigation around the body parts in the plant yields the name of the victim, the widow confused as to why her husband was targeted. Robbery suspects are located, but thanks to one of them being armed many of the characters of the first act get wiped out, Zhang only barely escaping death by killing them.

Years later, Zhang Zili lives in an alcohol-fueled state of minimal functionality. His reintroduction is him having his motorcycle stolen while he’s too drunk to give chase. He’s burned every bridge at work, where he is a walking joke kept on because of fading goodwill over surviving the shooting incident that capstoned the murder investigation.

But then more body parts are found in coal processing plants. Dun dun DUNNN!!!
Black Coal Thin Ice 白日焰火
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Posted by Tars Tarkas - August 3, 2015 at 7:51 am

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Song of the Thin Man (Review)


Song of the Thin Man

Song of the Thin Man
1947
Screenplay by Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin
Story by Stanley Roberts
Additional dialogue by James O’Hanlon and Harry Crane
Directed by Edward Buzzell

Song of the Thin Man
Song of the Thin Man puts Nick and Nora in the secret world of jazz club singers in New York. It’s also a sort of pun, as this is the swan song of the series. Some of the charm is still there, William Powell and Myrna Loy can’t not be charming when together in a room. The film spends too much time on the jazz atmosphere to trust the actors to carry scenes. It can get a bit tedious when there is yet another jazz scene, yet another instance of Clinker using weird slang, and yet another instance of Nick and Nora trying to fit in and absorbing the language. The outside scenes where other things happen become breaths of fresh air, but there isn’t enough in this ecosystem to make it stand out.

We again get a new creative crew for this Thin Man entry. The direction is by Edward Buzzell, who had previously directed the Marx Brothers’ film At the Circus Stanley Roberts came up with the story, and Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin handle the script, with additional dialogue thanks to James O’Hanlon and Harry Crane (are they who came up with all the goofy slang?) Once again Nick and Nora become inserted in a more generic plot, something that could even be used as a plot for a comedy mystery tv show episode. Did Monk ever hang around with musicians? A large amount of writers is usually a bad sign for a film.
Song of the Thin Man
While this team realized they can’t ignore the Nick Jr. character, they don’t do one of the reoccurring gags of the series, the procession of former criminals Nick Charles knows because he busted them long ago. They’ve all been replaced by the jazz musicians, which don’t quite have the same stereotypical wackiness that nicknamed criminal types bring to the table. One weird thing is despite this entire entry being about jazz and musicians, almost every one is white. The lack of black jazz musicians in 1940s New York City is the most unbelievable thing about this entry, and I’m including the ridiculous jazz slang in the unbelievable things list.
Song of the Thin Man

Nick Charles (William Powell) – Nick can’t even have a good time gambling on a boat without being drawn into yet another murder mystery. As he needs to explore the weird world of jazz, Nick has Clinker Krause guide him and Nora around the town to the late night secret jazz parties that don’t even start until 2 am, as well as explaining all the jazz lingo.
Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) – Nora latches on as an integral part of the investigation, pushing Nick into investigating and accompanying him on the jazz excursions, as well as sneaking in to see Buddy Hollis.
Asta (Asta) – Asta helps Nick investigate and sneak around, but doesn’t have a huge role.
Nick Charles Jr. (Dean Stockwell) – It’s cool to see Al back before he was helping Sam leap through time…wait a minute! Dean Stockwell takes over as Nick Jr., and this was how I learned he was a child actor! Nick Jr. is picking up a lot of his dad’s traits, had the series gone on longer his character might have taken over. Nick Jr. has the special power to project visions of himself and his dad having sentimental times together whenever he’s threatened with spanking. It’s definitely that and not Nick Charles having regret that he’s about to spank his son, even though he spanked his wife just last film.
Clarence “Clinker” Krause (Keenan Wynn) – Jazz musician who becomes the guide for Nick and Nora to the jazz club afterparties nightlife, as well as explaining all the slang.
Phil Orval Brant (Bruce Cowling) – Accused of murder, Phil Brant owns a gambling boat that host charity functions and is in love with Janet Thayar. Her father disapproves because Phil isn’t old money, even though he must have some money to own a fancy gambling boat rich people hang out on. Gets eloped to Janet over her father’s objections, only to be immediately accused of murder.
Janet Thayar (Jayne Meadows) – Loves Phil and tries to get Nick to help him, only to get upset when Nick turns Phil in, not aware he’s doing it to protect Phil from the mob.
Mitchell Talbin (Leon Ames) – Famed music producer who has stolen away conductor Tommy Drake for his next tour, but doesn’t want to pay off Drake’s gambling debts or deal with all his other problems. Does do some things to try to help Drake to prevent the drama from landing in his own business, but Drake ends up too dead for it to matter.
Phyllis Talbin (Patricia Morison) – Mitchell’s longtime wife, their marriage isn’t as pleasant as it appears.
Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor) – A reed man (this means a guy who plays instruments that require a reed, specifically the clarinet) who starts to lose it because Fran Page likes Tommy Drake more than him. Is put away in a home, and has a powerful scene where we see the full scale effects of his illness.
Fran Ledue Page (Gloria Grahame) – Singer who is having a fling with Tommy Drake, though not happy with how he’s a jerk and stuff. She’s also not interested in Buddy Hollis, who is desperately in love with her.

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Posted by Tars Tarkas - January 5, 2015 at 9:04 am

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The Thin Man Goes Home (Review)


The Thin Man Goes Home

The Thin Man Goes Home
1945
Story by Robert Riskin and Harry Kurnitz
Screenplay by Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor
Directed by Richard Thorpe

The Thin Man Goes Home
The Thin Man Goes Home doesn’t feature the regular creative crew of the series. Regular director W. S. Van Dyke, had committed suicide in 1943, suffering from illness and unwilling to go seek treatment due to his Christian Scientist beliefs. Regular script writing team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich also didn’t return, nor did series creator Dashiell Hammett, who had worked with the writing pair to help develop the prior entries.

The new director was Richard Thorpe. Thorpe was the original director of the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, though most of his work was discarded when he was fired after two weeks. He directed several Tarzan flicks and a bunch of adventure dramas, many featuring Robert Taylor. The story for The Thin Man Goes Home was conceived by Harry Kurnitz and Robert Riskin, Riskin going on to write the screenplay with Dwight Taylor. The lack of continuity is easily apparent with the many small changes in the film.

Most importantly, this entry changes Nick’s family from Greek immigrants (Hammett had Nick’s father change their last name from Charalambides to Charles to fit on a photograph) to an upper class family headed by a respected community doctor. This switches Nick from an immigrant’s son who done good to a black sheep who left his family to find his own path. That craps on a lot of the class issues from the previous four films, and turns things into an attempt by Nick to finally impress his father.
The Thin Man Goes Home
The Thin Man Goes Home was a 1945 pictures, released while the US was in the midst of the Second World War. This is reflected in the film itself, and we see the Charles deal with wartime rationing. Their normally spacious private train cars are gone, replaced by packing in like sardines on the train, and even being forced into the baggage car because they bring Asta along with them. Nick Charles is forced to drop his usual 100 martinis a day habit due to alcohol rationing (explained in the film as abstaining from drinking because his father disapproves), and instead chugs cider. Many of the background actors are dressed as members of the armed forces.

Myrna Loy actually stopped acting to get married and become a big booster during the war, working with the Red Cross and ticking off Hitler (a feather in anyone’s cap!) Shadow of the Thin Man was her last film before stopping, and The Thin Man Goes Home was her return. Rumor was they were trying to make the sequel earlier and bring in Irene Dunne as Nora Charles, but Dunne flatly refused, saying the chemistry between Powell and Loy was why the series worked (and she was subsequently no longer offered scripts by MGM!)

There is a nod to pulp detectives as Nick lounges in the hammock and reads a Nick Carter magazine.
The Thin Man Goes Home
Nick Charles Jr. isn’t in this entry, as explained he’s away at school, and pulling him out of school so the senior Charles family could meet their only grandson for the first time is just wand-waved away. That’s the sort of thing that if I pulled it off with my mom, she’d have sent me immediately away on a train to go get my son. He does return in the final film, which is good because it would just be too weird otherwise.

Nick Charles (William Powell) – Nick Charles returns to his hometown to visit his folks, only to have yet another murder happen literally at his doorstep. So it’s back to detecting again! Maybe this time he can finally impress his father…. ::sad eyes::
Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) – Nora spends part of the film trying to impress Nick’s dad with stories about Nick, and part of the film trying to help Nick only to get sent on a wild goose chase.
Asta (Asta) – Asta returns but doesn’t cause a whole bunch of trouble, just a small amount of trouble.
Dr. Bertram Charles (Harry Davenport) – Nick’s father, a respected physician who was disappointed when Nick quit medical school to become a detective. Has never been proud of his son since. Unless maybe Nick solved a murder mystery using medical knowledge…
Mrs. Charles (Lucile Watson) – Nick’s mother, who doesn’t get much characterization and is actually proud of her son, because moms are like that, proud of their children.
Brogan (Edward Brophy) – Yet another guy Nick Charles sent up the river and has returned as a reformed criminal, thankful to Nick for being so awesome and willing to help him out. Spends an inordinate amount of time hiding in the bushes outside Nick’s parents’ home. Sells greeting cards, and on Nick’s suggestion memorized many of their sayings, so he’ll randomly spout platitudes. Edward Brophy had a role in The Thin Man as Joe Morelli.
Dr. Bruce Clayworth (Lloyd Corrigan) – A childhood friend of Nick, who actually went into the medical field instead of quitting to become a detective.

The Thin Man Goes Home
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Posted by Tars Tarkas - January 4, 2015 at 9:45 am

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Shadow of the Thin Man (Review)


Shadow of the Thin Man

Shadow of the Thin Man
1941
Story by Harry Kurnitz
Screenplay by Harry Kurnitz and Irving Brecher
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke

Shadow of the Thin Man
Shadow of the Thin Man is the last of the classic four Thin Man films before the large drop in quality of the final two flicks. Dashiell Hammett doesn’t help provide the story, and Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett have also moved on, leaving the writing in the hands of Harry Kurnitz and Irving Brecher (Kurnitz also developing the story) Director W. S. Van Dyke returns for his last Thin Man entry.

Shadow of the Thin Man was released November 21, 1941, on the eve of the US’s entrance into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. None of the ongoing worldwide conflict is reflected in the film, which involves murder and horse gambling conspiracies. The only real acknowledgement of real world events seems to be the rolling back of displays of Nora’s wealth, though it is still obvious they are flushed with money.

The Thin Man flicks zigzag back and forth between New York and San Francisco, so we return to the Bay Area for good time Bay Area fun. Also returning is Lieutenant Abrams (Sam Levene) from After the Thin Man, because we’re back on his beat. Once again he needs Nick Charles’ help, because of mystery murders with lots of complications.
Shadow of the Thin Man
Murder victim “Whitey” Barrow (Alan Baxter) is one of those obvious murder victims. Baxter’s also ridiculously overacting when he’s playing the tough mobster guy, yet sounds like a normal person when he’s hiding his gangster persona. It’s a weird choice (and frankly a bit distracting), luckily he gets knocked off early enough it doesn’t become a big problem.

Nora keeps up with Nick’s investigations the most in this sequel, following him on his searches, showing him up when it comes to dealing with his son, and even luring him home with the siren song of a shaking martini mixer. There are bonus points added for Nora heroically leaping onto a gun during the climactic scene where the real murderer reveals themselves by grabbing the gun they always have.

Aside from Nora Charles, most of the female roles are pretty thankless, despite being filled with quality actresses. Stella Adler manages to turn the limited role of Claire Porter into something amazing. Porter is drenched in the casings of the upper class, appearing to be well-to-do despite her gangster boyfriend. But her money comes from a job not so well-to-do, a job they can only hint at (due to the Hays Code) by her switching up accents when flustered by Nick Charles. Donna Reed has the truly thankless role as the secretary girlfriend to the accused murderer Paul. Despite a hint that she might be more than she looks due to who she works for, her character is given little to do except worry about her man.

Louise Beavers’ character of Stella, the Charles’ maid, is the largest part for a black actor in the Thin Man series. Sadly it’s what I call a Mammy Whammy, in that it’s over the top servant character. Beavers is associated with that type of role, partially because those roles were the only roles available to black performers. She gained fame with a non-stereotypical black maid role, Delilah in 1934’s Imitation of Life.
Shadow of the Thin Man
This is the Thin Man entry with some of the funniest bits in the series – the wrestling scene, the merry-go-round, the brawl at the restaurant, Nick getting a speeding ticket, and Nick’s encounter with an old landlady obsessed with radio crime shows and police gazettes, who talks Nick’s lingo and then some.

One of the major criticisms is the film focuses on too much that isn’t the murder mystery, and the sequence of events that the mystery follows are practically spelled out. It is true that things seem almost designed to happen no matter what Nick and Nora do, they are practically swept up into the original murder and are present at every important event following it, complete with the police actively encouraging them. The killer is the most obvious of the whole series, but my view on the films are that it is about the journey, not the destination. After being raised on two decades of carbon-copy police procedurals where the real differences are the show’s characters and gimmicks, which quickly become the defining reason to watch. The old detective movies that are memorable have their own cool characters and gimmicks, of which the Thin Man flicks excels. I don’t think Shadow of the Thin Man is a shadow of the prior films (BOOOOO!!! to that pun!), instead standing tall with the original four despite a few flaws.
Shadow of the Thin Man

Nick Charles (William Powell) – The oft-retired Nick Charles drives right into another murder mystery, turning his day at the races into a day of investigating.
Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) – Nora follows along with Nick’s plans and manages to come along to a variety of locations. Is very into the wrestling event. Sneaks her way into the investigation as well.
Asta (Asta) – Asta is back causing lots and lots of chaos and fighting, when he isn’t hiding from kittens!
Nick Charles, Jr. (Richard Hall as Dickie Hall) – Old enough to actually talk, Nick Jr. becomes a character who helps push Nick to be more responsible, and to do things to impress his son.
Paul Clarke (Barry Nelson) – A good reporter who gets framed for Whitey Barrow’s murder. He’s trying to take down the mob interests that are running the track and several other operations.
Molly (Donna Reed) – Paul’s girlfriend, she works as mob boss Link Stephens’ secretary in a bid to pass information along to Paul.
Lieutenant Abrams (Sam Levene) – Lieutenant Abrams returns to the series, though the San Francisco detective is investigating murders in Oakland, not that the Thin Man movies have worried about jurisdiction before! Is practically begging Nick Charles to help with the case.
“Whitey” Barrow (Alan Baxter) – A shady reporter who extorts money from mob guys he helped cover up/fix stories for. Becomes a murder victim thanks to everyone wanting him dead, and someone granting that wish.
Claire Porter aka Clara Peters (Stella Adler) – Rich lady who is a former girl involved in all the mob business and some adult business we can’t discuss openly because of codes. Yes, this is THAT Stella Adler, the famed acting teacher, in one of her rare film roles.

Shadow of the Thin Man
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Posted by Tars Tarkas - January 3, 2015 at 9:41 am

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