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February 26, 2006

Brothers

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Brodre
Susanne Bier - 2005
Universal Studios Region 1 DVD

After reading the news about Muslim rioting sparked by a Danish cartoon published last September, seeing a film about Danish involvement in the Middle East seemed more timely. This is not to say that I would have greater understanding of world events, but when you live in the United States, the news concerning military activity ignores or marginalizes the allied troops. Call me naive, but I wanted to express my support for Denmark.

Susanne Bier begins Brothers with a close up shot of an eye, a rippling pool of water, and a field of long grass. The film is about how reality is based on what is seen as well as not seen, both looking outward and inward. In addition to the first abstract shots used to open the narrative, Bier often shoots her characters using extreme close ups that reveal part of the face, again usually the eyes. Some of the stylistic influence of Dogme 95 can be readily seen, although the film thematically shares the concerns of family dynamics as in Breaking the Waves and The Celebration.

Brothers is in part about to brothers, the "good" brother in the Danish army, sent to Afghanistan, and the younger, unsuccessful brother. Bier primarily looks at the shifting relationships within the family, between spouses, siblings and parents. The title also can be taken in its usage signifying relationships between soldiers. Part of the narrative shifts locations, between cool blue Copenhagen and the hot brown Middle East, with Spain standing in for Afghanistan. Bier and writing collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen are interested in how traumatic events affect people individually as well as the impact within the family unit. Characters are at war with themselves and each other, at home and abroad.

Connie Nielsen is something of a revelation in Brothers. Nielsen is given more of a chance to dominate a film as the young wife and mother fighting to keep peace within her family. One would hope she is given a similar opportunity in an English language film. Although Brothers shares some similarities with The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, the film plays out on a smaller, more intimate field making it the more effective, and affecting, film.

Posted by peter at 03:57 PM

February 25, 2006

Jerry Lewis - Deux Fois!

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The Stooge/Le Cabotin et son Compere
Norman Taurog - 1953
Paramount Pictures Region 1 DVD

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The Delicate Delinquent/Le Deliquant Involontaire
Don McGuire - 1957
Paramount Pictures Region 1 DVD

I admit to being a fan of Jerry Lewis. Not an uncritical fan. One of my literary treasures is a copy of Bonjour, Monsieur Lewis by Robert Benayoun that I got in 1975. Benayoun is the French film critic that Andrew Sarris refers to in The American Cinema in Sarris' essay on Lewis. I am extremely limited in my knowledge of French but the book is a great source in terms of its catalogue of Lewis work as an actor and director, including such unrealized projects as The Worst Robber who ever Lived (and We Don't Mean Maybe) and H-Bomb Beach Party.

The two films I just saw reinforce the opinion that the best Jerry Lewis films are those directed by Frank Tashlin or Lewis. The King of Comedy and Funny Bones aren't true Lewis vehicles, though they are both worth watching. The two Tashlin directed Martin & Lewis films, Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust, as well as some of the Tashlin films starring Lewis have yet to received DVD releases. For unknown reasons, these lesser Lewis films have recieved priority. While neither film will change the mind of those who think appreciation of Jerry Lewis is a French aberration, they do provide interesting commentary to the legend of Dean and Jerry.

One has to wonder if Martin and Lewis would have been in better films sooner had The Stooge not been shelved for almost two years. Even though the film is about a fictional team in the 1930s, The Stooge strikes quite close to some of the realities of Martin and Lewis both publicly and privately. This was the third film following At War with the Army in which Martin and Lewis received top billing, with Hollywood sensing Lewis' value as a star, and Lewis demanding better quality films. This was the first of several films Martin and Lewis did with director Norman Taurog, a filmmaker whose best films were well behind him. Martin and Lewis may have had long simmering issues well before their breakup, or writer Fred Finklehoffe wrote a prescient screenplay. I was reminded of the quote attributed to Martin where he tells Lewis that he is ". . . nothing but a meal ticket".

The Delicate Delinquent has a few chuckles. Don McGuire must have hoped to achieve mythic filmmaking by naming his characters Damon and Pythias. At least McGuire may have gotten a last laugh with Tootsie at the end of his career. Lewis, as Sidney Pythias is hardly a delinquent, and more of a guy who finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. Darren McGavin is street cop Mike Damon, the part originally marked for Dean Martin. The only singing is by Lewis doing "I'll Go My Way By Myself", a song better associated with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon. The few pleasures of The Delicate Delinquent are from seeing the young Frank Gorshin and perennial badass Richard Bakalyan as street punks. Shot one year before a famous broadway musical, the choreographed rumbles and jazzy score seem to anticipate some other delicate delinquents.

P.S. 2/26/06. This morning I read that Darren McGavin died. I feel somewhat awkward with the timing of my writing about The Delicate Delinquent. After doing a name link search at IMDb, I was reminded that McGavin and Don Knotts actually worked together on two Disney productions in the 70s, No Deposit, No Return and Hot Lead and Cold Feet. One could also point out that the legacy of McGavin and Knotts are linked in the most unsettling episode from The X-Files. The series, inspired by McGavin's Kolchak: The Night Stalker included the episode titled "Home", with small town sheriffs Andy and Barney.

One other bit of wild coincidence, with one degree of separation - the actress playing Lewis' mother in The Stooge is none other than Frances Bavier, best known as Aunt Bee to Don Knott's Barney Fife.

Posted by peter at 07:31 PM

February 24, 2006

Two by To

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Running on Karma/Daai Chek Liu
Johnny To & Wai Ka-Fai - 2003
Mei Ah Entertainment Region 0 DVD

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Election/Hak Seh Wui
Johnny To - 2005
Panorama Entertainment Region 0 DVD

Johnny To is one of the handful of Hong Kong filmmakers I am trying to get better acquainted with. The first of his films that I saw was The Heroic Trio which starred Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and the late, wonderfully hilarious Anita Mui. To's filmography lists both films on which he received solo director credit as well as those films where he shared credit. Based on what I have seen so far, To's solo films are consistently better.

Whether working solo, or in collaboration, To is esteemed in Hong Kong, where his films very consistently are nominated for the Hong Kong Film Awards as well as Hong Kong critics prizes. Election has been nominated for several Hong Kong Film Awards (disregard the typo on the year). While To is working with familiar subject matter, the Hong Kong Triads, the film is stylistically very disciplined and muted. The change in style is announced immediately with the guitar score by Lo Tayu. Beginning with the guitar solo, To presents a very domestic scene of older men sitting around talking, while their wives are playing mah jong in the background and children are occassionally running around. It isn't until the police enter to arrest the men for suspected Triad activity that one gets the first clue that Election is about gangsters.

What makes Election even more interesting is the context. The film is an indirect criticism of the handover of Hong Kong to the Peoples' Republic of China in that while self-rule has been curtailed in the Hong Kong government, the Triads have made a point of having elections of their chairmen for about one-hundred years. One could say that when elections are outlawed, only outlaws will have elections. To focuses on a Triad facing internecine conflict when Big D (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) attempts to undermine the election of Lok (Simon Yam). To concentrates more on the relationships between several generations of leaders within the Triad, and the twists and turns in expressing loyalty to certain people as well as the group in full.

While the film does have scenes of violence, To either films it from a distance or darkly lit. This choice is to keep Election more cerebral than visceral, to keep the viewer from easy identification with the characters. As the film progresses, one sees that To is critical of the Triads and the ideals they claim to represent, especially in regards to "family". Election is a very smart, character driven film.

Running on Karma is somewhat similar another film To made with Wai, My Left Eye sees Ghosts. In the newer film, Andy Lau is a former Buddhist monk with the ability to see peoples karma. By literally bumping into an escaped killer, he gets involved helping policewoman Cecilia Cheung catch some criminals. Lau feels conflicted about how to save Chueng after seeing her karma several times. Although he won a Best Actor award, Lau goes through most of the film wearing a bulked up body suit. Adding to the distraction of seeing Lau appearing with an outsized physique, are several nude scenes showing off his fake body. The concept of karma and references to Buddhism are relatively generic here. As a Buddhist, this kind of stuff is admittedly of major interest to me. Even within the context of the film, some parts of the narrative don't make sense. The best parts of Running on Karma involve a contortionist killer who can hide in very small spaces. In other words, what is requested here is the suspension of disbelief.

Posted by peter at 06:23 PM

February 21, 2006

Jon Stewart: The Oscar Host on Screen

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Playing by Heart
Willard Carroll - 1998
Miramax Home Video Region 1 DVD

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Death to Smoochy
Danny DeVito - 2002
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Ever since I saw one of his specials on HBO, I've wanted Eddie Izzard to host the Academy Awards. Not only was he truly funny during the course of his show, he actually looks better in a dress than Whoopi Goldberg. For some reason, the producers feel they need a "name" to host the award show, while I have always assumed that the show itself was the reason you watched.

Having both credentials as a screen actor and a stand-up comic, the Academy chose to give Jon Stewart a chance to host the Oscar show this year. I'll probably miss Chris Rock, but I'm willing to give Stewart a chance based on my occassional viewing of The Daily Show. Stewart is insightful and makes me laugh at times. I figured that prior to seeing him host the awards show, I would take a look back at a couple of the films he acted in, just to make sure I hadn't missed anything.

I first reviewed Stewart's filmography. I forgot that he was in Big Daddy, a film a caught one night on cable. (Am I the only one who thinks the basic premise was barrowed from Nick Hornby's About a Boy?). The films I did see were not better, and Stewart, enjoyable as he can be cracking wise on the state of the U.S.A., is not very memorable as an actor. In Playing by Heart, Stewart has the task of holding his own against Gillian Anderson. The film is even more of a chore to watch with overly theatrical dialogue that gets in the way of enjoying Angelina Jolie, Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands. Anderson portrays a stage director with movie posters throughout her house. Playing by Heart was pretty much over for me when I found myself gazing wistfully at the poster for Peyton Place, a much more watchable film.

The critical consensus that Death to Smoochy is unfunny is correct. DeVito has proven himself with black comedy primarily with War of the Roses. There are a few interesting connections to note: Smoochy was written by Adam Resnick, a staff writer for former Oscar host David Letterman, and writer of Cabin Boy. DeVito directed Billy Crystal in Throw Momma from the Train. Stewart and Chris Rock appeared in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. While Vincent Schiaveli blows away Stewart in his few minutes of screen time, hopefully Stewart will have a few zingers for the Academy Awards.

In doing research, I noticed that in his only film appearance, Johnny Carson appeared as himself in the forgotten Sixties musical Looking for Love. In these times when we will be inundated with Brokeback Mountain jokes, it's awkward to look back at a time when, without irony, there could be a film with a character named Gaye Swinger.

Posted by peter at 06:30 PM

February 20, 2006

The Missing

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I don't know much about the financial side of marketing and manufacturing DVDs. There are people who, in theory, can explain why certain films are available and others are not. Even though the DVD market is dominated by consumers who want to own their own copies of films that played recently at the multiplex, there are also those niche customers who want to see something else. These customers are usually the ones who went to art and revival theaters back when they existed, to see a film with subtitles, or a film made before certain technical innovations became commonplace, like color or even sound. For some of us, there are films that exist as "holy grails" as it were, films that are unavailable on DVD or even tape that we would love to see.

Today's piece is in response to Girish who requested that readers list one movie they would love to see that is currently unavailable on DVD or tape. I know that I couldn't limit myself to one title, and I doubt most people who have both a wide and deep love of film could either. While it still coming out as a trickle, it appears that the major studios have begun to realize that there are people who want to see their older films. Maybe the studio bean counters noticed that Criterion and Anchor Bay were making money on the titles that the studios closed their books on. The problem is not just with Hollywood films, as there are older foreign films that are unavailable as well. Joyce Shen of NoShame, pictured above, is much appreciated for her work in broadening scholarship on Italian cinema, as well as putting me on the screener list when my site was in the planning stages. While it would be absurd to think that a list of ten films not currently available on DVD will change anytime soon, perhaps if fellow writers/critics/bloggers created lists, a tipping point may be created to get a few more films out of the vaults and onto our home screens. My list, while admittedly personal, is no more or less abitrary than the fact that there are more films on DVD by Jean Rollin than there are by Frank Borzage. My ten choices are below.

1. A Man's Castle (Frank Borzage - 1933). As gorgeous as she looks photographed by Edward Steichen, Loretta Young never looked hotter than when she was 19 years old, a waif protected by Spencer Tracy in this Depression era classic. For Borzage, even the poor and homeless had their dreams and dignity.

2. Le Diable au Corps (Claude Autant-Lara - 1946). The novel by Raymond Radiguet is considered a classic. NoShame reissued Marco Bellochio's film which was inspired by the novel. This film is not available in France in any format. A nice still of Gerard Philipe and Micheline Presle is available on a paperback version of the novel.

3. The Damned (Joseph Losey - 1963). Did Joe Losey and Anthony Burgess know each other? This film came out the same year as Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange. This very unusual Hammer production features Oliver Reed as the menacing biker of a not-to-distant future.

4. Omicron (Ugo Gregoretti - 1963). Ugo Gregoretti was the "G" from the anthology film RoGoPaG. I saw this science fiction comedy by chance one day at the New Yorker theater back in 1970. I keep hoping to find out if this film is as hilarious as I remember it.

5. Bachelor Flat (Frank Tashlin - 1962). What's it going to take for 20th-Century Fox to release their Frank Tashlin films? There is a British version of The Girl Can't Help It with commentary by John Waters. Tashlin takes a friendly poke at CinemaScope with Jessica Dachshund scampering across the wide screen.

6. Japanese War Bride (King Vidor - 1952). Donald Ritchie vetoed including this film as part of the Museum of Modern Art's King Vidor retrospective. Of course I want to see this!

7. Shanghai Zhi Ye/Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark - 1984). Tsui is fairly well represented on DVD, but I would still love to be able to see this musical comedy with Kenny Bee and Sylvia Chang.

8. Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (Jean Renoir - 1959). Who doesn't want to see a horror movie by Jean Renoir?

9. Under the Red Robe (Victor Sjostrom - 1937). Sjostrom's last film as a director. Fun to watch and a reminder of who the old man in Wild Strawberries really was, Sweden's first great filmmaker.

10. It's Trad, Dad! (Richard Lester - 1962). Richard Lester and the British pop music scene, before they met The Beatles.

Posted by peter at 03:17 PM | Comments (4)

February 18, 2006

Death Walks Twice around the Block

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Death Walks on High Heels/La Morte Cammina con i Tacchi Alti
Luciano Ercoli - 1971
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

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Death Walks at Midnight/La Morte Accarezza a Mezzanotte
Luciano Ercoli - 1972
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

Death walks at a somewhat leisurely pace in both of these films. Both films share the same cast and crew, although the characters are different. While both films have elements of the giallo genre, there is a greater emphasis on relationships between killers and victims that are seemingly unrelated. Both films were co-written by the prolific Ernesto Gastaldi, and actually have twist endings following careful explanations about who did what to whom.

Luciano Ercoli has a nice sense of composition, and makes use of wife Susan Scott's expressive eyes as the films' damsel in distress. High Heels has a somewhat more original story involving missing jewels, with Scott as a stripper on the run with kindly doctor Frank Wolff. The narrative digresses long enough for us to see Scott perform two different striptease acts. The scariest part of the film is not the brutal and graphic murder, but a scene depicting eye surgery. It's not Un Chien Andalou but whenever there's a scene involving eyes and surgical instruments, I'll always tense up.

Death Walks at Midnight owes a bit to Mario Bava with elements from The Girl who Knew to Much and Blood and Black Lace forming the basis for the film. Scott has accidentally witnessed a murder and can't convince the police of what she has seen. The ending resolves several seemingly unrelated plot strands fairly cleanly. Ercoli is evocative in the locations - Scott's apartment dominated by a huge photo of Scott as a fashion model, an artist's studio cluttered with his wooden sculptures, the empty apartment directly across from Scott's, and the gallery where the artist friend is showing his work.

Both films are stolen by character actor Luciano Rossi. Merely creepy in High Heels, Rossi delights as a manic killer in Midnight, cackling with laughter in almost all of his scenes, a performance that reminds one of Klaus Kinski.

The two movies are part of a package that includes a CD of film music by Stelvio Cipriani. Unlike the other NoShame releases, there are no interviews. There is, for the completist, a television version of Death Walks at Midnight which pales against the color correct and wide screen original film.

Posted by peter at 06:41 PM

February 17, 2006

The Song Remains the Same

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Girish discusses The Beatles' Let It Be today. My own take is that it's of interest to watch in witnessing The Beatles in their final days. The high point for me was the concert they performed on the rooftop to a surprised audience of pedestrians until the police intervene. My preference for The Beatles on film is firmly with their collaborations with Richard Lester, A Hard Day's Night and Help!.

Both films were commercial and critical successes. Richard Lester's style appropriated both the nascent direct cinema and French Nouvelle Vague for a wider and younger Anglo-American audience, and has been influential on filmmakers forty years later. In spite of the fact that the songs used in A Hard Day's Night and Help! were original compositions written for their respective films, none of the songs rated Academy Award nominations. Talk about Hollywood squares!

In 1964, the Best Song was "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from Mary Poppins. I will admit that this was the high point for Disney musicals, and have no grudge against the Sherman brothers. "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" wasn't bad, but I think most people remember Bruce Dern's head rolling down the stairs than Patti Page's singing. "My Kind of Town" has grown to be a beloved Frank Sinatra song. I even remember the melody of "Dear Heart", an inoffensive tune, although beyond the title, I can't remember the lyrics. That leaves "Where Love has Gone". Does anyone remember the song or the film? Left out in the cold were not only Lennon and McCartney's title song, but the best song in A Hard Day's Night, "Can't Buy Me Love". Maybe I sound like an old baby boomer, but the best moment in the film is when John, Paul, George and Richard sneak out the back of the theater and onto the field. As far as I'm concerned, this may be one of the most joyous scenes in cinema. As far as the Academy was concerned at that time, James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn still rocked their world.

The Academy was marginally hipper in 1965 with the nominations of "What's New Pussycat?" and "I Will Wait for You", Michel Legrand's first nod. "The Ballad of Cat Ballou" was kind of cute, as was the film, but I think the nomination was really for the inspired pairing of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye. The winning song, "The Shadow of Your Smile", seems to have faded to cocktail lounge muzak. "The Sweetheart Tree" probably got nominated on the strength of Henry Mancini's name. Aside from another title song by Lennon and McCartney, the Academy ignored "You're Going to Lose that Girl", "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "Ticket to Ride". Help! is arguably the better of the two soundtracks. On the bright side, we've been spared the spectacle of Beatle songs treated by the stylizations of performers like Vic Damone or Robert Goulet, which was how nominated songs were presented on the awards show.

The Academy's choice for Best Song didn't resemble anything close to the current state of popular music until Isaac Hayes won for Shaft (can you dig it?). I assume the songwriters who nominate each other must have felt some remorse for overlooking A Hard Day's Night and Help by nominating Sir Paul a couple of times. Without John Lennon, we were given the silly "Live and Let Die", and the wretched "Vanilla Sky". Maybe it's axiomatic that the songs nominated are usually not the best songs of the song writers or the best songs of their given years. I am somewhat gladdened that Bruce Springsteen, U2, Prince, Neil Young and even Eminem make the list of nominees and winners.

I do get a chuckle about the 1984 winner, "I Just Called to Say I Love You". Stevie Wonder never had to actually see The Woman in Red.

Posted by peter at 06:22 PM | Comments (2)

February 16, 2006

Forgive Me

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Vergeef Me
Cyrus Frisch - 2001
Reel 23 PAL Region 0 DVD

In the brief biography that comes with Forgive Me, Cyrus Frisch is compared with Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. Not even close, but give Frisch a couple of points for chutzpah. Frisch, seen in the above still, is interested in confrontational film and theater in the name of some kind of abstract truth. At the very least, he is the only filmmaker I am aware of who has been filmed running through the streets naked with a camera.

In the beginning of his film, the Dutch Frisch is filmed discussing the impact of information and visual overloads on television viewers. Frisch's goal is to make a film so transgressive that he changes Dutch viewing habits. In his statement he writes: " By vigorously and openly exceeding the borders of the acceptable, I hoped to get some understanding of the exploitation of human suffering on film and television and stir up the opinions. Something like that." While the proclaimed goal of ending violence and misery on television is praiseworthy, Frisch fails absolutely.

The drug and alchohol addled characters that Frisch films become part of the spectacle that Frisch claims to criticize. In the first sequence, two people fall out of their chairs in documented stupor. Frisch mounts a stage production titled "Jesus/Lover" which includes a mentally impaired man undressing and masturbating in front of the audience. In terms of using the stage to directly address and interact with the audience, Frisch seems unaware of Peter Brook or The Living Theatre. In spite of his intentions, Frisch makes a fool of himself and his "actors". In terms of transgressive cinema, what history has shown is that there is always a filmmaker willing to go beyond previously established limits not only of good taste but of bad taste. Anyone who thinks Frisch is extreme would probably be unfamiliar with Takashi Miike or the Guinea Pig series of films.

Frisch's confused sense of mission includes the incorporation of clips from Murnau's Faust. Not surprisingly, Murnau's images are the best part of Forgive Me.

Posted by peter at 04:53 PM | Comments (1)

February 15, 2006

Two Shylocks

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The Merchant of Venice
Michael Radford - 2004
Sony Pictures Region 1 DVD

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Le Grand Role
Steve Suissa - 2004
First Run Features Region 1 DVD

In Le Grand Role, struggling actor Maurice Kurtz is asked by director Rudolph Grichenberg to name other actors capable of playing Shylock. One of the actors mentioned by Kurtz is Al Pacino. That Pacino is cited twice in Le Grand Role is a curious coincidence linking these two films.

Michael Radford prepares the audience for a sympathetic Shylock with informative titles briefly explaining the life of Venetian Jews in the late 16th Century. The historical context is helpful in this interpretation of the play. While he has shown his interest in Shakespeare with Looking for Richard, about Richard III, the problem with Al Pacino doing Shakespeare is that he cannot totally transcend being Al Pacino. There are times when I felt totally aware that I was watching Al Pacino with what sounded like a light Yiddish accent. Even more distracting was the choice of Lynn Collins as Portia. Collins looks remarkably similar to Laura Prepon that while Collins was on screen, I was wondering why she looked so familiar.

As films based on Shakespeare plays go, this is still quite watchable. Worthy especially is the performance of Jeremy Irons as Antonio, the title role. The language is, for the most part, spoken in conversational style. Radford takes advantage of location shooting with shots in and around Venice. Even if Pacino is not the definitive Shylock, he still grabs attention, especially with the famous speech. Shylock and Othello may be Shakespeare's most problematical characters given both contemporary political repercussions, artistic interpretation and controversy over Shakespeare's intended meaning(s). The worst version of Othello is by Laurence Olivier, in ill-advised blackface. Aside from tending to recite Shakespeare as if to the far balcony of a theater, Olivier looked like he was ready to break out and sing an Al Jolson number at any moment. While Radford is to be commended for recreating 16th Century Venice, one may want to hurl Shakespearean epithets at the MPAA for rating Merchant with an "R" for some brief shots of Venitian women exposing their breasts. As far as adaptations of Shakespeare go, Merchant would be considered quite accessible for high school students if certain cultural guardians hadn't gotten in the way.

Le Grand Role refers both to the French actor's taking on the part of Shylock as well as his role as the part of a loving husband to his cancer-stricken wife. Director Suissa touches on secular and religious Jewish life in contemporary France as well as theories about Shakespeare's hidden Jewish past. The bittersweet comedy-drama also is a gentle satire of Steven Spielberg with Peter Coyote as a well known director who decides to make a film of Merchant in Yiddish. A not-so inside joke is that Coyote acted in Spielberg's E.T.. Perhaps it is the power of Shakespeare's text, but certainly Stephane Freiss' reciting of Shylock's speech in Yiddish, with subtitles, is still affecting. Even if the film adds nothing to the understanding of Shakespeare, Le Grand Role takes its cues from the oft quoted line from As You Like it, "All the world's a stage . . . "

Posted by peter at 03:47 PM

February 12, 2006

Three by Martin Ritt

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The Black Orchid
Martin Ritt - 1959
Paramount Pictures Region 1 DVD

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The Brotherhood
Martin Ritt - 1968
Paramount Pictures Region 1 DVD

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The Molly Maguires
Martin Ritt - 1970
Paramount Pictures Region 1 DVD

Crawling up my queue of films to see were these three titles directed by Martin Ritt. I saw Hombre at the time of its theatrical release and found it pretentious. As Andrew Sarris did not consider Ritt worthy of even a sentence in The American Cinema, and only listed three of his films in the bottom rungs of their respective release years, I saw no reason to make a point of seeing his films. The only reason I saw Sounder had to do with my religiously seeing every film nominated for Best Picture. I saw Ritt's debut film, Edge of the City in a class at NYU and had to admit to myself that it was pretty good. I saw The Front due to my interest in the Hollywood blacklist, knowing that co-star Zero Mostel was blacklisted, but not knowing how personal the film was for Ritt and screenplay author Walter Bernstein. The later films with the unlikely muse of Sally Field as well as Cross Creek with Mary Steenburgen brought out the best in Ritt's filmmaking abilities.

I don't know how much of what's best in The Molly Maguires is due to screenwriter Walter Bernstein or cinematographer James Wong Howe. There are several dialogue free scenes with the fluid camera visually informing the audience about the life of Pennsylvania coal miners in 1876. Several shots take advantage of framing devices such as windows and fences. Released in early 1970, The Molly Maguires was a major flop, regarded as old-fashioned and unfashionable. The casting of Richard Harris and Sean Connery made no difference to the box office. Like several of his films, Ritt examines the "American dream" for those whom it is out of reach. In this film about Irish immigrants, Connery is the rebellious worker seeking justice for those who are both literally and socially at the bottom. Harris is the undercover detective who finds himself caught between sympathy with the miners' goals and his own need for success, even at the expense of others. Thematically, The Molly Maguires is most obviously similar to Norma Rae as a look at labor in America. It is also one of Ritt's best films in terms of visual composition, both in positioning of actors and use of color.

Right after The Black Orchid, screenwriter Joseph Stefano wrote the screenplay for Psycho, while cinematographer Robert Burks shot North by Northwest. The Black Orchid looks much worse in comparison to those two Alfred Hitchcock assignments. The only reason to watch the film now is to see two forces of nature, Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren, together. Loren is the widow of a small-time criminal pursued by Quinn, overcoming the obstacles involving his daughter and her son. The film comes off as a contrived look at Italian-Americans, that tries to be a slice of life, but looks more like a slice of baloney.

Did Mario Puzo see The Brotherhood? The film came out the year before Puzo's bestselling novel was published. The failure of the earlier film made Paramount uneasy about the prospects for Francis Ford Coppola's film with its expanding scope and budget. One can see several elements that are shared in both films. Lewis John Carlino continued to explore organized crime in other screenplays. Even with location shooting in Sicily and New York City, the film is not particularly involving. This is a tourist's view of organized crime families, distant and faintly exotic. I don't remember which documentary used clips of The Brotherhood to explain how it inspired the use of a cast and crew of Italian descent for The Godfather. If it has no other value, it seems that at least once, with The Brotherhood, Hollywood proved it could learn from one of its mistakes.

Posted by peter at 05:16 PM | Comments (3)

February 11, 2006

That Fiery Girl

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Gong la Jiao
Yan Jun - 1968
Celestial Pictures Region 3 DVD

At the 2002 Denver International Film Festival, several vintage films from The Shaw Brothers were screened in advance of the Celestial Pictures DVD releases. Cheng Pei-Pei attended the showing of Come Drink with Me. Like many people in the audience, the only previous film I had seen with her was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While my knowledge of Chinese language films was limited to a few titles, I could recognize that Ang Lee had essentially made a bigger budget version of a King Hu movie. Until I had checked Ms. Cheng's filmography, I was unaware that she was a Hong Kong star who paved the way for her younger Crouching Tiger co-stars, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. More than thirty years before Crouching Tiger's sword, Green Destiny, was fought over, Cheng appear as "Red Chili".

That Fiery Girl doesn't have King Hu's religious and mystical motifs, and the fight choreography and wire work are somewhat clunky compared to the pyrotechnics initiated by Tsui Hark. The film is good-natured silliness beginning with an overly literal title sequence filmed in a building in flames. That Fiery Girl is the swordfighting equivalent of a B Western, the kind one enjoys because of the familiarity of the actors, the plot and even the twists in the plot. Reinforcing that the film is entertaining, if not original, is the music. I wouldn't be able to identify how much of the score was from other films, but at one point Elmer Bernstein's familiar themes from The Magnificent Seven popped up. With Asian martial arts films and American westerns informing each other over the years, one could say the quoting of Bernstein was a musical reminder that what goes around, comes around.

Posted by peter at 06:04 PM

February 10, 2006

Oasis

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Lee Chang-dong - 2002
Life Size Entertainment Region 0 DVD

The best reason to see Oasis is for Moon So-ri's performance. Until she stood up in the train, I had thought I was watching a film of someone who actually has cerebral palsy. The facial and physical contortions that Moon goes through are almost unwatchable. I have not found an in-depth interview with Lee in English concerning this film. That it is difficult to watch Moon is the point. Oasis is about a mentally handicapped young man in love with a young woman with cerebral palsy.

The lovers aren't the lovable savants of Hollywood (The Other Sister, Forrest Gump, Rain Man). The young man, Jong-du, played by Sol Kyung-gu, constantly sniffles and seems devoid of common sense. Because of their respective handicaps, the couple are taken advantage of by their respective families. A scene critical of society at large depicts the two attempting to get served at a restaurant. The young woman, Gong-ju, is imprisoned due to her limited physical abilities and the accompanying difficulty in verbal speech. Jong-du's brothers frequently mention that they do not understand "what is in his head". Jong-du and Gong-ju take the time to communicate with each other. More so than Jong-du, Gong-ju is marginalized by family members who claim the ability to speak on her behalf, and treat her as a victim for their convenience.

As mentioned at the beginning, Moon So-ri breaks from her performance of having cerebral palsy. The shift is one of presenting the inner self that cannot be articulated in reality. Lee plays with Gong-ju's sense of self and her environment with the reflected light from a hand-held mirror becoming butterflies, and having her room turn into the oasis of a story, complete with a small elephant. Some of have written about Oasis previously have refered to these moments as "magic realism". I guess that term is a reasonable close approximation of Lee's symbolic shifts in the narrative.

Moon's performance is also remarkable when compared to the frequent presentation of physically and mentally challenged women in Hollywood. As portrayed by such actresses as Juliette Lewis, Yvette Mimieux or Patty Duke, to mention a few, Hollywood essentially fetishizes being mentally or physically handicapped with a gallery of babes. Light in the Piazza is especially offensive with its conclusion that if you look like Yvette Mimieux, it doesn't matter if you have the I.Q. of a turnip. Lee films close-up after close-up of Gong-ju's twisted face, hands and limbs. In her fearless performance, Moon is unafraid of making herself appear ugly. When Moon as Gong-ju momentarily steps out of Gong-ju's contortions, her physical transformation bests any state of the art special effects.

Posted by peter at 12:46 PM

February 09, 2006

Russ Meyer or Bust!

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Supervixens
Russ Meyer - 1975
Arrow Films PAL Region 0 DVD

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Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens
Russ Meyer - 1979
Arrow Films PAL Region 0 DVD

In the summer of 1975 I had the opportunity to meet Russ Meyer. What made this somewhat strange is that it was with my mother. She was an entertainment reporter at the Denver Post at the time. Unlike my mother, I had actually seen a couple of Russ Meyer's films. While I had read about his films but wasn't actually old enough to see any until the release of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I had also seen The Seven Minutes, Meyer's most mainstream, and least characteristic film. Having seen two Russ Meyer films gave me enough knowledge to assist my mother in her interview.

As this happened about thirty years ago, I don't remember very much. I can verify that like everyone else, we found Russ Meyer fun to converse with, whether it was about his career or war-time experiences. I do remember he was thinking about doing a spoof of Dick Tracy possibly re-titled as "Dick Racy". As enjoyable as Meyer is in person, he is much less engaging in his commentary tracks. I never thought I would be lulled to sleep by the sound of Russ Meyer's voice, but I kept nodding off while watching Ultra-vixens. Some may be interested or amused by Meyer's stories of his escapades with his star, "Kitten" Natividad. Others may even give "thumbs up" to a discussion of screenwriter Roger Ebert's predilections. With his constant euphemisms for female body parts, I started to feel like I was in the company of the world's oldest horny teenager. After a couple of winks and nudges, I just want to slap that annoying elbow.

Letting the films speak for themselves wasn't much of an improvement. Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens and Supervixens have aged badly. Maybe Meyer was creatively spent after his stint with 20th Century Fox. A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a showing of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on cable. I was watching the last hour or so, and was surprised that there was a note that the film was edited for cablecast, as I felt I wasn't missing anything. Even this third time around, Beyond remained fun to watch. A midnight screening two or three years ago of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was also entertaining. The story of Russ Meyer is of a filmmaker who helped change the movie marketplace, only to find himself displaced by that same marketplace.

Beneath, which turned out to be Meyer's last theatrical film, fails as an erotic comedy because it is neither funny nor erotic. Having a character named Martin Bormann or using the song Stranger in Paradise during a gay seduction scene are tired jokes from past films. Seeing a woman singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers" while having sex may make for a brief chuckle as a Playboy cartoon, but becomes increasingly less inspired after its first use in the film. Until a very late scene appeared with square-jawed Charles Napier tossing dynamite to his would-be victims, I completely forgot that I had seen Supervixens in a theater thirty years ago. Even The Seven Minutes, seen four years earlier, has managed to be more memorable. As it happens with some filmmakers, Russ Meyer kept on making films that were shadows of past successes, as meaningful today as 8-track tapes and quadraphonic sound.

Posted by peter at 01:33 PM | Comments (1)

February 06, 2006

Films of our fathers (and mothers)

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In the most current entry by Self-Styled Siren, Campaspe writes about her enjoyment of the Marx Brothers. In the comments section Filmbrain notes that he has introduced his young son to the Marxes, finding them funnier at the age of six than when he was four. Maturity will sometimes do that to you. Filmbrain made me think of my own introduction to the Marx Brothers by my own father.

It was not quite fifty years ago, back when most television broadcasts were in black and white, and the number of channels was usually no more than six in the major cities. My earliest memories are from A Night at the Opera. Like most who have seen that film, the stateroom scene is indelible. I also remember the opera performance, most likely because of the familiarity with the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game". I vaguely recall seeing Monkey Business and laughing at the scene when Harpo goes through customs, but also being puzzled because there were no monkeys as promised in the title.

My other movie memory associated with my father is seeing High Noon with him. I was too young to recognize the political allegory. At the age of six I was just glad to know that my German-born father made a point of watching a western with me. During this time, the only films I saw in theaters were signed by Walt Disney. From my father, I may have gotten the impression that the films to see were either classic comedies from the thirties, or films with serious messages.

While my mother or maternal grandparents took me to the Disney films, I can't remember my mother as having introduced me to any of her favorite films, except indirectly. What I do remember is asking what she was watching and maybe catching a couple of minutes of Letter to Three Wives or Love is a Many Splendored Thing. I also remember arguing with her about wanting to see Gone with the Wind at the age of nine, when the film was re-issued during the centennial celebration of the Civil War. I finally got around to seeing Rhett and Scarlett ten years later when I could enjoy Clark Gable putting Vivien Leigh in her place, and not mind that for a film taking place during the Civil War, there wasn't much in the way of battle scenes.

For a memory of a parent introducing his children to movies, check out Dennis Cozzalio's January 30th entry.

Posted by peter at 11:54 PM

February 05, 2006

The Ghost

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Lo Spettro
Riccardo Freda - 1963
Retromedia Entertainment DVD

There is one person who I will see in anything - good, bad, indifferent, and that is Barbara Steele. For all I know, she has a way of hynotizing people watching her films with those big eyes usually seen in paintings by Margaret Keane. Mario Bava has been noted as remarking that when Steele's face was lit a certain way it resembled a skull. Proof that she mesmerized teenage boys who were old enough to see Black Sunday when it was first released is evidenced by films by Jonathan Demme, David Cronenberg and Joe Dante. For my periodic fix of Barbara Steele, the DVDs available are filling in where one once could depend on late-night local television.

The Ghost was directed by Riccardo Freda under his English-language psuedonym of Robert Hampton. As was frequently done at the time, this Italian production was released with the cast and crew taking on British sounding names to better market themselves at a time when Hammer and Roger Corman's Poe films were at the height of their popularity. Freda is certainly due for a more complete review, his reputation having been eclipsed by Bava who took over directing I Vampiri, the first Italian horror film made in the sound era. In The Ghost, Steele portrays Margaret, the wife of Dr. Hitchcock (!), a doctor suffering from a paralysis that his best friend, Dr. Livingstone (!!) is suppose to cure. As it turns out, Margaret and Dr. Livingstone have been having an affair. The lovers connive against Dr. Hitchcock who tries to prove that you can take it with you.

The bar was raised pretty high with Black Sunday. No film since then has come close to being a genre masterpiece although there have been some honorable attempts. The Ghost is a bit sluggish in spots but is nicely photographed. This was the first of Steele's Italian horror films to be shot in color. Even if the narrative can be anticipated after years of watching Italian horror movies, the twists and turns lead to a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes cliches can be reassuring, which is why for me, a horror movie with Barbara Steele is like the cinematic equivalent to comfort food.

Posted by peter at 02:13 PM

February 04, 2006

The Battle of Blood Island

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Joel M. Rapp - 1960
Something Weird Video Region 1 DVD

Philip Roth called his autobiography The Facts. Even though it covered the years from his birth through the publication of Portnoy's Complaint, Roth omitted several facts. While Roth mentions that a short story published in a small literary magazine received national attention, he does not cite the title, "The Contest for Aaron Gold", or that the story was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock's television show. Roth mentions being drafted in the late Fifties, but discusses nothing about his time in the Army. Why this is important is that Roth did write two short stories with military settings, although they are set in World War II which occurred when Roth was still a teenager.

When it comes to spotting nascent talent, Roger Corman gets mentioned in association with a slew of actors and directors. I don't know how Corman discovered Philip Roth, but he should get some credit for producing the first feature based on a Roth story. As the IMDb listing does not name the short story or more than the first names of the characters, a little research was required. The Battle of Blood Island is based on a short story titled Expect the Vandals which was published in Esquire, December 1958. This was several months before the publication of Goodbye, Columbus. Expect the Vandals remains as an uncollected short story. While the short story is unavailable, there are a couple of brief mentions of the story which were enough to verify that this was the basis for The Battle of Blood Island. The copyright on the film is for 1959, while IMDb lists 1960 as the release date.

As best as I can tell, the film is faithful to Roth. The story is of two G.I.s, Moe and Ken, the only survivors on a small island occupied by a small group of Japanese soldiers. Moe Malamud is casually Jewish. At one point he refers to his mezuzah as "a good luck charm". While Malamud could be descibed as a secular Jew, he rightly takes great offense when Ken calls him "Jew" in anger. The film title is misleading as the majority of the film is of Moe taking care of the wounded Ken. This is a dialogue driven film, with the only battle being verbal sparring by two guys who think they may be abandoned somewhere in the Pacific.

Joel Rapp has had several careers. The Battle of Blood Island is actually pretty good for a film made on a tiny budget. How small a budget you may ask? To save a few dollars, Roger Corman even has a bit part near the end of the film. While a new DVD version has commentary by Rapp, the Something Weird version is in wide screen. As far as film adaptations of Roth go, it may not have the prestige of The Human Stain or even Goodbye, Columbus, but neither can one complain about the film being miscast, as those films were with Anthony Hopkins and Ali McGraw respectively. It would be nice if one could persuade Philip Roth to face facts and do a commentary track for The Battle of Blood Island, or at least get Expect the Vandals republished.

Check Long Pauses for some thoughts on The Human Stain.

Posted by peter at 12:01 AM

February 03, 2006

No vista, no vision

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I've been thinking about a recent posting in Cinematical. Specifically, the comments by Todd McCarthy about "visually clueless" filmmakers. Unlike McCarthy, I do not believe that the problem is limited to young filmmakers working usually with limited finances and video. My own feeling is that there really aren't too many Anglo-American filmmakers who really care about the concept of having a visual style.

A book that articulates much of this problem is Susan Sontag's On Photography. My own experience as a photographer supports Sontag's main argument. For most people, a "good" photograph is one that essential documents whatever the subject is, and is clearly lit and in focus. Especially with the advent of digital photography, simply getting the shot trumps concerns about composition, or zones of light. For most people viewing film, the concern is whether the cinematography is functional rather than expressive.

It would be too easy to simply blame television, but the fact is that the smaller screen that many of us grew up with was not conducive to visual subtlety. Now that home screens have gotten bigger, perhaps that will change, but I am not optimistic. The directors McCarthy cites generally grew up watching movies in large "palaces" with big screens. The younger filmmakers film going experience is now more likely to be at a multiplex. Budgets and resources also mean nothing. Orson Welles is proof that all you need is a camera and an artistic sensbility.

The documentary It's All True follows the making and unmaking of Welles' South American film. Welles is filmed, camera in hand, shooting a group of fishermen rowing their boat. The shot is to appear as if the camera was pointing up from the water, with the fishermen seen against the sky. A crew of men lift the boat along the beach with the fishermen inside the boat while Welles moves along side them with his camera. The edited shots of the fishermen are unmistakebly as Wellsian as anything in Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons. My own conclusion was that given a Super 8 camera, Orson Welles couldn't help but create a film that would display his particular visual style.

I have seen some good films that were shot on video, such as the Dogme 95 films The King is Alive and Italian for Beginners, and Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity. Can one have the same kind of "visual adventurousness" with video that Scorsese, Malick, etc., have been able to create on film? Maybe. But I can't just blame the filmmakers. There needs to be more visually educated film critics as well as a more discerning audience. And if, as McCarthy has said, the films at Sundance were made by filmmakers who are "visually clueless", then it would seem that also in need of a clue would be the Sundance programmers.

Posted by peter at 01:55 AM

February 02, 2006

Moira Shearer 1926 - 2006

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The Red Shoes
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - 1948
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

I was surprised to learn that Moira Shearer had actually only appeared in a handful of films since her debut in The Red Shoes. Three of the six theatrical films were directed or co-directed by Michael Powell, while Black Tights was obviously inspired by The Archers. As far as Shearer was concerned, she was a dancer first, while acting was secondary. As far as I'm concerned, Moira Shearer is the reason for the invention of technicolor.

Posted by peter at 12:01 AM | Comments (2)

February 01, 2006

Turkish Delight

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Turks Fruit
Paul Verhoeven - 1973
Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

At the time of the Showgirls blog-a-thon of January 11, I felt the need to see an early Paul Verhoeven film I had previously missed. I have to conclude that had more critics had taken the time to see Turkish Delight, than nothing in Showgirls would have been particularly surprising. Sure, Turkish Delight is the better film, and even has the bragging rights of an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, but somehow Showgirls manages to be a model of decorum in comparison.

The film opens with Rutger Hauer clubbing a guy to death and shooting a woman in the head which turns out to be a dream, followed by his running around his house wearing only a t-shirt, jerks off to a photo on the wall, followed by picking up and bedding three women. That's all in the first five minutes of the film! The character of Erik, a sculptor, has moments of extreme anti-social behavior that make Showgirls' Nomi appear almost refined. Verhoeven is uninhibited in his filming of erotic activity and bodily functions. While the Farrelly Brothers may get laughs at Ben Stiller's expense in There's Something about Mary, Verhoeven makes sure we see Hauer's problems with zipping his pants to hastily. In Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema is a comparison between "the Lubitsch smile and the (Preston) Sturges guffaw". I may be stretching an analogy here in describing the approaches to gross-out humor as comparable between the Farrellys and Verhoeven.

Most of Turkish Delight is about Erik's volatile relationship with Olga (Monique Van de Ven), Erik's lover, muse and wife. The pair continually rebel against middle-class values and propriety, frequently as personified by Olga's mother. Erik turns down the offer to take over his in-laws' television store, travels by bicycle instead of owning a car, and takes art commissions on his own terms. Erik's art is as fully erotic as his life.

This unity of life and art in the main characters is what makes Showgirls something of a companion piece to Turkish Delight. Both films center on sexually active characters who are involved in art based on objectifying women. Turkish Delight is the better film because the characters are ultimately humanized by Verhoeven rather than remaining as the cartoons that populate Showgirls.

Posted by peter at 08:41 AM