June 11, 2019

My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie

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Mijn Nachten met Susan, Olga, Albert, Julie, Piet & Sandra
Pim de la Parra - 1975
Cult Epics BD Regions ABC/DVD All Regions two-disc set

I still remember my visit to Amsterdam, about fourteen years ago. At the store called Boudisque, I asked if they had any DVDs of films by Pim de la Parra. I don't know for sure if the clerk even knew who Pim de la Parra was. Such was the fate of pioneering Dutch filmmakers Pim de la Parra and his production partner Wim Verstappen. It's only been in the past couple of years that the Netherlands' Eye Institute as rescued the films of "Pim and Wim", and with those films, a bit of film history that was virtually forgotten. Cult Epics has in turn made several of the films available on home video.

The title is a bit misleading as it suggests some kind of hedonistic romp. The character with the title in the first person is Anton, a young man who arrives at a converted farm house to meet up with Barbara, a woman never seen in the film. The farm house and a nearby shack are the home for Susan, Sandra, Olga, Julie, and as listed in the Dutch title, Piet and Albert. The farmhouse is an informal commune for these six dropouts. Anton's presence has disrupted the relative equilibrium of the group, although the first scene reveals Sandra and Olga to be anarchic forces. The French title of the film is Les Furies which more specifically would seem to refer to Sandra and Olga as vengeful female spirits, although no motivation for their actions is provided.

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Like his debut feature, Obsessions, de la Parra again visits the themes of sex, murder and voyeurism. There is nudity and soft-core sex, as was par for European films during the mid-1970s. Pim and Wim produced films that straddled the line between serious commercial filmmaking and outright exploitation, constantly pushing the envelope of what Dutch censors would allow. This is a much more polished work than de la Parra's previous films, aided by use of a widescreen format. The six commune dwellers have chosen to isolate themselves from society at large, with Albert choosing to enclose himself in a room illuminated by a hanging red light bulb, while Piet lives in the nearby shack, physically expressive but orally mute. Julie is mostly seen sleeping. With police investigating a possible murder in the vicinity of the farmhouse, the choices are to break the cycle of self-enforced separation from others, or to totally succumb to madness.

The blu-ray comes with several supplements. In his video introduction, Pim de la Parra tells of how Rutger Hauer, not yet an international star, turned down the role of Anton. Three early short films are also included, with the two about the perpetually clumsy Joop showcasing the goofy humor of Pim and Wim. The supplement with stills and posters provided the information on the French title for My Nights . . .. The film is notable also has containing the final film work by composer Elisabeth Lutyens, whose atonal film scores had previously been part of several horror films produced by Amicus and Hammer.

June 04, 2019

Devil's Kiss

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La perversa caricia de Satan
Jordi Gigo - 1976
Redemption BD Region A

Devil's Kiss has just about everything needed for an exploitation horror movie - gratuitous sex, unmotivated violence, and a story that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And yet I got the feeling that for whatever reasons, writer-director Jordi Gigo was holding back on the sex and gore when he really should have been fearlessly tasteless. This was a French/Spanish co-production made for Eurocine, a French company that specialized in low budget fare that played in the grind houses of Europe.

While the better known Eurocine productions were directed by Jesus Franco, with Jean Rollin also on hand for a couple of films, one of the other frequent filmmakers was Pierre Chevalier. I have to admit I have seen only a handful of films compared to historian Tim Lucas, who contributed some notes on the back of the blu-ray cover. But I have seen Chevalier's Orloff and the Invisible Man which is deliriously unhinged. More laughable than horrifying, the film also presents an argument that some actresses should not be seen in the nude, even if it is a requirement. Not only were these movies made to be screened in theaters where paying close attention to the story was besides the point, the films sometimes would have pornographic inserts based on when and where said film was shown.

There is very little information on Jordi Gigo. In writing about an earlier DVD release of Devil's Kiss, critic Aled Jones commented, "Not wanting to belittle Jordi Gigo and his directing chops but he does come across as a third assistant on a Jess Franco shoot in terms of talent which is hardly a recommendation." IMDb indicated that Gigo had a hand in writing Exorcismo with star Paul Naschy in 1975. Following Devil's Kiss, Gigo made a soft-core film, Porno Girl, before slipping into obscurity. Devil's Kiss definitely has a cult following, but it is primarily based on enthusiasm for the genre both dismissed and loved as "Eurotrash".

A spiritualist, Claire Grandier, blames the Duke of Haussemont for the suicide of her husband. She accepts the invitation to one of the Duke's parties as part of her scheme for revenge. With Grandier is the scientist, Romain Gruber, who specializes in mental telepathy. The guests at the party are part of what use to be known as "the jet set". Grandier holds a seance where the lights suddenly go out, but that's far less horrifying than the fashion show beforehand featuring garishly ugly bell bottom jumpsuits. The two become houseguests of the Duke. The reanimation of a bald, facially scarred corpse is only the beginning of their havoc.

Jordi Gigo appears to have taken various elements from horror movies almost at random, to form an incoherent mix. I bet you didn't know that zombies could be stopped by the sight of a crucifix? The blu-ray comes with both the English and French language dubbed tracks, but neither makes a difference in any added nuances. The expository dialogue is dull enough to make one long for the inane prose of Ed Wood, Jr. The cast is made up of primarily secondary Eurocine contract players Silvia Solar, Olivier Mathot and Evelyne Scott. Were it available online, I would love to read what horror film historian Stephen Thrower has written that might cast a brighter light on Devil's Kiss. As it is, the critical consensus is that this is cinema audit, loved by the most dedicated genre aficionados. You can't totally hate a film with the line, "No one will notice an additional grave in a cemetery."

May 28, 2019

The Nun

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Suzanne Simonin, la Religieuse de Denis Diderot
Jacques Rivette - 1965
Kino Classics BD Region A

I'm not sure if I'm able to really write about The Nun in any meaningful way. While I have seen a good number of films by Jacques Rivette, I feel inarticulate. The blu-ray comes with an essay by Dennis Lim and a commentary track by Nick Pinkerton, and both can discuss the film in ways that will make what ever I have to say look like a junior high school essay next to doctoral dissertations.

Adapted from the 18th Century novel by Denis Diderot, The Nun is a fictional story inspired by a couple of real life nuns. Suzanne Simonin, a young woman about sixteen years old, is forced by her parents to become a nun for economic reasons. Although she does not feel she has "the calling", Suzanne attempts to go through the motions, cast aside by her parents who view her as a burden. The physical abuse experienced at one convent is replaced by the emotional abuse in a second convent. Suzanne, who admits to knowing nothing about the outside world, is the victim of more abuse outside the convent.

While much of the discussion regarding The Nun has been about its presentation of aspects of the Catholic Church, the film is also about the circumscribed roles of women. Suzanne is denied the opportunity to marry or stay at home, and her place as a nun is to be permanent, unlike some girls around her age. Outside of the church, Suzanne does menial labor, is reduced to begging on the street, and finally is groomed to be a high-class prostitute. Unlike Candide, Suzanne's innocence about the world destroys her. Just as in marriage at that time, being a bride of Christ involves a dowry. Suzanne's tragedy is not only about her inability to find her place in the world, but her destiny tied to her monetary value.

Most of the film takes place inside the two convents. The walls of the first convent are a dark blue-gray, the second convent is a lighter shade. The nuns' habits are also dark blue and gray. The Nun has been noted as being Rivette's most formal film, several critics have used the word "austere". The screenplay originated from a play by Jean Grault, staged by Rivette, also with Anna Karina in the title role, in 1963. Most of the film is composed as a series of traveling shots of the actors and their immediate environment. One of the other visual motifs repeated is the use of bars whether to separate the nuns from visitors, or as part of the confessional. That there is an unforced parallel between convents and prisons is part of the greater theme of the characters being imprisoned by roles chosen if not imposed on them. There is also the indirect hint of future Riviette films centered on women who have taken to road trips or fantasy escapes.

The blu-ray also contains a short documentary featuring Anna Karina and the lawyer for producer Georges De Beauregard discussing the production, and the temporary ban that prevented the release of The Nun. The blu-ray was taken from the recent 4K restoration, itself made from the film's original negative.

May 23, 2019

Avengement

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Jesse V. Johnson - 2019
Samuel Goldwyn Films

It's not a word that is commonly used, but the best definition I found for avengement is "the inflicting of retributive punishment". That reasonably sums up the bulk of what happens in the hour and a half of this newest collaboration of producer and star Scott Adkins and writer-director Jesse V. Johnson. I've only seen Adkins in a handful of films, primarily as a supporting performer, using his martial arts skill. Especially unlike the mainstream productions, whether made for English language or Chinese language viewers, this new film is markedly more brutal.

In addition to the expected kicks and punches, are stabbings, shotgun shootings, multiple broken bones and dental emergencies. Adkins plays a low-level criminal who does staged fighting matches on the side. His failure to throw a fight puts him in debt to a criminal gang led by his older brother. Sent to what is described as the worst of all prisons after being framed, Adkins basically is required to kill or serious maim an army of fellow prisoners who have been offered a reward for his murder. The fights are initially acts of self-defense but Adkins gets his prison sentence extended by several years. Out of prison to see his dying mother, Adkins escapes from the police and takes his revenge.

The film is constructed as a series of flashbacks, with Adkins making his final confrontation in a bar, telling the local gang members about his life in prison. Adkins is barely recognizable with his hair reduced to a buzz cut, facial hair, scars across one eye and his cheek, and metal dentures in his mouth. I have to give Adkins credit as there are not too many action stars who are willing to make themselves look ugly or anti-heroic. I was also unprepared for the pronounced accents of the cast, forgetting that Scott Adkins is British, as is Jesse V. Johnson.

This is a film designed primarily for visceral appeal. Visually, Avengement is functional, with the fight scenes logically shot and edited, making sense of the space where the scenes take place. Johnson does miss an opportunity to be more visually inventive in a scene that takes place in a make-shift club, with blue and purple lights, and moving spotlights. Maybe Johnson and Adkins were afraid of being "arty" but I was hoping they would do the equivalent in a martial arts film as someone like Gaspar Noe and others have done for scenes of dancing.

May 21, 2019

Robbery

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Peter Yates - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about The Man who Haunted Himself, I've been watching the old British television series, "The Saint". One of the first episodes where a car chase through London was prominently featured was directed by Peter Yates. I don't know how directorial assignments were allocated but Yates did seem to get at least one more opportunity to film a car chase as part of the the seven episodes he helmed. While the information available does not go into further detail, articles about Yates also mention that he spent some time in the 1960s as a manager for race car champion Stirling Moss, as well as being a race car driver as well.

While the car chase at the beginning of Robbery deserves acclaim, the opening set-up is notable as well. The term "Hitchcockian" has been bandied about pretty much casually, and usually by people who act as if Hitchcock's career more or less began and ended with Psycho. The scene is a good illustration of Hitchcock's explanation of the difference between suspense and surprise. An apparently wealthy man and his chauffeur leave the car parked on the street. Another man is able to get into the car long enough to plant some kind of device with timer. We don't know what kind of device this is exactly. But we follow the car with device and the men who are following that car. Yates cuts between the followers, the followed, and the timer, and wristwatches. The suspense comes from both not knowing when the device will go off, and what kind of damage will occur.

Those first eleven minutes also alternate with overhead crane shots indicating the position of cars and their respective locations, and cramped interior shots within the respective cars while they are traveling. The fabled car chase lasts about six minutes, with the focus shifting to the pursuit by police cars of a trio of criminals. Most of the shots are briefer in length, with a notable exception being a shot taken from inside the criminal gangs car, driving past a policeman, and getting the windshield window smashed in the process. It is only near the end of the chase, when a group of school children are nearly hit, that the images become a visual jumble, a quick montage of confusion. With a bigger budget, Yates was able to build on this for Bullitt made the following year, which in turn inspired William Friedkin's The French Connection.

The robbery of the title was inspired by "The Great Train Robbery" that took place in Britain in 1963. The characters are fictional. The staging of the robbery was taken from official records. Approximately 2.6 million British pounds in cash, was taken, roughly 7 million U.S. dollars at that time. Most of the film is about the cops and criminals. The only characters who are given a domestic life are the gang leader, Paul Clifton, and a former banker enlisted in the heist, Robinson. Clifton gives advance notice to his wife that he may not return home after the robbery. Robinson's insistence on contacting his wife is his undoing.

Stanley Baker, at the time a major British star notable for his tough guy roles, plays Clifton. At the time Clifton states that he refuses to be imprisoned again, Clifton appeared for me as an extension of the character Baker played in The Criminal (1960), albeit one who is a bit more polished. Even though Baker was also the producer, his performance here is almost as part of an ensemble. This is especially marked in a scene where the leading gang members meet during a soccer game. They are filmed primarily as a group conversing with each other during the game, with Baker in the back, given minimal visual emphasis. Of the cast, the only others with name recognition are character actor Frank Finlay as Robinson, and Barry Foster, better known for his turn in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy.

Nick Pinkerton's commentary track provides details on the cars used in the film's opening, the various locations, and discussions on Yates, Baker and other cast member, as well as cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, editor Reginald Beck, and film score composer Johnny Keating. While I do agree with the assessment of Peter Yates as being inconsistent, especially in the latter part of his career, I think there is more to appreciate than Robbery, Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. While Breaking Away was their only critical and commercial success of three films, Yates' collaboration with playwright Steve Tesich is worthy of more serious exploration.

May 14, 2019

My First Cinematheque

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Has anyone written anything serious about watching old movies on network television? The recent passing of actress Peggy Lipton included mentions of her love of older films, with The Razor's Edge (1946) and Tales of Manhattan (1942) cited. I'm five years younger than Lipton. And thinking about Lipton, myself, and others around my age, the aging baby boomers, I'm thinking that those of us who have also been identified as part of the "movie generation" were so thanks to network television.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, before tapering away around the mid 1970s, old movies were on network television all the time. Most major cities had the three national networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, and one or maybe even two local networks. The studios sold their movies in syndication packages and it was easy to fill time, especially later at night. Television at that time often mean prime time viewing, followed by a half hour newscast, which in turn was followed by one or two movies - more on weekend nights. It didn't matter that the films were interrupted by commercials, were sometimes edited for length, or that we were watching a color film in black and white and/or a wide screen film reformatted for the square screen. This may not have been the way the filmmakers intended their films to be seen, but this was the way many cinephiles around my age discovered cinema.

Well before people were bandying terms like "buzz worthy", there was the word of mouth of several five and six year olds excitedly talking about something called King Kong that was to be on TV. This was around 1957, when my parents surrendered and our family had our first television set. I had no idea what King Kong was, but I knew I had to see it. And see King Kong I did, missing part of the beginning but entranced by what was on the screen. My concept of time was such that it didn't register with me that I was watching something produced over twenty years ago. At the end of the film, I asked my mother how they trained that giant gorilla to climb that tall building. I was introduced to the concept of "special effects".

Unlike some families, mine never went together to see a movie theatrically. It was through television that my father introduced me to a couple of favorite films, High Noon and A Night at the Opera.

In my early teen years, living in a suburb of Chicago, I took advantage of my parents being away by watching TV all night one Saturday night. I saw my first Busby Berkeley musical at around three in the morning. Studying the television schedule, I realized that this particular channel was showing movies made in the 1930s, all from Warner Brothers, on weekend nights at around the same hour. I almost always woke up in time to sneak downstairs to watch James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler, with the volume as low as possible to not disturb anyone else, but just high enough that I could hear all the dialogue while sitting closely to the TV set. To this day I will never know if I was a successful sneak, or if my parents were aware of this particular nocturnal habit and shrugged it off as a silly phase.

What was nice about watching older films was that they were available to anyone with a working television. There was no consignment to a cable channel ghetto, no additional costs, no claims of exclusivity. While my taste in films changed and became somewhat more sophisticated, and the choice of films available was up to the whims of unseen programmers, television did introduce me to a fairly wide variety of filmmakers from classic Hollywood so I wasn't totally unprepared when I decided to seriously study film. I will even admit there was I time when I thought Ruby Keeler was quite cute.

May 07, 2019

The Grand Duel

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Il Grande Duello / The Big Showdown
Giancarlo Santi - 1972
Arrow Video BD Region A

The booklet that accompanies Arrow's new blu-ray of The Grand Duel includes excerpts of reviews from the Italian press at the time of the film's initial release. What was essentially written off as a derivative imitation of Sergio Leone was included as part of a retrospective of Italian westerns at the Venice Film Festival in 2007. The influence of Leone is hard to miss, especially the series of close-ups of the eyes of Lee Van Cleef and his adversaries in the final shootout. And if the main narrative is not original, that's true of many many films, perhaps more so in genre films such as westerns and horror films, but also someone like the contemporary Hong Sangsoo, whose films frequently follow a similar template.

The Grand Duel was produced at the time when the commercial viability of the Italian western had plateaued. That the film was modestly profitable was primarily due to international pre-sales on the strength of Van Cleef's name. Santi's film did not get a stateside release until 1974. The visual influence of Leone was not simple imitation as Santi had previously worked as an assistant director to the master on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time . . . in the West. Leone thought enough of Santi to originally appoint him as director of Duck, You Sucker! until Rod Steiger insisted on only making the film with Leone as director. The screenplay is by the prolific Ernest Gastaldi, who also wrote the Leone produced comic western, My Name is Nobody, one of the last commercially successful films of the genre.

The main narrative threads are familiar. Sons avenging the deaths of their respective fathers, an innocent man on the run following being framed for murder, a town held in the grips of corrupt businessmen, and a lawman working outside the law. As is pointed out by film historian Stephen Prince in his commentary track, that the story hinges on the memory of a murder connects Santi's film also to Leone's, but also to John Ford's The Man who Shot Liberty Valance in that the viewer sees two different versions of the same incident. I would also add to that a connection to the gialli written by Gastaldi, where there are false or imagined memories. It is not made clear by any of the supplements as to who decided that the flashback sequences should be in black and white, but the fog created by the steam of a waiting train, and the unknown killer seen as an inky black silhouette, both visually seem closer to a horror movie than a western.

There is one remarkable moment when the escaped convict, Vermeer, is suppose to be ambushed by bounty hunters. Van Cleef's character of Clayton takes a stroll around the one-horse town, leaving casual visual hints for Vermeer revealing where the bounty hunters are hidden. This is followed by a series of gunshots and acrobatic leaps on the part of Vermeer, precisely timed and edited by Roberto Perpignani. It's only a handful of shots that lasts a few seconds of screen time. Perpignani's reputation at the time mainly rested on his work with Bernardo Bertolucci, but his work on The Grand Duel should be studied for how to logically edit action sequences.

Stephen Prince is a still active professor at Virginia Tech and his commentary track reflects that, not only discussing the making of The Grand Duel, and that film's relationship to Italian westerns and westerns in general, but also going into film theory, primarily with the visual elements of lighting and framing. I was reminded of my days as a formal Cinema Studies student in a good way. There may be an intellectual heft that usually is absent from most commentary tracks, but I'll take this over the improvised slop that accompanies some home video releases.

The other supplements include an interview with Giancarlo Santi, interviews with Alberto Dentice - the former actor who played Vermeer credited as Peter O'Brien, one of the producers, an uncredited production assistant, a short film with supporting actor Marc Mazza, and a tribute as well to Mazza. Also, Austin Fisher, who has written extensively on Italian westerns, offers his thoughts on The Grand Duel. And if that wasn't enough, there is also a comparison of scenes that are slightly different in the German version of the film. The film, as usual for its time, was completely dubbed after production, but that is definitely Lee Van Cleef in the English language version. I do recommend seeing the Italian version at least for the visually interesting titles that float horizontally from right to left across the screen.