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Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Oscars–Dr. H and his Plan.

I have noticed a number of comments that are asking about the 100th movie review extravaganza we are planning here and wanted to give you the straight dope. Dr. H and I will be posting the details in a day or two–so look out ’cause it is going to involve a great giveaway!

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Punishment Park—A “Mock-Documentary” that Easily Passes for a Real Documentary.

Peter Watkins made this movie in 1971, when I was born, but it is startling to see Watkins’ prophecy of deprivations of freedom in today’s context — as our country’s civil liberties are flushed away under the Homeland Security and “Patriot” Acts.

The film starts with a reading from the The Internal Security Act (a.k.a the Subversive Activities Control Act, McCarran Act – after Pat McCarran – or ISA) of 1950, a United States federal law that required the registration of Communist organizations with the United States Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board to investigate persons suspected of engaging in “subversive activities” or “otherwise promoting the establishment of a ‘totalitarian dictatorship, fascist or communist.’” Members of these groups could not become citizens, and in some cases, were prevented from entering or leaving the country. Citizen-members could be denaturalized in five years.  This abomination was passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress, which actually overrode President Harry S. Truman’s veto to pass this bill.  Truman called the bill “the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press, and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798.”

Specifically the film narrator begins:

“Under the provision under Title II of the 1950 Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act, the president of the United States of America is still authorized without further approval by Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an internal security emergency. The resident is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe they probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage.”

The Act was activated by Nixon during the civil unrest as the controversy in Vietnam escalated.  Luckily over the next 20 years, many of the Act’s provisions were declared unconstitutional and almost totally repealed by 1990, only to be replaced by the Patriot and Homeland Security Acts recently enacted into law.  These facts make Punishment Park, in my opinion, just as relevant and powerful today as they were almost 40 years ago.

The film had a total budget of $66,000, with an additional $25,000 when the film was converted to 35 mm and is shot as a typical documentary.  It was so believable that Dr. H and I had to assure a third party that this was in fact a mock-documentary and not historical footage.

The film is made from the perspective of a British news crew — the U.S. has created a network of detention centers called Punishment Parks to deal with prison overcrowding and help train law enforcement.  At this particular Punishment Park in the California desert, arrested dissidents are tried by a truly kangaroo court and when they are all found guilty, they have a choice between lengthy imprisonment in the federal prison system or three days in the park.  Once released into the park, the recently convicted are released in bunches as numbered ‘Corrective Groups’ – and given three days to make it 50 miles through a deadly desert to an American flag.  But they must  evade police capture; they have a two-hour head start. It’s left somewhat up in the air as to what will happen if they reach the flag.  They are assured that they will not be killed if they surrender when caught.

As the dissidents (ranging from black power extremists to pacifists and draft dodgers) are brought into the kangaroo court, nothing more than an army tent set up in the desert, they are grilled by the multifarious group of conservative civilians. The defendants are rarely allowed to state their positions and law, due process and a fact finding jury are not even a pretense in the proceedings.  Each defendant is bound and gagged at some point and forcibly removed from the kangaroo court.
While the film is of the vicious kind, it is skilled and wise enough to (initially) leave room for doubt here.  Punishment Park is not just a horror film illustrating the potential for fascism in America; more importantly the mock-documentary shows us how opposing sides harden themselves against each other, how misunderstandings mixed with prejudice build to tragedy.  The police and soldiers hunting the Corrective Group down are shown as a rough bunch, but even they are given the benefit of the doubt.  After an unarmed prisoner is shot, the camera charges in on the Guardsman who did it, the filmmaker screaming bloody murder while the wide-eyed stammering 18-year-old kid in a too-big uniform looks not evil but just terrified and sick at what he’s done.

The ending is also tragic.  Those who made it through the desert to the American flag are met by a squad of the authorities who execute them on site to prevent them from going free, refusing to live up to their part of the bargain.

Many of the reviews I read about this movie called the premises “thin” — perhaps, but why then do many people believe that Punishment Park is a real documentary not a mock-documentary?

An excellent film you should see particularly if you are concerned about the erosion of freedom and civil liberties in this or any other country.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Since Polanski Has Generated So Much Activity . . . Let’s Look At The Ninth Gate (1999)

The Ninth Gate—Another Roman Polanski Film Passes Muster.

The Ninth Gate is one of Polanski’s European films which did not do well in the US box office (having spent $38,000,000 in production and grossing about $18,000,000 though overall making money worldwide).  And like Chinatown, The Ninth Gate is a neo noir film about the shadowy world of rare book dealings.

The film stars Johnny Depp, who plays Dean Corzo,  an expert in and acquirer of rare books.  His long time, but  dislikable client, Boris Balkan, shows Depp the most complete collection of rare books about Lucifer—the Devil himself.  Balkan had recently acquired the crown jewel of his satanic collection: a seventeenth-century copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, by Aristide Torchia, a version of a book that supposedly authored by the devil himself.  The book contains nine engravings that, when correctly interpreted and the legends properly spoken, will summon the Devil.  Since two other copies exist, Balkan suspects that the book might be a forgery, and he asks Depp to authenticate it by traveling to Europe to determine whether his or any of the other two are genuine and, if so, to acquire them for Balkan, at any cost or by any means.

After examining the two other copies of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, Depp believes that all three copies of The Nine Gates are genuine and suspects that the secret to opening the nine gates to hell is a combination of engravings signed “LCF” (engravings created by Lucifer himself).  Each copy of the book contains three of the necessary “LCF” engravings needed to open the ninth gate.

Unfortunately, the widow of the owner Balkan acquired his copy of The Ninth Gate from manages to steal the book from Depp’s hotel room.  Depp follows her to a European mansion and witnesses her using it in leading a Satanist ceremony for many jet-setters and other wealthy people who believe that they owe their power and money to the devil.  During the ceremony, Balkan interrupts and kills the widow and absconds with the engraving pages and his own, intact, copy of the book.

Depp hunts Balkan down and finds him preparing to open the nine gates.  A fight ensures and Depp is trapped, unable to move or escape.  Balkan continues with his preparation and pours gasoline on himself and the floor wrongly believing himself to be invulnerable to the fire. However, Balkan begins to scream as he starts burn alive.  Depp gets the hell out there to escape the fire.

Outside Depp finds a mysterious unnamed woman who has been seen throughout the movie and has sex with her.  The unnamed woman tells Depp that Balkan failed because the ninth engraving was a forgery.  Depp listens to her directions, returning to the book shop where one of the thee copies was located.  The store is gone but as the last piece of furniture is being removed, the final, authentic, engraving (which includes a likeness of the mystery girl) slips into Depp’s hands.  With the last authentic engraving in hand, Depp goes to the castle it depicts and crosses the threshold of the Ninth Gate.

The Ninth Gate is, in my opinion, Polanski’s best movie — second only to Chinatown.  The film shows us that there is hope for the film industry–just look at how long it it took me to describe the plot.  The movie contains no “blockbuster” action scenes, no cheesy romances, no canned jokes or story so rigidly formulaic that it could pass as a Disney movie.  Instead, The Ninth Gate has a story, some fine acting, wonderful scenery and a fantastic soundtrack.  Unfortunately many of its contemporary critics pissed on the film as containing an “ambiguous” or “dragging” storyline or similar complaints that may have led to the relatively low U.S. box office dollars.  In any case, I believe those who complained about it are fools and probably like the mindless drivel that drips out of Hollywood today.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

The Power of Basics: Bonnie Reviews Shaolin Monks in The Wheel of Life

Even though at one point I walked out of this movie, it still deserves a rose. How many movies can you say THAT about?

The plot of The Wheel of Life is simple. The Shaolin monks are invited to demonstrate their amazingly beautiful art for the Emperor. He then invites them to help defend the country as it is invaded. They oblige, but when the Emperor asks them to stay on after the war is over, they refuse, insisting that they must get back to training at the monastery. Vindictively, the Emperor arranges to smuggle a gas-filled statue into the temple, the gas knocks out the monks, and the Emperor sneaks in and murders all but five of them, and their teacher, as they sleep. But the five young monks who survive continue to train with their teacher, develop strong spirits, and continue the work of the temple.

JPFMovies doesn’t usually structure his reviews in the format of an old-fashioned theme. In fact my usage of the word “theme” in the last sentence is so archaic that I wonder how many of you out there even know what I am talking about. It’s what the generation born around the turn of the century – the turn of the 20th century, I mean – called essays that they wrote for school. To use the term “theme” this way makes me feel like I am about 90! However, this movie calls for a theme. Those old-fashioned themes took their nomenclature from the fact that they were structured around a theme. It was what we might nowadays classify as modern, pre-deconstructionist literary analysis. It was even pre-structuralist in some ways. An old-fashioned theme essay, though, is what The Wheel of Life calls out for in spades (well, not in spades – in swords? In staffs? In nuchakus?).

This movie, in fact, has a theme, and it’s pounded into us from start to finish. Most moviegoers, though, will miss that theme – they can’t help it because the martial art presented in The Wheel of Life is so jaw-droppingly awesome. The theme is an old-fashioned, traditional martial arts lesson (yet another reason why my old-fashioned, traditional approach is called for here): basics. More specifically, the power of basics. Fundamentals. The few simple, core techniques that are at the center of this wheel as it spins so brilliantly. It is rare to see basics presented so elegantly and without extraneous adornment – but that is what makes their presentation here so powerful.

Without further ado, in a nutshell, here is the theme of The Wheel of Life: even the most basic movements, even the most basic actions, can be surprisingly powerful. What basics are presented to us as powerful in The Wheel of Life?

o   To begin with, breathing. What could be more basic? Yet wise people from all religions and spiritual backgrounds recognize concentrating on the breath as a powerful and easily accessible path to enlightenment. If you watched The Wheel of Life and were too caught up in the exquisite movements and miraculous feats of these martial artists to notice their breathwork, go back and check out what happens before those movements and feats begin. You’ll find that the more difficult the action, the more meditation and breathwork occurs first. Pay attention to this.

o   Next, the martial arts movements themselves. Watch the following scene from the monks’ demonstration before the Emperor.

You can see that the martial techniques used are fairly simple and basic – kicks, punches, blocks, stance work. You could see these same techniques (except for the breathtaking gymnastics and smattering of yoga that accompanies them) demonstrated in thousands of beginning martial arts classes all over the world. But these are not beginners. What makes them different? These basic movements that all beginners learn are executed here with such fluidity, grace and power that a layperson would not even recognize them as the same movements. What makes them advanced? The addition of exciting complex elements? No. What makes them advanced is the masterful juxtaposition of relaxation and focus, yin and yang, push and pull that is at the foundation of all martial arts. That, and the most basic – yet ironically the most advanced – technique of all – total and utter commitment. Utter commitment to relaxation when it is time to relax. Total and absolute throwing one’s whole body into the movement when it is time to move. Watch an older monk teach this utter commitment to a young student in the clip below. See the difference? Same movements. Different body commitments.

If you are interested in martial arts, take note as well of the use of dynamic tension (slow speed, seeming to resist an invisible force) in some of the movements. I haven’t watched as many martial arts films as the rest of you and certainly not as many as JPFMovies, but I’ve never seen dynamic tension in a martial arts movie before.

o   The theme of basics is carried through theatrically as well. Do we need an expensive movie set and weeks of filming to make a movie? No, it turns out all that is needed is the London Apollo, a willing audience, a few simple adornments for the set, and an amazing group of martial artists. Do we need a complex plot? Not really. Do we need a lot of characters? No. We essentially have three main characters in this movie: the head of the temple, the monks collectively acting as a unit, and the evil Emperor. Do we even need a script? Not really, only a little short narration here and there. No need for dialogue when we have the most basic method of communication in existence at our disposal: body language!

But there is another reason for the simplicity of the set and film method, in addition to the joy of pounding into our heads the beauty and power of basics. That reason is what got me to walk out at one point. The latter third of the movie is dedicated to a series of spirit challenges – challenges so amazing that they had to be filmed in precisely this way, or moviegoers would likely think they were just special effects. I refuse to choose a clip of any of the spirit challenges. But I want you to see the meditation that precedes them (see below). Why won’t I show the spirit challenges? Frankly, they are intense (I couldn’t watch the whole section myself, as noted at the beginning of this review), and I don’t want to be responsible for some idiot going out and trying some of this stuff…these challenges go a few steps beyond simple board breaking.

I didn’t research the making of this movie. JPFMovies says this review is long enough already! Let me just say that this movie is as simple as Red Cliff is lavish – and yet both movies are exquisite. They define the range.

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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JPF Looks At One Of The Greats: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

Director Roman Polanski has had a tough and turbulent path through life—some of it his own making some of it just plain back luck.  Part of my decision to review Chinatown was his legal problems resurfacing again in September of 2009 when he was arrested in Switzerland at the request of the U.S. Government for extradition back to the States to face criminal charges involving alleged sex with a minor from the 1970’s.  On July 12, 2010, however, the Swiss rejected the U.S. request and instead declared him a “free man” although all six of the original charges are still pending in the U.S.

In 1969, before he was personally involved with our criminal justice system, Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson and his band of  twisted followers.  Despite the personal hell one would go through under such circumstances, Polanski directed Chinatown which was released in 1974.  Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir film based on Robert Towne’s screenplay and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston.  The film clearly embodies the film noir genre with its multidimensional tale that is part mystery and part psychological drama.

The film, set in 1937 Los Angeles was inspired by the disputes over water rights that had plagued southern California.  Nicholson plays JJ ‘Jake’ Gittes, a private detective who concentrates on matrimonial matters.  He is hired by a phony Evelyn Mulwray when she suspects her husband Hollis, builder of the city’s water supply system, of having an affair.  Gittes takes the case and photographs him with a young girl however, he was hired by an impersonator and not the real Mrs. Mulwray.  When Mulwray is found dead, Jake is plunged into an intricate web of deceit involving murder, incest and governmental corruption all stemming from the city’s water supply.

Polanski even makes a cameo appearance in film (the clip of course shown here) as the individual who famously cuts Jack Nicholson’s nose forcing him to wear an obnoxious bandage throughout much of the film.  Perhaps most importantly, Chinatown has one my favorite lines said in a movie “Forget it, Jake — it’s Chinatown” (again clip provided for your viewing pleasure).  It is also the last line of this great film.  You are a fool if you don’t make time to watch this one.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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