October 19, 2014

Coffee Break

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Anna Hopkins and Paul Giamatti in Barney's Version (Richard J. Lewis - 2010)

October 17, 2014

Violette

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Martin Provost - 2013
Adopt Films Region 1 DVD

So much of Violette seems to occur in shadows or in darkness. And some of this might be a visual signifier, with Violette LeDuc emerging from relative obscurity to late fame and fortune at about the same time that she ditches overcast Paris for sunny Provence.

As to how much of LeDuc's life was accurately portrayed in the film, I don't know. I only knew of LeDuc's literary reputation, primarily after her death. The film version of LeDuc is more complicated in terms of her sexuality, or more precisely, the disconnect between literature noted for its eroticism, and LeDuc's life mostly alone. There is the passion for Simone deBeauvoir, who refused LeDuc sexually, but in other ways proved to be of constant support, spiritually and financially. There is the constant neediness that puts off some that rightly or not, can not provide the kind of affection she seeks.

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Provost's film provides a glimpse also of the politics and celebrity of the French writers who emerged after World War II, sometimes erroneously lumped together as "existentialists". LeDuc is initially helped by Albert Camus, who sponsored a series of novels by promising writers. Jean Genet thinks of LeDuc as his sister prior to their falling out. LeDuc is frustrated that her novels do not sell. The film chronicles LeDuc's fighting her own self doubts at being a writer, first encouraged by Maurice Sachs, and later by deBeauvoir, first tentatively taking pen in hand, and later pouring out her thousand paged memoirs which she assures deBeauvoir was pared to the essentials.

The film is organized by chapters, named after key people in LeDuc's development, by their first name. The first chapter is the most problematic in that if one does not know that Maurice is Maurice Sachs, the viewer might think that this is no more than a gay man, some kind of writer, who is married to LeDuc, has gotten her pregnant, and ditches her at an inconvenient time.

Arguably, it is also easier to make a film about a painter than a writer as the viewer can see examples of the art work, whereas for the writer, the hope is to convey the value with a few choice quotes and the endorsement of a few famous people. Provost's Seraphine was a more successful film because it was about a visual artist, and perhaps also because the historical setting was more remote, and the scope of the film smaller. Much of that film was from the point of view of the title character. In Violette, there is the feeling of observing a conversation where it is assumed you know what every one is discussing, that the names of writers and publishers have an understood significance.

Provost does attempt to create a visual corollary in frequently filming Emmanuelle Devos from a distance to indicate the aloneness of LeDuc. Devos, unconventionally attractive, but attractive nonetheless, is not convincing when LeDuc makes claims regarding her lack of beauty. It could well be that making a biographical film about a writer is a questionable endeavor. The films that seem to best convey what it means to be a writer are fictional, like Alain Resnais' Providence, or fanciful as in Spike Jonze's Adaptation. Ultimately, Violette is closer to a textbook, technically perfect but emotionally uninvolving, when it should have attempted to be messier and more transgressive, closer to LeDuc's life and literature.

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October 15, 2014

Nekromantik

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Jörg Buttgereit - 1987
Cult Epics BD Region A

Just in time for the holiday season, that is, if Halloween is your holiday, comes this infamous film released as a Blu-ray disc. I don't recall when I first was made aware of Nekromantik, but I was disappointed when, right after I joined Netflix in 2001, Jorg Buttgereit's film was no longer available. I guess this is an example of how good things come to those who wait, as the Cult Epics disc is loaded with both the director's version, the "grind house" version (complete with scratchy images), an earlier short film by Buttgereit, Hot Love, filmmaker's commentary tracks, and more.

Admittedly, a love story about a man, a woman, and a corpse, isn't going to appeal to everyone. On the other hand, the one left on the side of the road, I was not prepared for a film this funny. Sure, some of the over the top gore makes Herschell Gordon Lewis look like a master at discretion. Shooting Super 8, with friends over the course of many weekends, Buttgereit is closer to the Hollywood in the Bronx aesthetics of the Kuchar Brothers, if more transgressive than dared by the twins.

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The tone of the film is set when a young couple, driving in the dark, try to look at a map instead of the road. Of course this leads to an accident, and what an accident. Buttgereit probably never heard of the Kuchars, and probably never heard the Jimmy Cross novelty song from 1965, "I Want My Baby Back", a parody of songs like "Leader of the Pack" and "Last Kiss". After waking up from a car crash, Cross looks for his sweetheart - "Over there was my baby. . . and over there was my baby . . . and way over there was my baby!". Hey, for some of teenagers at that time, this was pretty funny stuff the first fifty or so times we heard this song. "I Want My Baby Back" ends with Cross climbing into the coffin of his sweetheart. In short, young people, black humor, necrophilia - nothing new. Buttgereit has put on film the kind of stuff that was considered somewhat acceptable if kept in the imagination.

There has been serious analysis of Nekromantic by others. Suffice to say that this is the kind of film that will evoke different responses from different viewers, some plainly more interested in the visceral impact of the transgressive imagery than any meaning that might be derived from the strange love of Rob and Betty. For fans of Nekromantik, this new Blu-ray might constitute an embarrassment of riches. For those insisting on more tasteful artistic expressions, Nekromantic will be dismissed as an embarrassment.

October 13, 2014

The Devil's Business

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Sean Hogan - 2012
Mondo Macabro All Region DVD / BD Region ABC two-disc set

What, ahem, possessed Mondo Macabro to take on The Devil's Business? The inclusion in their catalogue is unexpected as it is a relatively new film, made by people for whom English is their native language, and hardly what one might expect for a genre mashup that starts off as a gangster film that turns into a horror movie of sorts, where even the blood and gore might be considered done in good taste. Writer-director Sean Hogan is frank in the commentary track about the debt owed to Harold Pinter in this dialogue heavy film. I can imagine that someone picking up this film for the title might be infuriated that there is more time spent on atmosphere, with extended scenes of a couple of white guys sitting around talking, while the kind of person who's familiar with Hogan's reference to The Dumb Waiter, possibly might be dismissive of a film featuring a vampiric homunculus.

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In print, it might not sound like much, but there is something intriguing about Irish actor Billy Clarke, with only the left side of his face illuminated like a sliver of the moon, talking about the ghostly apparition of a woman who appears at night. The older Pinner, and the young Cully, two hit men, sit and wait in home of their victim, out for a night at the opera. For Pinner, "A job is a job", and waiting is part of what is required. Cully is impatient for something to happen. What begins as the story of two hit men waiting in the dark, turns into something else when the pair finds a room with a giant pentagram, a goat's head, and dead body.

This is also the kind of film I like to recommend to other filmmakers, to see what can be done with just a handful of actors, and a small digital camera. The commentary track is worth listening to, as producer Jennifer Handorf discusses some of the last minute changes done when the original location was lost, and production moved to the family home of her in-laws. Sean Hogan doesn't shy away from mentioning some of his sources for inspiration. Hogan doesn't attempt to pad things out, so that the film clocks in at about seventy minutes, taking in the lesson from Val Lewton that it is better to suggest horror with what you don't see, and let light and shadows do most of the work.

The DVD/Blu-ray set discs include interviews with Hogan, Handorf, Clarke and composer Justin Greaves, as well as a couple of music videos by Hogan.

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October 12, 2014

Coffee Break

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Andy Lau in Firestorm (Alan Yuen - 2013)

October 09, 2014

Chanthaly

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Mattie Do - 2013
Lao Arts Media DVD

An admission here, that I have exchanged emails with the director and am a Facebook friend. If that doesn't bother you, read on . . .

Living even a few months in Thailand provided enough of an impression on me. Between the movies, with what seemed to be a new ghost story every other week, and just walking by the little ghost houses scattered throughout Chiang Mai, I started adapting the attitude that, yes, ghosts were among us, and as long as you don't bother them, they won't bother you.

Even though the basic premise of the Lao Chanthaly is similar to that of Thai films, that ghosts live among us, that is the extent of the similarity. No one runs around screaming hysterically. Nothing here to make the audience scream or laugh, or scream followed by laughter (and nothing compares to watching a Thai horror movie with a Thai audience). If anything, Chanthaly is more similar to Alejandro Amenabar's The Others, with the idea that ghosts live among us, but in a parallel environment within the same space.

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The title character, a young woman, has a combination ghost house and altar dedicated to her deceased mother. Has she actually seen her mother's dead body, fifteen years earlier, the result of suicide by hanging, or is the a false memory? Her father insists that Chanthaly's mother died shortly after giving birth to Chanthaly. At various points, the viewer is teased into not being entirely sure about who is telling the truth. Chanthaly lives in virtual seclusion with her father in a firmly middle class house, providing a small laundry service from home, but otherwise never leaving the premises. Diagnosed with a weak heart, she is locked in, as she is told, for her protection.

While Chanthaly has been noted as the first horror film in the Lao language, the horror elements are minimal. What caught me off guard was that Mattie Do, and screenwriter Christopher Larsen eschewed many of the conventions one comes to expect from seeing a ghost story from Southeast Asian filmmakers. The first hour, especially, is closer to the more highbrow psychological horror films that more frequently garner critical attention.

The argument presented by Chanthaly's father and a doctor who treats her, is that a belief in ghosts is superstitious. For myself, as a Buddhist, I had to wonder what kind of karma would visit the father after he knock's down Chanthaly's altar. Some of the choices in the narrative were probably determined by the extremely limited budget, shooting in one location, with five actors and a dog. For those who have some kind of belief in the afterlife, Chanthaly suggests some reassurances. For others, this can be appreciated as a solid first film.

October 07, 2014

The Slave

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Scacco alla regina / Check to the Queen
Pasquale Festa Campanile - 1969
Mondo Macabro DVD Region 1 / BD Region A two disc set

Because she never appeared in any films that either got stateside theatrical release or any serious critical attention, I had made the assumption that Eric Rohmer's La Collectionneuse was the beginning, and end, of Haydee Politoff's acting career. I had forgotten that she also appeared in Rohmer's Love in the Afternoon. Seeing here name prominently listed for this film sparked my curiosity. Even though she is second billed here, Politoff has the title role. One can possibly interpret The Slave as being somewhat allegorical regarding Politoff's career as an actress, being passive about her choice of roles, going where the offer was most financially rewarding, and drifting away from acting when the producers stopped calling for her.

The opening titles of The Slave are printed over colored versions of Rorschach ink blots. Festa Campanile emphasizes the psychological aspects of the story over the erotic, which may well explain why the film failed at the box office. The film was one of a handful of films Festa Campanile made, hoping to repeat the international success of The Libertine. Most of eroticism here involves the masochistic fantasies of Sylvia, the character played by Politoff, on the receiving end of a woman's whip, the action obscured by heavily tinted lenses. The original title refers to a movement in a chess game, something apparently explained better in the source novel than in the film.

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Sylvia takes on the job of being a non-sexual companion to the actress, Margaret, to keep from being bored with her upper class existence, giving her the illusion that she is doing something with her life. There is something self-contradictory as Sylvia also chooses to live in the most isolated way possible, away from as much outside stimulus as possible. Sylvia surrenders herself to Margaret, picking up after her, dressing as ordered, allowing herself to be transformed into a living statue, or become her footrest. Sylvia also deliberately gets caught with Margaret's lovers in order to be punished by Margaret. Yet in spite of living in an all female household, save for the chauffeur, Margaret has no sexual interest in other women, and toys with Sylvia's sapphic desires before ultimately rejecting her.

The Slave may be of greatest interest to those who love the films primarily from Italy and France that appeared in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The sexual subject matter was in part a reaction to the newly-enacted ratings code in the U.S., itself a reaction acknowledging that audiences were flocking to European films with their brief glimpses of nudity and more adult themes. One of supplements is a discussion of the films by Festa Campanile by critic Roberto Curti. There are also some trailers to other films by Festa Camanile. The brief look as Con quale amore, con quanto amore, with one woman slowly removing the stocking from another woman as a prelude to lovemaking, is quite sexually charged.

I suspect that Pasquale Festa Campanile's film will be remembered better for the sets and costumes, and serve as a snapshot of a certain era. A couple of the more memorable images are of star Rosanna Schiaaffino, seen on a floor surrounded by paper lira, and as a visual reference to the film's thematic concerns, as a Venus in fur.

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