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January 31, 2006

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

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My Summer of Love
Pawel Pawlikowski - 2004
Universal Pictures Region 1 DVD

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L'Effrontee
Claude Miller - 1985
Wellspring Region 1 DVD

Every once in a while one sees films that almost mirror each other, if unintentionally, either within a short period of time, or in this case, back-to-back. In addition to both films in this article being primarily about the relationship between a working class girl and a girl from a background of wealth who is also a musician, both films have scenes involving a globe, and borrowed clothes. Both films refer to The Exorcist, reminding us how deep the cultural impact is after thirty years. Both films also have the overly idealized relationship ending badly, but with the girl who's left behind still finding a personal victory.

My Summer of Love, like Pawel Pawlikowski's first film, The Last Resort is concerned with the idea of home. The title for that film is a pun with a Russian woman finding herself stranded in an English vacation community off-season after not being met by her fiance. My Summer of Love begins with Mona feeling displaced from her home, an apartment she shares with her suddenly born-again brother who has converted their parents' pub into meeting place for fellow believers. After a chance meeting with Tamsin, Mona finds herself living as a houseguest and eventual lover with the worldlier girl. The faith Mona's brother, Phil, displays is as overwhelming as Mona's belief that she and Tamsin will actually run away to live together. Throughout the film, characters are confronting each other in the name of an illusive and subjective truth. Even when Mona and Tamsin laugh at Phil, Pawlikowski displays respect for the sincere act of faith, whether it is Mona and Tamsin "communicating" with a dead spirit, or Phil and a group of Christians carrying a very large cross up a hill to overlook their small town. For Pawlikowski, the conclusion is that before attempting to be honest with anyone else, one needs to be honest with one's self.

Being about somewhat younger girls, L'Effrontee details a deep infatuation of one girl for another. A former associate to Godard, Demy and Bresson, Claude Miller has made a film that self-consciously invokes the spirit of Francois Truffaut. The Nouvelle Vague connection is further stressed with the casting of Bernadette Lafont and Jean-Claude Brialy. The distaff Antoine Doinel is Charlotte, played by the then 13-year-old Charlotte Gainsbourg. The long-legged, awkward Charlotte sees the blonde and conventionally pretty Clara, a piano prodigy, on television. The daughter of a tool-maker meets Clara by chance when Clara is staying near Charlotte's provincial village. For Charlotte, Clara would provide a means of escaping the perceived limitations of her home. For Clara, normally surrounded by adults, Charlotte provides temporary friendship with a girl of her own age. In trying to establish her independence and sense of attractiveness, Charlotte also gets involved with a young sailor who is also in town briefly. Used in the film's opening credits is a song that conspicuously sounds like Cindy Lauper's big hit. The DVD also includes an interview with a very shy Gainsbourg who could not imagine being the respected actress she is today.

Posted by peter at 02:00 PM

January 30, 2006

Boys of Summer 2005

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Wedding Crashers
David Dobkin - 2005
New Line Region 1 DVD

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The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Judd Apatow - 2005
Universal Pictures Region 1 DVD

"Hilarious" said Clay Smith of Access Hollwood about Wedding Crashers. "Hilarious" stated Paul Clinton of CNN about The 40-Year-Old Virgin. And so I have to ask myself, are these guys more easily amused, or is it possible that I am "humor impaired"? There may also be those who argue that these two very popular comedies from last summer were made for a demographic that revoked my membership card back in the Reagan years. I would like to think that funny is funny, if you don't mind a little tautology here. To put this concern in context, I should explain that the last film that really made me laugh out loud was Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowing, made in 1932.

Of the two films, I liked Wedding Crashers because it was fairly amusing for the first hour or so. When it stopped being funny, I had to at least give director David Dobkin credit for maintaining something like a visual style with some attractive tracking shots. The point is made of being location specific, in this case Washington D.C., with the Washington monument given appropriate Freudian attention. The main reason to watch Wedding Crashers is for the repartee between Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. They seem to enjoy playing off each other to the point where the narrative gets in the way. What I also found satisfying is that even after the Wilson and Vaughn have their respective and obligatory "life lessons", they didn't totally change from the characters they were at the beginning of the film.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin had a couple moments of mild amusement, like the chest waxing scene, and a scene depicting speed dating. I was troubled by the way the film tried to simultaneously make a joke out of Steve Carell's virginity with the narrative lurching from one bad date after another, and scenes of misguided male bonding, and at the same time present the virginity as a badge of honor. That the film was less visually interesting may due to writer-director Judd Apatow's background in television. But back to my original questions, I know that there are people who find Michel Simon uproarious seventy-three years after he was filmed stumbling around the Left Bank. Will there be anyone as similary enthused about the virgin and the crashers seventy-three years from now?

Posted by peter at 12:30 AM | Comments (1)

January 29, 2006

O.C. and Stiggs

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Robert Altman - 1987
MGM Region 1 DVD

Robert Altman will be honored with an honorary Academy Award after five nominations for Best Director. Including his forthcoming Prairie Home Companion, he has directed over thirty-five theatrical films, plus a greater number of television films, episodes for television series and industrial documentaries. As part of the perpetually failing efforts to keep the Academy Award broadcast within a reasonable length, the Altman salute will by necessity have to be limited to clips from career highlights. It is a good bet that O.C. and Stiggs will be one Altman film left unmentioned.

After seeing this film I had to wonder why MGM made a point of releasing it on DVD while the much better, and funnier, Brewster McCloud remains on the shelf. The DVD includes a brief interview with Altman explaining his intentions, and what what a good time he had with the actors. Even though as a director for hire, Altman personalized the film with his use of overlapping dialogue, O.C. is only an intermittently funny, but mostly sour vision of Americana.

The film is based on a story published in National Lampoon. The producers convinced MGM that the story could be made into a film for teenagers. Altman doesn't mention any films, so I don't know if he is thinking of Porky's and similar films, or perhaps one of the films from John Hughes. Altman thought that he was making a satire of teenage films. One of the first rules of any good teenage film is that the adults have to either be non-existent, peripheral or at worst, supporting characters. O.C. and Stiggs fails as a teenage movie or even a satire of teenage movies because Altman spends too much time with the grown-ups. Additionally, scenes that may have seemed funny on paper, such as the boys floating on inner tubes on their way to Mexico, aren't funny on screen.

There are a few inspired moments - O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) doing a Fred and Ginger dance with the young Cynthia Nixon and Dennis Hopper in a couple of enjoyably goofy moments spoofing his role in Apocalypse Now come to mind. More often, O.C. and Stiggs is marred by attempts at humor that are smug, if not outright racist or homophobic.

That Altman even attempted to do his own version of a "teenage film" is logical in viewing his overall career. A film student friend of mine thought of Altman as the "revisionist Howard Hawks". What he meant by that was that both directors tackled different genres and had a way of making their films unique. While that may be oversimplifying the similarity of the two filmmakers, it is probably no coincidence that Hawks filmed Raymond Chandler's first Philip Marlowe novel while Altman filmed the last, and both had screenplays by Leigh Brackett. (I should clarify that Brackett co-wrote The Big Sleep screenplay with Jules Furthman and William Faulkner.) Among the films I am thinking of here in addition to Altman's version of the detective film (The Long Goodbye) are the western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), the musical (Nashville), the war film (M*A*S*H) and the screwball comedy (Brewster McCloud). Howard Hawks had his misfires. I don't blame Cary Grant for running away after reading the script for Man's Favorite Sport?. For Robert Altman, among some great films and several that are merely good, there is O.C. and Stiggs.

Posted by peter at 02:38 PM | Comments (3)

January 27, 2006

War - Italian Style

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Massacre in Rome/Rappresaglia
George Pan Cosmatos - 1973
NoShame Films Region 1 DVD

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Desert of the Tarters/Il Deserto dei Tartari
Valerio Zurlini - 1976
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

NoShame likes to pair their releases somewhat thematically. In this case, taking a break from their usual genre offerings are two lesser known war films from the Seventies, both international co-productions with some very big stars. While Massacre in Rome represents the first major film by the uneven action director, George Pan Cosmatos, Desert of the Tarters carries the burden of being the only decent DVD available by Valerio Zurlini, a respected filmmaker in Italy virtually unknown in the U.S.

I have read that Cosmatos' best film is Of Unknown Origin. Having an admitted phobia concerning rodents, I'll never know, but I did like Tombstone. Even the awkwardly titled Rambo: First Blood Part II had some rousing moments. The main reason to watch Massacre in Rome is simply to see Richard Burton and Marcello Mastroianni together in the same film. The film is based on a true incident during World War II in which 320 Italians were to be rounded up and executed by the Nazi SS following an attack by partisans that killed 32 German soldiers. Burton portrays the SS Colonel Kappler who in the film has a conflict of conscious in carrying out the orders. Mastroianni is the fictional character of a priest who attempts to stop the massacre by appealing to Burton and the Pope. Character actor Leo McKern outshines everyone in his hammy performance as the piano playing German general who orders the mass executions. The best moment in the film is scene of the partisans carrying out their attack on the soldiers, expecially the nervous moments of anticipation before the troops are heard marching up the street. While Massacre in Rome is not overly distinguished, it isn't the campy embarrassment of Cosmatos' following film, the all-star disaster The Cassandra Crossing.

Desert of the Tarters is the only Zurlini film I have seen at this time. The story is somewhat comparable to Jarhead in that it is about soldiers who dream of military valor, only to see that their terms of service were spent waiting for battles that never happen. The film needs some historical context for American viewers, as the time period begins in 1907 and the soldiers are part of the Astro-Hungarian army. In addition to Max von Sydow pictured above, the film includes Fernando Rey, Francisco Rabal, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Philippe Noiret and Vittorio Gassman. The film was shot in a desert town in Iran that had been abandoned following an earthquake. The exploration of how men define themselves and how military life and rules can be absurd is sometimes less than compelling. Where Zurlini shows his abilities is in his images, many which were made to be seen on a movie screen, and which need to be seen on a large screen to be fully appreciated. There are several long shots where one sees very small characters in the vast desert, a lone rider on horseback, a stray white horse, or distantly seen reflections. One wonderfully composed shot is of a group of soldiers marching in the snow, away from the camera, fading into the vast whiteness. The huge fort looks like nothing less than an oversized sand castle.

As often with NoShame, it is the extras that make their DVDs worthwhile. In the case of Massacre in Rome two disc set, there is a hilarious interview with Cosmatos fumbling with his microphone, followed by an almost Felliniesque interview of Mastroianni walking through a hotel bath surrounded by older men in towels or less. More serious are the interviews with two of the partisans from the actual incident, and an interview with an Italian historian, all of which puts the film into a clearer historic context. Desert of the Tarters has a terrific interview with Luciano Tovoli in which the cinematographer discusses his lengthy career. Unfortunately, the subtitles have errors in English grammer as well as confusing director Vittorio De Seta for the similarly sounding Vittorio De Sica, and rendering Truffaut as "Truffo". The Desert DVD also comes with the original soundtrack album CD by Ennio Morricone, a pensive, piano driven score.

Posted by peter at 07:03 PM

January 24, 2006

Made in Asia, remade in Hollywood

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Pulse/Kairo
Kiyoshi Kurosawa - 2001
Universe Laser & Video Region 3 DVD

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Il Mare/Siworae
Lee Hyun-Seung - 2000
Spectrum Region 0 DVD

It would be hypocritical of me to be totally against American remakes of Asian films. I admit to having John Sturges' Magnificent Seven in my collection. I am bothered by the frequency of remakes in the past few years. To me, it's an admission of creative laziness on the part of Hollywood, as well as a cultural laziness on the part of American audiences. My significant other would argue that part of the problem is that foreign films should be dubbed into English, just as Ango-American films are dubbed in other countries. She may be right. The other challenge is that the few Asian films that get U.S. release are shown in other than the large cities, or those venues dedicated to foreign films. The ideal situation is that there would be greater support of Asian artists by those have supported appropriations such as Quentin Tarantino's films and Gwen Stefani's Harujuku Girls.

Opening in a couple of weeks is the Weinstein Company remake of Pulse with Kristen Bell. The Region 1 DVD of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's version will be available on February 21. While not as disturbing as Cure, Pulse does maintain a sense of dread throughout the length of the film. The spookiness is created with underlit and backlit scenes, and empty environments. The film begins somewhat like other J-Horror ghost stories with the dead coming back to haunt the living. Kurosawa's existenstial concerns slowly take over. In the short-hand summing up of Sartre's No Exit is the conclusion that "Hell is other people". Kurosawa concludes that one person connecting with another person is extremely difficult and rare, and is a situation to be appreciated. The dreamlike imagery owes a debt to F. W. Murnau and Japanese author Edogawa Rampo. One of Rampo's most famous short stories is "The Human Chair". Kurosawa may have been making a nod to Rampo with the chairs as frequent props, sometimes appearing in unexpected places. There is no gore, the violence is generally muted, and nothing leaps out unexpectedly in Pulse. Had Daniel Clowes not used it, the film could easily be titled Ghost World. For Kurosawa, the greatest horror is loneliness.

The remake of Il Mare is currently titled The Lake House. Scheduled for a June release, it will undoubtedly be seen by a larger audience than the original Korean film. The title, Il Mare translates as "The Sea". The story is about a young man and young woman who lived in the same unique house in a coastal area. The woman, Eun-Ju, who lived in the house in 2000, left a letter that mysteriously gets picked up out of the mailbox by Sung-Hyun, who lived in the house in 1998. The two continue to write to each other via the magic mail box. The biggest obstacles to the film aside from a storyline with some major plot holes are the badly translated, and frequently garbled English subtitles. It should be no surprise that the would-be couple overcomes space and time, logic, and a couple of plot twists. Il Mare is a bit of good-natured cinematic fluff. That it's being remade as a vehicle for Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock makes me wonder about about the heart of Hollywood.

Posted by peter at 03:16 PM | Comments (1)

January 23, 2006

The Boy with Green Hair

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Joseph Losey - 1948
Terra Entertainment DVD

While I have generally been a fan of the films of Joseph Losey, I realized that my familiarity was exclusively with his British films, beginning with Time Without Pity. Losey's debut feature, The Boy with Green Hair is the only one of his American films available on DVD at this time. For a film that was shot in technicolor for the major plot point, it is unfortunate that the version available is a lousy transfer done from a washed out videotape. As Losey will probably be remembered best for films starring Dirk Bogarde tossing off dialogue by Harold Pinter, a film taking place in small town America seems odd until you remember that Losey was originally from La Crosse, Wisconsin.

It is worth noting that The Boy with Green Hair was released in November 1948, about a year after the House of Un-American Activities investigation of Communist influence in Hollywood began. The film was produced at RKO, which was owned by Howard Hughes. In spite of the obvious liberal sentiments of Boy, the film was released as scheduled unlike other RKO films of that time that Hughes would temporarily shelve (They Live By Night) or re-worked (Vendetta).

While the title gives away the major plot point, the film is an anti-war parable. Dean Stockwell is the orphan who discovers a greater sense of self, and takes it upon himself to remind everyone he meets about how war victimizes children. The film's sentiments are indicated early in the film when the camera pans across a series of posters reminding us not to forget the children of Yugoslavia or Greece. Stockwell encounters these poster children in a dream. Except for an Asian baby, this vision of misery is Euro-centric. If the vehicle for the message is dated in some ways, the message itself is still worth remembering. To the best of my knowledge, the only Hollywood filmmaker who tried to pick up where Losey's film ended was Angelina Jolie with the undervalued Beyond Borders. (I am giving Ms. Jolie auteur credit here based on her humanitarian activities.

In addition to Losey, screenwriter Ben Barzman was blacklisted a couple of years following the release of Boy. The cast includes Pat O'Brien, the up and coming Robert Ryan, future Perry Mason gal Barbara Hale, the future Dobie Gillis, Dwayne Hickman, and perennial sidekick Regis Toomey. The film begins oddly enough with a chorus singing Nature Boy.

One can see bits of future Losey in his first film. Dean Stockwell's sense of peril would be revisited in Losey remake of M and Mr. Klein. Political idealism versus pragmaticism would also figure in several Losey films such as King and Country. Losey's last major commercial and critical success, The Go-Between would feature a boy who acts as a messenger in the adult world.

Posted by peter at 03:07 PM

January 22, 2006

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

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Die Bitteren Trnen der Petra von Kant
Rainer Werner Fassbinder - 1972
Wellspring Region 1 DVD

This past month, the Miami Beach Cinematheque has been featuring a retrospective of some of the latter films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In conjunction with the films, has been the presentation of a stage version of Petra Von Kant by The White Orchard Theater. Seeing the two versions points out the extreme differences between stage and film, in terms of where the viewers direct their gaze, the use of space, and placement of characters.

Reviewing the play is problematic for several reasons. Petra Von Kant was originally written as a play. The theater company chose to make several changes, using the film's ending with Marlene leaving after Petra attempts to make their relationship for equitable, but not using the prop of a doll made to look like Petra's lover Karin. Different music was used, with disco replacing The Platters and The Walker Brothers. What makes this seemingly minor point important is that it throws the time period out of kilter. The music is to function both as a comment on the action and as a reference to Petra's past. The music in the film is appropriate for a character in her mid-thirties in a play or film taking place in the early Seventies. If disco music is used because the character is updated, than the scene with Petra Von Kant dictating a letter to Joseph Mankiewicz would need to be revised. The biggest obstacle to best evaluating the stage production though is that the production on the same floor level as the audience, making is difficult to view much of the action, especially with several of the characters sitting or reclined on the bed that is the center of the action.

The still chosen above illustrates the difference between film and stage. While we hear Margit Carstensen and Katrin Schaake discussing their lives, the camera is focused on Irm Hermann, isolated both literally and symbolically, yet seen as part of the same visual field as the other two actors. In the stage production, the audience would be more likely focussed only on the two characters in conversation. Fassbinder is able to emphasize certain points by shifting the camera angle, or by having characters seen but not heard, or heard but not seen.

Even though the film takes place in one location, the set is photographed from several different angles, as are the actors. The use of dolls and mannequins in the set echo, Petra's transformation of Karin into a model, or more literally a living doll. Petra is seen transforming herself with the use of several wigs. Fassbinder also has a visual gag in one scene with two nude female mannequins embaced on a bed, while a third mannequin stands "observing" the action, a play on the relationship of the three main characters.

In research, I have found an opera and a television production of Petra Von Kant. The themes of class and use of power in the original work still make Petra Von Kant of more than casual interest. One of Fassbinder's quotes is: "Every decent director has only one subject, and finally only makes the same film over and over again. My subject is the exploitability of feelings, whoever might be the one exploiting them. It never ends. It's a permanent theme. Whether the state exploits patriotism, or whether in a couple relationship, one partner destroys the other." With multiple productions of Petra Von Kant one may wonder if Fassbinder, the filmmaker who wanted an Academy Award, would have approved his play being canonized as it were, or if the perpetual rebel would complain that he was being exploited in the name of art.

Posted by peter at 06:21 PM | Comments (1)

January 21, 2006

Anthony Franciosa 1928 - 2006

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Tenebre
Dario Argento - 1982
Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

Posted by peter at 10:01 AM

January 20, 2006

Let Me Die a Woman

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Doris Wishman - 1978
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

There is a rather humorous anecdote told by the singularly named Leslie, pictured above, the star of Let Me Die a Woman. Leslie was to have been paid following the completion and sale of the film. Doris Wishman kept putting her off, never paying the promised amount or following through on any of the other promises made. Leslie feels she got the last laugh by running up a bill for as much as she could get away with during a promotional appearance, and learning that Doris was herself cheated by the distributor who eventually bought the film. If there is a conclusion here, it is that virtually everyone gets exploited making exploitation films.

I've seen a couple of "roughies" that Wishman made in the mid-Sixties, and excerpts from her nudie films on the television show Reel Wild Cinema. Wishman has been the subject of serious critical evaluation. I'm not ready to jump on that particular bandwagon. If anything, Wishman may be something of a negative example of gender equality.

This film's obvious precedent is Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda. Wood's film features himself as the title character, the beloved and befuddled Bela Lugosi, shots of stampeding buffalos, some unintended laughs as well as wistfulness, knowing that a supremely naive filmmaker exposed a part of his life that most would keep hidden. The best features of Wishman's film are that in color, it is prettier than her earlier black and white films. Leslie is certainly more attractive that Ed Wood in his angora sweater splendor. But Wishman has made a film that is even less cohesive that Wood's autobiographical piece.

Cobbled together over a span of seven years, the film is perhaps mostly of interest to those interested in Wishman, or in seeing a fairly well preserved "gindhouse" film. Even Wishman archivist Michael Bowen has stated he isn't sure who the audience for this film was suppose to be. One could describe it as an outdated psuedo-documentary on transgenderism. Some of the footage can be described as educational, as well as truly clinical, explaining to process of male to female surgery as well as including actual footage of an operation. But the film is a hodgepodge, padded with footage of pre-Deep Throat star Harry Reems with an unidentified woman, and a scene of Seventies porn star Vanessa Del Rio. Leslie is mostly seen in as above, discussing herself, while those transexuals who permitted themselved to be photographed nude are subjected to Wishman's lingering "money shots" of breasts and genitalia. In her commentary, Leslie notes that had she known about the pornographic content, she would never have participated in this film. That Wishman released the film without her name on the credits suggests that she may have wanted this "lost" film to stay that way.

Posted by peter at 06:20 PM

January 19, 2006

The Last of England

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Derek Jarman - 1987
Second Sight PAL Region 0 DVD

I have a hope that some of the people who have only recently discovered Tilda Swinton will explore her formidable career more deeply. At the very least, there would be more exposure of films not seen at most neighborhood multiplexes. What would those who condemn Brokeback Mountain or Transamerica make of Orlando, The Deep End or The War Zone? Arguments about agendas are specious, and not exclusive to a certain group of filmmakers. It doesn't matter whether you are discussing a box office hit or a visibly gay filmmaker.

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The Last of England is a highly fragmented vision of England under Margaret Thatcher. Homes are burned down, there are soldiers or are they mercenaries on the streets, and people trying to survive in the rubble. Jarman shot the film in Super 8mm transfered to video tape which was transfered to film. The soundtrack includes voiceover readings by Nigel Terry comprised of poems and letters, including a quotation from Allen Ginsburg's "Howl", a radio speech by Hitler, and songs from Marianne Faithfull and Diamanda Galas. Some of the footage includes Jarman's home movies, shot when he was a child. This is a film created from anger. In one of the supplements on the DVD, Tilda Swinton mentions how a critic complained about the image of England created by The Last of England, Raining Stones, and Sammy and Rosie get Laid.

And while Jarman made his film about his own country twenty years ago, The Last of England has resonance for contemporary American viewers. The shots of homeless people huddled together, watched over by paramilitary men with machine guns is not disimilar to events in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Jarman is critical about a very questionable war. The film's vision of a land of the wealthy few and the disenfranchised many may be seen as a slight exaggeration of life under conservative rule.

In addition to Tilda Swinton's reading of her tribute to Derek Jarman, the DVD includes a brief interview with Jarman shot about a year prior to his death, and Jarman's ten minute silent short, A Journey to Avebury (1971).

Posted by peter at 02:27 PM

January 18, 2006

The Shop on Main Street

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Obchod na Korze
Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos - 1965
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

I made a point of seeing The Shop on Main Street after reading J. Hoberman's book on Yiddish Cinema. I completely forgot that I had actually seen Ida Kaminska on film, in Jan Kadar's The Angel Levine. I was totally unaware of Kaminska's stage career or that she was a star of Yiddish theater. As it stands right now, none of Ida Kaminska's five previous films are, to the best of my knowledge, unavailable on tape or DVD. Considering the precarious state of film preservation, her two silent films may no longer exist. One could easily excuse war and politics as well as other outside forces, but Poland realized that the Kaminska family, an equivalent to the Barrymores of Yiddish theater, were a national treasure well after the surviving family members left Europe. The Shop on Main Street is a reminder of a career that survived tremendous obstacles, with world wide acclamation while Ida Kaminska's skills were still vital.

Posted by peter at 11:17 PM

January 17, 2006

Dedicated Followers of Fashion

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Tony Takitani
Jun Ichikawa - 2004
Strand Releasing Region 1 DVD

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Kamikaze Girls/Shimotsuma Monogatari
Tetsuya Nakashima - 2004
Viz Media Region 1 DVD

I've only read two novels and a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami. The short story Tony Takitani is similar in being the first person narrative of a man alone, although the short story is more downbeat and firmly rooted in the real world. Jun Ichikawa's film slightly expands upon Murakami's short story in the conclusion while condensing some parts of the beginning. Murakami often refers to movies, especially film noir in his novels, naming titles and actors. While there is no specific reference in Tony Takitani, the film could be seen as a reverse of Vertigo, as if James Stewart decided not to pursue and remake Kim Novak.

Ichikawa doubles the doubling by having the same actor portray Tony Takitani and his jazz musician father, and the same actress as Tony's wife, Eiko, and Hisako, a woman Tony almost hires as an assistant based on her resemblance to Eiko. The film contrasts Tony's utilitarian view of the world with Eiko's appearance of superficiality. Tony's career as as commercial artist, reproducing objects with precise drawings and paintings is posited against his father's jazz which seems more spontaneous but is ultimately formulaic. The designer clothes that Eiko obsessively purchases function more as collected artwork, bought more for appearance than for actual use.

The film is extremely austere. Color is desaturated so that much of the film almost looks black and white, if not a palette of shades of gray with a dash of browns and blues. Ichikawa mostly uses long and medium shots, with extensive lateral tracking from one scene to another. The imagery is complimented by a solo piano score by Ryuichi Sakamoto which is somewhat repetitive, and reminiscent of George Winston's music.

If Tony Takitani concludes that following one's own path ultimately is a kind of trap or prison, Kamikaze Girls states that freedom is found only by following one's own path. The two films work together as cinematic yin and yang. While Tony Takitani is almost Bressonian, Kamikaze Girls is fully post-Tarantino, with some of the whimsy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Nakashima's film bursts with super saturated colors, loud rock music and anime. The two girls, Momoko and Ichigo, define themselves by very specific clothes that represent distinct youth sub-cultures. The film's Japanese title refers to a town, Shimostuma, known for growing cabbage. The town is sixty miles from Tokyo, which makes it a remote Disneyland of fashion and culture. Nakashima makes fun of small town life, centered on shopping at the Wal-Mart type store and playing pachinko. While Eiko in Tony Takitani buys designer clothes, many of Kamikaze Girls characters are happy scrambling to purchase cheap knock-off t-shirts, oblivious to the mispelled "Versach" in big letters. Momoko is as obsessed a consumer of "Lolita" style clothing.

Momoko wishes she was in 18th Century France, sticking to herself until Ichigo, a biker girl with the mouth and attitude of Sonny Chiba, imposes herself on the skeptical Momoko. The two aren't exactly friends but create an alliance based on rebellion against their small town. Clothing serves as both a statement of identity and a shield, until the two girls take on aspects of each other. At one point when the pair are in one of Tokyo's fashion districts, Momoko, in voice-over states: "Fashion was my teacher. It taught me how to live. When I see clothes I want to become worthy of them." In Kamikaze Girls, at least for Momoko, the sense of fashion that isolated her in her small town is also the vehicle for her freedom to live on her own terms.

Posted by peter at 08:20 PM | Comments (2)

January 15, 2006

Betty Blue

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37.2 Le Matin
Jean-Jacques Beineix - 1986
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

It's been almost twenty years since I saw Betty Blue in a theater. I can't really point out the differences between the complete three hour version and the two hour version I saw other than that the film feels more leisurely than I recall. There is more time devoted to the other characters. I can't even say if this version on DVD is more sexually explicit that the theatrical version. The question going through my mind during much of the film was, what ever happened to Jean-Jacques Beineix.

Beineix made his initial splash with Diva. The biggest surprise may have been that an exciting film could be made concerning a rabid opera fan and bootleg tapes. Moon in the Gutter turned out to be a disappointment in spite of starring Gerard Depardieu and Nattasja Kinski. That Betty Blue was sexually explicit even in its initial release did not prevent it from being an Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as a multiple nominee for the French Cesar Awards. Based on the descriptions of his films made since then, Beineix has not lived up to the promise of his earlier films. Still, one is surprised when a filmmaker who is the subject of critical praise falls off the radar so quickly and completely as Beineix has following Betty Blue.

The English language title is somewhat misleading as the character played by Beatrice Dalle is simply known as Betty. The film is about that favorite French subject, l'amour fou or "crazy love". Jacques Rivette even made a film titled L'Amour Fou. Truffaut's Story of Adele H. is covers the same emotional territory. Marco Bellochio's Devil in the Flesh, which I wrote about earlier, is similar in being an explicit film about mad, obsessive love. Beineix follows Dalle, as Betty, a waitress who moves in on Jean-Hugues Anglade, as Zorg, a handyman at a low-rent beach resort. Over time, the couple take on greater risks being with each other, with Betty's volititily initially counterbalanced by Zorg's reticence, which eventually gives way to responding to Betty with increasing extremes in taking risks or with anti-social behavior.

If Betty Blue isn't quite the masterpiece I remember, it is still worth watching as an examination of the outward and inward destructive impulses motivated by love at its most extreme. This was also the film that introduced Beatrice Dalle to the world. Beineix may not have had the career that he or his fans anticipated. Still, even if the name of the filmmaker is not remembered directly, the face of Beatrice Dalle guarantees that Beineix will not be totally forgotten.

Posted by peter at 06:57 PM | Comments (4)

January 14, 2006

Shelley Winters 1920-2006

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Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton - 1955
MGM Region 1 DVD

Posted by peter at 11:08 PM | Comments (1)

January 13, 2006

The Five Obstructions

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De Fem Benspnd
Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier - 2003
Koch Lorber Region 1 DVD

I had heard of Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth previously in relation to his documentary A Sunday in Hell, about a French bicycle race. Von Trier has been familiar since Breaking the Waves. I was intrigued by the premise of how the younger filmmaker would challenge the older in remaking a short film based on several specific, if arbitrary, rules. Leth proves to be of stronger stuff than some previous collaborators, with an immense sense of humor about himself and von Trier.

The original Leth short is an interesting piece of black and white formalism. The off-screen narration with the pointing out of body parts and rhetorical questions make the film seem like the work of an observer from outer space. The two people observed are seen wearing only black and white, or totally white, clothing against an infinite field of white. This creates a clinical quality, as if the couple in the film were part of a professional study.

The "rules" that von Trier places on Leth might be said to be a parody of Dogme 95. Of the challenges, the most ingenious response was to the rule to remake The Perfect Humna as a cartoon. While it is not explained how Leth got connected to Bob Sebiston, the animator best known for his work on Richard Linklater's Waking Life, this resulted in a happy collaboraton with a filmmaker who stated that he hates cartoons. The film concludes with Leth having faced all the obstructions von Trier can throw at him.

What The Five Obstructions points out is how the "rules" of filmmaking are abitrary. This was proven by Gus Van Sant's version of Psycho which was a literal shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's film. There is a quality to Hitchcock that withstands multiple viewings that is missing in the Van Sant film even when one is essentially seeing the same movie photographed in the same way. Andrew Sarris, in his Towards a Theory of Film History had the example of " . . . the strength of a John Ford is a function of the weakness of Robert Z. Leonard . . .". With Leth continually frustrating von Trier's attempt to force Leth into making a bad film, one also has to ask if the imposition of any rules forces the filmmaker to be more creative. Joel Schumaker's Tigerland certainly had several serious film observers wondering if other Hollywood directors might benefit from having the rules of Dogme 95 imposed on them. One can choose the advice of Frank Capra, a filmmaker who would probably have little patience with Dogville - "There are no rules in film making, only sins. And the cardinal sin is Dullness."

Posted by peter at 04:44 PM

January 11, 2006

Showgirls

Paul Verhoeven - 1995
MGM Region 1 DVD

What is it about Gina Gershon? It really didn't take much for her to steal Showgirls from Elizabeth Berkley. Berkley's character manages to be unlikable from the beginning of the film. Of course it doesn't help that the explanation for her hard attitude isn't offered until Showgirls last ten minutes. Berkley's appearance is also hard, as if she was dipped in body shellac. It's Gershon who pours on the charm, calling everyone "darlin'", showing off a great big smile between two very full lips.

Viewing the DVD today was my first time with Showgirls since its initial theatrical release. I may be pushing a bit here, but Gershon made me think of Barbara Stanwyck. Neither woman is conventionally attractive, but both are compelling as screen personas. It's more that the fact that Stanwyck also played a kind of showgirl in Lady of Burlesque. Even in her role as Cristal in Showgirls, I could easily imagine Gerson palling around with the professors of Ball of Fire, or riding around the old west with a whip in her hand in Forty Guns. Too few films have taken advantage of Gershon, notably Bound, Demonlover and Prey for Rock & Roll.

Which brings me to screenplay writer Joe Eszterhas. In the "Making of . . ." featurette, Eszterhas describes Showgirls as "a rock and roll musical". This is a pretty astonishing statement. Sure, the soundtrack is composed by David A. Stewart, and a song by Prince is used but, Eszterhas, a former staffer at "Rolling Stone" should know better. A rock and roll musical is Jailhouse Rock, A Hard Day's Night, or even Rocky Horror Picture Show. What is also suspect is that Showgirls main character is Nomi, and Eszterhas' wife's name is Naomi. Be that as it may, Showgirls combines Eszterhas' fantasies about professional dancing in Flashdance with a topping of his sapphic fantasies from Basic Instinct. Unlike the superficial and silly films he is best known for, it is notable that Ezsterhas's best, and most personal work, is titled Telling Lies in America.

The America of Showgirls is about consumerism. Others have noted that aspect of the film. Cocaine, champagne, double-patty hamburgers, designer clothes and cars all are prominently featured. The film also suggests that behind the glitter, are much humbler lives of the supporting players. Nomi's friend Molly lives in a trailer park, while would-be choreographer James lives in a run down neighborhood.

And is it just me, or does anyone else think that William Shockley looks like an American Idol?

Paul Verhoeven may not have made his best film here, but Showgirls fully anticipates an America where image, no matter how false, is the only reality.

Posted by peter at 02:16 PM | Comments (5)

January 10, 2006

Two early films by Ingmar Bergman

To Joy/Till Gladje
Ingmar Bergman - 1950
Tartan Video PAL Region 0 DVD

Summer Interlude/Sommarlek
Ingmar Bergman - 1951
Tartan Video PAL Region 0 DVD

There's a moment in Summer Interlude where Maj-Britt Nilsson asks her young suitor, "Do you like wild strawberries?". While there is unintended humor in that line, Summer Interlude also has scenes of intentional humor. One surprising example of this is a scene with Nilsson drawing a cartoon picture of herself and Birgir Malmsten on a record sleeve. The picture becomes animated, somewhat like the early work of Max Fleischer, with the characters being physically elastic and shapes shifting from one form to another. While I have seen most of Ingmar Bergman's films from Summer with Monika, I figured I owed it to myself to see some more early films that are now available on DVD.

In some ways, the two films are not surprising. Themes regarding the meaning of life and art are explored. Relationships are volitile and combustible. Bergman uses several of the same actors in both films as he was to constantly throughout his career. Some of the images would be repeated in other films, such as the use of silhouette long shots. A scene of people dancing outside at night, underneath paper lanterns and fireworks anticipates Smiles of a Summer Night. Even bits of dialogue would appear in future films, such as when Nilsson, following the accidental death of her lover, declares in her anger that "God is dead".

Both films are about artists. To Joy follows a violinist's crisis both as a musician and husband. Early in the film, the violinist, Stig (Stig Olin) gets drunk and insists that the only good art is totally serious. If Olin seems to be speaking on behalf of Bergman, Philip Strick's notes with the DVD explain how biographical To Joy is. In the role of Stig's mentor and conductor is Victor Sjostrom, who was occassionally Bergman's mentor in filmmaking. The film seems to reflect Bergman's uncertainties as a filmmaker. Stig's desire to be a soloist and to achieve greater professional recognition was not disimilar to Bergman's desire for greater artistic and commercial success. In the case of To Joy, the film was not released outside of Sweden until Bergman began achieving greater critical recognition, although it was never released theatrically in the U.S. Taking the use of music as a stand-in for film, Sjostrom reminds Olin that "music is the goal, not the means".

Summer Interlude is one of Bergman's films about memory. In this case, Nilsson plays Maria, a ballet dancer who receives the diary of her first lover. Most of the film is about Maria's meeting with Henrik, a university student, and the evolution from friendship to love. As he would do so in later films, Bergman contrasts the lives of people on and off stage. The linking of love and death is echoed in the featuring of Swan Lake as the ballet, expertly framed by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer. Both To Joy and Summer Interlude offer similar conclusions. In both films, the main character reflects on the tragedies of lost love, and affirm themselves by immersing themselves in their art.

Posted by peter at 05:34 PM | Comments (2)

January 09, 2006

A Tale of the Cinema

Geuk Jang Jeon
Hong Sang-soo - 2005
Woosung Entertainment Region 3 DVD

I jumped into seeing a film by Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-Soo without being familiar with any of his previous work. This has to do with my continued interest in any movies that are in some way about movies.

The film is made up of two parts. The first is a story about a young man who decides to commit suicide with a young woman, a former high school classmate. The second part of the film is about a young man who has watched the film and his attempt to make his life parallel art. There are small reminders of the French New Wave with a title that recalls some of Eric Rohmer's films, first person narration frequently found with Truffaut, and a narrative that somewhat Godardian without name dropping.

In the first part, after a night of awkward sex and much drinking, the young man, Sang-Won, and the young woman, Yong-sil, attempt suicide by ingesting a lot of sleeping pills. Yong-sil can not hold down the pills and calls Sang-Won's home to let them know of his condition. Sitting with his family, Sang-Won explains his motivation is due to his inability to communicate with his mother. Sang-Won is last seen running out to the rooftop of his apartment, standing by the edge. The music from the final scene in the first part is continued, with the sound muffled, as the film cuts to a shot of a movie theater lobby. The first film has become a film within a film, and the subject of the second part of A Tale. The second part follows Tongsu, a former film student and his encounters with the actress who plays Yong-Sil, also named Yong-Sil. While some scenes in the second part are variations of the first part, the second part also works as a critique of the linking of art and life.

With the second part of the film, Hong seems to be criticizing notions of misplaced romantism, in particular the romance that is linked with suicide. Also, Hong deflates the concept of life reflecting art and vice-versa. Sex is awkward, relationships of any kind are uncomfortable, and characters seek opportunities to avoid each other. Creating art may be important, but creating one's own life is of the greatest value.

Posted by peter at 03:49 PM

January 08, 2006

Clouds

The Wayward Cloud/Tian Bian Yi Duo Yu
Tsai Ming-Liang - 2005
Deltamac Region 0 DVD

Drifting Clouds/Kauas Pilvet Karkaavat
Aki Kaurismaki - 1996
Sandrew Metronome PAL Region 2 DVD

"I've looked at clouds from both sides now." - Joni Mitchell

Yesterday I saw Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice by Paul Mazursky. In the DVD supplement, Mazursky talks about how little silence there is in current American films. Bob and Carol, released in 1969, is loaded with silent moments, usually those awkward moments when the characters are not sure what to say to each other. The high point of Mazursky's film is near the end when the four title characters find themselves in bed together only to come to the realization that they are more comfortable with certain traditions regarding marriage and relationships.

I bring this point up because Tsai and Kaurismaki make extensive use of silence and scenes with lack of dialogue. There is also some similarity in their sense of the absurd, and deadpan sense of humor. I am a bit more familiar with Tsai having seen most of his films, primarily on DVD, although I did see What Time is it Over There? theatrically. I am just beginning to know Kaurismaki's films.

Tsai's films are less concerned with a dramatic arc. Lee Kang Sheng, the street vendor from Time returns as a part-time porno actor involved with two women. What makes the film memorable is not the episodic narrative, but Tsai's extreme and unanticipated imagery. The film opens with Lee, a woman, and a large half of watermelon between her legs. One of the several musical numbers combines the music of Tennessee Ernie Ford and fashion sense that Madonna might have found extreme. One very funny number could almost be called "The Umbrellas of Taipei". There are others who can discuss Tsai with greater articulation than I can. Even though I don't have the enthusiasm for Tsai's films that some other have, I still appreciate certain moments in his films that make me glad I took the time.

Kaurismaki is more conventional, but not by that much. In this and Man without a Past, we have stories of people who find themselves virtually down and out. Drifting Clouds is about a middle aged couple who find themselves unemployed. Kaurismaki's couple is expressionless, whether briefly looking at their new color television before going to bed, or realizing that what little money they had is gone after visiting a casino. At one point the husband yells for his money back in a movie theater until the cashier reminds him that he came in for free. The wife takes a job at a small restaurant where she takes the order, yells to an unseen cook, only to walk in the kitchen to do the cooking. Kaurismaki has affection for his characters, in spite of their pride and silliness. In a Kaurasmaki film, even the least photogenic of characters deserve lives with happy endings.

Posted by peter at 07:36 PM | Comments (1)

January 07, 2006

Yiddle with a Fiddle

Yidl Mitn Fidl
Joseph Green and Jan Nowina-Przybylski - 1936
Ergo Media DVD

My mother was the second-string film critic for The Denver Post about twenty years ago. Being the kind of person who almost never turns down the chance to see a movie for free, I'd see films with her as my schedule would permit. One of the films we saw was Cannonball Run, back when Burt Reynolds was the top star in Hollywood. We both liked the previous film Reynolds had done with director Hal Needham, Hooper, a tribute to movie stuntmen. The description of the new film sounded funny, with an all-star cast in a cross-country car race, featuring Roger Moore as Seymour Goldfarb, Jr., a guy who thinks he's really James Bond. Then we actually saw the movie.

It's been almost twenty-five years so my memories of Cannonball Run are a bit faint. But what I do remember is that after a sort of dumb but sort of funny beginning, there is a scene with Moore and his mother, played by Molly Picon. I recall Picon doing the stereotypical nagging mother bit, ending with Moore turning around to say, "Mother, you're too Jewish". A few people in the audience laughed. I wasn't one of them. My mother stayed in her seat out of professional obligation. As hard as he tried, Dom DeLuise as masked superhero Captain Chaos, couldn't save this movie.

At the time I saw Cannonball Run, I really had no idea who Molly Picon was, other than as a character actress seen in the film versions of Come Blow Your Horn and Fiddler on the Roof. I learned much more about her in J. Hoberman's book, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds. Not unlike Bruce Lee, who went to Hong Kong in order to be a movie star, or Selena, who had to learn Spanish before "crossing over" with her first English language hit song, Molly Picon went to Europe to establish herself as a star of New York City's Yiddish theater. At the height of her Yiddish theater stardom, Picon turned down invitations to work on Broadway.

Yiddle with a Fiddle is one of two Yiddish features that Picon made. While I don't know enough about stories of girls disguised as boys being typical of Yiddish literature, the film shares some similarities with Yentl and was released not long after the first novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. As Hoberman explains, Yiddle was something of a showcase for Picon as part of her stage act was to pretend to be a boy, do broad physical comedy and of course, sing. The slight story concerns Picon pretending to be the son of her poor musician father. Homeless, the two strike out as traveling musicians who form a quartet with two other musicians. Picon falls in love with the handsome Froym who thinks his new friend is an effeminate male. Yiddle is silly and sentimental, with an ending that can be anticipated not long after the movie starts.

The reason to watch Yiddle is to get a glimpse of Picon as a performer. The film is also something of a documentary, having been shot on location in Poland. With parts of the film taking place in the country, where horse drawn carts were the only mode of transportation, I almost forgot that Yiddle was taking place in what was then the present day Poland. The DVD includes audio interviews with Picon and co-director Green, most of which are included in Hoberman's book.

Bridge of Light is simultaneously a history of Yiddish language films and a history of those Jews who primarily spoke Yiddish in Eastern Europe and New York City. In part, I felt like I was reading about the history of my maternal grandparents who continued to speak Yiddish to each other. (When I made her upset, my grandmother would share a few choice Yiddish words with me.) If there is a lesson from Hoberman, it would be that even films thought marginal for artistic or commercial reasons can still be of great value as part of one's own history.

Posted by peter at 06:39 PM

January 05, 2006

"The Last" of Michael Caine

The Last Valley
James Clavell - 1971
MGM Region 1 DVD

Last Orders
Fred Schepisi - 2001
Columbia Region 1 DVD

A few days ago, GreenCine Daily noted that the British Film Institute was presenting a retrospective of films starring Michael Caine. I already had a couple of films in my Netflix queue representing two different points in his career. The films are also contrasts in extremes, the historical epic and the intimate character study.

I didn't bother to see The Last Valley theatrically for a couple of reasons. Like a lot of film students at that time, my film choices were frequently based directors that Andrew Sarris considered worthy. His description of James Clavell as a director was hardly flattering - "sub-Fuller, or super-Kramer". Additionally, the film seemed very old fashioned at a time when the "new" Hollywood represented by Arthur Penn, John Cassavetes and Bob Rafelson were in release. Although The Last Valley is flawed by questionable casting, the issues raised and actions depicted are especially interesting given our current political and religious climate.

While The Last Valley takes place in Germany during the Thirty Years War, the casting probably reflects international financing. In addition to Egyptian Omar Sharif, and Swede Per Oscarrson, there is Florinda Balkan a Brazilian star of Italian movies. Caine slips in and out of a Cockney-German accent as The Captain, the leader of a band of soldiers of varied Christian beliefs. What makes The Last Valley in some ways more vital now than it may have been at the time of release is that Clavell has plainly questioned Christianity in its various manifestations based on the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, as well as the factions that divide Protestants. In 1970, when the film was made and released, it was more certainly seen by the makers and the intended audience as an expression of pacifism, if not a parable about Viet-Nam. At a time when international conflicts and concepts of culture are defined and informed by absolutism in faith, The Last Valley seems strikingly fearless in being critical of the relationship of Church and State, irregardless of which church and which state. In one of their several philosophical discussions, Sharif, the pacifist looking to survive by avoiding conflict, learns that he may have lost his family to soldiers lead by Caine. Caine further explains that he also lost his family, and that the war has been a series of revenge based actions in an unending cycle, based initially on different expressions of Christian faith, but now on behalf of church leaders and royalty seeking land and influence. While some of the dialogue including Caine's expressions of non-belief may be too modern for a film that takes place in the early 17th Century, Clavell's view of the Thirty Years War is somewhat as symbolic as it was portrayed in the play Mother Courage. The Last Valley also provides are radical contrast to Ridely Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. The two films reflect the times and production conditions under which they were made. But The Last Valley, Clavell's last film that he directed before becoming a full-time novelist, is also the more personal film. Clavell as an artist, like his characters, prefered to answer to no one but himself.

The main joys of Last Orders are seeing three screen icons from the Sixties: Caine, David Hemmings, and Tom Courtenay together. Caine's Mona Lisa co-star, Bob Hoskins, and Helen Mirren are relative newbies in comparison while Ray Winstone is the baby of this group. The film is about three friends meeting to dispose of the ashes of the fourth friend, Jack. The narrative is interspersed with scenes showing the friends lives from 1939 through 1989 in relation to Jack based on emotional, rather than chronological, cues. While Caine has evolved into a comforting presence in this stage of his career, he also does more actual acting in Last Call, than in something like Batman Begins. Sometimes you watch a film for no other reason than to see a group of actors enjoy their craft and sharing the screen with each other.

Posted by peter at 04:01 PM

January 04, 2006

Dead of Winter

Arthur Penn - 1987
MGM Region 1 DVD

After almost twenty years after the initial theatrical release, I decided I should get around to seeing the last film Arthur Penn made that received a decent release. My excuses for not seeing Dead of Winter when it came out were in reaction to the negative reviews for this film. As I recall, Roger Ebert was particularly upset about part of the film which seemed very uncharacteristic of Penn's films. While Dead of Winter seems out of place in a filmography that includes The Chase, Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, in some ways the film is not too distant from Mickey One.

Maybe I am being a bit facile here, but both films share protagonists, a stand-up comic and an actress, who are best marginally successful, who are put in life threatening situations that force them to take on alternate personas, that is, to pretend to be other than who they really are. The big difference is that while Warren Beatty was running loose throughout Chicago, Mary Steenburgen is limited to the confines of a large house and part of the surrounding woods. Steenburgen thinks she is auditioning for a independent movie to be produced by her host, Jan Rubes, and his assistant, Roddy McDowell. As the film progresses, Steenburgen realizes she is unknowingly playing a part in Rubes' play.

Dead of Winter strongly resembles a Hitchcock film, albeit less slavishly than had Brian De Palma directed. The film opens with a scene of a woman driving with a suitcase of money, presumably ill gained, stopped by the police only to be informed that a headlight is out. Mary Steenburgen is supposedly hired to replace an actress that she resembles. There is even a close-up of a suspicious glass of milk delivered by McDowell to Steenburgen. Even if a visual reference to Notorious was missed by the audience, the cribbing from Psycho and Vertigo can't totally be obscured by having a brunette for the female lead, or by hiding the dead body in the attic. Many of the shots include various kinds of mirror images and doubling. Fortunately, Richard Einhorn's score does not include shrieking violins.

Even if Dead of Winter does not look like an Arthur Penn film, the acting is sustained by what is essentially a cast of three. Rubes and McDowell are suitably creepy. If Steenburgen lacks the kind of beauty associated with a Hitchock or Hitchcockian film, she does have the ability to play three roles with enough shading to distinguish them. Arthur Penn may have been a hired gun on Dead of Winter, but in spite of what the characters do to each other, Penn cannot be accused of hackwork.

Posted by peter at 06:41 PM | Comments (4)

January 03, 2006

The Duel at Silver Creek

Don Siegel - 1952
Universal Region 1 DVD

Darn that Ang Lee! Brokeback Mountain will probably do more damage to westerns than anything Leslie Fiedler ever wrote. Still, there are bits and pieces that may or may not have been intentional, but they are certainly suspect.

While Deborah Allison has not included anything on Duel in her analysis of Siegel in Senses of Cinema, the film is certainly consistent as a Siegel film. Even more so than Invasion of the Body Snatchers, no one can be trusted. This distrust begins by having most of the characters known by nicknames and aliases which to a certain degree can be interpreted as a form of disguise. Illegal acts are committed in the name of upholding the law. Alliances are formed and broken based on misreadings or misrepresentations. Even if the audience knows that Audie Murphy is the good guy because he is after all Audie Murphy, he still has to prove himself to Marshal Tyrone (Stephen McNally), better known as Lightnin'. Murphy and McNally are after a gang of claim jumpers who have murdered miners after forcing them to sign over their claims. As the villains, Faith Domergue and Gerald Mohr are the kind of siblings who possibly gave inspiration to Dirk Bogarde and Sarah Miles.

Not to mistake this film for an undiscovered classic, but there Duel has its moments crammed into the brief seventy-six minute running time. Lee Marvin is initially unrecognizable with dark hair and mustache, taking insult at being called "Sheep Dip" by Murphy. Stephen McNally demonstrates how he upholds law and order by calling a hired gun "Rat Face" before tossing him into a large window. One has to wonder if someone is joking with the audience by having an old gunslinger named "Pop" Muzik.

Now it should be noted that through most of this movie, Audie Murphy is wearing an unusually fashionable leather jacket. Mohr makes a comment to Domergue about Murphy being "very attractive". Murphy and McNally also have confrontations with Eugene Iglesias as Johnny Sombrero, a would-be bad-ass in gaudy clothing and a very big hat. The character and the clothing virually anticipate a future screen cliche. Some may argue that McNally's change of gun hand was an innocent plot point, but one could also argue that this may be an intentional signifier of another kind of switch. The film closes with Murphy smooching tomboy Susan Cabot in the outlaws' hideout. When McNally peaks in to say that he and his posse are "pulling out", I was thankful that whatever they were doing was safely off-screen.

Posted by peter at 02:04 PM

January 02, 2006

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Xiao Cai Feng
Dai Sijie - 2002
Empire Pictures DVD

Dai Sijie's film from his autobiographical novel slowly found its way to limited U.S. theatrical distribution and finally to DVD. I remember seeing a clip of the film almost three years ago when it was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. This is one of those times when the Hollywood Foreign Press would actually prove to have better taste than the Academy Awards, especially considering the consistently awful choices for Best Foreign Language Film. For some reason, Balzac did not get distribution in the U.S. until this year, even though the novel has been a critical and popular success. Even though the film is adapted from his novel, Dai, with co-screenwriter Nadine Perront, made several changes so that Balzac is not an exact filmic transcription.

The film takes place in 1971 during the Chinese cultural revolution. Luo and Ma, the seventeen year old sons of intellectuals have been sent to a remote mountain village to work and live among the peasants for their "re-education". The community that Luo and Ma are in is so remote that most villagers are illiterate, and anything unknown is likely to be from the bourgeoise West. Ma explains that Luo's "toy", a violin, is a musical instrument, and the sonota by Mozart is actually "Mozart thinking about Chairman Mao". After literally stumbling upon the discovery of a group of young women bathing, one of the girls, the seamstress (no name is given) tells Luo and Ma about a secret cache of Western books. The books are found, and the boys secretly read Balzac, Dumas and Dostoevski as well as secretly read to the seamstress. Additionally, the seamstress learns to read.

Dai very obviously states through his characters that his theme is the transformative power of art. Still one is intrigued because of the portrayal of a controversial part of Chinese history, and because Dai explores how culture is presented and valued. Dai is interested in the meaning of the narrative, whether it is in a novel, a film or a folk song. One of Ma's responsibilities is to see a movie in the larger village and report back to local community. The movie is usually a tale of the proletariat from North Korea. The seamstress comments on how Ma's retelling of the movies, which eventually become disguised retellings of the forbidden novels, are better than the movies themselves.

Dai's novel was originally written in French. The romantic triangle was created by Dai for the novel. A filmmaker before he became a novelist, Dai's story bears some resemblance to Jules and Jim in showing a relationship that is only sustainable as a trio. Luo and Ma's education of the seamstress not only frees her from viewing life only from the confines of her tiny village and the teachings of Chairman Mao, but also gives her a sense of freedom from her "liberators". The film concludes with the remote villages being submerged by a new artificially created lake. It's as if to say that while China may try to hide or wash away parts of its troubled past, it is the role of artists to preserve history.

Posted by peter at 12:16 AM | Comments (1)

January 01, 2006

Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big Eight

Michael McNamara - 2004
Markham Street Films Region 0 DVD

Happy New Year! I am inaugurating 2006 with a new DVD that was released last week.

There was a time when rock radio was very important to me. This began in the early Sixties when it seemed like every kid had there own transistor radio. That radio was usually tuned in on one specific radio station. When I started listening, in the summer of 1963, sometimes for hours at a time, I would listen to WLS which was the major Chicago radio station. A couple of years later, when I moved to Denver, the radio station was KIMN. The playlists were a bit broader then, sometimes reflecting regional tastes, and the disc jockeys were regarded like major stars. I switched to the FM dial and "free-form" rock radio in late 1968. For my first couple of years at NYU, I had the opportunity to be a disc jockey on the school radio station. I happily played Jackie Lomax and Captain Beefheart, while my loyal listeners, a group of fellow dorm Freshmen would regularly call to request the Mick Jagger parody, "I Can't Get No Nookie" by The Masked Marauders.

I still enjoy movies and television shows about radio stations and disc jockeys. Radio Revolution is a documentary that originally was made for Canadian television. Even if one takes some of the statements made about radio station CKLW with a grain of salt, it is still a worthwhile reminder of a time when one heard a broader range of pop and rock music that was shared with a wider audience.

The majority of the film is about CKLW during during the radio station's most popular years from about 1965 through 1978. "The Big 8" refers to the station being on AM 800. Based in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, the majority of listeners were in the Detroit metro area. CKLW became THE station in the mid-Sixties after adapting a format created by Bill Drake which emphasised playing more music, with less banter from the disc jockeys. One of the more interesting stories within the film is about Rosalie Trombley, a part-time secretary who rose to become a music director of such acute taste that other radio stations would follow her lead. Ms. Trombley was reportedly immune to payola, unless you want to count being treated to lunch by The Guess Who. As a show of unquestionable integrity, CKLW was the only station not to play Bob Seger's song about Trombley, "Rosalie". The other interesting story is about the news unit, which had an exceptionally large staff of twenty-four, covering Windsor and Detroit. The delivery of the news was formatted into a hyper style to integrate it as a piece with the music and on-air personalities. There was emphasis on alliteration and colloquial verbage, including one reporter's appeal for news tips, be they "birdbaths or bloodbaths".

The station's popularity declined due to a government mandate to play at least 30% Canadian music. Even without the sales of the station to Canadian owners and changes in the playlist, it is still pretty likely that CKLW would have joined other AM stations with the all-talk format. Still, it is entertaining to watch a parade of talking heads that includes Alice Cooper, Wayne Kramer, and Tony Orlando. Most of the extras are padded versions of scenes in the film, though there is one funny deleted scene involving Rufus Thomas and his song and dance, The Funky Chicken.

Based on the clips from their other films, Radio Revolution is one of several idiosyncratic documentaries from Markam Street Films.

Posted by peter at 01:54 PM | Comments (1)