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March 30, 2006

A Date with Lana Turner

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Last February, the Self-Styled Siren proposed a blog-a-thon centered on Lana Turner. June 29 is the anniversary of Ms. Turner's death which seems like an appropriate day to appreciate a gorgeous woman who happened to star in some good and even great films. My plan is to weigh in on the lady and "the Duke", in other words, Lana with John Wayne in The Sea Chase.

Posted by peter at 12:11 AM | Comments (3)

March 29, 2006

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus

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Michael Lindsay-Hogg - 1996
Abkco Films Region 1 DVD

I probably would have been more enthusiastic about the Rock and Roll Circus had I seen it at the time of its intended release. Filmed mostly on December 11 going into the early morning of December 12, 1968, Circus now looks like a relic from a bygone time when hippies roamed the earth. It may also be possible that I feel removed from music that use to be the center of my life.

Talkin' 'bout my generation, I'm one of those people who became seriously devoted to rock music when The Beatles wanted to hold my hand. For my friends and myself, the only music worth considering came from England. The first major band I saw in concert was The Kinks, on Ray Davies' 21st birthday no less. The second major band I saw was, and this is kind of embarrassing to say now, Freddie and the Dreamers. The first concert I saw as an NYU freshman was the Fillmore East engagement of The Who. This does not even account for my record buying habits in those days. But it puts into some kind of perspective the how I may have felt about Mick Jagger's circus at the time it was filmed.

For me, it doesn't really matter why the film was never seen until almost ten years ago. What matters is how the performances hold up now. A few years ago I saw Monterey Pop. Bands that I loved in 1967 like Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & the Fish could no longer command my attention. My response to Otis Redding reflected my change in attitude towards what was at the time called "Soul Music". (And if you ever visit Memphis, I recommend the Stax Museum.)

The first question I have about Circus is who came up with the stupid idea of having the audience wear orange and yellow ponchos with floppy felt hats? If anything gets in the way of enjoying the show, it's seeing how ugly hippie fashions look in retrospect. And what was I thinking when I bought those striped bell-bottoms? At least in this film, The Rolling Stones manage to be less interesting to watch and listen to than even compared with a recent concert on HBO. With Rock and Roll Circus, even if it's not the best filmed performance of The Who, they still manage to be more interesting than anybody else. Yoko Ono looks silly hiding under a big piece of cloth while John Lennon performs "Yer Blues" with Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Richards. Ono's singing performance is titled "Whole Lotta Yoko" which is more than enough. This is not to dismiss Ono's art, but to say that within the context of the show it looks at best silly, and at worst like a pretentious intellectual's idea of improving rock music. I did get a chill when Keith Richards sang the opening lyrics to Salt of the Earth. It was also nice to see a young, pretty Marianne Faithful wearing a sleeveless dress.

Even if Rock and Roll Circus failed to be seen, it proved to help the careers of those behind the screen. Sandy Lieberson went on to produce Performance among other films. Michael Lindsay-Hogg documented the last days of The Beatles, and directed a nice, underseen film, Frankie Starlight. Cinematographer Anthony Richmond filmed the Stones again, this time with Jean-Luc Godard, but also The Who again for The Kids are Alright.

Posted by peter at 01:36 PM

March 28, 2006

Woman in the Moon

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Frau im Mond
Fritz Lang - 1929
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

Woman on the Moon seems to be ground zero for many of the cliches and story elements found in future science fiction films. The characters include a nutty old professor with unruly hair, a stowaway kid, and two guys in love with the same woman. The trip to the moon includes scenes of the space travellers adrift inside the space ship with no gravity, and confronting the fact that there is not enough oxygen for the voyage home to earth. Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou not only anticipated some of the realities of space travel, but also plot points that would appear in such films as Destination Moon, Outland, Space Cowboys, and Stowaway to the Moon.

Lang and von Harbou also refer to the popular culture of the time. The boy, Gustav, who sneaks onto the rocket ship, has his dreams of space travel fueled by pulp literature. What is featured on the magazine cover is that the stories are by the author of Nick Carter adventures. The film's authors may be poking fun at themselves as Woman on the Moon is primarily a pulp adventure story. The first half of the film concerns a mysterious character, Walt Turner, who steals documents concerning moon travel and works on behalf of a cabal seeking monopoly of the moon's gold. The first half of the film, involving espionage and sabotage, thematically anticipates future Lang films, particularly Cloak and Dagger, as well as looking back at the previous year's Spies. In another future cliche,it is the professor who theorizes that there is gold on the moon, and Turner, who claims the gold for the cabal, who are destroyed by their greed.

If the story is trivial in the face of Metropolis, the film is visually consistent with other Lang films. Many of the shots incorporated geometric patterns, particularly rectangles. Doors and windows are used for framing devices. A scene shot in a cave literalizes the idea of the professor and Turner's own darkness. Gerda Maurus personifies the Teutonic ideal with her blonde hair and idealistic spirit, as the title character. At almost three hours, Woman on the Moon spends too much time on a story with little substance. When it comes to Fritz Lang's films, his best films concern down and dirty dealings on Earth.

Posted by peter at 05:14 PM

March 27, 2006

Cat Chaser

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Abel Ferrara - 1989
Artisan Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I suspect that even if a "director's cut" of Cat Chaser were to be made available, I would still conclude that the dominant force behind this film was still Elmore Leonard. Along with The Moonshine War, Cat Chaser is one of only two films based on a Leonard novel that also has a screenplay by the novelist, in this case in collaboration with James Borrelli. The first hour of the film is a faithful, if abreviated, version of the novel. The last half hour has three significant changes: two characters are killed off, a there is a scene that takes place in the movie that is not in the novel, and the off-screen narration functions adds a tone to the film that is not in the novel.

The story is about a former soldier whose chance reunion with the wife on an acquaintance turns into an affair. The soldier, George Moran, was stationed in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and dreams about his experience there. Mary, the wife, is married to Andres DeBoya, a former Dominican general now living in South Florida. Because of his affair with Mary, Moran is assumed to be involved in a plot against DeBoya to steal his stash of two million dollars. The film was produced by Vestron, a small distribution company that had a major hit with Dirty Dancing, followed by a production slate of too many movies that made too little money. Ferrera made China Girl as well as Cat Chaser for Vestron. Both films were released in versions that Ferrara disowns. The available version of Cat Chaser is full-screen, with a running time of ninety-minutes.

In the third-person narrative of the novel, the tone is relatively neutral save for some commentary about life in South Florida. In 1981 when Leonard wrote the novel, the Atlantic Ocean was being hidden by giant condominiums. (As a Miami Beach resident, I can tell you the process is almost complete.) The tone of the narration in the film is rueful, if not outright regret, in the past tense. I do not know if the narrator exists in Ferrera's version of the film. The narration seems out of character for Leonard based on the other novels I'm familiar with. Usually in a Leonard novel, no matter what happens, the protagonist goes along for the ride, making the best of bad, unlikely or impossible situations. A Leonard "hero" may be amused or bemused, but rarely regretful.

Leonard also will occassionally have characters from one novel make an appearance in another novel. In the case of the novel Cat Chaser, the mention of Marshall Sisco had extra significance.

That a couple of supporting characters get killed early may have been a way of reducing some of the narrative threads. This was probably done for the sake of narrative clarity for the film. Or quite possibly Leonard felt he had a different way of telling his story.

The most significant change is when DeBoya rapes Mary after confirming her infidelity. In the novel, Mary has been beaten and observes herself in a mirror, overwhelmed physically and emotionally by her husband. In the film, DeBoya humiliates Mary by forcing her to undress at gunpoint, followed by placing the gun barrel at her mouth and moving the gun down Mary's nude body to her vagina. From what I have read, this is one scene that was edited without Ferrera's approval. As Leonard is credited has the co-screenwriter for the film, I am hoping he or Ferrera will in some way make available information concerning these changes from the novel.

Where Ferrera leaves a bit of his signature is in the interiors of DeBoya's house. Some of the artwork on display reflects Latin American expressions of Catholicism. While not emphasised, Mary depicts the Madonna-whore schism. While Mary is engaged in an illicit affair, her marriage is sexless, as is that of a "bride of Christ". While less obvious, the rape scene and the portrayal of Mary echo some of Ferrera's recurring themes.

Leads Peter Weller and Kelly McGillis are acceptable, if bland, in their roles. More notable for their screen presence are supporting actors Phil Leeds, Charles Durning, Thomas Milian and Frederick Forrest. Weller later directed the film version of Leonard's Gold Coast.

The Latin jazz tinged music is the only feature score by Chick Corea, featuring the distinctive, sometimes mournful trumpet of Mark Isham.

Those with interest in either Leonard or Ferrera would hope that a DVD is released of Cat Chaser that more closely resembles the intentions of the literary and film authors. The official version currently available is a disservice to both artists.

Posted by peter at 12:01 AM

March 26, 2006

Richard Fleischer 1916-2006

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I've been planning to pair up The Fantastic Voyage with The Vikings. I still will do so when The Fantastic Voyage gets out of its "Long Wait" status. I've seen about ten of Fleischer's films, although only a handful in theatrical situations.

What stands out for me are not whole films, but some random images from Fleischer's films. What I remember most about Soylent Green that illustrates that the idea that "the future isn't what it use to be" is the game Chuck Connors plays that is similar to Pong. The Jazz Singer belongs in the category of "What were they thinking?", yet I will never forget hammy Laurence Olivier tearing his shirt sleeve or the punk version of "Love on the Rocks". I also wonder what if there was any sense of conflict with the son of Max Fleischer making 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for arch-rival Walt Disney?

The Self-Styled Siren wrote about The Narrow Margin last month. Where Fleischer was consistently good was with his crime films during the early Fifties. While The Narrow Margin is available on DVD, the hope is for Violent Saturday and Armored Car Robbery to follow. The two heist films are similar with economical budgets and running times, as well as detailing extemely planned out crimes undone by unpredictable elements.

There has been little serious writing about Richard Fleischer, but a good place to start is with The Film Journal.

Posted by peter at 11:23 AM

March 24, 2006

Castle Creep

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Homicidal
William Castle - 1961
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

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Mr. Sardonicus
William Castle - 1961
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

William Castle was causing me nightmares even before I saw any of his movies. I was a very gullible seven year old who was frightened by kids next door convincing me that I would be the next victim of The Tingler. It was another couple of years before I was finally allowed to see any horror movies in a theater which meant I was the only person I knew who missed 13 Ghosts. A friend with far more permissive parents thrilled me with his recounting of Homicidal. I never actually saw a William Castle film until my parents were away and I finally saw The House on Haunted Hill on late-night television.

For those who haven't seen it, The House on Haunted Hill is about five people who have been invited by Vincent Price to spend the night in a haunted house, with the survivors to get the princely sum of $10,000.00. When you're in Junior High, you watch the film to see people fall into large vats of acid. More puzzling when you are an adult is how Castle got away with combining the exterior by Frank Lloyd Wright with a Victorian mansion interior.

Homicidal and Mr. Sardonicus are the first two films Castle made following the release of Hitchock's Psycho. Hitchcock must have felt very insecure if he thought he was being challenged by William Castle. It sound almost like John Coltrane worried about Kenny G. Hitchock took the bait and made what was essentially a William Castle film with a bigger budget and much better music. Castle, in turn, did his own version of Psycho and recycled the scary parts again in Mr. Sardonicus. Hitchcock gave his television dramas darkly funny introductions with deadpan humor. Castle's on screen introductions to his films were both darker and droller, with Castle's cheerful countenance a reminder that his movies were essentially a shared inside joke.

Aside from the obvious title, Homicidal takes the plot twist of Norman Bates' identity further with the casting of "Jean Arliss". The film is about a clueless group of relatives who never stop to notice that Emily and Warren are never seen at the same place at the same time. Warren is introduced as a creepy young boy who takes a doll from his step-sister. The rest of the film is about Warren's return from Denmark just before his 21st birthday when he is to inherit his parents' millions. Warren's wife, Emily, has been making a habit of killing several people important to Warren's birth. Castle's Psycho-bits include the unexpected knifing of the justice of the peace during a marriage ceremony, the decapitation of an old woman, and lots of ominous shots looking up and down a staircase. At the end of the film a sort of explanation about Warren that mentions, "whatever happened in Denmark, we don't know". Columbia Pictures has it right in their DVD supplement by renaming this film "Psychette".

If Homicidal is Psycho for slightly sophisticated teenagers, Mr. Sardonicus is Eyes without a Face for ten year olds. If the white mask is reminiscent of Georges Franju, seeing Guy Rolfe without the mask is a reminder of Lon Chaney and Conrad Veidt. Castle's film is about a man who realizes too late that the winning lottery ticket is in the jacket worn by his father, dead and buried several months ago. Digging the grave to retrieve the lottery ticket, the man freaks out at the sight of his father's remains. With his face marked by a permanent rictus grin, Mr. Sardonicus is very rich, but very ugly. Taking place in 1880, Castle, in a one-time step into the past, skitters into Corman and Bava country. The first big shock is the sight of Oscar Homolka placing leaches on a maid's face, and later stringing her up by her thumbs. Castle teases the audience with fleeting glimpses of the face of Sardonicus. The main Psychobit concerns the secret behind the locked door. Not only did Sardonicus unbury his father, he kept him in the house. The preservation techniques for Daddy were as effective as those employed by Norman Bates on his beloved mother. Keeping your mother preserved in the basement may be classic, but preserving your father after cashing in his lottery ticket is just sick!

Posted by peter at 12:06 AM | Comments (2)

March 23, 2006

One Late Night with Orson Welles

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My schedule as been a bit awry. I am posting a piece written back in May of 2005 that was not published. I actually spent the majority of Wednesday devoted to my Abel Ferrara piece which will be published on Monday.

Man in the Shadow
Jack Arnold - 1957

The Tarters
Richard Thorpe - 1961

Turner Classic Movies
5/12/05

No rental DVDs came yesterday. After surveying the tv schedule I spotted these two lesser known films starring Orson Welles, actor for hire.

Thematically, Man in the Shadow seems like a warm-up for Touch of Evil. Both films were produced by Albert Zugsmith and have stories predicated on the relationship between a white woman and Mexican male and the enforcement of law versus the enforcement of the status quo.

Zugsmith and Welles confirm that Welles was given permission to re-write the parts of the script he was in. At least one part of the film looks like it was directed by Welles, or at least visually queued by Welles. There is a shot of Welles and his daughter, played by Colleen Miller, with the camera tilted, looking down a flight of stairs in a mansion. During this scene, I flash backed to memories of The Magnificent Ambersons, particularly the scenes of Tim Holt and Agnes Moorehead.

That Welles got the role in Man in the Shadow was fortuitous as the part was originally slated for Robert Middleton, a popular screen heavy, both in his roles and girth, of the 50s. Without this film, we may never have had Touch of Evil. Equally coincidental is that Welles got the Shadow part because he needed $60,000.00 for back taxes. Welles had originally anticipated getting the needed amount for directing Tip on a Dead Jockey for MGM. The deal fell through, and Jockey was directed by MGM house director Richard Thorpe, who in 1961 directed Welles in The Tarters.

The Tarters is bad, but at least it’s hilariously bad. The film is about Asian Tarters and Scandavian vikings, but as an Italian-Yugoslavian coproduction, has a cast with no one who looks convincingly like either. Dressed totally unlike any other viking, Victor Mature virtually prances around in a cape and hot pants, as the viking leader. There is also a scene with Welles, as the Tarter chief, presiding over a feast with his underlings. With the camera pointing in long shot towards the tent entrance, you expect the obligatory dancing girls to appear. What we get are dancing boys, well men actually, waving swords and doing back flips. While these dancers are genuinely talented and athletic, there is almost as much homoeroticism as in the title song dance from Thorpe’s earlier Jailhouse Rock.

Both stars ham it up, with Mature over emoting, while Welles cocks his eyebrows and glares, as if to show his general contempt for the film. The wigs are obvious, the costumes threadbare, and the six credited script writers came up with something begging to be hijacked by Monty Python or Mystery Science Theater. In other words, The Tarters is the kind of film that make you glad you get cable tv.

Posted by peter at 11:02 AM | Comments (2)

March 21, 2006

The Touch

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Tian mai chuan qi
Peter Pau - 2002
Mega Star Video Region 0 DVD

Michelle Yeoh had hoped to capitalize on the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by producing an English language vehicle for herself. Miramax bought the U.S. distribution rights only to decide that there was no market for The Touch. The film is now a casualty of the Miramax changeover. Considering the quality of some of the action films currently, or recently, in theaters, The Touch is as good, if not better. I don't know if there is an actual bias against Chinese films with contemporary settings compared to the costume epics like Hero. I also have to wonder if there is a reluctance to sell a film featuring a female action star, but one who is Chinese and not young. It should be noted that Yeoh grew up speaking clear, British accented English.

This is not to say that The Touch is masterpiece, but it is beautifully photographed by director-cinematographer Peter Pau, with entertaining action sequences directed by Philip Kwok. If some of the CGI effects are a little weak, consider that the film cost about a sixth of the budget for Van Helsing. The most spectactular part of The Touch is the location shooting throughout Malaysia and China, particularly in the desert on the way to Tun-Huang.

The convoluted story concerns a family of acrobats, a Buddhist monk with a secret treasure in the Tun-Huang cave. A very wealthy bad guy, Karl, (Richard Roxburgh) with a house full of antiquities, steals the map from the family, led by Yin (Yeoh). Caught in the middle is Eric (Ben Chaplin), a former acrobat who was adopted by Yin's family, but has lately worked as a thief for Karl. The good guys and the bad guys get into a couple of martial arts scuffles and chase each other into the cave. Buddhist trappings aside, the story line is not disimilar to those found for Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Even if the Buddhism portrayed in the film is bogus, the existence of the caves is real. For those with more interest in the subject, I recommend the novel Tun-Huang by Yasushi Inoue.

Even though Yeoh is the star, Dane Cook steals the film as the doofus brother of Karl. I'm not sure how much of Cook's dialogue was improvised, but it is as funny has some of his stand-up material. Cook elicits laughs with physical humor with the kind of bumbling ineptitude associated with Jerry Lewis, trying to keep his composure while everything around him falls apart.

Some of the desert scenes made me wish I was watching The Touch on a large movie screen, especially with long shots of Yeoh and Chaplin's car seen against a great expanse of sand. Sometimes even a sixty inch television screen is not enough. With Yeoh involved in other high profile projects and Dane Cook's rising star, The Touch has enough going for it to hope that someone will at least make a U.S. DVD release available.

Posted by peter at 12:29 PM

March 20, 2006

Les Uns et Les Autres

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Claude Lelouch - 1981
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

About a month ago or so I saw a short film by Claude Lelouch. C'etait un Rendezvous is nothing but a celebration of the visceral pleasure of speed, or at least speed as seen from the comfort of a movie theater or one's home. That the film ends with a young lady running up the stairs at Montmatre gives those who need it the pretense of narrative. What makes C'etait un Rendezvous ultimately satisfying is that what little is said is said quite simply and compactly.

Les Uns et Les Autres is one big sprawling mess that tries to cover about thirty years of history, three generations, and four countries. To the best of my knowledge, this film did not get a release in the U.S. At three hours, Les Uns would have been a tough sell. The box office failure of New York, New York was probably still in potential distributors memories. The various story lines are so loosely strung together that the ending is forced and highly contrived. One can compare this with the equally long, multi-character Nashville which juggles several narratives, yet brings the disparate charachters and story lines together into a relatively coherent whole.

The title comes from a quote by Willa Cather: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." Lelouch's idea of repeating human stories is to have several of his stars portray a character and their child. This includes seeing James Caan and Geraldine Chaplin as both a big band conducter and his singer wife, and popular singer-actress (seen singing in the rain above) and her manager brother. Near the end of the film, Sharon Stone appears briefly as the trophy wife of the aging Caan.

Lelouch attempts to touch on various historic events, reducing the holocaust, the battle of Stalingrad, and the occupation and liberation of France into little five minute vignettes, accompanied by singing and dancing. Some of the scenes were designed to comment on each other, such as a staged "wedding number" against the wedding of two of the characters. Lelouch also tries to link characters with long takes, particularly in one seen with the camera traveling from one end of a train station to another showing concentration camp survivors arriving in Paris while German prisoners of war are departing. About midway through, any attempt at structure seems to be forgotten and the film jumps from one story line to another for no clear reason other than that Lelouch is trying to finish what he started. Maybe it's besides Lelouch's point, but it bothered me that too often the male actors had shaggy hair styles that were not modified for playing World War II era characters. At one point characters are in a musical number that recaps various points in the narrative.

A more successful Lelouch film is And Now My Love which switches between two characters who seem to exist independently of each other until the big payoff at the end when they meet. Lelouch never really has a lot to say, and has often repeated his messages from film to film. The title almost seems like the filmmaker's justification for a career of films that are frequently self-referential.

Posted by peter at 04:19 PM | Comments (2)

March 18, 2006

Two in Turin

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Torino Violenta/Double Game
Carlo Ausino - 1977
NoShame Films Region 1 DVD

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Tony, l'altra faccia della Torino Violenta/Tony:Another Double Game
Carlo Ausino - 1980
NoShame Films Region 1 DVD

Film history includes filmmakers with short filmographies. There are many reasons why these filmmakers may not have many films. Some of these English language directors may be found in the "Miscellany" or possibly "Oddities, One-shots, and Newcomers" of Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema. Film scholars will have their own reasons to see the works of Arch Oboler or Burt Topper. With a filmography with a sporadic output, Carlo Ausino is an obscure name in Italian cinema that may be due for a reassessment. The number of films made is greater than listed at IMDb. The new NoShame release includes two features and three shorts, plus two trailers.

Ausino's main claim to fame is that his films have been shot in his native Turin. The two features are crime dramas taking place in "violent Turin". Ausino wrote, directed and photographed his films. Based on what I've seen, Ausino's narratives border on the incoherent, while his visuals are sometimes inspired. Double Game stars George Hilton as a vengeful cop, a sort of Turin Dirty Harry. Unlike Clint Eastwood, Hilton doesn't distinguish between gangsters and petty crooks, shooting anyone in the name of crime busting. Tony features Ausino pal Emanuel Cannarsa as a sometimes day worker who sees a friend participating in a kidnapping. Tony maintains an uneasy alliance with the police in order to solve the kidnapping. Ausino's second major feature manages to be more assured visually while the story telling elements are even choppier. The DVD of Tony was made from the only surviving print which may account for some of the gaps in the narrative.

Ausino's strengths are in the short film. The Trailer, something of a tribute to Stephen King and John Carpenter's Christine is about a woman trapped in a car with a mind of its own. The film is one of the two shorts Ausino made with muse Kristin George. Their other collaboration, A Modern Fairy Tale is Ausino version of his discovery of George, and how she suddenly went from a supporting role to star while a film, Sahara Killing was in mid-production. The DVD includes the trailer for Sahara Killing, although the actual feature remains uncompleted. The third short, Christmas Tale is an excercise in visual story telling concerning a suicidal young woman and her encounter with an older street person. Because of the quality of his short films, I feel that Ausino's works need to be seen in full for a fair judgement.

Posted by peter at 10:26 PM

March 17, 2006

The Day Time Ended

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John "Bud" Cardos - 1980
Full Moon DVD

For your St. Patrick's Day viewing pleasure, here is a film that needs to be seen with a Guinness or three. John "Bud" Cardos made this film not long after the releases of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film's heart seems more in the Fifties, when science fiction usually meant low budget silliness with more weight on the fiction than on the science. The Day Time Ended has some of the ambition of a Steven Spielberg, with a budget only Ed Wood, Jr. would envy.

The action takes place over the course of one day when aliens decide that the desert house of Jim Davis would be the perfect site for a rumble. Prior to this, Davis' perpetually cheerful grand-daughter makes friends with a little green alien who lands in a much larger green pyramid. Later that night, Davis and his wife, Dorothy Malone spot two U.F.O.s that look kind of like French doughnuts. Just when everyone thought it was safe to be inside, there's a knock on the door. Even if one of the battling space creatures appears for no logical reason, it at least has the etiquette to announce its presence. While the little green alien made me think of George Pal's puppetoons, I'm sure that the guys who created the space monsters were trying their darndest to equal Ray Harryhausen.

Living in a house powered by solar energy apparently gives Davis the authority to declare near the end of the film that the night's events were caused by a "time-space warp". Davis even figures out that his daughter and grand-daughter have disappeared into a "vortex", although no one seems that upset about this turn of events. The characters are hardly surprised to see a futuristic city in the distance, with Davis doggedly stating something to the effect that this turn of events was inevitable. I may have made a mistake watching this film sober because if I have to choose between drunk and stupid, I'd rather be drunk.

Posted by peter at 12:56 PM

March 16, 2006

The Trouble with Hairy

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The Big Tease
Kevin Allen - 1999
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

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An Everlasting Piece
Barry Levinson - 2000
Dreamworks Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The connection is a bit tenuous, but I have to think there is no coincidence concerning the number of movies about barbers and hair stylists that have emerged in the past few years. In addition to the rise of Jon Peters from stylist to producer, The L Word features a character who worked briefly for a producer. Maybe Hollywood executives are even more apt to listen to someone standing behind them with open razors and sharp scissors. I'm not sure if there are enough films to consitute a genre, but there is a small cluster of films about characters with tonsorial talent.

The Big Tease badly wants to be the Spinal Tap of hair stylist comedies, and does so, badly. I'm assuming some of it was funny in the screenplay stage. Ferguson makes fun of Scottish national pride, the sanctimonious side of American culture, and the silliness of hair stylists as celebrities. Even feeble chuckles are sparse, making one appreciate the gifts of Christopher Guest. I haven't seen Ferguson on his late night television show, but I thought him consistently funny on The Drew Carey Show which suggests that Ferguson works best making a bigger impact within a more restricted format. The film was directed by Kevin Allen. Since his debut film, Twin Town, Allen career as director has quickly dissapated. In spite of the often incomprehensible dialogue, Twin Town remained fascinating in its audacity. At least The Big Tease is honest with its title - a come on with no delivery.

An Everlasting Piece also features a Scotch comic turned U.S. sitcom star - Billy Connelly. Connelly portrays a former hair piece saleman known as The Scalper, and not for selling concert tickets. The story concerning the theatrical release of this film stands in contrast to Steven Spielberg's posturing for Munich. Inspired by his barber father, star Barry McAvoy wrote about two barbers, one Catholic, one Protestant, who attempt to win the sole hair piece franchise for Northern Ireland in the 1980s. The film is certainly not incendiary as Paul Greengrass' Bloody Sunday, but between the laughs, tensions quickly arise, reminders of ingrained attitudes. In some way, An Everlasting Piece is closest to Levinson's Liberty Heights as an examination about the conflicts between cultural and national identity.

The main, or perhaps, mane reason to see An Everlasting Piece is for the humor, much of it verbal and joyously rude. Characters spend several minutes trying to clarify whether they are discussing "hair piece" or "herpes". The Scalper's idiosyncratic sense of theology includes reciting a letter St. Paul wrote to some hermaphrodites, and the declaration that, "The scrotum is the devil's tobacco pouch." The competing hair piece sales company is called "Toupee or not Toupee". The message is heartfelt, if obvious, but it is the weaving together of comic incidences that makes An Everlasting Piece fun to watch. Barry Levinson is inconsistent, with films like Diner, Tin Men and Wag the Dog on one end of the scale, and Sphere and the painfully unfunny Envy at the other end. Levinson's better films are generally the smaller projects, such as An Everlasting Piece. Even if Levinson can't be called a stylist, the good films prove he is no hack.

Posted by peter at 04:01 PM

March 14, 2006

Two films starring Linda Lin Dai

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Love without End/Bu liao qing
Doe Chin (Tao Qin) - 1961
Celestial Pictures Region 3 DVD

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The Last Woman of Shang/Di ji
Yueh Feng - 1964
Celestial Pictures Region 3 DVD

After seeing and writing about Les Belles last July, I got around to seeing a couple more films starring Linda Lin Dai. I had compared her at the time to Doris Day, but Lin was also Hong Kong's equivalent to Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. This is based on not only the magnitude of her stardom in Chinese language film, but aspects of her dramatic personal life.

Of the two films here, The Last Woman of Shang is the real treat. I was not familiar with director Yueh Feng but his filmography at IMDb is very incomplete. The film is part of the time-honored genre of films about an emperor and a woman who causes his downfall, usually a courtesan. Lin is the last queen of the Shang Dynasty. The film resembles the big budget epics of the early sixties usually produced by Samuel Bronston with the hundreds of extras in the battle scenes. Joseph Mankiewicz' Cleopatra certainly had an influence with a scene of Lin taking a bath while surrounded by her hand-maidens, and in a scene in which she wears a diaphanous gown. Everything you would want in a movie is here: singing, dancing, sword fights, a decapitation, whippings, and a flaming arrow in the back. The bad guys are easy to identify because they are the ones who are always laughing and having a good time. Even when his palace is burning around him, the emperor is chuckling over his good fortune to have conquered neighboring states, hoarded more jewels than he would ever need, and have a couple of attractive wives. The running time is 103 minutes, but there may have been at least two longer versions when The Last Woman of Shang was initially released.

Love without End is so beloved that the title song is a Mandarin pop standard, and the film was remade less than ten years later. The film is something of a Dark Victory retread with Lin as a nightclub singer bravely facing an incurable disease while trying not to disappoint boyfriend Shan Kwan. The film is resolutely old-fashioned beginning with shots of a confused looking Lin superimposed over shots of the neon Hong Kong nightclub signs. The passage of time is indicated with superimposed shots of a calendar. Tao Qin must have sat through a couple of Warner Brothers "weepies" from the Forties before writing his screenplay. The film's ending is sillier than that of Bette Davis and Paul Henreid's awkward cigarettes and poetry in Now, Voyager. The love might be without end, but for me the end was with laughter.

Posted by peter at 10:01 PM

March 13, 2006

Two recent films by Chantal Ackerman

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La Captive
Chantal Ackerman - 2000
Kimstim Region 1 DVD

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Tomorrow We Move/Demain On Demenage
Chantal Ackerman - 2004
Kimstim Region 1 DVD

Tomorrow We Move begins and ends with the image of a piano hoisted mid-air, being moved to and from a Parisian apartment. Even though I wasn't there to witness any part of the process, I thought of my mother, who had her baby grand piano transported from Denver to Jerusalem, and from a fair sized house to a third floor walk-up loft. I also was reminded of my own move from Denver to Miami Beach, with the film's mother and daughter moving into an apartment that is immediately too small for the two of them and their belongings.

Chantal Ackerman is a filmmaker I have only known about through her reputation. I had only previously seen Je, tu, il, elle on tape, and A Couch in New York on cable. While her two most recent narrative films are available on DVD, Ackerman's most acclaimed film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is not currently available in any format. These two recent films illustrate Ackerman's movement towards films that are more accessible for mainstream audiences, as well as less visually formal. Both films star Silvie Testud and Aurore Clement.

Tomorrow We Move mostly centers on Charlotte (Testud), a writer who finds that living with her mother (Clement) gets in the way of her writing and sleeping. When Charlotte decides their new home is clearly inadequate, the apartment is placed on sale. Part of the film can be described as a very gentle kind of screwball comedy with potential buyers entering and exiting the apartment, spending more time discussing real life than real estate. The comings and goings make one think of a Marx Brothers movie as reimagined by Eric Rohmer. There is also a nod to Proust with the discussion of memories evoked by the eating of chicken spiced with Thyme (I guess there's a lingual pun there). Testud sometimes mugs her way through the film, eavesdropping on conversations to be converted to her unintentionally comic erotic novel.

Testud's performance, and the newer film, are both in contrast to La Captive. The film is adapted from Proust's La Prisoniere. Unlike the lush Time Regained by Raoul Ruiz, Ackerman's film is stark in comparison. When we first see the obsessive Simon (Stanislas Merhar) following Ariane (Testud) in his car and on foot, the assumption is that he is stalking her. Gradually it is revealed that the two are living together and that Simon's tracking of Ariane, and her accounting for all unseen actions, are part of their relationship. Although Ariane appears to have the submissive role in the relationship, the film reveals that the pair excercise control over each other in varying degrees. Simon's Proustian sensitivity is indicated by his allergies to pollen. By being formally dressed throughout the film, Simon reminds everyone of his class. Simon and Ariane have a relationship that simultaneously involves physical intimacy and barriers, be it a glass wall or clothing. In the DVD and in other interviews, Ackerman cites the influence of Hitchcock. While perhaps not intended, the opening scene of Simon watching home movies of Ariane echoes the home movies of Powell's Peeping Tom. Although Ackerman, in her DVD interview mentions that Simon is also a captive or prisoner, even though the book and film titles in French refer specifically to a female character. What is understood is that with his suits and overcoat, Simon appears tightly wrapped up, bound by desires that he doesn't fully understand, and unravelled by the randomness of life.

Posted by peter at 11:51 PM

March 12, 2006

Uno Bianca

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Michele Soavi - 2001
NoShame Films Region 0 DVD

I don't know if the DVD release of Uno Bianco represents a new direction for NoShame but it is one of their best films to date. Originally made for Italian television, this is the fictionalized story of two policemen who identified a gang of criminals identified by their continued use of stolen White Fiat Unos in 1991. That the criminals are revealed to also be policemen, and the two honest cops find themselves periodically hindered by bureaucracy, reminds on of some of the better films of Sidney Lumet, particularly Q & A and Prince of the City. The difference is that Michele Soavi is a more natural, fluid filmmaker.

This film represents a shift in genres for Soavi, best known for his horror films, especially Dellamorte Dellamore, released in the U.S. as Cemetery Man. While there is some graphic violence, this is the kind of film that were it in English, could easily be shown on cable with no other changes. Where Soavi indicates his background in horror films is in brief cuts, extreme close-ups of eyes, and a quick shot of a uniformed policeman wearing the mask of an Uno Bianca member. Such effects are used both to put the viewer on edge, and to indicate the uncertainty of good cop Valerio in his search for the true criminals.

The crime narrative is balanced against the interplay of the two cops on a mission, the cerebral Valerio (Kim Rossi Stuart), and the more physical Rocco (Dino Abbrescia). What makes Uno Bianco compelling is that there is as much energy in the procedural scenes, even when the characters are simply sitting around a table, as there is during the execution of the robberies or car chases. The film has few brief moments where the viewer can relax. The characters and camera are almost constantly in motion.

The DVD includes an interview with the script's final writer, George Eastman who discusses the evolution of the screenplay, and changes made from actual events. While the beginning of the interview is specifically about Uno Bianco and Eastman's working relationship with Soavi over the years, Eastman digresses into a discussion of his work with extremely prolific Joe D'Amato. Producer Pietro Valsecchi provides an introduction to the film and adds a few comments. Cinematographer Gianni Mammolotti discusses some of the shooting techniques to create the film's visual style.

An interview with Soavi would have been ideal, especially considering the twists his own career has taken. After the release of Dellamorte Dellamore in late 1994, Soavi took five years off to devote time to his family. Having established his name with theatrical horror films, Soavi has since made his reputation primarily with television criminal dramas. Soavi has his first new theatrical film in release, again working in the crime genre. At a time when so few new, or relatively recent, Italian films are seen in the U.S., it's a pleasure to see Michele Soavi back in action.

Posted by peter at 12:03 AM

March 09, 2006

The Misfits

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John Huston - 1961
MGM Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

During the scenes in Brokeback Mountain after Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been knocked off his horse at a rodeo, he is walking around with a bandage on his head, covered by his coyboy hat. It took me a while to remember why that image seemed familiar to me until I finally recalled Montgomery Clift in The Misfits. For several reasons, it was a good time to revisit this film.

In this time of chatter about the significance of Ang Lee's misfits, one has to wonder how a younger audience would react to Huston's films. Especially at this time is the irony of Clark Gable portraying a man named Gay. Montgomery Clift, perhaps the inspiration for Jack Twist, was gay according to biographer Barney Hoskyns. One also has to wonder about the fact that Huston had planned to cast Clift as the closeted Army officer in Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Clift had past his boyish stage and was 40 when he shot The Misfits. His character, Perce, is somewhat similar to Jack Twist in that, until Twist gets married, both are estranged from their families, and are essentially transient, travelling the rodeo circuit or taking temporary work. For both Perce and Jack, the thrill of the rodeo outweighs the physical danger and limited financial rewards. Riding in spite of injury is an easy way to broadcast machismo.

Whatever weight Arthur Miller thought he had in his screenplay was increased by the death of Clark Gable and later, Marilyn Monroe. The characters constantly talk about death and nature as if it was pre-ordained that this would be the last film of Monroe and Gable. The Misfits could well have been Clift's last film as he was rapidly deteriorating until his death in 1964. The final two minutes of The Misfits may be among the most poignant in film, with Monroe and Gable driving off together, the sensitive Monroe asking how one can find there way in the dark, while the self-assured Gable replies that one follows the big star, as the film closes with a shot of the night sky.

Marilyn Monroe's name is still meaningful even to those who haven't seen any of her films. There is an exhibition of photographs of her at the Bass Museum, here in Miami Beach. The photos are of Monroe from the age of 18 through her photographic sessions with Bert Stern in July of 1962. The photographs include work by Eve Arnold, Gordon Parks, Alfred Eisenstadt, and Philippe Halsman as well as the Tom Kelley photograph that graced "Playboy" magazine. Also in the exhibit are various magazines with Monroe on the cover, plus the issue of "Life" from 1950 about several promising actresses that gave Monroe, June Haver and Eleanor Parker individual portraits, while a black and white group shot features Debra Paget, Phyllis Kirk, and in the back, Debbie Reynolds. The television screens feature trailers and documentaries, including Marilyn singing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy. The actress who struggled for a modicum of respect in her lifetime has been canonized in our cultural institutions.

Reading this piece on wild horses in Nevada also made re-seeing The Misfits more vital. The sub-plot of the film, concerning the capture of wild horses for sale for dog food has become more timely again. The characters discuss the possibility of the extinction of the mustangs for commercial purposes. In the end of the film, humanity and idealism win over temporary financial gain and the illusion of pragmatism. Should the wild mustangs be eliminated in real life, as is now threatened, it will add a new layer of tragedy to this heart-breaking film.

Posted by peter at 01:59 PM

March 08, 2006

Going Home with Michel Piccoli

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French Can Can
Jean Renoir - 1955
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

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I'm Going Home/Je Rentre a la Maison
Manoel de Oliveira - 2000
Milestone Film & Video Region 1 DVD

That's Michel Piccoli underneath that mop of black hair as Captain Valorguei in Renoir's French Can Can. It took me a little while before I realized it was him. I was unaware that he was even in the film until the credits rolled in the beginning. His presence provides an additional link to seeing Renoir's ode to show business with de Olivera's film about an aging actor. That Piccoli is in both films may also be appropriate considering that his career began just after World War II, and he has worked with several of the greatest filmmakers in French language cinema.

French Can Can was Renoir's return home, his first film shot in France since Rules of the Game. It's the fictionalized story of the producer who created the Moulin Rouge. Jean Gabin is the producer who fleetingly falls in and out of love with a variety of women, continually struggling to pay his bills and keep his show going. The story is less important than the imagery and color which take many of the cues from Toulouse-Lautrec as well as a nod to father Pierre-August Renoir. As Peter Bogdanovich points out in his introduction to the DVD, Jean Renoir uses the art, especially the poster art of the period, as a starting point for his use of color and composition, rather than doing something similar to An American in Paris where Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly dressed and posed dancers to resemble the artwork. Renoir may have missed France, but even more so, he missed a France that disappeared during his childhood.

There is a moment when most of the characters stop to sing "La Marseillaise". This may have been Renoir's way of showing his sense of love and patriotism for his country. It may also have been included to remind his French audience that he had also previously made a film about the French Revolution and the creation of the national anthem.

French Can Can was cut by about fifteen minutes when it originally was released in the United States. For a film of its time, it is quite risque with a couple of scenes of semi-nudity as well as a couple of bedroom scenes, one of which shows that while Jean Gabin wore a nightshirt to bed, Maria Felix had nothing between her and the covers. In an indirect way, Godard's Contempt is the new wave version of French Can Can, again linked with Piccoli in both films. Instead of using the national anthem, Godard bathes Brigitte Bardot with Piccoli in red, white and blue lighting, the color of the French flag. But setting show business stories and intellectual concerns aside, for Renoir and Godard, the essential reason for the invention of cinema was to film hot French babes in their underwear or as nude as possible.

I'm Going Home is a film of quiet glories. De Olivera steps back to observe Piccoli going through his routine at his favorite cafe, or signing autographs for fans. While conversing with his agent, the camera focuses on Piccoli's feet, clad in a new pair of shoes. Parts of the film are seeing Piccoli performing excerpts from Ionesco's Exit the King and Shakespeare's The Tempest, plays featuring older men of royalty in decline. De Olivera is still active at age 96. The film was inspired by an incident in de Olivera's career. If Piccoli's aging actor may be shaky in his performances, de Olivera displays a sureness of cinematic expression of a filmmaker at his peak.

Posted by peter at 08:15 PM | Comments (1)

March 07, 2006

Two later films by Yoshitaro Nomura

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Village of Eight Gravestones/Yatsu Haka-mura
Yoshitaro Nomura - 1977
Panorama Entertainment Region 0 DVD

Writhing Tongue/Furueru Shita
Yoshitaro Nomura - 1980
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

I wrote glowingly about Yoshitaro Nomura's The Castle of Sand last July. I would still hope to see Nomura's earlier films based on what I have read on his career. If the two films I saw are any indication, Nomura was in serious decline following The Castle of Sand.

Village of Eight Gravestones is the better of the two films. It's something of a genre mash-up of romantic melodrama, murder mystery, ghost story and gore film. The long lost son of a wealthy family is found. This rather large family has their eyes on inheriting the family fortune. Unfortunately various family members are dispatched with various violent deaths. The young man learns that the family fortune was established by an ancestor who helped kill several former samurai in exchange for land and wealth. The young man finds that he has two creepy old aunts who may be poisoning family members. Imagine Arsenic and Old Lace with flashback scenes involving samurais and severed body parts. At two and a half hours, the film is longer than it should be. Even though the narrative descended into nonsense at the end, it offers some perverse satisfaction.

Writhing Tongue made me think of the possibly apocryphal story about Val Lewton. An executive at had misunderstood when he heard that Lewton was a "horror writer", when Lewton was described as a "horrible writer". Trust me when I say Writhing Tongue is a horrible film and not a horror film. The story is about a young girl who gets tetanus poisoning from sticking her hands in mud. Most of the film takes place in the hospital where the girl, about five years old, is treated while her parents keep vigil. Because of the effects of the toxins, one is treated to an extreme close-up of a cut finger, and more sadistically, a scene with a doctor pulling out some of the little girl's teeth during a seizure. At one point the father has a vision of the toxin in his daughter manifesting as some kind of butterfly ghost. Of course a full-screen, faded transfer of a wide-screen film works against whatever Nomura may have achieved.

Posted by peter at 12:01 AM

March 06, 2006

A Fairly Reliable History of British Films

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I don't know how long this site will be up, but it's worth a look. It's the history of British film as seen through the eyes of movie extra Keith Guttenberg, the guy in purple, as seen in the above "still". Some of the lines are pretty funny while others are absolute groaners. Be certain after the episode is over to click to learn more about British films. There are some humorous paragraphs on famous actors and films such as the piece on David Lean's Oliver Twist.

This site seemed appropriate for me as this previous week I had seen two films that featured Sylvia Syms. This was not planned, as I was totally unaware that she was in the second film until the credits appeared. I saw a British DVD of Ice Cold in Alex, the rousing World War II film in which John Mills crosses the desert to get a beer in Alexandria. Several top British actors join Mills: Harry Andrews, Anthony Quayle and Syms. It took me a while to realize that I was looking at Syms in I'll Sleep when I'm Dead, filmed forty-five years later. That film is by Mike Hodges, who seemed to forget that he made a better gangster revenge film, Get Carter back in the early Seventies, and that films about men having psychological breakdowns following male on male rape, as in Deliverance and Scarecrow, came and went in that era. Seeing Syms as she looks now is almost like watching contemporary British films - I keep on thinking about the past when they were both more vital.

Posted by peter at 12:02 AM

March 05, 2006

Behind Locked Doors

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Oscar Boetticher - 1948
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

It's too bad no one at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had the sense of humor to present an award to a filmmaker named Oscar. While there may be a few who remember the guy who directed Twist Around the Clock, more will choose the man better known as Budd. If Behind Locked Doors isn't as sublime a film as The Tall T, it is quite an entertaining film in its own right.

The basic narrative is about a private detective (Richard Carlson), hired by a reporter (Lucille Bremer), to discover if a judge is hiding in a mental institution. Yes, the basic premise sounds very similar to Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor. Curiously, one of the writers of Behind Locked Doors, Eugene Ling, had a hand in the screenplay of Phil Karlson's Scandal Sheet, based on the novel, The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller. The big difference between the two madhouse mysteries is that Fuller's film is an allegory about the United States in the early Sixties, while Boetticher made an economical film noir with no greater aspirations than to be a genial time waster.

Although Boetticher's best films usually involved Randolph Scott adrift in relatively deserted locations, Behind Locked Doors shows Boetticher capable of being visually expressive indoors. There is much use of depth of field, with characters coming in and out of big, deep shadows. Most of the exteriors are also dark and shadowy. Expressionism is not a word usually associated with Boetticher, but its in full display here. Light and shadow are used in tight close-ups of Carlson and Tor Johnson behind bars.

Behind Locked Doors slightly hints at Boetticher's themes. Somewhat like in the Scott westerns, Carlson plays a character who finds himself in a situation for personal gain in the beginning of the film, only to have circumstances force him to be the protector of a helpless person and perhaps seek a greater justice for society at large. The real enjoyment in this film is seeing character actors Herbert Heyes, Douglas Fowley and Thomas Browne Henry seen above scheming to make life miserable for Richard Carlson. Boetticher's films are grossly unavailable on tape or DVD. Until Columbia Pictures realizes there is a devoted audience for the Boetticher-Scott westerns, Behind Locked Doors is a worthy glimpse at the director previously known as Oscar.

Posted by peter at 12:02 AM | Comments (3)

March 04, 2006

Ultraviolet

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Kurt Wimmer - 2006
Screen Gems 35mm movie

The aesthetics of Ultraviolet are primarily from comic books and video games. The film is a lively piece of eye candy which takes bits and pieces from John Woo, Tsui Hark, Luc Besson, the Matrix series, Blade Runner, and Zatoichi. Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer, the film was shot in China using a crew from Hong Kong action films. That Ultraviolet looks like a Hong Kong film, especially in the filming of the action sequences may be due to such talents as Sung Pong Choo for production design, and Arthur Wong's cinematography. Ultraviolet is also similar to Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, having actors perform in front of green and blue screens. There is probably not a single frame that was not digitally altered.

The one part of Ultraviolet that is an unqualified success is the title sequence. Even though the film is based on Wimmer's original screenplay, the title character is given a kind of mythical status with titles that are incorporated onto various comic books with Ultraviolet on the cover. The styles range from vintage to more contemporary artwork. In keeping with the pastiche of various comic artists' styles, Violet is constantly reimagined as well. If only the rest of the film was as terrific as the opening.

The film is about a post SARS, post bird flu future involving a war between uninfected human beings and those with infected blood called hemophages. The hemophages have modified vampire teeth, and were the subjects of medical experiments. Violet is a hemophage whose mission is to kidnap a young boy who may be a biological weapon. The film is mostly an excuse to see Milla Jovovich in tight outfits shooting, kicking and sword fighting her way from one scrape to the next. In this vision of the future, guns samurai swords pop out of nowhere in the manner of Yosemite Sam. I was quite reassured to see that coffee-makers will remain the same.

Posted by peter at 12:01 AM

March 03, 2006

Vincent and Theo

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Robert Altman - 1990
MGM Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

In the supplementary featurette to Vincent and Theo, Robert Altman talks briefly about his use of overlapping dialogue. I had to smile when Altman not only cited Howard Hawks, but specifically seeing The Thing, and thinking that "this is how dialogue in film should be". While Vincent and Theo is one of the most somber of Altman films, there are still "Altmanesque" moments. One such scene in near the beginning with Theo van Gogh and one of the gallery owners looking for each other between gallery walls, followed by two simultaneous conversations. While not on the level of M*A*S*H or Nashville, some of the dialogue is spoken in an off handed manner giving the effect that one is eavesdropping on the characters. (One may wish that Altman remembered The Thing with his own excursion into snowbound science fiction, Quintet, a film that might have benefitted from a few laughs and possibly an "intellectual carrot".)

Altman's film was released to coincide with the one-hundred year passing of Vincent van Gogh. At that time, I saw Maurice Pialat's film Van Gogh, but not Altman's. The film opens with footage from an auction at Christie's with one of the sunflower paintings sold for over twenty million pounds. Altman then cuts to footage of van Gogh, while the auctioneer is heard in the background. The obvious point is the irony between van Gogh's failure to sell his artwork while he was alive, and the immense monetary value his artwork has today. By making the film about the artist, Vincent van Gogh, and his art dealer brother, Theo, Altman has tried to say something about the conflict between art as personal expression and its commercial value.

Altman probably saw something of himself in the story of van Gogh. Vincent and Theo came out ten years after Altman's last major Hollywood film, Popeye. Prior to that film, Altman made five idiosyncratic films for 20th Century Fox, beginning with Three Women and concluding with Health which met with varying degrees of critical success. The commercial viability Altman had in the first half of the Seventies had disappeared by the end of the decade. At one point in Vincent and Theo, Theo tells Vincent that there is no market for his work, to which Vincent response that it is Theo job to create the market. One can imagine similar discussions between Altman and studio executives. Vincent and Theo was Altman's last theatrical film before being "re-discovered" with The Player, where Altman had the opportunity to publicly bite the hand that grudgingly fed him.

No film about van Gogh can escape from the shadow of Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life. Altman has a grubbier, more sinewy van Gogh in the form of Tim Roth. Both films fail for similar reasons - an assumption is made that the film viewer is familiar with at least the outlines of van Gogh's life, and that the viewer understands already what makes van Gogh significant as an artist. Altman does a slightly better job in having a character mention the influence of Japanese art on van Gogh, and conveying van Gogh's identification with workers as well as his interest in lower-class people as subjects for art. Altman also improves on presenting the fractious relationship between van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. If one has limited knowledge about art and artists, Vincent and Theo reinforces the idea that the film was made simply because the artist was famous, leaving why he is famous unanswered. By presenting van Gogh as the proto tortured and starving artist while ignoring the meaning of his artwork, Vincent and Theo becomes a film about a person who is famous for being famous, a celebrity biography with claims to higher aspirations.

Posted by peter at 08:00 AM | Comments (3)

March 02, 2006

Happy Birthday Kurt Weill!

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I grew up hearing the song "Mack the Knife" through the version done by Lotte Lenya. My father was both a scholar of Bertolt Brecht in addition to translating some of his plays into English. Because of Brecht, I was exposed to the music of Kurt Weill. Today would have been Weill's 105th birthday.

I don't know what my father thought about Bobby Darin's version of "Mack the Knife", but I played The Doors' version of "Alabama Song" for him. At a time when I couldn't see movies without parental approval, I used the inclusion of Lotte Lenya to justify seeing From Russia, with Love. When it was available on VHS, I bought my father a copy of the G.W. Pabst version of The Threepenny Opera.

For all of the music he wrote, Weill's legacy is primarily based on the songs and music from The Threepenny Opera and a handful of individual pieces, like "September Song". Every few years, one of Weill's songs will be heard in a movie. No matter which film I hear using a Kurt Weill song, I can't help but to think back to a time when I heard Lotte Lenya singing on a one-speaker record player.

Posted by peter at 04:50 PM

March 01, 2006

Walk the Line

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James Mangold - 2005
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

Conspicuous in his absence in Walk the Line is Bob Dylan. Dylan is mentioned once by Johnny Cash in a conversation with his father. Cash and June Carter sing "It Ain't Me, Babe" in a rousing duet. Later Cash is seen hanging photographs while "Highway 61 Revisited" blasts on the stereo. A final mention of Dylan by a record executive seems designed for the benefit of an audience totally unaware of the state of popular music in 1968. Not only was Johnny Cash aware the Dylan had "gone electric" but The Beatles and The Byrds were electric rock bands to begin with. One has to see No Direction Home, the recent Dylan documentary to get a clearer idea of Cash's relationship with Dylan. One depending on Walk the Line would be unaware that not only did Johnny Cash have his own weekly television show in 1969, but that Dylan made an extremely rare television appearance as Cash's first guest.

Maybe I'm being a nit-picker here. Most biographical films are known for their "truthiness" rather than absolute truthfulness. For me, Walk the Line hit several false notes, ranging from playing with the facts to questionable casting. I'm usually fairly good at recognizing imposters, yet it wasn't until I read the credits that I realized that the guy who looked like Buddy Holly was suppose to be Roy Orbison. Joaquin Phoenix somewhat looked like Cash, though it took about an hour before the singing voice became passable.

Even though she looks nothing like June Carter, Reese Witherspoon is the life of this party. Her singing voice is higher than Carter's but she tries to mimic Carter's inflections and growls. With her voice and chin, Witherspoon actually is a little closer to rockabilly party girl Wanda Jackson. When Witherspoon steps out to sing her first number as Carter, she brings the spark of life to the film. Based on Witherspoon's performance, as well as his success with the actress driven Girl, Interrupted, James Mangold might want to reconsider his strengths as a director.

The film opens with faux Ford images of poor white sharecroppers on the cotton field. Later, an unmoored camera follows Phoenix as he goes on a rampage in his dressing room, tearing out a sink and falling on the floor. Even disregarding the inconsistent visual style, Walk the Line feels less authentic than such films as Coal Miner's Daughter and the fictionalized Sweet Dreams, and is certainly less visually consistent. The high point for Walk the Line is hearing the real Johnny Cash and June Carter sing behind the final credits. The real story of Johnny Cash and June Carter is told through the singers' own songs.

Posted by peter at 11:23 AM | Comments (1)