November 29, 2022

Knife in the Head

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Messer im Kopf
Reinhard Hauff - 1978
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

What I first found striking about Knife in the Head is that it is the first film I have seen that presented West Germany as a police state. The images of a police raid on what appear to be student activists, random checkpoints on the road, and surveillance cameras are all depicted as part of life in Munich, 1978. The implication is that for some citizens, there is only marginal difference on which part of Germany is home.

Bullet in the Head might be a more accurate title as the titular knife is one that is imagined. A scientist, known by everyone by his family name of Hoffman, goes to meet his wife, Ann. With a group of people at what is later identified as a youth center, Ann is being arrested. Hoffman runs into the small building. Hoffman is seen in a freeze frame with the sound of a gunshot. The actual event is the subject of conflicting descriptions. How Hoffman gets shot in the head is unclear. What is known is that he has brain damage causing him memory loss and lack of motor skills. Hoffman rebels against his sense of being an infant in the body of a adult male, and being the subject of gawking by some of the other patients due to newspaper reports depicting Hoffman as a political terrorist.

Even if the political aspects of Knife in the Head have lost their topicality, the film is still worth seeing due to the performance of Bruno Ganz as Hoffman. The depiction of physical and mental impairment and gradual, if partial, repair has been noted for its accuracy. In this regard, this is not a feel-good story about one man's victory overcoming adversity. Reinhard and screenwriter Peter Schneider are able to find humor in Hoffman's relearning simple words that offer brief breaks from the drama. Simultaneous to Hoffman's physical and mental recovery are his dealing with Ann's relationship with another man, and a dogged detective's insistence that Hoffman is faking his maladies and is guilty of stabbing a policeman in the raid.

While not as well known as his peer, Volker Schlondorff, Reinhold Hauff has a tangential connection with the New German Cinema. In addition to founding the production company Bioskop with Schlondorff, there is the casting of Bruno Ganz with Angela Winkler as Ann. Ganz is probably best known for Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and his performance as Hitler in Downfall, while Angela Winkler had the title role in The Lost Honor of Katherine Blum in 1975, and was more recently more widely seen in recent version of Suspiria. The sparingly used music for the film was composed by Krautrock keyboardist Irmin Schmidt from the band Can. The blu-ray was sourced from a 2019 4K restoration. The two supplements are a 2007 interview with Reinhard Hauff where he discusses his working methods and work with his cinematographer and editor, and a 2008 interview with producer Eberhard Junkersdorf.

November 22, 2022

French Noir Collection

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Speaking of Murder / La Rouge set Mis
Gilles Grangier - 1957

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Back to the Wall / Le Dos au Our
Edourard Molinaro - 1958

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Witness in the City / Un Temoin dans la Ville
Edouard Molinaro - 1959
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Two-disc set

If there was ever a home video release that should have come with commentary tracks, or at least a booklet, this three film collection would have benefited from some extra care. Ideally, French film noir expert Ginette Vincendeau would be the person for such a task. Anyone else would be forced to rely on Professor Vincendeau's writings as well as their own personal investigations into both the history of the genre and of lesser known French films and filmmakers. Especially for the U.S. based film cinephile, there is a limited understanding of French cinema based on those films that were imported for the art theater circuit as well as the vaulting of the filmmakers associated with the Nouvelle Vague at the expense of almost everyone else. Vincendeau would remind us that aside from being a French term that first became popular in in describing certain Hollywood films, film noir has its roots with several French films from the 1930s that explored people who lived in the margins of society.

The two directors here, Gilles Grangier and Edouard Molinaro, are not part of Francois Truffaut's despised "Cinema de Papa". Neither are they transitional figures between generations like Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker. Instead, they are craftsmen who essentially made French films primarily for a French audience. Grangier is in need of further research as a director with a record of commercially successful films locally, unknown abroad. Described by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, Grangier ". . . was a working-class film-maker who came up from the streets of Paris, and started in the movies as a stuntman, grip, prop boy, any job he could get." Bradshaw's article was written in conjunction with a retrospective at Lyon, France in 2021. The two films from Molinaro are both early works when the director specialized in crime films for his first five years. The films are both interesting to watch within the context of a career with Molinaro making an international reputation with his comedies, especially, La Cage aux Folles.

Jean Gabin carries his own freighted history in his roles as a crime boss since the mid-1950s. In Speaking of Murder, Gabin is Louis, the owner of a garage who augments his income with a trio carrying out the occasional robbery. His younger brother is out on parole, with the police leaning on him to help bust Louis. Family honor trumps honor among thieves. Grangier saves the visual panache for the climax with Gabin pursued on a staircase. The title translates as "the red light is on", the signal for when a heist is to take place. Among the better known supporting cast members are Lino Ventura as Gabin's volatile partner in crime, Marcel Bozzuffi as the younger brother and Annie Giradot as Bozzuffi's less than faithful girlfriend. Jacques Deray, best known for directing several films starring Alain Delon, served as an Assistant Director.

Back to the Wall is the outstanding film in this collection. An industrialist discovers his wife has a lover and creates a blackmail plot against the two. The plot gets disrupted by an unforeseen event. What was Molinaro's debut feature after a decade of short films comes closest to the classic concept of film noir. The music by Richard Cornu seems to have taken its cues from the scores Max Steiner wrote for Warner Brothers melodramas in the 1940s. The influence of Orson Welles is apparent from the many shots making use of depth of field, deep shadows, extreme angles and emphasis on scale with someone or some object in the foreground with a character seen at a distance. The opening scene is almost dialogue free while Gerard Oury is seen methodically cleaning up an apartment, removing and disposing of a corpse. Jeanne Moreau stars as Oury's wife in a year that included Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, cementing her place as one of France's top actresses. Claude Sautet, who would make several notable crime films, served as the Assistant Director.

Witness in the City was Molinaro's second film. Not as stylized, the story zig-zags from following a man murder a woman on a train to his being released from criminal prosecution. The narrative shifts to being about the husband of the murdered woman. Lino Ventura, in an early starring role as the wronged husband, takes his revenge. Seen by chance by a taxi driver, Ventura is certain of being identified. The film is based on a novel by the team of Boileau and Narcejac, source authors for Vertigo and Les Diaboliques. There is nothing otherworldly here though there is some suggestion of horror with the opening scene murder and the hanging of the wife's lover. Molinaro also employs a jazz score. What is also notable is the elaborate car chase scene that included a reported 400 Parisian cab drivers that concludes in an actual zoo. What the film has in common with other works by Boileau and Narcejac is the fatalism. The image of Ventura behind bars edited with the shots of the caged birds might strike some as too obvious. Sandra Milo plays a cab company dispatcher, while Francoise Brion briefly is seen as Ventura's wife. Gerard Oury also had a hand in the screenplay.

Reviewing the filmographies of the directors, writers and several of the actors, there are a variety of connections to be found mostly in French crime films. The most obvious connections are with Jean Gabin who reestablished his stardom as an aging gangster for most of career from the mid-1950s. Lino Ventura would switch more frequently between cop and criminal and would co-star with Gabin. For myself, my appreciation of French crime films became deeper following the viewing of several films and having more of a sense of the history that these actors brought with them.

November 16, 2022

Lost Illusions

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Illusions perdues
Xavier Giannoli - 2021
Music Box Films BD Region A

There is a close-up of a man eating a pastry at an artistic salon. The scene takes place in a provincial French village during the 1820s. The French Revolution is well over and royalty is reasserting its place in all aspects of life. There are similar shots where the consumption of food takes place where a privileged audience is also consuming art. While there is no exact correlation, Lost Illusions shows both some of the roots of what has become part of mass culture and the similarity to some of the hucksterism that currently exists.

The film is based on the first two volumes of a trilogy by Balzac. I have not read the novels, but from what I have gleaned from other sources, Xavier Giannoli trimmed much of the source material concentrate on the rise and fall of the aspiring young writer who goes to Paris to seek his fortune. There is some off-screen narration by the man who would act as his nemesis and friend. What is helpful is that this narration helps place the story into its historical context, although some general knowledge of French history is useful.

Lucien Chardon works at a printshop in a small country village. As a poet, he has the patronage of Madame de Bargeton. Lucien wants to be recognized under his mother's royalty connected family name as well as making a name for himself as a writer. Both he and his patroness run off to Paris where their relationship is undone by the unstated rules of Parisian society. At a time when upward mobility was rare, Lucien learns quickly how to sell his skills as a writer for a small, politically liberal, newspaper. Lucien dives into an environment where class, money, and social and family connections mean everything.

Capitalism and consumerism run amok. Reviews of novels or plays are based on who pays the writer the most to express a bias one way or the other. An small army of paid audience members will applaud or boo on opening night. Everything has a price depending on the highest bidder. Nathan, the narrator points out how advertising was created to encourage people to buy things they do not need. For Lucien, he gets the invitations and the social standing he believes are rightly his, while maintaining a facade of being wealthier than he is, and being unaware of the unstated rules. While Lost Illusions takes place in early 19th Century France, Lucien's story arc has some resemblance to that of Sidney Falco, the columnist played by Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success.

The best known cast members here are Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan, Gerard Depardieu and Cecile de France. The blu-ray comes with brief interviews with four of the cast members and a short montage of the film's locations. Lost Illusions won seven Cesar awards, the French equivalent to the Oscars, including Best Film last February.

November 13, 2022

Denver Film Festival - My Small Land

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Mai sumoru rando
Emma Kawawada - 2022
Gaga

I might have overlooked My Small Land had it not been for the recommendation of Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling. Even while making the circuit of several film festivals, Emma Kawawada's feature debut is running below the radar and at this time does not have U.S. distribution. Kawawada worked for a time as an assistant to Hirokazu Kore-eda. As other critics have pointed out, there is some similarity with the low-key tone and the story about a family in some kind of peril.

The family here is Kurdish refugees in Saitama, just outside of Tokyo. While not precisely stated, it is indicated that the family has lived in Japan for at least a decade as the main character, Sarya, meets with a favorite elementary school teacher during her senior year in high school. Sarya uneasily carries a duel sense of self, of being a Kurd at home while more thoroughly Japanese at school and at her part-time job at a convenience store. Kawada introduces this duality by opening the film with a Kurdish wedding celebration. There is no indication where this celebration is taking place until Kawada cuts to a shot of Emma on the commuter train to Saitama. Sarya's plans to go to college collapse when her family is denied political asylum. Even greater than the possibility of Sarya forced to return to a country that she barely remembers is the threat to her father's life as a political dissident.

Sarya also complicates her life by telling her friends that she is German rather than try to explain what it means to be a Kurd. Because of her fluency in Japanese, she is also called upon to act as a translator, bridging the language gap for the Kurdish community in her Saitama neighborhood. The is a universality in the portrait of immigrants in another culture, between keeping traditional practices and language that collide with assimilation. For Sarya, this means expectations of an arranged marriage with a young Kurdish man versus her aspirations to go to college. There is a humorous scene where the father, attempting to cheer the family after they have had their visas rescinded, takes them to a restaurant where they debate whether it is proper to audibly slurp ramen.

While Kawawada's sympathies are on the side of Sarya, she lets the characters speak for themselves. The film serves as a critical look at some of the more insular aspects of Japanese culture, especially when certain restrictions have unintended consequences. Kawawada spent two years interviewing Kurds living in Japan. Not mentioned in the film is that Japan only allowed citizenship for less than one-hundred refugees. Due to the immigration laws, Kawawada had to be careful in her casting. Sarya is played by teen model Lina Arashi, birth name Lina Kahafizadeh, with members of her own family as her father and siblings. Rather than rely on the script, several of the family scenes were improvised. While mostly in Japanese, there is dialogue in Turkish and a Kurdish dialect. There is also a bit of autobiography with Kawawada having a British father and Japanese mother, with that being treated as an outsider within one's own country while wanting to establish a sense of belonging.

November 12, 2022

Denver Film Festival - EO

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Jerzy Skolimowksi - 2022
Janus Films/Sideshow

Always mentioned in discussing EO is that Jerzy Skolimowki was inspired by the French classic, Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson, from 1966. While it is not a requirement to appreciate the new film, I would recommend seeing Bresson's to compare the similarities and differences, but also because it is great filmmaking. For myself, I cannot write about Skolimowski without discussing Bresson, but also some thoughts on Skolimowski's past work.

There is a streak of fatalism in Skoliowski's work. Deep End (1970) opens and closes with excerpts from Cat Stevens' song, "But I Might Die Tonight". The more recent Essential Killing (2010) ends with the death of the Arab terrorist on the run. Even the titles suggest finality. Even when there is no death, characters find themselves in situations over which they have no control.

Au Hasard Balthazar is about the life of a donkey in a small French border town. Initially adopted as a pet by a school girl, Marie, Balthazar grows to be a working animal, mostly abused by his respective owners and neglected by the now teenage Marie. The majority of the film takes place in the unnamed town, and several scenes to not involve Balthazar at all. The one scene the Skolimowski takes from Bresson is of Marie in a tight two-shot embracing and petting the donkey. EO, the name of the Skolimowski's donkey and the sound of the donkey's bray, is embraced and petted by his young, redhead owner, Kasandra. While not outright duplicating the older film, the visual similarity can not be missed.

Where EO is markedly different is that it more significantly is from the point of view of the donkey, with fewer scenes exclusively of people and very little dialogue. Eo not only goes through a series of multiple keepers, but travels from Poland though unidentified parts of Europe including an Italian villa. Freed from being part of a circus that has gone bankrupt, EO has his own sense of independence and mischievousness. Even with the few comic moments, it would be a mistake to confuse EO with an animal film intended for family viewing. Even the people with the best intentions towards EO are questionable. More questionable are the interactions between those people.

Unlike Bresson, Skolimowski makes extensive use of extended traveling camera shots. There is a greater sense of intimacy in choosing the narrower Academy ratio rather than a wide screen format. PaweĊ‚ Mykietyn provided an unusual film score with parts incorporating the gamalen. The screenplay, co-written by producer Ewa Piaskowska was also inspired by the desire to break away from the traditional narrative film structure. Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes last May, EO is now Poland's entry for the International Film Oscar.

November 10, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Hunt

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Heonteu
Lee Jung-jae - 2022
Magnolia Pictures

South Korean star Lee Jung-jae has made a very assured debut as a director with the big scale Hunt. Lee may be best known in the U.S. for starring in Squid Game, while those who have followed popular South Korean cinema would be familiar with several of his films prior to Netflix stardom. Hunt can also be included as part of South Korea's spy genre involving an agent from North Korea set to cause some form of political disruption, distinguished by elaborate action set pieces that rival anything in the James Bond series, including several gun fights, a couple of car chases, and big explosions.

The film takes place in 1983, inspired in part by real life events. Lee revised the film since its initial screening at Cannes to make it more clear for those unfamiliar with Korean history from that time, with opening credits advising that the film should be understood as a work of fiction. The film opens with an attempt to assassinate South Korea's president while he is in Washington D.C. A sniper is discovered and guns are blazing within the building where the North Korean operatives are hiding, pursued by South Korean security forces. Due to the suspected security leak, the chiefs of two rival security forces are tasked with discovering the mole in the government. This is somewhat analogous to having the FBI and the CIA both given the same assignment. The two chiefs, Park and Kim, have their own messy history, working together while also suspicious of each other.

While relationships within the government are internecine, they are reflective of attitudes in South Korea. Those supporting the pro-democracy movement in South Korea. at a time when martial law was imposed, were deemed to be communists. Clubbings and torture were part of the order of the day for those enforcing state security. Because of the various twists and turns in the story, attention is required to follow what is going on with the constantly changing relationships between characters. One of the tensest action scenes involves the two security teams given conflicting orders, causing confusion in an attempt to assist a defector and his family, resulting in a gun battle between North and South Koreans agents. While it might be clear who the bad guys are, by the end of the film one is not sure if there are any good guys.

Lee co-wrote the screenplay in addition to starring as Park and serving as director. Jung Woo-son plays Park's rival, Kim. Jung may be familiar as the "Good" in The Good, the Bad, the Weird and the more recent Beasts Clawing at Straws. Another Squid Game actor, Heo Sung-tae, appears here as a North Korean pilot and possible defector.

November 08, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Alcarras

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Carla Simon - 2022
Mubi

Carla Simon's parents both died when the filmmaker was six years old. That event inspired her partially autobiographical debut feature, Summer 1993. Alcarras is set in present day Catalonia, at a peach farm. While the cast is an ensemble of non-professionals, it is little Ainet Jounou, seven years old at the time of production, who would seem to be the stand-in for Simon. As Iris, the youngest daughter of the farming family, Miss Jounou takes commands the screen with her combination of a vivid imagination, naivety, and total conviction. While the film takes place in the present, it is the past that informs the current disruptions of the family.

The peach farm is on land that was given as a gift to the Sole family in appreciation for protection to the landowner's family in World War II. The Sole family ownership was based on a verbal understanding passed through two generations. The grandson, Pinyol, has sent the Sole family a letter stating they are to vacate at the end of the harvest. Even with farming at a financial loss, the father, Quimet insists that the family will stay. Pinyol plans to set up fields of solar panels from his factory. On a larger scale, Simon is looking at a way of life and culture being threatened by industrialization.

The film switches between incidents involving different family members, with Iris capturing attention with her verve. She is the first one we see, using a derelict Volkswagen Beetle as a space ship, fighting aliens with her two younger twin cousins, two boys who fully follow her around. Later, one of the boys is stuck in the raised shovel of a large crane. Iris insists that the buttons of the crane magically acted on their own. Occasionally Iris becomes self-absorbed, oblivious to the annoyance created by her tuneless playing of a toy recorder. Even if she is unaware of the meaning at this time, Iris also carries on the political heritage of Catalonia, singing a workers' protest song learned from her grandfather. Based on an interview about her intentions, Simon does not quite achieve her aim of providing a mixed image of the two main adversaries - there is greater sympathy for Quimet in spite of his stubbornness to remain a farmer, even with the offer to stay on the farm by maintaining the solar panels, while Pinyol comes across as an unfeeling businessman, even if his business is beneficial.

As she did in Summer 1993, Simon shot the film in Catalan. Local inhabitants of Alcarras were also part of the cast. Simon also grew up on a peach farm belonging to two uncles. It is significant that Simon makes her films in Catalan rather than standard Spanish as it goes beyond mere authenticity. Alcarras is Spain's entry for the International Feature Oscar. Last February, it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Even with some of its specificity, there are also some elements that remind us that family run farms in industrialized countries share similar issues.