September 26, 2023



Emanuele Crialese - 2022
Music Box Films BD Region A

The title literally translates as "the immensity". That is easy enough to figure out. Inspired by the director's own life, especially his relationship with his mother, the immensity is the difficult work of living one's own life. Penelope Cruz plays the mother, Clara, an upper middle class housewife who finds ways of making life with her three children fun, and whose generosity of spirit allows room for her children to express themselves freely. The infrequently seen father, Felice, is a traditionalist, clamping down where he can on the idiosyncrasies of the family. The eldest child, in the early years of adolescence, lives as much of his life as a boy, although within the family he is still address with his female birth name. The film takes place in Rome in the early 1970s, roughly a decade after the economic boom years, which still left parts of the population untouched and in generational poverty.

The son is the proxy for the filmmaker who identified himself as a transgender last year. A side note about the name of the character - birth name is Adriana or Adri, but he names himself Andrea. Due to Andrea, a common first name for Italian men, being occasionally misgendered by those who only associate the name with women, the subtitles have the son's name rendered as Andrew. I choose to refer to the character as Andrea.

At a time when there was less understanding or language for gender dysphoria, Andrea is allowed to present himself as a boy in his appearance, save for one unhappy moment when he is forced to wear a dress for a family portrait. A glimpse indicates he is already wearing some kind of chest binder. Andrea is attracted to Sara, a girl of similar age, about 13, but is in a brief panic when it appears that Sara is about to initiate some kind of sexual relationship. Sara lives with the kind of community of working poor that were romanticized by Vittorio De Sica in the 1950s, living in shacks in field separated from Andrea's apartment by thick field of reeds. Clara forbids Andrea from going across the field, revealing a sense of class prejudice. A final shot of the shantytown cleared for a new apartment building is a reminder of the past being erased for what is suppose to be a promising future.

What Crialese means by immensity is also indicated in an interview - "To look within is to try to change individually, instead of wanting to change others. Breaking free from the addiction of wanting to dominate the other, resisting the compulsion of having, of appearing and perhaps trying to focus a little more on being. Abandoning classifications of gender, race and sexual orientation, because they do not define us, they actually limit us and create divisive barriers; we are what we are in perpetual change. Human nature is inherently unpredictable and immense."

Crialese likes to work with non-professional actors. Andrea is played by Luana Giuliani, chosen by Crialese who was scouting girls who played traditionally male sports. Giuliani races motorcycles in real life, making her life somewhat similar to that of the biker girls in the recent French film, Rodeo. Giuliani holds her own sharing the screen with the established powerhouse Penelope Cruz. Uncertain if she is a human or an alien from another planet, the shot that introduces Andrea almost convinces the viewer that she does have the ability to fly.

September 19, 2023



Ann Oren - 2022

The title is an equestrian term, basically having a horse trot in place. Eva, who becomes so horse identified, is unable to stay in place, compulsively in motion. Ann Oren's film is made up of ellipses in the beginning. The various seemingly unrelated pieces do come together to create a narrative that at certain points share some of the themes of David Cronenberg. Eva's body mutates, but Oren dispenses with any kind of direct pseudo-scientific explanations.

Eva is working as a foley artist, attempting to create the sounds of a horse to be used in a television commercial. She is substituting for her transgender sister, Zara, currently a patient in a mental hospital. The commercial is for a psychotropic drug called Equali. Even the name of the drug is a kind of pun with horseback riding compared to mood enhancement. Eva tries various methods of creating realistic sounds of both the horse and its trot. The itch on her lower back is the horse tail that she grows. Rather than be horrified by this mutation, Eva lets the tail grow long enough to be seen under her dresses.

The botanist, Novak, seen in the the film's beginning sequence is introduced studying slides of various plants. When he explains some of his work to Eva, Novak discusses a fern that has both male and female spores, concluding that the concept of gender in plants can not be understood in human terms. While not stated as such, this scene raises questions as to whether there could be a genetic component to gender dysphoria as with Zara, or if Eva's horse tail is the physical manifestation of psychological imbalance. Novak caresses Eva's tail and the two make love. Eva's identity as a female is called to question with a close-up of her shaved tail, like that of many mammals with a shape resembling that of a penis.

Piaffe is the German based Ann Oren's first narrative feature. The film grew from her short film, Passage which was about a foley artist creating the sound for a film about a dressage horse. That film starred Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau, who appears as Zara in Piaffe. It seems too coincidental that Eva is played by another Simone, the Mexican actress Simone Bucio. That sense of coincidence repeats itself knowing that Bucio appeared in the film The Untamed, in which women are seduced into sex with an unearthly creature. Shots of legs, those of Eva and horses, get repeated. Multiple viewings might be needed to understand the use of dressing the main cast in clothing of solid colors. While Piaffe has been released in NYC and Los Angeles, it is getting a very slow rollout nationwide in select theaters.

September 12, 2023

Early Short Films of the French New Wave


Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, etc. - 1956-1968
Icarus Films Home Video BD Region A Two-disc set

To describe these nineteen short films as being part of the Nouvelle Vague is a bit misleading. What unifies this group of films is that they were all produced by Pierre Braunberger, who also produced several features by several of the directors. In the accompanying booklet, Braunberger is quoted as saying that he financed the short films to test the young directors prior to backing such films as Shoot the Piano Player and My Life to Live.

Along with the filmmakers who have been associated with either Cahier du Cinema or the Left Bank group, there are several directors either peripherally associated with the Nouvelle Vague because they were making films at the same time, as well as one film by a total outlier, the African-American Melvin Van Peebles. The other outsider is Jeanne Barbillon, though her short film stars Bernadette Lafont, providing a link to the other filmmakers. What little I could find out a Barbillon indicates that she directed on television film, but primarily worked as as Assistant Director for French television. It should be noted that the two films by Alain Resnais, "All the World's Memory" and "The Song of the Styrene" are also part of the previously released set of five shorts by Resnais.

What is frustrating, at least for me, was while the booklet provides an overview of Pierre Braunberger, some of the non-narrative films could have used some additional information for context. Agnes Varda's "O Saisons, O Chateaux" appears to be a combination travelogue and fashion shoot. With "In Memory of Rock" by Francois Reichenbach, born in 1921, and "The Fifteen Year Old Widows" by Jean Rouch, born in 1917, these two documentarians seem bewildered by youth and youth culture of the early 1960s.

Jacques Rivette's "Fool's Mate" (1958) might be considered the first all-star Nouvelle Vague film, both in front and behind the camera. The screenplay was co-written with Claude Chabrol and cinematographer Charles Bitsch, with Jean-Marie Straub serving as Assistant Director. One of the lead actors is Jean-Claude Brialy, who also appears in some of the other shorts in the collection, and would star in several features. Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol are briefly seen wandering in and out of frame in a party scene. The only mystery for me is why the delightful Virginie Vitry has such a short career that ended in 1960. The title comes from the relationship between a husband and wife presented as a chess game.

I would not have imagined a collaboration between Maurice Pialat and Claude Berri with what would seem to be opposing sensibilities, but "Janine" has Pialat working from Berri's screenplay. The story of two men unknowingly spending part of a late night talking about the same woman, ends on a note of wry humor. There is also fun with Godard's, "All the Boys are Called Patrick", with a screenplay by Eric Rohmer, with Jean-Claude Brialy in the title role. Godard's short is almost a mirror image of "Janine", though both films share an ending with the women getting the upper hand. There is about six hours of viewing altogether with the two discs - best to be seen a couple of films at a time rather than binging.

September 05, 2023

Love and Death - Two films on VOD


Birth / Rebirth
Laura Moss - 2023

At times I felt that there was too much underlining of the differences between the two main characters in Birth/Rebirth. Celie, the obstetric nurse, is empathetic. Rose, professionally known as Dr. Caspar, a pathologist, almost totally clinical. Celie works with birth, Rose with death. The two, who both work at the same Bronx hospital, are united after Rose essentially kidnaps Celie's six year old daughter, who officially died of a sudden bacterial meningitis infection. The two women create a synergy based on secrecy and need. Celie wants to keep her daughter alive as the act of a mother's unconditional love. For Rose, the daughter is a human guinea pig, proof of the ability to regenerate cells and restore life.

This is a little movie exploring some big ideas. There are a couple of moments that we remind viewers that they are indeed watching a horror movie. It is also possible that some of the male viewers may be squeamish about what pregnant women go through, before and during childbirth. Moss, who also co-wrote the screenplay, was inspired by Frankenstein, and the reborn, as it were, child has her moment as a little monster. The film is visually dark, many scenes are dimly illuminated with it difficult to really discern what is happening on screen.

Moss has also has her actresses look as plain as possible, making Judy Reyes and especially Marin Ireland almost unrecognizable from their previous screen images. One of the more interesting creative choices was to incorporate songs by some lesser known and untraditional female musicians and singers, most frequently the experimental group Saada Bonaire. Marin Ireland's character of Rose is certainly intriguing with her view of the world as her laboratory for whatever experiment she has in mind at the moment.


We Kill for Love
Anthony Penta - 2023
Yellow Veil Films

Taking off primarily from the academic writings of Linda Ruth Williams, Anthony Penta takes a look at the films gathered under the label of erotic thriller. These would be American films mostly made for the home video and cable market from the mid-1980s, dribbling out by the end of the century. There are the few mainstream theatrical films cited, notably Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. What we have here is an exploration of what has been a critically ignored genre that comes at a time when the depiction of sex in cinema is the current hot topic. That the Criterion Collection channel has also presented a series of several of the theatrical films has added a sense of legitimacy.

At 163 minutes, you might think everything has been covered, or uncovered as the case may be, but Penta had an earlier version that was five hours long. Those looking for clips of conventionally attractive women with little or no clothing will find those here, but this mostly a rambling history with interviews with film historians, including Williams, filmmakers like prolific Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski, and actors including Dan Anderson, Monique Parent and actor turned producer Andrew Stevens. What the more serious cinephile may find of interest, and possibly dispute, are the genre roots, primarily film noir but also the gothic romance.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray would probably be horrified to know that Double Indemnity may have inspired a genre of films with titles like Bedroom Eyes and Animal Instincts. There is some similarity between the femme fatale of film noir and the women of the erotic thriller, with the women now more powerful and independent. The films are described by one person as "guys, girls and guns". Not discussed here is a closer examination of women and guns, both as an erotic image and the implications of the gun as a phallic symbol. This is especially vexing as Penta briefly brings up the question of audience identification, suggesting not to rely on conventional assumptions. Several reasons are given for the erotic thriller no longer being viable, one being the easy availability of scenes of real sex privately viewed over the internet.

As an additional supplement, I suggest checking out Sonny Bunch's interview with Penta at the website, The Bulwark. To say that the erotic thriller is dead or disappeared is an exaggeration. While the number of films is a small fraction of what was produced in the past, there are more recent variations, often outside of Hollywood such as Alain Corneau's Love Crimes, Chan-wook Park's The Handmaiden and Francois Ozon's Double Lover. So maybe We Kill for Love will still not convince you to see Stripped to Kill, even with the Museum of Modern Art presenting a retrospective of films directed by Katt Shea. If nothing else, I defy anyone not to chuckle at the comic improvisations of B-movie staple Ross Hagen.

September 01, 2023

The Fallen Bridge

the fallen bridge.jpeg

Duan Qiao
Li Yu - 2022

I hope that in the near future, someone will write a comprehensive look at neo-noir films from mainland China. What is interesting to me is that this is a genre that represents some of the more interesting work in contemporary Chinese films, a overshadowed it would seem by the special effects blockbusters that usually make up the imported films seen in the west, as well as the patriotic epics extolling the heroism of Communist party members primarily during World War II. That what is seen by U.S. viewers is scattershot at best, a handful of films that play the festival and arthouse circuit.

The Fallen Bridge follows classic noir tropes. A bridge spontaneously collapses in a small city. During the excavation, a skeleton is discovered to have been buried in the cement. It is revealed that the skeleton is of a man missing for eight years. The man's daughter is certain that the deceased, her father, has been murdered, and seeks revenge. The young woman is assisted by a man who claims to have witnessed her father and two men just before the father's death, but can not go to the police because he is also a wanted man. Corruption in the upper levels of the city government are uncovered.

With the stricter rules in place for filmmakers, Chinese neo-noir is similar to classic film noir in that no bad deed goes unpunished. Ms. Li, who started as a documentarian, begins the film with what appear to be a series of shots taken from surveillance camera, with images of the collapse of the bridge from several angles and locations. This first series of shots very convincingly appears to be real documentary footage. The shift to narrative involves a sleight of hand as the rest of the film appears to have been shot on video tape, the visual quality similar to television shows that are presented as being live.

Li has also discussed the title as referring to the broken relationships within in the film. The young woman's most stable relationship is with her godfather, referred to as an uncle. She is otherwise estranged from her mother. Family relationships are broken or absent among the other characters. In the search for the murderer, additional murders take place as part of the coverup. Some reviews of The Fallen Bridge have complained that the film lacks suspense because the identity of the killer is fairly obvious. I think what Li is more interested in is her heroine's journey that takes her through the marginalized parts of Chinese society, most pointedly the modes of survival of ex-wives and mistresses.

The Fallen Bridge is currently available on several VOD platforms.

August 29, 2023

The Spanish Dancer

The Spanish Dancer (1923).jpeg

Herbert Brenon - 1923
Milestone BD Regions ABC

My first time watching The Spanish Dancer and I am thinking this is another fanciful silent film about an exotic time and place, and yes, Pola Negri is attractive, but this looks like just another period piece taking place in early 17th Century Spain. And then the action moves from the countryside to Madrid, with a huge citywide celebration. The set itself is huge, with a colossal cathedral in the back, with rows of multistory buildings. And literally hundreds of extras either in period dress or costumes, clogging the streets, many doing their own dances if not watching Negri perform in the middle of the square. There is also the constant shower of confetti in every shot. One guy is wrestling an actual bear. Another guy is wearing a skeleton costume. I had to wonder how Herbert Brenon and cinematographer James Wong Howe coordinated everything. I was awestruck by the spectacle.

The Spanish Dancer begins with a prologue stating that the film takes place three hundred years before the film was made, and indeed, 1623 was the year when King Philip IV of Spain (Wallace Beery) posed for a painting by Diego Velazquez. That event is reenacted in the film. Negri plays Maritana, a gypsy fortune teller also famed for her dancing. Through a series of circumstances, Maritana encounters Don Caesar, a recently disgraced nobleman, and later rescues the King Philip's son from a runaway horse. Maritana is invited by the Queen to perform for the court during the celebration. In Madrid, Maritana is pursued by Don Salluste (Adolphe Menjou), and has her honor defended by Don Caesar. Goaded into having a public sword fight by Salluste, Caesar is arrested for breaking the law. Add to that palace intrigue between the king and queen.

Fortunately, not all of this is done as a serious enterprise. Much of the credit should probably go to Antonio Moreno as Don Caesar. He brings out the sense of humor of a man who does not take himself too seriously. In a latter scene, Caesar arranges to die by firing squad rather than hanging, but not before having a celebratory dinner in which he gets his executioners drunk. There is even one visual gag with Negri wearing a formal dress for the first time, one with a very wide hoop underneath as was the style, requiring her to walk sideways through a door.

Although Pola Negri and Herbert Brenon reportedly did not get along, Negri's performance shares some similarities with other Brenon actresses. Especially in the introductory scenes of her skipping through the countryside, Negri seems to anticipate Betty Bronson in Peter Pan (1924) and Clara Bow in Dancing Mothers (1926).

The commentary track is unusual as it has been split between film historian Scott Eyeman and dance historian Naima Prevots. While the history of choreographer Ernest Belcher is of interest, both specifically to The Spanish Dancer and as part of early Hollywood, there is a conflict in listening to Prevot discuss Belcher's work on the silent Phantom of the Opera while watching Brenon's film. I suspect Scott Eyeman could have easily filled the full running time himself, but packs a lot of information within the hour that he has with history of the making of The Spanish Dancer. There is also an interview with composer Bill Ware, best known as a jazz vibraphonist. Ware's score straddles traditional movie music with jazz and avant-garde improvisation, performed by a small band.

The blu-ray itself is sourced from a 2012 restoration by the Dutch Eye Filmmuseum from four different surviving prints. Based on the film script, the restored version is 95% complete. Some portions still are damaged, but still watchable. A very brief extra shows excerpts to compare the surviving prints with the restored version.

August 25, 2023

Strangers in the House


Les Inconnus dans la maison
Henri Decoin - 1942
KL Sudio Classics BD Region A

It has been four years since Henri Decoin's Razzia sur la Chnouf was made available on home video in the U.S. With this new release only the second from a lengthy filmography, Decoin remains very much a subject for further research as Andrew Sarris might have put it. Even though Decoin is not named among his French director peers as being part of "cinema de papa", Strangers in the House comes close to being part of the so-called tradition of quality. The film is a combination murder mystery/courthouse drama from a novel by Georges Simenon. The screenplay was by Henri-Georges Clouzot, still relatively early in his career. Even though the film was produced during the Nazi occupation of France, there appears to be what might be read as subversive moments in what otherwise appears to be an apolitical thriller interjected with some comic moments.

The film begins with off-screen narrator, Pierre Fresnay, and an overly poetic description of a small town during one very rainy night. The former lawyer, Loursat, and his daughter, are eating dinner. The narrator points out that the dour looking Loursat has let his legal practice slide along with care for his large house, ever since his wife left him eighteen years earlier. It is not stated, but implied that the wife left soon after the daughter, Nicole, was born. Loursat has settled into a life of indifference, remaining in the house, chain smoking and drinking whole bottles of wine. An unknown single cracking sound causes Loursat and Nicole to explore the dilapidated upper floor of the house where the body of a dead man is found. The biggest mystery is who killed the local gangster known as Big Louis. The suspects are a group of young men in their late teens, a quartet that also counts Nicole as part of their gang. The title refers not only to the various people, known and unknown, that made their way into the Loursat house, but also the strained relationship between Loursat and Nicole.

What unfolds is a series of connections between cousins and various in-laws that ties everyone in the trial that makes up the final third of the film. The gang members petty criminality is more of an act of rebellion against filial piety. Loursat is sufficiently roused from his state of constant inebriation to act as the defense lawyer for the young man railroaded into being convicted for the murder of Big Louis. Loursat's socially conscious speech to the jury seems shoehorned in as a way to justify the film's existence, but is only a slight detour to the resolution of the mystery and Loursat's return to his dissolute self.

Strangers in the House stars Raimu, the French actor best known for his role as Cesar in the 1930s film version of Marcel Pagnol's "Marseilles" trilogy. Howard Berger and Nathaniel Thompson provide a commentary track that discusses French films during the occupation and courtroom dramas. The blu-ray was sourced from Gaumont's 2K restoration made in 2018.