July 31, 2014

Curtains

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Jonathan Stryker - 1983
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

As the "Making of . . . " supplement explains, there's a good reason why the director's credit for Curtains is that of the character in the film, a film director named Jonathan Stryker. The released film was was actually the work of original director Richard Ciupka, completed by producer Peter Simpson. For all of the problems, with Simpson shooting approximately two years after Ciupka left the set, this is pretty good "body count" film.

The basic premise is that the fictional Jonathan Stryker has invited six actresses to his mansion to audition for the starring role in his next film. The main character is a woman, gone mad with jealousy, who kills her philandering husband. The part was originally slated for Stryker's live-in love, Samantha Sherwood. In order to understand the character's mental breakdown, Sherwood has herself committed to an insane asylum, which as everyone who's seen at least one movie with this kind of set-up knows, is a terrible idea. Stryker decides to make his movie without Sherwood, who in turn manages to escape from the asylum to claim the part she knows should be hers. Not so coincidentally, the other actresses competing for the same part have unexpected dates with the grim reaper.

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Just don't look too closely because there are a few bits and pieces that don't quite make sense, like the creepy dolls which appear in a couple of scenes and then seems to have been forgotten as a recurring motif. Unlike many of the films of this type, this one has an older cast, led by John Vernon, virtually typecast as an aloof and arrogant character, as director Stryker. Almost as much fun to watch in his brief scene is that axiom of Canadian cinema, Maury Chaykin, as the agent of one of the actresses. As for playing the part of a woman with issues, Samantha Eggar probably found this part to be a breeze compared to her work in The Brood. Too bad Peter Simpson had issues with the accent of French-Canadian actress Celine Lomez, she was (and still is) far more attractive than Linda Thorson, a woman best known for attempting to step into the boots worn by Diana Rigg in the television series, The Avengers.

That said, what is nice here is that the film takes time to allow for some distinction between the six actresses, among them a stand-up comic, an ice skater and a dancer. It should be no surprise that care was taken visually - Ciupka worked as a cinematographer, for Louis Malle prior to Curtains, and Claude Chabrol a few years later. In the meantime, Simpson, as a producer, made the far better known Prom Night and that film's three (!) sequels.

This is one of those times when it's worth watching the DVD supplement with several cast and crew members discussing their experience with Curtains. Everyone seems to have been embarrassed that they participated in making this film, which seemed to take on cult status on cable television and home video following a desultory theatrical release.

I hope someone has told Lynne Griffin, who plays the stand-up comic, Patti, that the Embassy Theater, where Curtains had its New York City premiere, was not in the Lower East Side. For a former New York City resident like myself, such a geographical faux pas is scary.

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July 29, 2014

Dragonwolf

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Raimund Huber - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Raimund Huber needs to just admit that there is an inverse scale between his ability to stage amazing martial arts fights and his ability to construct a decent screenplay. The reason why his previous film, Kill 'Em All is his strongest achievement to date is because there was little pretense here, just a bunch of assassins finding ways to kill each other until they realized that they needed to kill the guy who pitted them against each other. As it stands, Dragonwolf is mostly worth watching for the intricately choreographed fights, spiced up by gratuitous topless displays from various females. On the down side, the story gets in the way.

The story is essentially a bromance between Mozart and Julius, who meet as schoolboys, when Mozart comes to the aid of Julius, pushed around by a trio of equally young punks. The favor is returned when Julius and his mother take in the orphaned Mozart. The two grow up to be top ranked gangsters in a city called Devil's Cauldron, crime capital of the world, and a place that looks remarkable like Bangkok. And then along comes Mary, the girl with the dragon tattoo on her back. The inevitable sibling rivalry takes place, made worse by the fact that the dying mother of Julius is hardly subtle about her preference for the adopted Mozart.

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It does't help that the entire cast seems to have been unconvincingly dubbed in English. Actions speak louder than words, and they have to in this kind of movie. The effort put into the fight scenes is obvious with the high kicks, the quick movements of legs and hands. There is a trio set out to put down Mozart, dressed in flashy garb that screams an obvious lack of taste. They don't seem very bright, yet for all of their apparent goofiness, their fight skills can not be dismissed, even if they do get vanquished by Mozart.

There is also the sight of a small army of about twenty thugs, all dressed in identical black suits, white shirts and white masks, as well as the three ninjas dressed in black leather. In other words, a few moments of visual pleasure in seeing how some of the characters are dressed, but that scene with identically dressed thugs is one of the reminders that Raimund Huber sometimes tries to be a low rent Quentin Tarantino, at least as far as some of his action scenes are concerned. Huber also tries to keep things interesting with one very manic bad guy whose facial tics and maniacal laugh become so much that it's a relief for the viewer when he is suddenly killed by Julius.

The ending of the film suggests that we might be seeing more of Guk Srisawat as the vigilante Umiko. Sure, you have to get through almost two hours of Dragonwolf for the one seen that will probably endear her to fanboys of all ages. If Raimund Huber can put as much thought into a screenplay as he does with the martial arts and costuming, a movie about the sword carrying Umiko might be quite entertaining.

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July 27, 2014

Coffee Break

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Jack Carson and Eve Arden in My Dream is Yours (Michael Curtiz - 1949)

July 25, 2014

Love in the City

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L'Amore in Citta
Cesare Zavattini - 1953
Raro Video Region A Blu-ray

While there may be some debate as to which film marked the beginning of Italian Neo-realism, this omnibus film certainly marks the end. What ideas Cesare Zavattini had when he came up with the concept, commissioning several mostly new filmmakers to create short films around a central theme, the best work here are the films that stray furthest from the kind of work associated with such classics as Shoeshine or Bicycle Theives.

Federico Fellini couldn't be bothered with making his segment, "Marriage Agency", appear like a documentary, albeit a staged recreation of reality. Anticipating future work, the film is about a journalist, in this case one investigating a small match-making operation. Much as Marcello Mastroianni would wander through various maze-like environments, Antonio Cifariello gets lost through several impossibly long hallways looking for the marriage agency. Claiming he is looking for a friend who has the tendency to turn into something like a werewolf, his story and money are happily accepted. The woman this imaginary friend is matched with turns out to be something of a dim bulb, faintly attractive, looking for a real home. Like the women portrayed by Giulietta Masina, this would be bride is virtually kicked to the curb.

Better is the final segment by Fellini's directorial collaborator on Variety Lights, Alberto Lattuada. Shot with a hidden camera in a truck, "Italians Turn Their Heads" is purportedly cinema verite of Italian men ogling attractive women. As notes and the commentary track indicate, the women in question are mostly young actresses, the most famous being an eighteen year old Giovanna Ralli. Marco Ferreri, a producer on this film, also appears, chasing a babe up a flight of stairs only to find that the young lady has a rendezvous with a man at the top. This segment is undoubtedly sexist with its presentation of gorgeous women with wide hips and spectacular breasts, but it also serves as a reminder as to why Italian movies were a popular art house staple when Hollywood was still under the yoke of the Production Code. The music by Mario Nascimbene might be worth mentioning for possibly inspiring Ennio Morricone to use the Jew's harp in his own scores.

Dino Risi nowadays might be remembered for a remake of one of his films, A Scent of a Woman. The only available feature for stateside viewers is Il Sorpasso, released with the English title of The Easy Life. Risi's segment, "Paradise for Three Hours" shares much of the flair for observation and humor of Il Sorpasso. Taking place on a Sunday evening, the film takes place in a dancehall. The women are housemaids, the guys are probably blue collar workers slicked up for the evening. Some of the couples are oddly matched - either in height, girth or looks. A shy soldier sits next to an equally shy young woman - they exchange glances, but no words until the young woman bolts out of the dance hall due to the time, and the soldier, realizing that he's almost lost his moment, chases after the woman, catching up with her at the film's end. There is also the woman who has captured the eyes of most of the men, a beauty in a dress with a checkerboard pattern more appropriate for a table cloth. Risi's segment is sweet and funny, and my favorite chapter here.

I don't have anything more to add on the segment by Michelangelo Antonioni, also seen as an extra on the new Blu-ray of I Vinti. Carlo Lizzani's segment on street prostitutes was considered shocking at the time, but comes off as the work of a condescending male whose notions of middle class morality have been upset. As indicated by the poster below, Lizzani's episode was excised in the original release outside of Italy. While the credit is shared with Zavattini, Franco Maselli's commentary seems to indicate that the filming of "The Story of Caterina" is mostly his work. The recreation by the real Caterina of her time as a homeless woman who temporarily abandons her child, the film very much resemblesUmberto D with its tale of someone with minimal resources trying to find their place in a virtually indifferent Rome.

All of the segments have commentary tracks, some of which were done by Italian documentary filmmakers. Lizzani and Maselli contributed commentaries to their segments. Based on notes with the Blu-ray, the commentary tracks were done around 2001 for the Italian DVD release.

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July 24, 2014

Noel Black (1937 - 2014)

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This one hits me personally. I have written what may well be the only serious consideration of Noel Black's films. This was for The Velvet Light Trap No. 13. I convinced the editor that there were a bunch of great new filmmakers that deserved analysis, rather than more retreads on John Ford and Howard Hawks. Some are writing now about the early Seventies as one of the great ages of American Cinema, but at the time, my suggestion was considered a radical idea. In those days before the internet and IMDb I missed a few things about Noel Black's career that I should have included. I should add that I briefly knew Noel, visiting him in Los Angeles a couple times when I was there, and exchanging a couple of letters.

I may still have the letter somewhere in storage, but he sent me a newspaper clipping of a stripper going by the stage name of "Pretty Poison" with a note from a friend declaring that Black's film now had the ultimate accolade.

There may be some kind of irony in that along with winning the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1966 for his short film, "Skaterdater", Black also shared the Technical Grand Prize with Orson Welles for Chimes at Midnight. Although the perception of Welles' career has changed over the years, for both filmmakers, their peak films would generally be considered their feature debuts. As it currently stands, interest in Noel Black seems to begin and end with Pretty Poison. And if you care at all, get the British DVD of Pretty Poison. Officially it's Region 2, but trust me, it's playable anywhere, and unlike the Fox DVD, this one has commentary by Black.

My personal knowledge of the rest of Black's career is spotty. I haven't seen most of the television work. On the other hand, when Black's ill-fated second feature, Cover Me, Babe very briefly played at the Baronet theater in New York City, it took me several minutes to convince the cashier that I was not lost on my way to see Five Easy Pieces at the adjacent, and larger Coronet. I even saw Cover Me, Babe again when it snuck in to New York City's worst theater, Variety Photoplays, appearing in a double feature with Carousel.

The last time I saw Noel Black was when he was in Denver, for a short period favored by the studios for advanced previews. He was with a couple of production associates for a screening of A Man, a Woman and a Bank.

Black went from promising newcomer to forgotten journeyman, also devoting much of his time to special projects for the Directors Guild of America. While the cult for Pretty Poison is mostly based on Tuesday Weld, Black's other best remembered film, Private School is beloved for Phoebe Cates' seen in various states of undress.

Those interested might also want to check out A Change of Seasons. The film might well be retitled, "A Change of Directors". The first half of the film is Black's work, the second half by Richard Lang. A light comedy was replaced by broader humor. Too bad the suits didn't trust Black on this one. It might not have been much, but it would have been better than the film that was released.

One of Noel Black's disappointments was having Robert Forster star in Cover Me, Babe. Black's choice was a relatively unknown stage actor named Al Pacino. That Black had a good eye for future talent is indicated with the unknowns in supporting roles in 1973's Jennifer on My Mind - Barry Bostwick, Jeff Conaway and as a mad cab driver, Robert De Niro.

July 23, 2014

Bethlehem

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Yuval Adler - 2013
Adopt Films Region 1 DVD

At this particular time, it would be impossible to watch Bethlehem without thinking about what is happening in Gaza. And while real life and what a movie may reflect as reality are not the same, I would like to think that Bethlehem offers some kind of reminder that there might be some nuances that are overlooked in much of the reportage.

Keeping in mind that this is an Israeli film, what is presented might well be questioned. The basic story is of an Israeli agent, Razi, who has cultivated a friendship with a Palestinian teen, Sanfur. Sanfur's brother is a known militant wanted by Israeli authorities. Razi has an awareness that Sanfur could well become a part of the Palestinian resistance movement in the near future, but uses his trust to track down the brother, Ibrahim, albeit indirectly.

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Where the film is of interest is in its depiction of the internecine rivalries among the Palestinians. Ibrahim is secretly funded by Hamas. Even within their association with Hamas, there are smaller "brigades" out to prove themselves as being the most truly radical. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority tries to keep a balance of asserting their role over the demands of Hamas, while keeping the peace with Israel. In one scene that plays out like a crime thriller, Ibrahim meets with the militant leader with close ties to the Palestinian Authority, suddenly pushing him back over a staircase railing, several floors up.

While how the Israeli army performs its role within the West Bank is questioned, there is a greater look at the quandary of Palestinian life. More cruel than the Israelis are the Palestinians who choose public executions for those branded as collaborators. Ibrahim's lieutenant, Badawi, isn't trusted by either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, being of Bedouin descent.

Beyond the political, Bethlehem might be viewed as an examination of how masculinity is defined. Sanfur and his friends are first seen playing with a loaded rifle. In a deadly game of chicken, one of them is to wear an old bullet proof jacket, and be able to take being shot. The ideals of trust and honor are continually shredded by self-serving lies. No one is allowed neutral ground. There are choices to be made, but all are equally bad. Women are in the periphery. It's if life is just one continual pissing contest, where the men are trying to outgun each other literally and figuratively. I would not think it coincidental that the film that takes place in a town of religious significance ends with an act that might remind some of Cain and Abel.

July 21, 2014

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

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Boksuneun naui geot
Park Chan-wook - 2002
Palisades Tartan Video Blu-ray Region A

Once upon a time, there was Tartan Video, famous for its "Asian Extreme" label. Tartan Video was bought out and became Palisades Tartan in 2008. Palisades Tartan is now revived in affiliation with Kino Lorber, but the movies that are identified most with the label are the one that were released under the watch of Tartan founder Hamish McAlpine. And yes, I have seen most of those releases, and was saddened when the original company went under, the victim of its own success with a couple of imitators, perhaps too many films marketed as "Asian Extreme" and critics and viewers who didn't bother with, or care about, any cultural context for many of the best films.

I think what makes the revival of the Tartan label worthwhile is that for many of us, it allows for an opportunity to see the films again with greater familiarity with the filmmakers and actors. In the case of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I have now seen the bulk of films by Park Chan-wook. Bae Doona, still in the early stages of her career, evolved to become a pan-Asian star, to a star in international productions. Korean film, once virtually unknown in the west, has emerged as an international powerhouse. Much has changed in the past decade.

This new home video release consolidates extras from previous releases - an audio commentary by Park with filmmaker Ryu Seong-wan who has a small role in this film, "Making of . . . " footage from the original Korean DVD release, and a brief overview of Park's career from a 2006 BBC presentation. This is one of those times when the commentary is worth listening to, as Park discusses the changes and choices made during the shooting of this film. Mentioned several times is that while Mr. Vengeance was a critical success, it was also a commercial failure, more striking in that it followed J.S.A., not only Park's biggest box office hit, but the biggest Korean film of 2000.

Park and Ryu joke about the green hair of Shin Ha-kyun, but it's the kind of comment that may prod the viewer to take notice of how green is used throughout the film, such as in a scene on an escalator, and in various rooms. There is also pink, seen on Bae Doona's t-shirt, and the radical leaflets she hands out. Helpful also is to learn that the portrait on Bae's t-shirt is of Korea's most famous anarchist. Removed from the "Asian Extreme" label that introduced Park and his earlier films to western audiences, Mr. Vengeance can now be seen for helping lay the groundwork for the visual and narrative themes Park Chan-wook would explore again in his more recent work.

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