August 15, 2017

Contemporary British Horror Cinema: Industry, Genre and Society

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Johnny Walker - 2015
Edinburgh University Press

Sixty years following the release of The Curse of Frankenstein seems like an appropriate time to contemplate the state of horror movies from Britain. The film catapulted a small British company to an internationally recognized brand. The horror genre has remained commercially viable in a way it hadn't been previously, and as such, shares some of the characteristics of its subjects, never really dying, and always finding a way to come back, often in a different form.

Walker, a lecturer at Northumbria University, discusses a handful of films made in this current century, but is primarily focused on the context of the filmmaking. This first chapter is on the various convulsions of the British film industry, with the ways films have been financed and released. Walker also looks at the ways certain films were made for a general audience, while others were made primarily to appeal to a niche group of viewers. The chapters that were particularly striking for myself were about the "video nasties", a group of banned films that proved to be inspirational for several contemporary filmmakers, and the chapter on youth centered horror films in the wake of various riots or activities deemed anti-social. And it's not like these films can not be enjoyed without knowing about any of the various forces, historical, cinematic or social, that come into play here, but it's of help, especially when discussing a genre that has often been deemed disreputable.

There are no lurid descriptions of scenes of mayhem or gore. Those who value film history might be shocked and amused to read of a critic who complained that Eden Lake and Donkey Punch took their cues from other then current "torture porn" films, rather than a classic movie like Peeping Tom, conveniently forgetting that Michael Powell's film was considered extreme at the time of its initial release.

There is also a chapter on Hammer, a company both dependent on nostalgia for its older titles, and its various attempts, with new ownership, to attempt being a commercially viable producer of horror films for an entirely new, younger audience.

In the chapter on Hammer, Walker covers how the company initially returned to film production with an episodic film made to be seen on the social network site, MySpace. Walker later surveys how horror films are now visible through a variety of platforms - theatrical, home video and internet.

Films are mentioned based on how they fit into the individual essays, but there is no hierarchy of films or directors. Still, that Walker finds more to write about the critically dismissed Lesbian Vampire Killers makes that film intriguing in spite of itself - with paragraphs on the financing, it's brief life as a possible Hammer production, and as a product celebrating and satirizing the attitudes of the some of the specifically British "Lad Mags" of the 1990s.

The book did inspire me to check out a documentary on "Video Nasties" by horror filmmaker Jake West, on the internet horror channel, Shudder - a good source for seeing some of the titles Walker mentions. One of the several people discussing the hysteria of that time is Martin Barker, one of the few voices that openly questioned the censorship that took place at the time. Barker reminds the viewer to pay attention to history. In addition to West, filmmakers who have grown up with the video nasties getting some current consideration would include Neil Marshall, Philip Ridley and Christopher Smith. With that in mind, it may well be that some of the films considered extreme or culturally of little meaning could well be reevaluated as classics in the future, and Walker's book will have even greater value for future film historians.

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August 13, 2017

Coffee Break

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Belen Fabra and Judith Diakhate in Diary of a Nymphomaniac (Christian Molina - 2008)

August 08, 2017

Duel in the Sun

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King Vidor - 1946
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

One immediate bit of irony is that in the opening credit's, the film is listed as King Vidor's Duel in the Sun, when the reality of the production is that Vidor walked off the set, and several other directors helped in the completion. Notoriously hands on as the producer, David O. Selznick also claimed sole screenwriting credit as well. All things considered, including the post-production editing forced to limit, if not eliminate the erotic content, it's a tribute to all involved that Duel in the Sun remained mostly coherent and cohesive in its final form.

For all of his involvement in the production, David O. Selznick seemed oblivious to his group of characters who essentially allow their misguided sense of pride cause their own undoings. Selznick's hope of topping the massive success of Gone with the Wind was his main motivation in producing Duel. Between the cost of production, the publicity campaign, and Selznick being forced to distribute the film himself, Duel became of harbinger of what has become a fairly standard practice in Hollywood, the big budget film that ultimately breaks even or shows a modest profit. It would take one last attempt at big budget filmmaking with A Farewell to Arms, costly and barely profitable, to end Selznick's career as a producer at the relatively young age of 55.

Based loosely on a novel by Niven Busch, the story is about a young woman, Pearl Chavez, half-white, half-Native American, orphaned and left to the care of her father's second cousin, Laura Belle. The cousin is the wife of land baron Jackson McCanles, and mother to sons Jesse and Lewt. Lewt is short for Lewton, but almost a homophone for lewd. The main story is about class and race, mostly centered on the love-hate relationship between Pearl and Lewt, leading up to the climatic finish.

Seen outside of the context of the year of production, and various conventions that were part of Hollywood film production, some might miss what all the fuss was about. In its own way, Duel in the Sun is almost as fantastic as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The opening scene features the very British Herbert Marshall as the Creole gambler, Scott Chavez, married to a Native American played by the very bronzed Tilly Losch. Losch performs a dance at a cantina the size of Grand Central Station, kicking up her heels for a mob of very appreciative cowboys. Following her performance, Losch hooks up with her lover, the stocky Sidney Blackmer. Cesar Romero and Anthony Quinn would have been more appropriately cast here. Fortunately, the odd rivalry of Marshall and Blackmer is a short scene, quickly forgotten once the film moves to the main setting of the McCanles Ranch.

Seeing Jennifer Jones as half Native American, with slightly bronzed make-up goes with an era when we were suppose to believe that Jeanne Crain was a light skinned African American in Pinky, filmed two years later. This is one of Jones' most memorable roles as it was also her most expressive physically, fighting conflicting impulses to be a "good girl" or reclaiming her sexuality. As Lewt, Gregory Peck almost steals the film as a mostly likable punk who ends up destroying his family, Pearl, and himself. One image says it all when Pearl is walking to her bedroom, and Lewt is standing in the shadows, leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette, with the hint of a smile. Sure, Lewt rapes Pearl, derails a train carrying explosives, and shoots the upstanding brother, Jesse, played by Joseph Cotten, but none of those things matter when watching Jennifer Jones claw her way through rocks and sand for that final clinch with Peck.

A side note here: Almost a decade later, Jones would again play a racially mixed woman, half-Asian, in Love is a Many Splendored Thing, while at Peck's insistence his romantic interest in The Purple Plain was portrayed by a half-Asian actress, rather than someone in "yellow face".

The blu-ray is as complete a version as we will likely see unless excised footage is discovered and restored. Among the scenes of legend are a dance performed by Pearl for Lewt that was considered too erotic by the production code office, as well as shots of Pearl attempting to fight off Lewt prior to surrendering to him. There is the overture and prelude, that the audience heard in the initial road show presentations, as well as music heard after the end of the film. For those who might not be familiar with the concept of the roadshow movie, there was a time when some big budget films were shown with a limited number of performances, usually a matinee and evening show, higher admission costs, and sometimes reserved seating.

The commentary track by Gaylyn Studlar is especially useful in identifying what parts of Duel in the Sun were directed by King Vidor, and those parts handled by William Dieterle, Otto Brower, William Cameron Menzies, and possibly Josef von Sternberg as well as Selznick. Unsurprisingly, some of the overhead traveling shots as well as long shots with the characters seen in silhouette will recall similar visual work in Gone with the Wind. Gregory Peck's children share their recollections of their father's work on the film and his friendships with King Vidor and Jennifer Jones in the other supplement of note.

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August 06, 2017

Coffee Break

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Luminița Gheorghiu in Child's Pose (Calin Peter Netzer - 2013)

August 01, 2017

Me & You

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Io e te
Bernardo Bertolucci - 2012
Artificial Eye BD Region B

Is this the last film by Bernardo Bertolucci? It certainly looks that way. And yes, after a career with such high points as The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris, and even films with momentary charms as The Dreamers, Me & You is especially disappointing. From a commercial viewpoint, I understand why the film never got a stateside release. Still, it's a film by one of the greatest living film directors, deserving of a home video release that one esteemed company had promised, but never delivered. As one who has followed Bertolucci's career since the time that Before the Revolution had played in New York City, it seemed like my best option would be to get the British blu-ray while that was still available.

There's not much to the story - a high school boy decides to ditch a school ski trip by secretly spending the week in the basement storage room of the apartment building in a residential part of of Rome. His half-sister (same father) barges in, looking for shelter to go cold turkey from her heroin addiction. Starting off as antagonists, the two eventually become co-conspirators within the dark, enclosed space.

The recognizable themes from past Bertolucci films are visible with the aforementioned set-up of the two characters mostly shut off from the outside world, the hints of incest, centering the narrative on youthful characters, especially a young man who seems in a state of constant rebellion against the world. The film was adapted from a novel by Niccolo Ammaniti, who also contributed to the screenplay. I'm not familiar with the novel but assuming that the film is relatively faithful to the source, it's as if the novelist was writing with Bertolucci in mind. Sadly, there are no breathtaking images or even electric moments such as when Matthew Barry starts dancing to the music of the BeeGees in La Luna. The brother and sister dance to the Italian version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity", with the lyrics re-written as "Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl", but the moment is unaffecting. What comes across is as if the master filmmaker was making an imitation Bertolucci film.

What is best about the blu-ray is the supplement. This is no ordinary "Making of . . ." featurette. Bertolucci has been confined to a wheelchair since 2003, about the same time that his previous film, The Dreamers was released. The supplement documents in part Bertolucci's return to filmmaking and how he has worked in spite of his physical limitations. Debra Winger and Richard Gere are among the visitors to the set. The supplement starts off with Bertolucci at the Venice Film Festival prior to filming, telling the story of a confused admirer who told Bertolucci that he had been following his career since Fists in his Pocket, with that film's actual director, Marco Bellochio, receiving an award from his contemporary and peer.

July 30, 2017

Coffee Break

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Cate Blanchett in The Monuments Men (George Clooney - 2014)

July 25, 2017

Seduction

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La Seduzione
Fernando Di Leo - 1973
Raro Video BD Region A

Made in between his action-filled crime thrillers, Seduction is atypical of the films from Fernando Di Leo. No fast moving cars, violence is limited to a couple of slaps. There is a gun, but it's not seen until the final scene. A journalist based in Paris, Giuseppe, returns to the Sicilian city of Catania after fifteen years to close and sell his late father's house. While in Catania, Giuseppe re-kindles his romance with Caterina, now a widow with a teenage daughter, Graziella. The schoolgirl indicates that she would like Giuseppe to be more than paternal. The relationship between the three not unexpectedly unravels with a tragic resolution.

The film is based on the novel, Graziella, by Ercole Patti, a popular novelist born in Catania, who contributed to the screenplay, and has had many film adaptations of his novel. From what I have read about the source novel and Patti would indicate that the film only hints at some of Patti's themes. The opening scene with Giuseppe walking through his father's very large house indicates a history of family wealth, making me think about the homes as described by another Sicilian writer, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa and The Leopard. With his clothes and mentions of his travels, Giuseppe life of wealth and privilege are given. Caterina, in turn, is firmly middle-class in her dress and outlook. The film updates the novel's setting which would affect Patti's observations of class differences. In the then contemporary setting of the 1970s, Caternina tells Giuseppe that she is not like the "liberated" women of Paris. With her hair as a jet black helmet, Lisa Gastoni's Caterina appears reserved, almost forbidding.

Giuseppe's attraction to Graziella seems based more on her making herself available to the man who is on the verge of becoming her step-father. In spite of protestations that he loves Caterina, Giuseppe is revealed to be the least adult in handling relationships. A closer reading of the title suggests that the seduction is not simply sexual, but that of false beliefs.

The blu-ray comes with a supplement created in 2004, with Di Leo, cinematographer Franco Villa, and actress Jenny Tamburi, who plays Graziella, recalling the making of Seduction. I would have wished that Lisa Gastoni, still alive and active at age 82, had participated here. One of the more interesting stories is of the casting of Graziella, with the role originally scheduled for Ornella Muti. Probably most widely seen as Princess Aura in Flash Gordon, the eighteen year old Muti was considered too attractive by Gastoni. Tamburi, 21 at the time of filming, was a last minute replacement, more quietly attractive, and convincing as a girl much younger. Giuseppe was played by Maurice Ronet, best known for his work with Louis Malle and Claude Chabrol. Ronet and Tamburi had acted together three years previously in the Ugo Tognhzzi vehicle, Madame Royale.