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September 30, 2006

Bettie Paged Twice

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The Notorious Bettie Page
Mary Harron - 2006
HBO Video Region 1 DVD

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Bettie Page: Dark Angel
Nico B - 2004
Cult Epics Region 1 DVD

When it comes to Bettie Page, the photographs say all I really want to know about her. In terms of knowing the facts of Bettie Page's life, the "E True Hollywood Story" gave enough information about her life as a pinup model, the accusations of pornography by Congress, and Page's retirement to a reclusive life devoted to church work. There are two films about Bettie Page, but neither of them gets it right, although one tries harder than the other.

If there is a reason to see The Notorious Bettie Page, it's for the faces. While Gretchen Mol passingly resembles Page, it's the rest of the cast that is noteworthy simply for how they seem to represent an older era. Setting aside anything else about the film, the faces crammed into the hour and a half are as vivid as those of Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The strength of Mary Harron's film is also its weakness, which is to say that The Notorious Bettie Page is so visually beautiful it is like a museum piece with any sense of spontaneity drained out.

Harron and screenplay writer Guenevere Turner seem to have jammed as much about Bettie Page's life as possible within a relatively compact running time, alternating black and white New York City with colorful Miami Beach. Brutal incidences in Page's life before New York are conveyed effectively, especially with scenes in which her trusting nature puts her in dangerous situations. The actors are all quickly vivid, especially David Strathairn as Senator Estes Kefauver and Jared Harris as John Willie. The film also respectfully attempts to grapple with Page's inner conflicts, between her life as a pin-up model and her committed Christian faith. And yet for all the obvious effort, the film is unable to explain the simultaneous naughty but nice attraction that made Page a magnetic personality.

Bettie Page: Dark Angel is an extremely low budget attempt to tell Page's story from the time she was already working for Irving and Paula Klaw, through her retirement following the Senate investigation. The film is mostly recreations of Page's bondage movie shorts, strung together with poorly acted incidences in her life. The sets are a scant step up from the production values seen in Ed Wood, Jr.'s Plan Nine from Outer Space. Bondage and porno star Paige Richards looks vaguely like a more well fed version of Page. If The Notorious Bettie Page looks overpopulated with its lively characters popping all over the screen, Bettie Page: Dark Angel tries to get by with usually no more than four or five people in a given scene.

If you have to see one movie about Bettie Page, see Gretchen Mol's impersonation. For viewing pleasure, you're better off seeing the actual Bettie Page on DVD.

Posted by peter at 12:19 AM

September 28, 2006

An Interview with Linda Thornburg

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There are the so-called independent films that are distributed, and often financed, by the subsidiaries of the big Hollywood studios. There are also the truly independent films made by filmmakers outside the Hollywood system, with tiny budgets scraped together, usually a cast of unknowns, and an uphill battle to get the attention of distributors. I've known Linda Thornburg for a few years and knew that she went through several years in realizing her dream of making a film from May Sarton's novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears a Mermaid. The film has been making the round of festivals geared towards GLBT themed films as well as some of the independent film festivals, both in the U.S. and abroad. The following is an email interview I did with Linda, seen in the photo above with her star, Lucy Brightman. This interview has been slightly edited from the original transcript.

Question: When did you first read Mrs. Stevens, and when did you decide you were going to make a film from the novel?

Linda Thornburg: I first read Mrs. Stevens in the early 70s when I discovered May Sarton. I read "Journal of a Solitude" and "House by the Sea" first. I didn't decide to make a film of Mrs. Stevens until my then girlfriend convinced me in 1982. I really thought it was too interior of a piece to make a good film, but May Sarton was going to be at a book signing in Seattle, and she convinced me to go meet her. I gave May a resume and some reviews of my other work and told her I was interested in making a film of Mrs. Stevens. May wrote back in two days saying, "Several people have asked me to make a film out of this, but you're the one." Then I got serious about it.

Q: Did you have any filmmaking experience prior to shooting Mrs. Stevens?

LT: Yes. I've been making films, mostly writing, directing and producing
since 1972. I've also done a lot of TV and theatre.

Q: What have been the biggest challenges in making the film?

LT: The biggest challenge was raising the money. The second biggest challenge was casting. Though I secured the rights from May in 1983, I had difficulty finding actors willing to do the role of Hilary. Only two women were willing to take on the role prior to "Ellen's" coming out. The two were Audra Lindley, and Glenda Jackson. Lots of major US and British actors read the script. Nearly all of them turned it down. Since Glenda Jackson and Audra Lindley both loved it, I imagine it was primarily because of the content. It was a different time, and doing a lesbian role was perceived as not very good for one's career.

Q: How has the film evolved from how it was envisioned to what is on screen?

LT: Film is a plastic art, so it's always changing: from book to screenplay, from first draft to draft seven, from the final shooting script to the scenes we actually shot--dumping some and changing some along the way, adding scenes at the last minute--from the scenes we shot to the way it was actually cut and recut and recut. Remarkably some of the scenes look exactly as I envisioned them and even like the storyboards that were created in the late 1980s.

However, the whole process is fluid, so there are many changes. The most significant, perhaps, is the cutting of one of the major characters in the book, the boy Mar Hemmer, who bookends the interview. The bookending thing just didn't work in the movie the way it had in the book. So I cut those scenes after we'd already edited a "final" version with those scenes in. The consistent feedback we got was to cut the character, so I did. That was difficult.

Q: Is there a difference in how the film has been received between those who are familiar with May Sarton's novel and those not familiar with her book?

LT: Not particularly. Some Sarton fans love the film and some don't in about equal measures to the non Sarton fans. The overwhelming response of those who see it is that they love seeing a picture with deep content that's beautiful and sensitive.

Q: Mrs. Stevens has been screened primarily at GLBT Film Festivals, but also at some independent film festivals. Has there been a significant difference in the reception of the film based on the venue?

LT: This is not a simple question. The venues that have screened the film whether "straight" or GLBT have all had excellent responses to the film -- Audience Awards, packed houses, great comments. However, many straight viewers have felt that the picture should not be marketed primarly to a GLBT
audience. They feel it's more universal.

And at least one GLBT festival must have concurred because they declined to screen the picture saying there wasn't enough lesbian sex to make it screenable at their GLBT festival. More specifically they said, "Because there wasn't any lesbian sex in the first 30 minutes, their audience wouldn't want to see it...wouldn't think it was a lesbian film." I don't know what that means since we've won two Audience Awards for Best Lesbian Feature at Festivals in Brussels and Colorado Springs as well as Best Feature at the Fire Island Film Festival, and a Best Debut Feature award the the Rehoboth Independent Film
Festival.

Q: What kind of feedback have you received on the film from critics and filmmakers?

Here are a few of the comments. For more see our website.

The Buzz


"Romantic, smart and exquisite, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is an easy film to love."
---frameline30, San Francisco

"... exceptional acting, a tight script and lush cinematography. A must for both the literary and the romantically minded."
--- image+nation review, Montreal, CANADA,

" ... technically solid, sensitively written, marvellously scored, and wonderfully directed. Call it a winner, better yet, call it superb. Mrs. Stevens gets an A!"
----Clay Lowe "It's Movie Time," WCBE 90.5 FM Dec. 9, 2005
hear the entire review on WCBE's website.

"...gentle, literate and genteel."
-- Kathryn Eastburn COLORADO SPRINGS, independent September 15 -21,
2005

"The Merchant-Ivory of lesbian films." Catherine Crouch, Film Director

"Linda Thornburg directs this feature film of magnificent scope that spans 75 years in the life of poet Hilary Stevens.... The film deftly weaves past and present, and paints a sensitive portrait of Mrs. Stevens' lesbian identity that spans nearly a century."
---Curve Magazine, November 2005

"Director Linda Thornburg and Brightman present a powerful portrayal of a woman growing older: It should hold appeal for anyone who still believes in love. . . "
--- Rhonda Smith, WASHINGTON BLADE

"It was love at first sight with this delightful brilliantly acted and profoundly subtle film which perfectly matches the original literary source ..."
--- Isabel Dargent, Lesbian Archives, Bruxelles

Our audience loved Mrs. Stevens! I had so many people come up to me afterwards - women, men - and thank me for bringing in your film. "Magnificent" one woman said; "the best" gushed another. Our crowd loved it….Your film is a hit… with clearly a broad appeal. The audience was entranced, taken someplace they clearly cherished.
--- Carl Bogner, Milwaukee GLFF, Festival Director

Q: Have there been any changes to the film since when I saw it in May 2005?

LT: Only very minor changes, mostly technical. No content changes.

Q: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers.

LT: I have lots of favorites but these stand out: Jane Campion, Mira Nair, Sally Potter, Ang Lee, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, John Sayles, Truffaut, Sydney Pollack, David Lean.

Q: Are there any plans to make another film?

LT: Yes. I have a new script in development. The working title is "Good Girls Don't." It's based on the lives of people I've come to believe were gay and lesbian in the small town I grew up in in Indiana in the 50s and 60s. Of course they were all very closeted, but they somehow noticed and protected the kids who were growing up gay and clueless, myself included. It's a story of the way they silently and invisibly guided us to "find" ourselves, when the rest of the world
never acknowledged our existence.

Q: Anything else you would like to say?

LT: Yes. I'd like to say thanks to all the people who supported the picture, financially, emotionally, spiritually, and to acknowledge the actors and crew for their incredible work. Film is a collaborative effort and requires the considerable talents and skills of multiple dozens of people. I was blessed to work with very talented people. My deepest appreciation to all of them. (PS They are all listed on the website.)

Posted by peter at 02:41 PM | Comments (1)

September 27, 2006

Three Times

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Zui hao de shi guang
Hou Hsiao-hsien - 2005
IFC Films Region 1 DVD

I was hoping to see Three Times in a theater. The only Hou film I have seen in a theater, Millenium Mambo, is my favorite. I'm not certain whether this is due to seeing the film on the big screen, although slower, more deliberately paced films do seem to play better in a theatrical setting than on a televison screen which almost demands more visceral types of entertainment. Is it some kind of cultural misunderstanding? I have to admit that for all of the reverence accorded Hou, I feel like I'm missing something when I see his films, and I have seen about eight of them.

The premise of Three Times is interesting - with Shu Qi and Chang Chen portraying three couples in three different time periods - 1911, 1966 and 2005. Hou shoots each period in a different visual style. What links the stories in addition to the actors is that the stories primarily take place in interior settings, creating a sense of restriction of space. Additionally, each narrative hinges on communications between Chang and Shu. The letters received in 1911 and 1966 have been replaced by text messages in 2005.

The 1911 sequence is the most problematic. Except for singing in the beginning and at the end, this section is silent, with titles indicating the dialogue. Hou is reported to have chosen to this format because he could not accurately reproduce the Taiwanese dialect of that time. The sequence pretty much works, but Hou's motivation to make it a silent film makes me think of William Faulker who complained when writing Land of the Pharoahs, that he didn't know how ancient Egyptians talked.

The 1966 sequence is both the most accessible and the most successful. Chang portrays a soldier on leave who travels from city to city in search of Shu, a girl he met once when she worked at a pool hall. The film is bridged by pop songs from the era, most notably "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes".

The 2005 sequence is the most visually adventurous I've seen by Hou. The camera roams around more actively, with Hou cutting into extreme closeups. Usually viewing action from a polite distance, this sequence is more intimate than what I have seen from Hou's previous films. This final sequence suggests a reflection of the lack of space in Taipei, that the crowding of people will force us to look at them more closely, while the pursuit of physical and psychological space becomes more difficult.

Posted by peter at 05:16 PM

September 24, 2006

Two by Lou Ye

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Suzhou River/Suzhou He
Lou Ye - 2000
Strand Releasing Region 1 DVD

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Purple Butterfly/Zi Hudie
Lou Ye - 2003
Palm Pictures Region 1 DVD

With Lou Ye in the news a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like a good time to re-see Suzhou River and also see Purple Butterfly. While the two films have some shared thematic elements, especially regarding the nature of love, the two films have different narrative foundations, with Suzhou River advancing through a character's voice-overs, while Purple Butterfly minimizes dialogue in favor of images to tell its story. Lou's uses popular songs to express the thoughts of his characters. This becomes more incisive in using the period songs in Purple Butterfly which additional comment on how the characters view Shanghai.

Suzhou River contains an unexpected blend of Vertigo and Disney's The Little Mermaid along with the most extensive use of point-of-view shots since Robert Montgomery's film of Lady in the Lake, and narration the resembles that from Francois Truffaut. Lou records his two narratives with a shaky camera in available light. Jorg Lemberg's music strongly resembles a reworking of Bernard Herrmann's romantic themes for Hitchcock's film of lost love. In addition to Moudan/Meimei having Little Mermaid dolls, Meimei appears as a little mermaid, swimming in a large glass tank. For Lou, not only can one not depend on what one thinks has been seen, but people are not always who they appear to be.

The deceptiveness of appearances is further explored in Purple Butterfly with a decidedly non-glamourous Zhang Ziyi as a young woman fighting against the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Lou takes his narrative of love, espionage and treachery, and has it loop around itself. Unlike the small scale Suzhou River, this follow-up is played against an epic, historical background. The film jumps back from time to time in repeating an incident from the point of view of another character, so that what is assumed about relationships and events is undermined and re-ordered. Lou's camerawork is sometimes like that of a nervous onlooker, trying to figure out where to focus and make sense of the chaos. Much of the film is shot using a blue filter adding to the visual darkness of activity that takes place often at night or in the rain.

Lou has upset Chinese authorities by incorporating documentary footage of Tianenmen Square. Again the story is about love against large historical events. While it may not be fully accurate to describe Lou as the Bernardo Bertolucci of China, he is the only other filmmaker I can think of that seems consistently interested in exploring the junctures where politics and erotic love meet.

Posted by peter at 07:58 AM

September 23, 2006

Italian Film Festival at Miami Beach

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I've been a fan of Italian cinema since the day, many years ago, that I saw the double feature of Juliet of the Spirits and Red Desert. Although Italian cinema seems to have peaked from the days when Fellini, Antonioni and Visconti ruled, I also have to wonder if at this time when fewer foreign language films get any distribution here in the U.S, if we're not missing something. What I usually see are good, if not great, films. And as good as some of the films have been, there is no sense of cinema being re-invented such as with Eight and a Half.

One of the most interesting film festivals here in Miami Beach is the Italian Film Festival. Comprised of ten films over six days, from October 5 to 10, this is short and sweet. What makes this festival of some importance is that these are films that do not have U.S. theatrical distribution, and may often not be available on Region 1 DVD. Most of the titles are unknown to me, but there are a couple of titles to note.

One of the films, The Second Wedding is by Pupi Avati. At this time I have only seen two of Avati's horror films, but have read of other films making the film festival circuit. The big, ambitious, Crime Novel is the festival's major title. Michele Placido's film was a big winner of the 2006 David di Donatello awards in several categories although it lost out to Nanni Moretti's Il Caimano for Best Picture and Director.

Look for reviews of some, if not all of the films at this space.

Posted by peter at 09:40 AM

September 22, 2006

Come and See

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Idi i Smotri
Elem Klimov - 1985
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

Campaspe, the Self-Styled Siren had an interesting post at Cinemarati. Just as some of us have gotten through various forms of higher education without actually reading some of the classics of Western literature, so there are those film critics, historians, bloggers, etc., who have gaps in seeing certain films, and in some cases whole filmographies of some directors. Titles from IMDb's top 250 that I have not seen more than part of would be Grave of the Fireflies and Harvey. For the first, while I recognize the artistry of Japanese anime, I still find the films put me to sleep, while with Harvey, I don't find drunks amusing, with or without invisible six foot tall rabbits. I also have not been able to rouse myself to see Sling Blade because I dislike Miramax's sentimental man and boy love stories on general principle. A title that popped up frequently in the comments was Come and See, currently ranking at #207 in IMDb's top 250.

As an examination of the horrors of war, Come and See is unrelenting. The film follows a boy, Florian, in his descent into hell. Enlisted to join the partisans of his village in Byelorussia in World War II, his mother is assured that "it will be like summer camp". Instead, Florian finds himself in a world of ever increasing violence and degradation. At the end of Come and See, titles appear explaining that the Germans burned 628 Byelorussian villages including the inhabitants. The Germans, who over a loudspeaker claim to the villages that they are civilized, prove to be the opposite in the extreme. In comparison, the portrayal of Nazi attrocities in a film like Schindler's List is timid and too polite.

While the film begins simply, seemingly a straight forward view of war from the point of view of children, Elem Klimov incorporates sound, and later, visuals, reflecting some of the subjective changes in Florian. Caught in a bombing of a forest, Florian temporarily becomes deaf. The soundtrack becomes a sonic montage of the ringing in his ears, Florian's garbled speech, and the barely heard words yelled at him. Seeing a girl dancing the Charleston during a quiet lull, we hear the music imagined by Florian. Near the end of Come and See, enraged over what he has endured and witnessed, Florian shoots a portrait of Hitler. With each shot is a montage of documentary footage run backwards, with Florian perhaps imagining what could have been prevented had he been able to kill Hitler. The sequence ends with Florian realizing that at a certain point in the past, one cannot predict the future.

Although a simple reading of Come and See would be anti-Nazi, Klimov's story should be understood to be more universal. Much of the horror is muted, seen from a distance, or suggested by the screams of unseen victims. As grim as Come and See is, the final images of the sky seen from the forest indicate a stubborn glimmer of hope and rebirth.

Posted by peter at 05:01 PM | Comments (3)

September 21, 2006

The Quiet Duel

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Shizukanaru Ketto
Akira Kurosawa - 1949
BCI Region 1 DVD

Akira Kurosawa's ninth film seems to have been released this week without much fanfare. While it is admittedly not one of his best films, for me, the release of any vintage Kurosawa is still cause for celebration. The Quiet Duel is one of Kurosawa's early films that is relatively unseen. The film had not received theatrical distribution in the United States until 1979. While the title seems to suggest a story about samurai, this is again Kurosawa examining post-war Japan.

Toshiro Mifune portrays a doctor, Kyoji, who has contracted syphilis through an accident while operating on a patient. After the war, Kyoji goes back to join his father, also a doctor, in his medical practice, keeping his illness a secret. Even though Kyoji is treating the disease, he pushes away his fiancee rather than explain why he has broken off their engagement. By chance, Kyoji meets up with Nakada, the soldier who infected him. Nakada has dismissed the warnings of treating his syphilis and how it could affect others, and is now with a pregnant wife. While The Quiet Duel can be categorized with Kurosawa's other socially concerned films, looking beyond the narrative is a critique of Japanese manners, especially the custom of indirectly addressing a concern in conversation, as well as the misplaced sense of shame.

The Quiet Duel has become even more interesting to watch in these times when safe sex is mandated. Later in the film we see Narada become more deranged from the effects of his untreated illness. There is also discussion about how syphilis has effected Narada's unborn baby. There is a scene where Mifune is anguished over his enforced celebacy since becoming infected. I had to wonder if condoms were not available in Japan during this time. The title of the film refers to Kyoji dealing with his conflicts as calmly as possible.

Even if certain aspects of the narrative are questionable, The Quiet Duel shows Kurosawa under the influence of Ford, Wyler and especially Welles, with an emphasis on depth of field cinematography. In the DVD supplement, a cinematography crew member explains how a special lens was created for use in the film. Keeping in mind that Japanese studios lacked the film stock or equipment that was standard in Hollywood at this time makes the visuals in The Quiet Duel even more astounding. The composition of shots, such as above, resemble that of Wyler's Dodsworth in the use of a literal framing device.

The film, which co-stars Kurosawa favorite Takashi Shimura, suffers from moments of bathos - just a bit too tearful, too sentimental, and at times too noble. This may have been due to the producers' demands as this was made before Kurosawa had complete control over his films. Still, a minor Kurosawa film is still a Kurosawa film, which should be reason enough to see The Quiet Duel.

Posted by peter at 04:01 PM | Comments (1)

September 20, 2006

Or (My Treasure)

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Mon Tresor
Keren Yedaya - 2004
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

Or may be one of the bleakest films I've seen. Stylistically, the film could be described as Bressonian, with little camera movement, no music, shooting in what appears to be available light. Far from being the "land of milk and honey", Tel Aviv appears as a dark, dingy city of little promise and less opportunity.

Or is a teenage girl who lives with her mother, Ruthie. The two scrap along, with Or as the primary financial support, selling bottles to be recycled and working in a restaurant, in addition to going to school. It is gradually revealed that Ruthie has been working as a low-rent prostitute, continuing her trade in spite of Or's pleas for her to quit. Seemingly the more responsible of the two, Or is shown to be promiscuous. Whether out of simple economic need or because of her own sense of self-worth, Or decides to join an escort service, effectively following in her mother's path.

Keren Yedaya has mentioned that she sees the film both as speaking out against prostitution, as well as a parable about Israeli-Palestinian relations. While I don't feel that Or can easily be understood this way, it is clear that the film is about the gaze of the observer and the role sex plays as a tool of survival for women. Or is old fashioned feminist filmmaking, at least thematically, without the hectoring. The film is also about choices and consequences, about present needs subverting a more meaningful future.

Posted by peter at 03:01 PM

September 17, 2006

Coming Soon: The Robert Aldrich Blog-a-thon!

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Catherine Denueve is seen above enjoying a "Coffee, Coffee and more Coffee" moment in anticipation of the Robert Aldrich Blog-a-thon scheduled for October 16. Those interested in participating should contact Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. We look forward to more than a Dirty Dozen participants. All form of opinion will be welcome, not just that of The Choirboys. The Frisco Kid is as welcomed as The Big Leaguer. While October 16 is longer than Ten Seconds to Hell, you may still want to Hustle to make sure your piece gets published before The Last Sunset, or at least The Twilight's Last Gleaming.

Posted by peter at 06:08 PM | Comments (1)

September 16, 2006

The "Gipper" Saves the Day

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Storm Warning
Stuart Heisler - 1951
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

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Law and Order
Nathan Juran - 1953
Universal Studios Region 1 DVD

Storm Warning is like an alarmist editorial that thinks its saying something, but close analysis reveals that after the sound and fury, nothing much is said at all. Lauren Bacall was originally to play the travelling dress model caught in a murder conspiracy. She turned down the role because she wanted to be with Humphrey Bogart while he was shooting The African Queen, at least officially. Instead we have the less slender Ginger Rogers, looking all of her forty years, playing a model, as well as older sister to a prematurely haggard Doris Day. Rogers walks down the dark streets of a small town in "the South" where she accidentally witness members of the Ku Klux Klan dragging a man out of jail and shooting him. One of the two men Rogers can identify turns out to be her brother-in-law. Rogers has to choose between telling laid back D.A. Ronald Reagan the truth, or protecting Doris Day who loves Steve Cochran in spite of his hard drinking, trigger happy ways.

The indictment of "the Klan" in Storm Warning is primarily that it is used as a money making tool by some of the town leaders to dupe some fellow citizens, and to keep others in line. The victim in the movie is a white reporter. Except for some crowd scenes, there are no blacks in Storm Warning, nor is there mention of what the Klan represents. I recalled the book City of Quartz by Mike Davis, which mentioned that Chester Himes was on the Warner Brothers lot as a potential screenwriter, until Jack Warner order him from the studio. Storm Warning was co-written by Richard Brooks, who's novel The Brick Foxhole, about the murder of a gay soldier, was filmed as Crossfire, about the murder of a Jewish soldier. Ronald Reagan is so easy going throughout the film, as if he alone understood that while the actions of the Ku Klux Klan may be criminal, ultimately nobody in Hollywood really gives a damn.

Law and Order may have turned out to be the most appropriate title, given Reagan's post Hollywood career. His second film after his tenure at Warner Brothers expired is a remake of a film of the same title starring Johnny Mack Brown. The narrative is almost similar to Storm Warning as Reagan uses his position to enforce laws in protecting others from mob rule and keeping an eye on unscrupulous capitalists. While not as artistically as interesting as Storm Warning with its dramatic black and white photography, the colorful Law and Order at least has the courage of its modest convictions. The primary pleasures are in seeing a brunette Dorothy Malone as the bar owner Reagan loves, an early perfomance by Dennis Weaver as a tough talking bad guy, and Russell Johnson as Reagan's volatile youngest brother. By most standards, Law and Order is a forgettable film. History has made the image of Ronald Reagan in this film iconic.

Posted by peter at 01:24 PM

September 15, 2006

Murder a la Mod

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Brian De Palma - 1968
Something Weird Video Region 1 DVD

While most critics are weighing in on The Black Dahlia, I've been able to see Brian De Palma's second feature which was just released on DVD. More polished than The Wedding Party, Murder a la Mod is a mobius strip of a narrative, packed with the elements that De Palma would revisit again and again with his thrillers. Had this film been re-released following the success of Greetings and the comedies that had followed, it may have helped putting De Palma's so-called Hitchcockian films beginning with Sisters into a clearer context.

While there are parts of Murder that recall Psycho and Rear Window, De Palma crams in references to Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace, and Antonioni's Blow Up. The familiar De Palma themes of the artist as voyeur, dreams confused with reality, and sexual conflicts are here, along with the first explorations of violent slapstick. The film begins with stills of a model, part of a photo-biography by Chris, the photographer-director. We see several young women undressing in front of the camera, the voice of an unseen male coaxing them to shed their clothing. The women repeat a scripted line in which they say they are making this film to help out the director, who needs the money to pay for a divorce. Deliberately unclear is whether we are watching a movie in the process of being made, or if this is a movie within a movie.

De Palma repeats his narrative, going forward and then leaping backwards, from different points of view. Are the murders real or imagined? The question is probably besides the point as far as De Palma is concerned. That the film is an elaborate joke should be indicated by the title song, written and presumably sung, by William Finley. One of the plot points concerns the confusion between a prop ice pick and a real one, with superimposed titles helpfully distinguishing the two for the audience.

Within a limited budget, De Palma has the means to do some more interesting visuals than in his first film. In addition to the shot seen in the above still, Murder has De Palma's first use of extensive travelling shots. One of the best is when a woman pursues Finley, who has a mysterious trunk, through a graveyard. A later scene looks like a rough draft in anticipation of filming Sissy Spacek wreaking havoc in Carrie.

One fan of Murder a la Mod was Vincent Canby of The New York Times. In his review, Canby noted: "There is a limit as to just how far this sort of playfulness can be carried. In the context of most of today's moviemaking, however, it's fun to see directors who are willing to acknowledge the movie form, and who do not try to convince us that what we see on the screen is necessarily "real." When they don't try — curiously — we often do believe, which is what movies are all about."

Murder a la Mod is enjoyable on its own terms, but also should prove to be a key film in viewing the career of Brian De Palma.

Posted by peter at 01:24 PM | Comments (1)

September 14, 2006

Hollywoodland

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Allen Coulter - 2006
Focus Features/Miramax 35mm film

There is a moment when Ben Affleck looks astonishingly like George Reeves. It is when the audience first sees Reeves, a corpse laying in the coroner's examination room. I grew up watching the George Reeves "Superman" television series virtually every chance I got, regardless of the fact that the stocky man in the tights and cape didn't exactly look like the character in the comic books, regardless of the fact that the television Superman usually fought off bank robbers and assorted crooks unlike the comic book Superman who frequently had extra-terrestial enemies or combatted the brilliant Lex Luthor. Even at the age of seven, I knew intuitively that The Adventures of Superman was not very good, but I just had to watch.

I also have a vague memory of hearing about Reeves' death from an older kid. He was probably passing along a rumor he had heard from someone else which was that Reeves thought he actually was Superman when he shot himself, and had assumed the fatal bullet would bounce off his body. I was unaware of the controversy concerning Reeves' death until I saw the previews for Hollywoodland. The film raises more questions than answers concerning the death of George Reeves' but is more informative about how business was done under the old studio system.

In terms of facts concerning Reeves acting career, being typecast as Superman probably didn't help, but he was a bit busier than the film suggests. In Hollywoodland, Reeves discusses starring in the movie serial The Adventures of Sir Galahad with his future lover, Toni Mannix. What Hollywoodland ignores is that Reeves kept busy with guest roles in several television shows in 1950 and 1951. And while the fictionalized Reeves is first seen glancing hopefully at German emigres Billy Wilder and Fred Zinneman, the real Reeves worked with Fritz Lang on three films. While Reeves did little film work after From Here to Eternity, he did keep busy prior to Superman becoming a full-time job with personal appearances in addition to shooting the series.

While Affleck won an acting award at the Venice Film Festival, the performance to watch belongs to Diane Lane as Toni Mannix. With dark hair, and appearing as mature as Mannix, who was forty-five when she met Reeves, Lane proves again to be one of the braver actresses when the opportunity arises. Lane makes palpable Mannix's fury at being rejected by Reeves for the somewhat appropriately named Leonore Lemmon. While it is never clear if Toni Mannix or her husband, MGM executive Eddie Mannix helped George Reeves career in any way, Hollywoodland concludes that Eddie Mannix killed Reeves professionally, if not personally. Superman might be able to bend steel with his bare hands, leap tall buildings and fly faster than a speeding bullet, but he's never had the power to greenlight a movie.

Posted by peter at 11:29 AM

September 12, 2006

50 Best High School Movies Ever?

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I received the latest issue of "Entertainment Weekly" yesterday. On the cover, for those who can look past Eva Longoria's rear, is the blurb, "The 50 Best High School Movies Ever". Once again I had to ask two questions: Do these guys ever take the time to see films that are NOT in English? And: Am I the only one who remembers films made before 1970? Not to totally complain, as there were some smart entries like Frederick Wiseman's High School, Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass, Flirting with Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton from 1991, and the Scottish Gregory's Girl.

Looking through this list that includes two favorite musicals, Bye Bye Birdie and Rock 'n' Roll High School, I was shocked to see that my beloved High School Confidential was not included. Admittedly, this film takes place in an alternate universe with actors who look like they haven't been to any kind of school in at least a decade, but that's part of the fun of this nutty film. If you haven't seen High School Confidential, you're missing one of the greatest opening scenes in the history of cinema. Jerry Lee Lewis sings the title song, banging away on his piano with his hands and feet, performing outdoors while the kids gather 'round. This hysterical film about high school students and drugs from producer Albert Zugsmith features the bizarre set-up of Russ Tamblyn as an undercover cop posing as the nephew of Mamie Van Doren. Also in the cast are Charlie Chaplin's "Kid", Jackie Coogan, and Chaplin's kid, Charles Chaplin, Jr. John Drew Barrymore is also featured along with Michael Landon in a brief role. It's hard to fathom how the writers of Entertainment Weekly would not consider this a classic, but have room for the forgettable Can't Buy Me Love.

Since high school is not restricted to English speaking youth, there should have been some accounting for the recent trend of Japanese high school films like All about Lily Chou Chou, Kamikaze Girls and Swing Girls. These three films, just off the top of my head indicate how Japanese youth are both the same, and different, from their US counterparts. From Korea there are several films such as Momento Mori which, like Carrie look at the theme of the literal horror of high school.

Curiously, none of the post-Columbine films made the list. True, this became a genre of its own, but it indicates to me some kind of censorship at work, as if to deny how horrible high school is for some of the students. I would have listed the little seen Massacre at Central High, which may have seemed over the top in 1976 when it was released. This film about a bullied student taking revenge upon his tormentors is worth a re-examination. The tagline on the poster is "Thank God You've Graduated!". Which is pretty much how I feel about my old school.

Posted by peter at 03:59 PM | Comments (2)

September 11, 2006

Hellcats of the Navy

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Nathan Juran - 1957
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

On this Fifth Anniversary of 9/11 I decided it would be fitting to watch a film starring the only movie star (so far) to become President of the United States. I am certain there are those who are certain about what Ronald Reagan would have done had been President on that day. There is also the possible evidence based on his actions in past films. Being a blog about movies, I choose to write about the reel Ronald Reagan, rather than the real Ronald Reagan.

Hellcats of the Navy is the only film that Reagan made co-starring Nancy Davis, better known as Mrs. Ronald Reagan. The film takes place during World War II, with Reagan as a submarine commander grappling twice with the decision to save one life at the expence of his crew. Davis is a nurse stationed at Guam. When Davis questions Reagan's choices, he reminds her, "You have to live with people. Work with them. Fight besides them. That's what matters." Reagan overcomes his anguish to get to the work of winning the war.

Orders are broken while Reagan and crew conduct a sneak attack on the Japanese, and follow a freighter through waters filled with submerged explosives. This being a Hollywood film, the mission is accomplished. While Hellcats is not entirely a gung-ho war film, it must have seemed even more dated in its attitudes compared to Robert Aldrich's Attack and Kubrick's Paths of Glory. The only reason why anyone bothers seeing Hellcats at all is for the novelty of the two leading roles. Reagan was often thought by others to confuse his real life with his reel life. While history can't be changed, there is some, if perhaps false, sense of assurance of watching Ronald Reagan as a character who fully acknowledged his sense of personal responsibility even if it cost him professionally, literally diving in and taking action even if it cost his his life, all on behalf of a greater good.

Posted by peter at 03:33 PM

September 09, 2006

Sommer Time

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Daniella by Night/Zarte Haut in schwarzer Seide
Max Pecas - 1961
First Run Features Region 1 DVD

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Sweet Ecstacy/Douce Violence
Max Pecas - 1962
First Run Features Region 1 DVD

I was twelve years old when I first became aware of Elke Sommer. First exposure came through surreptitious examinations in the pages of "Playboy" magazine. Not to long after that came two Hollywood films which had put Ms. Sommer in similar situations where she and her leading man were caught nude on film. Actually what The Prize and A Shot in the Dark had was the suggestion of nudity, no clothing seen, and just enough flesh seen onscreen to excite adolescent boys of all ages. Not that some Hollywood filmmakers were adverse to showing that they were willing to go where European directors had gone before. George Cukor was unlikely to blow Darryl Zanuck's money filming Marilyn Monroe swimming in her birthday suit had he not thought it would actually be seen in theaters somewhere. Robert Aldrich reportedly shot tests of Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg for 4 for Texas. We had to wait for Gus Van Sant to show Anne Heche in a remake of the shot Hitchcock cut of Janet Leigh in Psycho. Even Burt Kennedy managed to get a bit playful with Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda gallantly using their hats to cover the backsides of Sue Ane Langdon and Hope Holiday. But at this time I was too young for films I could only imagine, reading their often lurid titles in the newspaper.

The two films by Max Pecas seem typical of what was forbidden to me in my youth. Incidentally, both films have music co-written by Charles Aznavour. Daniella by Night is a bit of cold war nonsense about spies and fashion models. Elke portrays a young model named Daniela who finds herself caught between several men who aren't who they claim to be, and a wisp of a plot involving microfilm hidden in special lipstick. The film became popular because of a scene in a nightclub. Elke is stripped on-stage by some thugs and the scene is thought to be an act by the audience. The nudity is hidden by a light curtain. While more brazen than what Hollywood was doing at the time (see Joanne Woodward in The Stripper for example), this was a hot scene for 1961.

Sweet Ecstacy has Elke playing a college student named Elke, running aroung St. Tropez with some hedonistic trust fun kids. She's pursued by an earnest young man who admits to being put off by the free love philosophy of Elke and her friends. Elke borrows Brigitte Bardot's hair and eye make-up for part of the film, while Pecas freely borrows from From Here to Eternity with Elke and Pierre Brice making out on the beach. There is no nudity in this film, but Elke is seen wearing form fitting hiphuggers, showing off her belly button. This is one of those films that entices the audience with the promise of a vicarious experience with European jet setters, concluding with a moral lesson that wild, uninhibited sex is less fun than it seems. In this case, Elke and Pierre decide that a life of pleasure has nothing left to offer, the only thing left to do is get married.

Posted by peter at 08:20 AM | Comments (1)

September 08, 2006

Princess Racoon

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Operetta Tanuki Goten
Suzuki Seijun - 2005
Mei Ah Entertainment Region 0 DVD

"Seijun Suzuki is a director who seems to have known the future before it happened. Certainly in terms of his ability to draw from a palette of popular and classic culture and engage those colours in an inventive use of the medium. In doing this he creates works that are not observational in terms of truth but that are committed to the pursuit of a singular and larger truth. His latest film 'Princess Raccoon' to the non-Japanese viewer such as myself, who undoubtedly will miss some of the more direct cultural references, is nonetheless relentlessly compelling in it's surprise invention and theatricality. The generation of filmmakers to whom I belong owe much to the fearless work of Seijun Suzuki." - Baz Luhrmann

In what he says is his final film, Suzuki Seijun, once again manages to defy expectations. After establishing his reputation primarily with gangster films that undermined the genre, followed by the deliberately paced "Taisho Trilogy", Suzuki surprises us one last time with a fairy tale fantasy. As if to also say that you can teach an old dog new tricks, the film makes extensive use of digital technology, almost the Japanese answer to octogenarian Eric Rohmer's Lady and the Duke which also had a veteran director embracing new filmmaking tools. One odd bit that ties to past films - Suzuki worked several times with actor Jo Shishido and this last film stars Jo Odagiri (happiness is a guy named Jo(e)?).

The story, about an exiled prince in love with a racoon disguised as a human, as some similarities to Midsummer Night's Dream. Beginning with a an actor introducing the story like as if on a stage, remarking that it is the "13th night", Suzuki bounces around various settings that are linked by their arificiality. Suzuki has taken some of his ideas from Shinoda's Double Suicide and amplified them with a riot of anime colors. The effect is almost of a live action cartoon governed by its own laws of time and space.

In addition to also starring Zhang Ziyi, Princess Racoon, like Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 is a dream of Asia without language barriers. Chinese and Japanese speak to each other in their respective languages. At a time when Japan and China still have some serious unresolved issues, it is as if the artists are looking towards overcoming cultural differences.

I feel like I can only discuss Princess Racoon at this time with some relatively random thoughts that occurred while watching this film. Like Luhrmann, I feel like I missed a lot due to my own limited knowledge of Japanese culture. Nonetheless, it is a fun film to watch, unlike virtually anything else on any screen. At the very least, there is satisfaction in seeing Suzuki Seijun, a filmmaker who was considered washed up thirty years ago, ending his career on his own idiosyncratic terms.

Posted by peter at 04:49 PM | Comments (1)

September 05, 2006

The Overture

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Hom Rong
Ittisoontorn Vichailak - 2004
Kino Films Region 1 DVD

In preparation for my anticipated visit to Chiang Mai, I am currently reading Culture and Customs of Thailand by Arne Kislenko. It's not a very good book, but it is the only one on Thailand in general that I could get from the Miami Public Library system. The essay on the history of Thai cinema makes it seem like only a handful of films were made that are only of historical value, but nothing of serious interest occurs until the release of Iron Ladies. Still, there is value in reading the book at this time because I also got to see one of two Thai film in Miami Public Library, and to appreciate The Overture some knowledge of Thai culture and history is helpful.

What needs to be understood about The Overture is that this is an idealized self-portrait of Thais. The film is loosely based on the life of Luang Pradith Phairao, master of the ranard-ek, a wood instrument similar to the xylophone. The Overture is primarily a fictionalized account of the challenge to preserve Thailand's musical culture through the life of a master musician named Sorn. Western culture is tolerated, as illustrated by Sorn engaging in a duet with his piano playing son. The bigger battle is against the Japanese who attempted to eliminate much of Thai culture during World War II as being obsolete. I have to suspect the main reason why Thailand essentially changed sides during World War II was because the Allies had there own culture to import, they also allowed traditional Thai culture to continue.

It should be no surprise that The Overture was chosen over Tropical Malady and Citizen Dog to represent Thailand for Best Foreign Film of 2004. In addition to being about the effort to save traditional Thai music, the film represents a traditional Thai view of the world. The main characters are all male, and there is an emphasis on respect for patriarchs - fathers, mentors, and royalty. The few women in the film are wives, mothers or servants, and barely register as ciphers in the narrative. The biggest problem for a non-Thai viewer may be to sustain interest in a film about a musician who plays the xylophone, even one as dazzling as Sorn.

Maybe this reveals a cultural failing on my part. I could recognize the musicianship and the mastery of technique, yet I have to admit that watching a xylophone face-off is less compelling than the Steve Vai-Ralph Macchio dueling guitars in Crossroads. For me, a film about competiting xylophone players is to films about musicians almost analogous to a film about bowling to most sports movies.

And that other Thai film in the Miami Public Library system? Last Life in the Universe may not be how official Thailand would like to be seen, but it is the better, more inventive, film.

Posted by peter at 08:22 AM | Comments (2)

September 04, 2006

Advertisements for Myself

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Labor Day weekend two years ago, I was forced to leave Miami Beach because of a hurricane. Lumena and I decided to visit Denver so I could join in the Labor Day barbeque with my fellow contestants from "The Ultimate Film Fanatic".

For those interested in seeing this questionable series, it is now on YouTube. I'm in Season 1, Mountain States. Based on the film memorabilia contest, I probably wouldn't have won. A signed copy of a novel by Sam Fuller or the copy of an unproduced screenplay for The Adventures of Augie March doesn't stack up against a bagful of ticket stubs. I had fun, and being a Roger Corman fan felt right at home at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn.

I have no television appearances planned, but for those who can see me in person, I will be introducing Kamikaze Girls at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on September 23.

Posted by peter at 10:53 AM | Comments (1)

September 02, 2006

Two War-time films by Volker Schlondorff

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Coup de Grace/Der Fangschuss
Volker Schlondorff - 1976
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

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The Ogre/Der Unhold
Volker Schlondorff - 1996
Kino Films Region 1 DVD

I've been thinking about a couple of Volker Schlondorff's earlier films because of recent events. The news about Gunter Grass admitting to Nazi activity in World War II probably sent some film scholars scrambling to re-examine Schlondorff's film of The Tin Drum. The recent war in Lebanon made me think of Circle of Deceit, Schlondorff's film shot in civil war torn Beirut in 1980. The two films I saw, Coup de Grace and The Ogre are in some ways complimentary, if reversed stories about Germans in war. Coup de Grace is about a German woman living in one of the Baltic states in 1920, an outsider in a country experiencing civil war between nationalists and German settlers against Bolsheviks right after World War I. The Ogre is about an outsider, a French prisoner of war, who temporarily identifies with his German captors. Again Schlondorff looks at the theme of identity and morality during wartime, particularly what it means to be a German.

Schlondorff dedicated his films to this mentors. Coup de Grace is dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville, while Louis Malle is honored at the end of The Ogre. The connection to Melville is made clearer in the DVD interview where Schlondorff discusses working with minimal materials, although there is also a hazy thematic connection in the examination of the characters' conflicting codes of morality and loyalty. The Ogre has ties most clearly with Au Revoir, les Enfants, with its boys' school setting, and Lacombe Lucien in having the protagonist be a young French man who works on behalf of the Nazis for his own personal gain, but is otherwise apolitical.

The image above of Margarethe von Trotta kicking back against the table in Coup de Grace made me think of the somewhat similar image of Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine. Was Schlondorff thinking of John Ford at the time? Maybe I'm pushing a point here, but Schlondorff also worked with Ford actors Woody Strode and Richard Widmark in A Gathering of Old Men. There is a distant similarity in Ford and Schlondorff's themes, using historical events as backdrops to their films, and the exploration of national identity.

In The Ogre, John Malkovich has taken the role of Pied Piper, leading young German boys to dedicate their lives to Hitler. A scene of athletic events is unmistakably shot in the style of Olympia with images of boys defying gravity. The scene is neither an outright homage, nor is it fair to call it a parody of Riefenstahl. Perhaps Schlondorff hoped to at least partially remake Olympia as a critique of Nazi ideals, twisting Riefenstahl's original intent. This would be consistent with the filmmaker who made it his mission to reclaim German cinema by shooting his first feature in the style of Fritz Lang, and rebuild the Babelsberg Studio. For Volker Schlondorff, the history of Germany and German film are closely intertwined.

In discussing filmmaking in general, Schlondorff stated: "I don't really know whether films can change society. But I feel we need those films with a conscience to enrich our lives, that movies can do. To put things into perspective, and to all of a sudden see that in other places and in other times people had similar struggles as we have right now, is enlightening, is enriching and is encouraging. So we simply need that. I think art in general is a great help for us to survive."

Posted by peter at 08:41 PM | Comments (2)

September 01, 2006

Crank

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Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor - 2006
Lions Gate Films 35mm

A couple of days after the challenge of the first two films from Suzuki Seijun's "Taisho Trilogy", I felt the need to see something less intellectually demanding. Crank may be superficial, and almost totally visceral, with some astonishing gaps of logic. Crank also is stupidly entertaining, often in spite of itself, satisfying a need for speed in less than ninety minutes. Had it not been used for a Japanese film I like quite a bit, this film should have been more properly titled Adrenaline Drive.

The story is something of a variation of D.O.A., with a hit man, Chev Chelios, learning he's been poisoned and has one hour to live. Chelios learns that keeping his adrenaline level up will delay the effects of the poison. Running, jumping and rarely standing still, Chelios goes after the mobster who poisoned him. This is a film with a car chase inside a shopping mall, a girlfriend with hiccups, and a leading man running through the streets of Los Angeles with little more than a hospital gown. Visually Crank is jam packed with split screen to show several activities at once, digitized effects and colors, images projected on walls, google maps, and an unusual use of text on film. So much is happening that it becomes easy to overlook the borrowed plot points from films such as Speed and Point Break.

The casting of Jason Statham could easily be pegged as derivative, a quick nod of sorts to the character he played in the two Transporter films. I had to wonder, based on the last name and his attitude, if Chev Chelios was named after Chris Chelios. What also makes this film somewhat unusual is that most of the characters are those usually little scene in mainstream films, the rival gangs are Latino and Chinese, and one of Chelios' friends is an openly gay Latino. There is a contradictory attitude within the film where Chelios and his rivals make homophobic remarks to each other, suggesting that Neveldine and Taylor have their own conflicting feelings.

Crank is a cheerfully amoral film. The saving grace of this film is in its total lack of pretense. Crank is brutal entertainment that makes no claims to self-importance, and like its characters, makes no apologies.

Posted by peter at 07:33 PM | Comments (1)