April 16, 2015

The Wicked Lady

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Michael Winner - 1983
Scorpion Releasing / Kino Lorber BD Region A

With the DVD release of Leslie Arliss' original version of The Wicked Lady, it is now easy to compare it with Michael Winner's remake. Winner must have thought that taking advantage of what could be shown onscreen instead of merely suggested would bring in an audience that might have at least heard of the first version. Winner was never known for being subtle, and the sex and violence are generously served, but really do not help make her version more entertaining. The casting of Faye Dunaway was also a bad decision, lacking the charm and sauciness of Margaret Lockwood, and being at least a decade too old for the part.

For those unfamiliar with either version, the story is about a young woman, Barbara Skelton, in 17th Century England, who connives to marry for money, finds herself bored living away from the social hubbub of London, and impersonates a highwayman initially to regain jewelry lost in a card game, and finds a thrill in stalking unwary coach passengers. She meets the real highwayman, Jerry Jackson, that she has pretended to be, and the two become lovers and partners, temporarily.

Leslie Arliss is credited along with Winner for the screenplay, and for very good reason, most of the dialogue is from the original film. Winner, with cinematographer Jack Cardiff, also duplicates several of the shots, especially the iconic shot of a highwayman in black, silhouette against the sky. What Winner lacks, though, is the light touch of the original, where the décolletage of Lockwood and Patricia Roc, and the brief glimpse of Margaret Lockwood's leg are enough, and were actually more than enough for American censors in 1945. Rather than tease the viewer, Winner literally opens the doors wide enough to reveal various couplings. More troubling, in addition to unnecessary is a scene with Barbara and Jackson's mistress whipping each other as part of an extended fight scene.

Not that Winner's version is a total wash. There are plentiful scenes of celebration, dancing around the Maypole, to give some idea of life for the common townspeople. Winner probably presents a truer vision of 17th Century life with the hanged men seen in various states of decomposition along what then passed for a highway. The rats certainly were healthy looking.

The main difference is that Margaret Lockwood appeared not only to conspire to get what ever she wanted, but did so with the viewer. When Barbara appears to have lost control of a galloping horse as a means of attracting the attention of her best friend's fiancé, she also makes her horse a partner in crime, letting it know when she is ready to fall to the ground. In comparison, Faye Dunaway, in Winner's version, is less spontaneous appearing in her fall, which is on a relatively comfortable bed of leaves. Arliss allowed Lockwood to charm the audience, while Winner relies on the shorthand that we would be on the side of Faye Dunaway simply because she is the star of his film.

LIkewise, for Jerry Jackson, under Arliss, James Mason gives a modulated performance. He is filmed in medium close-up for most of the scene where Jackson is to be hanged, given a hero's welcome on his way to the gallows, and giving a speech about love and betrayal. Winner undercuts Alan Bates, like Dunaway, too old for his role, by filming him in long shots or completely cutting away from Bates altogether, while reciting the same lines used by Mason.

If Leslie Arliss saw the remake, his impressions of that film have gone with him. There is a small connection in the casting, with Maggie Rennie, the former wife of the original's Michael Rennie, as an unlucky coach passenger.

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April 14, 2015

William S. Burroughs in the Dreamachine

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Jon Aes-Nihil and David Woodard
Cult Epics Region 0 DVD

The dreamachine was a device created by the artist Brion Gysin and mathematician Ian Sommerville as a brain wave simulator. The object was to induce hallucinations and visions without drugs. The stroboscopic effect created with light coming out of holes matched alpha waves. The way to use the dreamachine is with eyes closed for hypnagogic visions.

Those special brownies attributed to Alice B. Toklas originated as a joke inserted by Gysin. His collaborations with William S. Burroughs lead to the cut up technique of literary assemblage usually credited solely to Burroughs. What I wish we had here would have been a documentary on Gysin and Burroughs.

What we have is probably more of interest to the Burroughs scholar or completist. Part of the film is video footage of Burroughs holding court at an outdoor table at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with Allen Ginsberg sitting next to him. The event was a 1996 exhibit of paintings by Burroughs. People come by to get an autograph. Not the kind of image one usually associates with Burroughs, but we see him briefly cradling an infant, like a wizened old grandpa.

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Writer and composer David Woodard has built his own dreamachines. One was used in the 1996 Burroughs exhibit, and one was given to Burroughs as a gift. Part of this film is of Woodard and Burroughs in conversation in Burroughs' small, unassuming house in Lawrence, Kansas. Woodard is also filmed making one of his dreamachines, and ruminating on the highway that once was numbered 666. A bonus feature is of Woodard presenting a dreamachine at the Freud Museum of Dreams in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2007

The significance of the Burroughs footage here is that it was shot shortly before his death in 1997. I'm not sure if any of the video tapes were intended for public consumption. For those passionate about all things related to William Burroughs, this film may be of some interest.

April 12, 2015

Coffee Break

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Andrey Smirnov and Nadezhda Markina in Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev - 2011)

April 09, 2015

Vengeance of an Assassin

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Rew thalu rew
Panna Rittikrai - 3014
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Panna Rittkrai begins his last film with a soccer game. Not just an ordinary soccer game, but one played indoors, in a warehouse, dusty, and with shelves of abandoned tools, and a sizable motorboat. And it's soccer combined with Muay Thai fighting so that players are giving and receiving roundhouse kicks. And if that's not enough, there are a couple of open grills knocked over so that the game continues on a floor of hot, flaming coal. It turns out that it's only a dream, but it is one of several memorable set pieces, reminders that when it came to filming martial arts, Panna Rittkai not only thought outside the box, but he smashed it to smithereens with his imaginative use of his athletic performers. The title roughly translates as "Faster than fast" which is appropriate for the action and camerawork seen here.

Panna's visual sense is also displayed in an extended tracking shot done roughly from the perspective of a hit man. The camera pans across patrons at a restaurant from underneath the table tops. We see the arm of a man circling around the waist of his female date, another man scratching his leg, and follow the legs of the unseen hit man as he shoots his intended victims. It's a nice bit giving some mystery to the proceedings.

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There is a story involving a young mechanic, Thee, who's curiosity about the death of his parents gets the best of him. His search brings him in contact with a man who claims that Thee's parents saved his life. The man is now part of some clandestine organization. Not that everything has been answered, but Thee decides to join this same organization, with contract killers nattily dressed in dark slacks and gray cardigans. Thee finds himself acting as protector to a young actress, the granddaughter of an influential politician, following a failed kidnapping attempt.

If you demand logic in your movies, don't even try to look for it here. Vengeance of an Assassin makes about as much sense as that soccer game inside an abandoned warehouse. On the other hand, if it's delirious kick assery you're seeking, look no further.

It's been eight years since Dynamite Warrior, and Dan Chupong doesn't look any older. He may not have the balletic grace of Tony Jaa, but he's still amazingly quick with his hands and feet. In a second warehouse scene, he fights off the bad guys with any available tool, throwing a license plate with enough force that it cuts into a guy's arm, while another man's face gets bloodied by an open electric fan. People, including Dan, get shot, cut and maimed, and it doesn't look pretty. If that's not enough, there's a face off with a female killer, the gorgeous Kessarin Ektawatkul, a former taekwondo champion, so yeah, your not just watching an attractive actress pretending to do martial arts moves.

And then there's a chase with a Range Rover loaded with some big guns, a helicopter, and a fast moving train with guys doing Muay Thai fighting on top. And an old Chinese doctor with some deadly kung fu. Want more? How about a chicken wing grabbed from someone's lunch, used as a lethal weapon?

Sadly, Panna died at the relatively young age of 53. It's too soon to know if any Thai filmmakers will even try to match or surpass the kind of nuttiness Panna was known for either as a director or as stunt coordinator. It is nice that for a filmmaker who helped bring greater attention to Thai cinema, he goes out with a very loud bang.

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April 07, 2015

Long Weekend

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Colin Eggleston - 1978
Synapse Films BD Region A

There is a nice bit of visual humor in Long Weekend. A young couple, Peter and Marcia, have set up camp by a remote Australian beach. The have a tent, the kind that looks like a small cabin. Even before heading out for the weekend retreat that will supposedly help their prickly relationship, they've been fighting. The weekend has gone miserably, and they have started putting away the camping gear. The tent has been taken down, except for the metal frames. The two argue again, more violently, inside the frame work. The effect is one of a domestic scene in an staged, abstract setting. I don't know if this was what screen writer Everett De Roche was aiming for, but that's how I read this scene. That they are filmed within metal bars might also be interpreted as being in a trap or a prison. What is certain is that even in nature, Peter and Marcia are incapable of totally abandoning city life.

Long Weekend has developed a reputation over the years as an ecological horror movie. That it is, with the combination of Peter and Marcia's casual and deliberate disregard for the environment, ranging from the tossing of a lit cigarette, the spraying of insecticide, to the unnecessary chopping of a tree, and killing of a dugong, a type sea cow - all adding to karmic retribution. Peter is attacked first by an eagle, then by a small possum. The two, who have settled at their beach location through a series of wrong turns, try to escape, they find that the wooded area aways from the beach leads them to circular paths and dead ends.

The idea for the beach weekend is Peter's. Yet he is also the one who is overloaded with a rifle, harpoon and a surfboard, unable to enjoy the outdoors without extra augmentation. Marcia, more true to herself, stays within the tent to read Harold Robbins, and give herself some time for her own sexual pleasure. When Peter discovers a damaged Barbie doll on the beach, and later the remains of an abandoned camp site, there are indications that the beach itself may be hostile to outsiders. What nature does, by the end of the film, is force Peter and Marcia to face uncomfortable truths about each other.

The blu-ray includes commentary by producer Richard Brennan and cinematographer Vincent Monton, recorded around 2005. The discuss the making of the film, which looks far better than its modest budget would suggest, as well as the contributions of cast and crew members. They do mention Ivan Durrant, credited for special effects, but don't mention what may have been a joke that bears mentioning. On the way to the beach is a sign for Tolarno Abattoir. That there is a sign about an abattoir is one big hint of horrors to come. The name of the abattoir is a reference to where Durrant , more famous now for his art work, had his first exhibit. Long Weekend also ends with a shot of a truck carrying cattle, presumably on their way to slaughter. Durrant also worked in an abattoir, and raises cattle. Sometimes the footnote to making a film has information most worth gleaning.

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April 05, 2015

Coffee Break

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Vincent Lindon in La Moustache (Emmanuel Carrere - 2005)

April 02, 2015

Woman of Straw

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Basil Dearden - 1964
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

It may have been coincidental that Sean Connery, recently minted star as James Bond in Goldfinger, appeared in two other films displaying varying degrees of caddishness. For most viewers, whatever he did with or to Pussy Galore was excused because he was James Bond, and it was part of the job of saving the world from Mr. Goldfinger. Playing employer and husband in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, some have argued that Mark Rutherford raped his wife, but again one can claim mitigating circumstances, as he was trying to cure Marnie of her various psychological problems in the only way he knew.

No such excuses exist for Connery's character of Anthony Richmond. Nephew of a multi-millionaire, Anthony wants to make sure he can inherit a more substantial portion of his uncle Charles' estate. The plan involves recruiting an attractive Italian nurse, Maria Marcello, with the goal being that the old bully marries the nurse, who in turn will provide one million pounds to the nephew. And for a while, things seem to be going as planned for nephew, getting even for the wrongs committed against his father and his mother, who later became Charles' wife. Not quite Hamlet, as Anthony is hardly a prince.

Ralph Richardson has no problem conveying the nastiness of the wheel chair bound Charles Richmond, a guy who always gets his way, treating everyone like servants, and his servants even worse. Xenophobic and racist, are just the beginning. Charles seems to mellow a bit after marrying Maria, yet his pride almost kills him during a fishing expedition. Maria also finds herself developing some affection for the cantankerous old man. Charles also is humanized with his passion for classical music, especially Beethoven. In a scene following their marriage, Charles plays a tape of Beethoven's Fidelio, an opera with a plot that almost echoes what takes place in the film.

Gina Lollobrigida is top billed here, as Maria. Fifty years later, it may be forgotten that she was the original Italian bombshell, paving the way for Sophia Loren, Elsa Martinelli, and a host of others. She is first seen as a shadow on the doorway, before entering the massive living room of the Richmond home, essentially a small castle. Wearing a modest blue suit, the sexuality Lollobrigida was famed for is kept under wraps. Alone, Maria undresses wearing a low cut black slip. Dearden shows just enough to suggest that Maria is maybe not the "good girl" she presents herself to be.

After a series of social conscious films, it would seem that Basil Dearden wanted to make something that was more popular entertainment, with color cinematography and a bigger budget. Woman of Straw isn't as compelling as those earlier films, notably Victim where Dirk Bogarde virtually outs himself onscreen, or the contemporary version of Othello, All Night Long set among jazz musicians in London, and Dearden doesn't abandon previously explored themes of race and class. What makes the film work are the performances, especially the nuances among the various underlings, and a delicious, if not unexpected, serving of justice near the end.

Here's another look at Woman of Straw, mostly about Sean Connery.

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