May 31, 2007
Aurora (Colorado) Asian Film Festival, Part 1
Journey from the Fall
Ham Tran - 2006
ImaginAsian Entertainment 35mm Film
Tonight marked the beginning of the 10th annual Aurora Asian Film Festival. It was my first time attending the festival, perhaps a reflection of my own film going becoming more adventurous than in the past. This suburb directly east of Denver has developed its own identity with what use to be the central hub attracting a few galleries, restaurants, and a small community of artists. The selection of films is not as up to the minute as in New York or San Francisco, but in some cases it's the only opportunity to see these films theatrically, something that some cities miss completely.
As for Journey from the Fall, it is one of the films where artistic concerns are less important than the story being told. The fall of the title refers to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1973. Ham Tran begins his film showing a family attempting to decide what they will do amid the chaos. The film is especially useful for American audiences who usually think of the Vietnam war only from the perspective of American troops. In terms of how the conflict affected the Vietnamese, Tran's film is able to reveal what Oliver Stone wasn't able to do with Heaven and Earth.
Following the opening scene, Tran cuts between scenes of Long Ngugen, a former officer in a re-education camp, with scenes of his wife, Mai, and their son and mother-in-law, arranging to flee Vietnam by boat. The scenes taking place in the re-education camps are quite brutal. The film shows the communists as being cruel victors even towards civilians. The prisoners try to survive while logging or farming, seeking information on relatives who have successfully escaped to the United States, with usually failed attempts at escape. Mai and her family finally succeed in gaining passage on a boat, only to find that people are packed into a crowded hull with no air, and little food and water. The boat is subject to mechanical failure, and is vulnerable to pirates. The final third of the film is of Mai and her family struggling to create a life in California, their Vietnamese culture serving as a form of refuge from their respective challanges.
The film loses momentum once the scenes in the prison camp end. The intensity of the relationships between the prisoners, as well as the guards and camp officers, is of a level that The Killing Fields, for example, was unable to convey. Once the film moves from Vietnam (with Thailand standing in for the location) to California, we know that whatever problems exist are not on the life and death struggles that the characters previously faced. Especially in light of most Hollywood productions, no matter how sincere, Journey from the Fall is especially valuble in showing the how the Vietnam war affected the Vietnamese.
Posted by peter at 11:33 AM
May 30, 2007
Paris, Je T'Aime
First Look International 35mm film
My first film back in Denver was seen at what use to be my neighborhood theater. Paris, Je T'Aime is a collection of eighteen vignettes from eighteen different filmmakers in eighteen different parts of Paris. More often than not, these very short films seem to tell more about the interests of the filmmakers than really saying something about Paris.
One of the more successful in blending both the personal and the pictorial was Gurinder Chadha. The meeting of two young Parisians, one of whom is a Muslim woman, repeats Chadha's feminist multi-culti themes of previous films. It may perhaps be too optimistic a view of changes in France, but it was the one film that did not show non-French Parisians as total outsiders or as exotics.
Conversely, I was never certain what Vincenzo Natali's film about Elijah Wood's encounter with a beautiful female vampire had to do with Paris, other than as a setting which could have just as easily been Venice, Italy or Venice, California for that matter. Which is not to say it's a bad film, but the Paris location seemed besides the point. One would at least hope that this talented director would be given the opportunity to make the kind of solidly financed horror film that he deserves.
One of the other, better pieces was by Isabel Coixet, about a man about to leave his wife until he learns that she has a terminal illness. A homage to Francois Truffaut, Coixet has essentially reworked The Soft Skin's story, adding in music from Jules and Jim, and including first person narration, again as in Jules and Jim. Coixet's film seems to have less to do with Paris than with the memories of characters in French movies, that is to say, in the films by Truffaut.
There was an unintended laugh in seeing Margo Martindale portray a woman from Denver in a movie seen in Denver. Listening to Martindale's stilted French brought back memories of my own limited abilities and horrible American accent. Alexander Payne's sequence also reminded me of how odd, limiting and liberating it sometimes can be to be alone in a country where one does not speak the language. The films of Paris, Je T'Aime are so disparate at times that I'm not quite sure what the originators of the project had in mind. I can only assume that the eighteen filmmakers love Paris, but prefer to do so in their own way.
May 29, 2007
J. Lee Thompson - 1969
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD
I finally got around to see This Film has not Been Rated a couple of days ago. One of the interesting points mentioned by Kirby Dick was that the MPAA ratings board did not consider how films were rated in the past when rating current films. With the release of Dick's film, and some changes with Dan Glickman in charge, MPAA precedent is allowed into rating appeals. I am hoping filmmakers can force the MPAA to reconsider the M rating. In the evolution from M to GP to PG, a rating that more or less said, "this movie is not for children, but OK for teens and adults" has become a rating that now says, "this is a family film with a couple of naughty words".
In looking at the M rating for movies, what is interesting is to see that there is no consistent re-rating for the home video release which the studios have allowed for their films. A Man called Horse was rerated R, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid gets a PG, while Hang 'Em High gets a PG-13. Consider an older film, Psycho, which was released for general audiences back in the pre-rating year of 1960. In 1968 Psycho was given an M rating, but in 1984, rated again for home video, Psycho got an R. Given how arbitary the ratings appear, no wonder the MPAA makes filmmakers, to put it bluntly, psycho.
I don't know if any filmmakers, or anyone from the MPAA ever bothers to visit this site. But to put things in clearer historical perspective, I am including these screen grabs from Mackenna's Gold. There may be some more alarmed by the thought of a film with Omar Sharif as a Mexican bandit, and Julie Newmar as an Apache. This scene at an oasis is a reminder that there was a time when mainstream films celebrated their newly given freedom.
May 28, 2007
Terror and Black Lace
Terror y Encajes Negros
Luis Alcoriza - 1985
Desert Mountain Media Region 1 DVD
I stumbled upon this film by chance. What initially attracted my attention was the title, similar to Blood and Black Lace. The film is about a middle aged man with a fetish for women's hair. With a straight razor, he cuts off a fistful of locks from women with long hair, placed later with his collection in a wardrobe. If the plot sounds closer to Bunuel than to Bava, it may be because Luis Alcoriza was a co-writer on several films by Luis Bunuel. Of Bunuel and Alcoriza's collaborations, I was immediately reminded of El. Keep in mind that Bunuel dismissed some of his past work by stating that he made Mexican films for a Mexican audience. That goes double for Alcoriza.
What little Alcoriza thinks he is saying about misplaced machismo and liberated Mexican women is made inconsequential by the sight of Maria Guardia running around in her underwear. I can't think of a better reason to watch Terror and Black Lace than to enjoy a cast of generously voluptuous women. The girls just want to have fun, while the men get frustrated by anything, especially women, that they can not control. Cesar, the man with the mane fetish, constantly gets upset by the loud music played by the three female travel agents in the apartment below. The black lace clad Isabel feels imprisoned by her husband, who finds his own life out of control due to random events. If flirtatious young Coquis was aware of Cesar's specific needs, she would have kept her panties on.
It is the scene with Claudia Guzman attempting to seduce Claudio Obregon that explicitly is a reminder of Bunuel at his most darkly comic, with Coquis offer of sex rejected in favor of a substitute taken by force. A similar moment is when Obregon admires his large collection of hair, taking his newest trophy and caressing and combing the hair before rubbing it on his face. Terror and Black Lace might have worked better if Obregon didn't seem like a junior version of Fernando Rey. Based on what little has been written about Alcoriza, he may be a filmmaker worth investigating further.
Posted by peter at 06:00 AM
May 27, 2007
Cahill: United States Marshal
Andrew V. McLaglen - 1973
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD
I hadn't seen Cahill at the time it was released theatrically. Now that I have seen it on DVD, including a second time with a commentary track from the director, I am hoping that an earlier film from Andrew McLaglen gets a much needed DVD release. A couple of years before Cahill, McLaglen directed Fools' Parade, based on the novel by Davis Grubb. Like Night of the Hunter, Fools' Parade is a story of innocence versus evil, with children caught up in extreme circumstances. The best parts of Cahill have a similarity to Grubb's work, particularly in the scenes of Gary Grimes and Clay O'Brien being alternately threatened and cajoled by chief villain George Kennedy.
Grimes and O'Brien are the two sons of John Wayne, the Cahill of the title. Feeling neglected by a father who travels extensively, the pair get involved with a bank robbery that has serious consequences beyond what the two anticipated. I am not certain how much credit goes to McLaglen, or to cinematographer Joe Biroc, but what makes Cahill more interesting than the plot description might suggest is the visual style of the film. There are many shots from a child's eye level, emphasizing the difference in size between the men and the boys. Terror is conveyed with shots of Kennedy emerging from the dark, or in a scene in a graveyard where the boys are photographed from above. McLaglen's previous films were usually shot by William Clothier. In Cahill there is a precision about the framing of shots and blocking of actors that does not appear in McLaglen's earlier films with John Wayne.
As a John Wayne vehicle, Cahill is of more limited interest. There is amusement in seeing actors from previous films associated with Wayne or McLaglen such as Hank Worden, Harry Carey, Jr., and Denver Pyle. It also doesn't take a sharp eye to spot Chuck Roberson doing much of Wayne's stunt riding. Kennedy and his gang of thugs have the most fun, a group of good ol' boys who happen to be bank robbers and killers on the side. George Kennedy has the best lines in Cahill which suggest his kinship to Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. At one point finding that he cannot come to an agreement with one of the Cahill sons, Kennedy declares, "The trouble with you, boy, is you have no grace. You should allow a man his illusions."
Posted by peter at 04:00 AM
May 26, 2007
The John Wayne Centennial: The Big Trail
Raoul Walsh - 1930
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD
In spite of top billing, the young actor seen in The Big Trail is not quite John Wayne. Filmed nine years before Stagecoach established him as a top star, I felt like I was watching an amateur actor playing at being John Wayne. It is as if Marion Morrison was practicing the gestures and speech patterns, but was still to grow into what would be his established screen persona. The still adenoidal voice undermines the physical presence. It isn't that the laughter or the arm movements are too broad, but that the actor is not big enough to be the John Wayne we enjoyed The Searchers or Rio Bravo.
The Big Trail is one film I wish now I had seen on a large movie screen. Raoul Walsh composed many of the shots with an emphasis on depth of field. Most of the film was shot outdoors which was a technical challenge at the time. Often when Wayne is seen in conversation with someone else, there is very distinct activity in the background. In long shots there are several focal planes. The black and white images resemble 19th Century lithographs. There is a sense of space that I have previously not associated with a Walsh film. After establishing the perception of great space, Walsh has the audacity to film Wayne stalking the bad guy in the snow, two characters barely visible in shades of gray and white. The final shot, which must have been astonishing for movie audiences, is of Wayne and Marguerite Churchill dwarfed by giant redwood trees.
While he has no screenplay credit, the dialogue displays Walsh's boisterous sense of humor. Wayne comments on the trail boss, "What does he know about water? He's never taken a bath in his life." One of the pioneers, when told he is the father of twins, if they are both his. Made before Hays Code took effect, Wayne utters a very rare damn. With the frequent title cards, The Big Trail sometimes appears as if it was originally planned as a silent film.
The Big Trail offers the opportunity to see Tyrone Power (Sr.) as the wagon master. The big, bearded Power resembles Popeye's arch nemises, Bluto, only with an alarming need of dental work. El Brendal provides much of the comedy. Marguerite Chapman is blandly attractive, but it is not surprising that her acting career was short-lived.
The best parts of The Big Trail are purely visual. One such moment is showing the pioneers lowering their ox-carts down the side of a mountain using primitive pulleys. There is a thrill to the images of indians gathering on a hillside, or rushing on horseback towards a camera looking from the ground up. As it stands, the 35mm cinematography by Lucien Andriot is wondrous to look at even on a television screen. It is unfortunate that Fox has not bothered to make the 70 mm version photographed by Arthur Edeson available for comparison, as well as to take advantage of large home theater screens.
As for John Wayne, it only takes a few minutes to see why he had to practice his craft in programmers before being called by John Ford to play the Ringo Kid. For the big trail that was John Wayne’s film career, the star's performance can be viewed as a rough, but definitive beginning.
May 25, 2007
The Star Wars Blog-a-thon: Two by Ken Annakin
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines
Ken Annakin - 1965
Twentieth Century Fox Region 1 DVD
Third Man on the Mountain
Ken Annakin - 1959
Disney Region 1 DVD
Before there was Anakin Skywalker, there was Ken Annakin. And before there was Star Wars, there was Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. There is general agreement that Anakin was named after Annakin. The only discussion of a specific Ken Annakin film I have found was of George Lucas reworking part of Swiss Family Robinson for use in Return of the Jedi. I am also assuming Lucas had grown up watching other films by Ken Annakin, such The Story of Robin Hood and Third Man on the Mountain, the kind of adventure films designed primarily for boys growing up in the Fifties. In Star Wars, Lucas had his characters fly through a vast, if known galaxy. Annakin's film of flight could be seen as a comic look at the adventure of people and aircraft.
TMMitFM is about a fictional air race from London to Paris that takes place in 1910. A group of pilots representing different countries and different character types compete for the big money prize. In Annakin's film, everyone speaks English, but there are scenes with the characters at odds with each other based on nationalism. Lucas takes the concepts of language and society further in his films. While the young people in American Graffiti all speak English, it is in an idiomatic form that is not shared with the largely unseen adults. Lucas looks at the different groups of teenagers, with their own dress codes and rules of membership. The cantina scene in Star Wars allows for Lucas to create a place where different aliens can meet, allowing for the audience to be aware of different languages and groupings of the various space beings. TMMitFM has a scene of all the pilots together in a restaurant the night before the race. Lucas' scene, as his whole film, also intergrates the concept of archtypes from Joseph Campbell. Ken Annakin was more likely working from a more intuitive framework, but within one tracking shot reminds the audience of how different his pilots are from each other.
What Lucas' film also shares with Annakin's film is the fascination with the mechanics of flying. The aircraft in TMMItFM are all reconstructions of actual aircraft that existed in 1910. A variety of airplanes of differing shapes and sizes in from the early Twentieth Century are contrasted with the different pilots. Similar to that are the different space craft and aliens in Star Wars, or the variety of cars and drivers in American Graffiti. Much as it was emphasised that the Millenium Falcon was an old and vulnerable spacecraft, Annakin presents airplanes that were rickety when they were new.
The young woman played by Sarah Miles shares some similarities to Princess Leia. There may have been more in common had Lucas made his heroic character a woman as in earlier screenplays of Star Wars. Miles' feminism is announced with her entrance riding a motorcycle. In a shot of Miles putting the motorcyle away, one sees that the inner door of a shed has a suffragette poster, a written declaration for female equality. Through much of the film, Miles tries to find a way to fly, originally with fiance James Fox, and successfully with Stuart Whitman. As a pilot from Arizona, Whitman’s character could be viewed as the prototype for the "space cowboy", and a distant cousin to Han Solo. As the daughter of wealthy publisher Robert Morley, Miles portrays a sort of princess who tries to prove herself as capable as any man. And like in Star Wars, the princess finds herself happily in the arms of a rough outsider whose sense of the greater good outweighs his personal needs.
Ken Annakin has declared that his primary purpose in making films was to entertain. His directorial career was long, spanning over forty years. Published in England, Annakin wrote a book about his filmmaking career titled So You Wanna be a Director?. The book's introductions are by Richard Attenborough AND Mike Leigh. As their are only a few of Annakin's films available to review on DVD or video, re-examining his career in full is more difficult. While the comparison is admittedly superficial, Annakin's films share Raoul Walsh's spirit of fun and adventure for its own sake. One moment that might be considered defining of Annakin is at the end of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines when the air race is over, and Sarah Miles and Stuart Whitman appear ready to walk off into the sunset. The quiet of the end of the day is interrupted by the sound of jet planes, and the film cuts first to an overhead of jets flying in formation, followed by a pilot's point of view shot. Annakin's audio anachronism brings the audience back to the present day, but also anticipates the kind of adventures in flying that would be manifested most successfully in Star Wars.
Third Man on the Mountain, while less a personal film for Ken Annakin, has some narrative elements that are repeated in Star Wars. The protagonist is a young man with the goal of living up to the legacy of his father. James MacArthur, at the time Disney's serious teen actor, portrays the son of a legendary mountain guide. Working as a dish washer, his goal is to climb the mountain where his father lost his life. Janet Munro, the girl who believes in him, has a brief moment where she goes mountain climbing with MacArthur. Again, as with Sarah Miles in TMMitFM and Lucas' original Princess Leia, the female character is, to a limited extent, able to take on the same physical adventure as the men. Michael Rennie, as the world famous mountain climber and mentor to MacArthur prefigures Alec Guinness, with both not coincidentally being tall and British. Much like Star Wars, Third Man on the Mountain is about a young man who takes life-threatening risks to prove to others as well as himself that he is indeed a capable man and not a boy. Additionally, there is a scene somewhat similar to Star Wars' cantina, and TMMitFM' restaurant where an international group of climbers speak of national pride before deciding that being part of a brotherhood of mountain climbers is more important. In Annakin's films as in those of Lucas, language barriers are transcended by unity of purpose.
For other entries in the Star Wars blog-a-thon, Edward Copeland has the force.
May 24, 2007
Moon over Miami
Walter Lang - 1941
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD
With my last week of living in Miami Beach coming up, I decided to seek out DVDs at the Miami-Dade Library system using "Miami" as a keyword. This studio film is about as close to Miami as an episode of C.S.I. Miami. There is some second unit stuff that is unmistakably Miami Beach, but that's about it. At the end of the film the credits mention location shooting in Ocala and Winter Haven, both over two hundred miles away. There isn't even a fake shot of the moon over the beach, as if the title would be enough.
The basic story is one that Darryl Zanuck seemed to love as it appeared in several Fox productions. Two attractive young women decide to leave the Texas hamburger stand for Miami in search of millionaire husbands. Just off the top of my head, this is the basic plot for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire and Three Coins in a Fountain. At least one of the young women will decide money isn't everything and marry some guy purely for love, but no one in the audience and certainly no one at the studio really believes that. The biggest weakness of Moon over Miami is not that it's fake, but that it cannot transcend its' fakeness.
Betty Grable and Carole Landis are the two sisters who take aunt Charlotte Greenwood to Florida. Betty has to make up her mind between the truly wealthy Bob Cummings, Cummings' broke best pal, Don Ameche. Betty and Carole also find that pretending to have money can be very expensive. The point of the film was to come up with enough reasons to show off Betty Grable's legs.
Hermes Pan's choreography is filmed much in the way that Fred Astaire is filmed dancing, using full shots so the audience can see the entire dance. Whether it's a small bit such as in the beginning of the film, or a more elaborate number with the Condos Brothers, Grable is filmed so that no kick or arm movement is missed. Even though Grable is in virtually every scene in the film, there are suggestions that she could have been used better. Betty Grable's gift at physical comedy is only hinted at, as if Zanuck and company decided that it was not appropriate for a lead actress. Moon over Miami is the kind of film that once you've seen it, is mostly forgotten. What is memorable are not the songs, not even the dances, but the sight of Betty Grable tripping over the extended leg of a sleepy Don Ameche.
May 23, 2007
The Atomic Brain
Joseph Mascelli - 1964
Genius Entertainment Region 1 DVD
With the release of Grindhouse has appeared what might be called grindhouse nostalgia. Most of this is devoted to theatrical revivals of some of the films that played in grindhouse and drive-in circuits over thirty years ago. There are also articles and postings discussing some of the films now available on DVD. All well and good, but when it comes to trash movies, what I really miss is that publicly available archive known as late night network television. What I miss is the ability, at least on weekend nights, to be able to count on watching a magnificently schlocky horror movie or two beginning around eleven p.m., airing on a local television station. A film starring Lon Chaney, Jr. would usually fit the bill, but a film made with people you never heard of, with poverty row budgets, were even better.
There are several DVD versions of The Atomic Brain. I'm not sure how much more complete they are then the version I have. In addition to being a smeary transfer, my copy appears to have be run a few too many times, with missing frames that chop off parts of the dialogue. This may not say much for film preservation, but the sloppy qualities make for a great duplication of watching a cheap, thowaway horror movie on late might televison, back in the pre-cable days when you could count the number of channels on one hand.
The original title of the film was Monstrosity. Just like the Frankenstein monster, this film is a nutty hybrid of parts of other, better films, such as Metropolis, Island of Dr. Moreau and The Bride of Frankenstein. The unfortunately named Dr. Otto Frank works in a basement laboratory in the mansion of the wealthy Mrs. March. Three young cuties are lured to the March mansion on the premise that they will be working as household help. The three soon encounter Dr. Frank's failed experiments, including one bulky guy with the teeth of a wild boar. The elderly Mrs. March's plan is to have her brain transplanted into the body of one of the three young women, a plan that does not sit well with Mrs. March's slightly younger gigolo, Victor.
I have no way of knowing how much was intentional, but The Atomic Brain is the kind of film that is perfect for a smart alec audience, as well as the Mystery Science Theater drubbing it also received. This is a film where cats and women have their brains exchanged, and in the process manage to anticipate a famously gross scene involving Tom Cruise and a rat in Interview with the Vampire as well as the title of a film by Lucio Fulci. Based on the version of the film available, there is the suggestion that there might have been a version with slightly more nudity, primarily for the European market. What little is seen here is quite brief, using flashing lights to offer quick glimpses of female flesh and graphic horror.
The biggest name to be involved in The Atomic Brain is that of uncredited narrator, Bradford Dillman. The film was co-written and co-produced by brother Dean Dillman, Jr. With the exception of the actors who played the villainous Mrs. March and Dr. Frank, Marjorie Eaton and Frank Gerstle, the film seems to have been a career killer for most of the cast and crew. The Atomic Brain was the final credit for the three featured starlets. If there is a reason to wish for a perfect print of The Atomic Brain, and more serious scholarship regarding this film, it would be related to the career of Joseph Mascelli. Although his career in theatrical films was brief, and extemely off-beat, Mascelli did literally write the book on cinematography.
Posted by peter at 11:50 AM
May 20, 2007
Solo con Tu Pareja
Alfonso Cuaron - 1991
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD
It is a testament to Alfonso Cuaron's critical and commercial acclaim that his debut feature has received a belated release in the United States. Those interested in Cuaron's career will be interested to know that Solo con Tu Pareja was co-written by brother and frequent collaborator Carlos Cuaron, and that the cinematography is by the esteemed Emmanual Lubezki. While the sex and social criticism make the film seems closest to Y Tu Mama Tambien, Solo con Tu Pareja is lighter and more optimistic.
Beginning with an e. e. cumming's poem about a man who loves all kinds of women, except those that are green, Cuaron presents a contemporary (1991) Mexican lover, a writer of advertisements, whose insincerity get him into trouble. Tomas Tomas is Cuaron's version of Don Juan, or Don Giovanni as the Mozart heavy soundtrack would indicate. Unable to come up with a new ad campaign for a brand of peppers, Tomas fakes a continual fever by warming a thermometer with a light bulb. Persuaded by his doctor, and neighbor, to get an exam, Tomas also allows himself to get tested for AIDs. That night, Tomas finds himself engaged in simulaneous affairs with the nurse he just met, and his female boss at the ad agency. The nurse finds out by chance what had happened and deliberately marks Tomas' AIDs test as positive. And yes, this is a comedy, and yes, it is funny.
In one of the DVD supplements, Alfonso Cuaron discusses being influenced by Ernst Lubitsch and Blake Edwards. Whatever Lubitsch touch is found in Cuaron might be found in the characters attempting to hide relationships from each other. Some of the biggest laughs are to be found in gags that would be in bad taste to describe, but are no more audacious than the concentration camp humor in To Be or Not To Be. The pratfalls more easily recall Blake Edwards' work with Peter Sellers. When Tomas Tomas is caught nude in public, which occurs twice, one might recall the humiliation of Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark. When Tomas Tomas runs up, down and around between nurse Silvia Silva and boss Gloria Gold (the names in this film are often alliterative), I thought of Dudley Moore in Edwards' Mickey and Maude.
One name surprisingly not mentioned in Billy Wilder. One of the big scenes involves characters attempting to commit suicide on New Year's Eve, head stuck in an oven. The difference between The Apartment and Solo con Tu Pareja is that sticking your head in a microwave oven is simultaneously more pathetic, and more hilarious because of its extreme desperation. That Tomas Tomas works in advertising like Jack Lemmon in The Apartment also makes the similarities seem less coincidental. Wilder was also known for his scabrous humor and gags of dubious taste. Also, like Wilder, Cuaron pokes fun at contemporary life and finds humor in topical subject matter.
Perhaps Cuaron is genuinely unaware of the similarities he shares with Billy Wilder. At the very least, with Solo con Tu Pereja, we have a more complete look at a filmmaker who before making Children of Men began with the story of a man frequently acting like a child.
Posted by peter at 08:34 PM
May 18, 2007
Aurora Asian Film Festival
I didn't think it was possible, but I found myself missing Denver. Maybe it has to do with having lived there for most of my life. While it is not New York City or San Francisco, it actually is a good film town, better than Miami Beach. Considering the size of the population, there are a large number of screens dedicated to art and independent films. Classics occassionally get theatrical play as well.
One of the first things I will be covering in Denver will be The Aurora Asian Film Festival. It is a short festival as one can tell from the program. One of the films, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros was written about previously by me, and has also been championed by Noel Vera. Of the films being presented, I am most interested in seeing the new films by Johnny To and Kim Ki-duk.
The festival will be held at the Aurora Fox Arts Center. In an earlier time, I saw such films as the original Planet of the Apes and A High Wind in Jamaica back in the Sixties, when this was a neighborhood movie theater. In the theater's current form, I once videotaped a local dance company. I will start posting from Denver after Memorial Day.
May 16, 2007
Barbara Hammer - 2006
Although she has had a long career as a filmmaker, last night was my first exposure to any films by Barbara Hammer. Lover Other has made me want to see Hammer's other work to get a better overview of how this new film fits with the older films and themes. The film is not a documentary in the traditional sense in that it is much more subjective about the artists and their work, stemming from Hammer's interest first in artists as war resisters, and specifically lesbian artists as resisters.
The life story of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore has only recently gained serious attention. The names are the pseudonyms for Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, respectively. The name Claude can be either male or female in France. The two women were childhood friends who became sisters through the marriage of their parents. The two women also became lovers and established themselves as artists at a young age when Paris was open to new possibilities.
Living in the British isle of Jersey since 1937, Cahun and Moore created photographic images primarily for their own pleasure. The two were imprisoned during the Nazi occupation of Jersey, as much for their refusing to cooperate with the Germans as well as both being Jewish. Much of their artwork was destroyed by the Nazis, with much of the remaining work saved almost by chance. What is most conspicuous about the artwork of Cahun and Moore is that it was done in isolation from the artistic centers of Europe.
Hammer astonishingly shot the bulk of her film in one week in Jersey. Much of the film is made up of shots of Cahun and Moore's photgraphs, such as the one above, and photo collages. There are also excerpts from video interviews with surving Jersey residents who knew Cahun and Moore as well as those who have preserved their work. Hammer also has voice-overs from their autobiographical writing. Two actresses briefly portray Cahun and Moore for extremely brief, dramatic effect. Even if one questions some of the choices Hammer makes in how she tells the story of Cahun and Moore, the story itself is compelling for someone who had not known of the artists previously.
An added bonus to the screening last night at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, was that it was also Barbara Hammer's birthday. Present for the showing of her film, Ms. Hammer was introduced by her former student, Dinorah De Jesus Rodriguez.
May 14, 2007
Tony Gatlif - 2004
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD
Francis Ford Coppola was in Miami Beach last night to talk a bit about filmmaking with students, and to present a new documentary about his filming Youth without Youth. The full article is posted at GreenCine Daily. One point Coppola stressed was the idea of using film to learn about other cultures, as a means for different people to communicate with each other. The consequence of the blockbuster film culture that currently exists in the U.S. is manifested in the general lack of interest in other cultures as well as the inability to imagine differing ways of life. One reason why I have been seeing the films by Tony Gatlif since Latcho Drom is because of his look at marginalized people.
Exiles is different from the previous films I've seen by Tony Gatlif. The sense of joy that is usually present has been replaced by a more serious sense of purpose. Like Gatlif's other films, the narrative follows a road trip involving gypsy and nomadic cultures. Unlike earlier Gatlif films, there is a pervasive sense of alienation, of the main characters, like the film's viewers, always being outsiders. One of the characters even states, "I'm an alien wherever I go."
A young couple, Zano and Naima, decide to go to Algeria from Paris, walking, sneaking train rides, stowing away on a boat. For Zano it is an opportunity to visit the home of his parents and grandparents, French settlers in Algeria. Naima, French of Arabic descent, feels more ambivalent about visiting the area. As the couple works their way south, the land becomes less green, ultimately giving way to a rocky desert. Along the way they encounter Algerians seeking their fortune in Paris, a gypsy family, and flamenco musicians in Seville.
Music has always been a crucial part of Tony Gatlif's films. His characters are often musicians. In addition to co-writing and directing, Gatlif collaborated on the score with original music that incorporates rap, folk and Arabian classical themes. If people are not singing or playing music, they are listening to music, lost in their own world with headphones. In Algeria, the couple observe a trance in which Naima participates.
The original intent of Exiles was based on Tony Gatlif's own desire to revisit Algeria. The film took on an extra layer of drama as there was an earthquake in Algeria while the film crew was in Seville. The real life event echoes the sense of impermanence, transience and fragility. People, places and relationships come and go. Exiles questions the concept of home as a destination and a physical place. As Gatlif also discovered in revisiting Algeria, the connections between people are what is most important.
Posted by peter at 05:07 PM
May 13, 2007
Jim Clark - 1974
MGM Region 1 DVD
One of the films I was thinking of writing about for the Shakespeare blog-a-thon was Theater of Blood starring Vincent Price. The DVD was not forwarded to me in time. Kimberley of Cinebeats also had Vincent Price in mind which was a pleasure to read. Now that I do have the DVD, I was able to see the companion feature, Madhouse.
While Theater of Blood gave Price a last opportunity to perform Shakespeare on screen, Madhouse serves as a retrospective of his work with American International. The film is not as good as it could have been, but was deserving of better treatment than than the shabby release the film was given. This was Price's last starring role where ironically he co-starred with Robert Quarry, the actor American International had intended to be their new horror star. It was Quarry's last film for AIP as well. Madhouse was also the last film directed by Jim Clark, who found greater acclaim as an editor.
Price portrays horror film star Paul Toombes. Several people close to Toombes are murdered by someone dressed as Toombes screen alter ego, Dr. Death. The story allows for clips of Price's films, primarily his work with Roger Corman, to be shown. Dr. Death bears strong resemblance to Price's character of Dr. Phibes. It could be that the film was hobbled by a limited budget or a hastily written script, but much of Madhouse suggests that there could have been more cleverness that no one had the time or interest to explore.
In addition to the films within the film, the act of seeing is further touched on in other ways. Clark employs several shots of Price looking at his reflection. There are also some shots looking through the lens a television camera. The film is about Paul Toombes possible confusion between himself and his screen character, as well as the perception audiences may have of actors to closely aligned with a specific character. The ideas are familiar ones, but the problem with the film is that more could have been done. Madhouse seems to have been made with the idea that a few in-jokes, like seeing Peter Cushing dressed as a vampire, would be sufficient to entertain the fans. Madhouse almost gets it right with the scenes of Adrienne Corri as the deranged wife Cushing keeps in his basement. The biggest horror of Madhouse is that it is ultimately a film comprised of missed opportunities, from a studio that never fully appreciated the star that helped bring them substantial financial success.
May 12, 2007
Roy Scheider Day: The Russia House
Fred Schepisi - 1990
MGM Region 1 DVD
Above is a screengrab of Roy Scheider literally phoning it in, in The Russia House. I had read about James Wolcott's declaration of Roy Scheider Day, this coming Monday. I do have All that Jazz, but my DVD is in storage. There wasn't much to choose from at the Miami-Dade Public Library system, and I wasn't about to go buy any more DVDs for now. Having found out that my one job that paid me pocket change to write about films was ending, I have to be more frugal. I also justified getting The Russia House because I hadn't seen the ending of the movie. I was at a preview screening, and with about ten minutes more to go, the house lights went up, attributed to some technical glitch in the theater.
In spite of being third billed after Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, Scheider doesn't do much. As a C.I.A. officer, Scheider is never seen outside his office, either talking in person or the phone to operatives. Watching the film again, I wondered what had happened to the guy who starred in the biggest movie in the world fifteen years previously, and was one of the top stars of the Seventies. Maybe Scheider mouthed off to the wrong person, but his career took a steep dive after the box office failure of 2010. Whatever happened, there is still the legacy of films Roy Scheider starred in from The French Connection through All That Jazz, a span covering almost exactly the last extended period of consistent creativity from mainstream Hollywood.
May 10, 2007
Shunichi Nagasaki - 1999
Adness Region 1 DVD
Sometimes I see films and feel like I have nothing of substance to say about them. There are also those films that may not warrent more than a few words, such as this Japanese horror film. Shikoku is closer in spirit, pun intended, to such films as Village of Eight Gravestones from 1977, depending primarily on mood and suggestion, with no graphic violence. The two films have somewhat similar premises of a person returning to a remote village where they discover an ancient curse. In the more recent film, a young woman returns from Tokyo to the island village to take care of some family business. She also discovers that her best friend, who she accidentally discovered to work as a child medium, drowned about ten year previously under mysterious circumstances.
Shikoku was the first major screen appearance by Chiaki Kuriyama, the actress best known for as the yo-yo wielding schoolgirl in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. That may be reason enough for some to want to see this film. Unlike most recent Japanese horror films, Shikoku is played resolutely without any humor. A little bit of philosophy is tucked into this story of ghosts, animism and Buddhism. While the basic premise of the film is inspired by the actual island, there seemed to be little interest by the filmmakers in exploring that location. What is nice about Shikoku is that it is a reminder that one can still make a horror film that does not rely on violence or gore.
Posted by peter at 11:05 PM
May 08, 2007
Curtis Harrington - 1961
Genius Entertainment Region 1 DVD
Had it not been for the online connections made by people who write about film, many of us would have been unaware of the death of Curtis Harrington on May 6. There are a few articles and interviews with Harrington that can be found online. Tim Lucas has an overview of Harrington's life that I recommend. My thoughts on Harrington were joggled last week when I saw the Kenneth Anger films on DVD. Harrington photographed Anger's Puce Moments and appeared in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
Around 1974, I was a student volunteer at the Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art. Charles Silver, Associate Curator, was generous in allowing me to see any 16 mm film in the Museum's collection. I wrote a paper on Harrington's 1949 short film, On the Edge. Thanks to Silver, I was able to watch the film several times on the flatbed Steenbeck viewer. I don't remember what I wrote other than that I did a shot by shot breakdown. Harrington's film is about a man, an old woman, and a runaway ball of yarn. I am hoping that someone collects Harrington's short films onto a DVD. Sadly, it is too late for a filmmaker's commentary.
Because it is part of a low budget DVD collection of horror films that I picked up, I have Harrington's first feature, Night Tide, on hand. If you haven't seen it, there is a DVD version that is of higher quality. Additionally that DVD has a commentary track by Harrington and star Dennis Hopper. Made in 1961, Harrington's film is closer in spirit to the films produced by Val Lewton in the Forties. The plot is similar to The Cat People, but with Hopper as a sailor in love with a woman who believes she is a mermaid. There is a scene where Hopper runs through a run down section of Santa Monica, pursuing a mysterious woman. The scene made me think again of the man running in On the Edge.
A devotee of Edgar Allan Poe, Harrington named his first feature from a line in Poe's "Annabel Lee". Harrington's first personal short film was based on The Fall of the House of Usher. His final work was a personal film from the same source, titled Usher. That Harrington returned to Poe one last time provides a symetry for one of the few people to straddle both experimental filmmaking and Hollywood productions.
May 06, 2007
Anger in Miami Beach
There was a tribute last night to Kenneth Anger as part of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. I wasn't there, but I was told that about fifty people walked out on Scorpio Rising. The older members of the audience were offended by the Nazi symbols worn by the bikers. The younger audience were looking for friendlier gay entertainment. I was one of a handful of people who did see the selection of films by Anger presented at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It seemed odd to me that there was no problem watching Scorpio Rising at NYU with a significant proportion of Jewish students. Likewise, there were full houses when Kenneth Anger was at Telluride in 1975. For whatever reasons, people in Miami Beach who like to pretend they love cinema ignored the opportunity to see four rarely screened films by Anger.
This was my first time seeing Invocation of my Demon Brother and Lucifer Rising. The two films are stylistically different but connected by the participation of The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger created an electronic sound score for Invocation, while Anita Pallenberg stood in for the Stones to "present" Lucifer Rising, which starred Jagger protegee Marianne Faithful. Invocation is the more abstract film, full of overlapping shots, boys lounging around, guys dresses as demons. It also reminded my that due to my own lack of use, I may have lost the ability to write clearly about this kind of filmmaking, and wished that P. Adams Sitney was around to articulate what I had just seen.
Lucifer Rising, the 1980 version, was a marked contrast in style. Similar to older Anger films with his actors dressed in costume, representing mythic gods, the film is visually cleaner. Even if one is not to clear about who Marianne Faithful, Donald Cammell and the others are suppose to be, or what they are doing, there is pleasure in watching them walk regally around the Sphinx in Egypt or in Stonehenge. The mostly rock music score is by Bobby Beausoleil, which suggests a talented guy who could have done more had he not fallen in with the wrong crowd.
My problem with Kenneth Anger, which may say as much about me as about the filmmaker, is manifested in appreciating The Man We Want to Hang. The title is revealed to be a joke, as the film is made up of shots of paintings and drawings, by and of Aleister Crowley. This is a film that is probably appreciated best by those who have a dedicated interest in Crowley.
Mouse Heaven is a film that could be enjoyed by people who have never heard of Kenneth Anger. Shot on video, Anger assembled a large number of Mickey Mouse toys and artifacts. Save for an opening shot of rats which unintentionally reminded me of the forthcoming Disney-Pixar film, Mouse Heaven is the first Anger film that could be described as fun. Toys are animated, and multiple Mickeys sing and dance to music of Ian Whitcomb and James and Bobby Purify, among others. The special effects, including a background of glowing stars, are still low tech. The memorabilia reflects Anger's longtime fascination with old Hollywood, while the music is a continuation of the use of kitschy pop songs as commentary on his characters. At this time, the Walt Disney Company is trying to bar Mouse Heaven. It’s not a totally reverential look at Mickey Mouse, but considering some of the pokes at Disney done by other filmmakers, the guardians of the Mouse may be overzealous. I never expected to see a family friendly film from Kenneth Anger. My personal rating for Mouse Heaven is "Gee".
Posted by peter at 05:45 PM
May 05, 2007
The Red Shoes
Kim Yong-Gyun - 2005
Tartan Video Region 1 DVD
There are times when it seems that certain titles should belong exclusively to one movie. I'm not even refering to remakes, but to films that share titles with established classics. When I see O Lucky Man I think of the film by Lindsay Anderson, and not a recent Thai comedy. I was startled and then amused to discover another Day of Wrath which bore no relation to the film by Carl Dreyer. The Korean horror film titled The Red Shoes has more in common with the films of the Pang Brothers than those of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. But there is enough in the new film to suggest that Kim is familiar with the work of The Archers. Kim does admit to being inspired, as Powell and Pressburger were, to the story by Hans Christian Anderson. To avoid confusion, I will refer to Kim's version by the Korean title.
Bunhongsin is about a cursed pair of shoes that bring out the worst in the women who find them. Kim's film centers on an optometrist and her pre-pubescent daughter. The sexual symbolism of the shoes is made obvious when both mother and daughter don red lipstick. That the mother sees her young daughter as a sexual competitor is indicated by two scenes reminiscent of Brian De Palma's Carrie when blood pours out between the legs of the terrified girl, and when a ceiling cracks open drenching the mother in blood. Kim's narrative also three scenes of sexual betrayal, one of which provides the back story to the curse of the shoes. The daughter is an aspiring ballet dancer. The origin of the red shoes takes place among ballet dancers in Japanese occupied Korea, in 1944.
Kim makes use of lots of visual symbolism, ranging from a large Japanese flag with the red and white that used throughout the film, to having the optometrist office include a version of Rene Magritte's "False Mirror". Eyes also figure prominently in Bunhongsin. Two of the women are optometrists, while the main male character is an artist. The occupations are complementary as they both depend on the ability to see to do the work. Part of the film contrasts the act of seeing, and interpreting what one sees. In this film, the optometrists see a subjective reality because of the shoes, while the artist is the first to see the truth of the curse.
Bunhongsin succeeds in spite of itself. There are many of the trappings of other Asian horror films - lots of flickering lights, ghosts that suddenly drift in and out, a dilapidated apartment that people who should know better move into, and an explanation defies logic. What does work are the shots of empty subway stations, and the performances by the wide-eye Kim Hye-Su as the mother and precocious Park Yeon-Ah as the daughter. What Bunhongsin lacks in originality is compensated by Kim Yong-Gyun obvious craftsmanship. Much of Bunhongsin appears to be the results of genre requirements. The varied frames of reference to other arts, and the pyschological underpinnings of Bunhongsin indicate a thoughtfulness not often found in contemporary horror films.
May 04, 2007
Charles Vidor - 1946
Columbia Region 1 DVD
A couple days after what would have been Glenn Ford's 91st birthday, I had the chance to see Gilda again. I'm not sure if I can really articulate Ford's appeal other than that he was, at least on screen, a likable guy in generally likable films. I would not be surprised if a good portion of the most recent Oscar audience had faint idea who Ford was when the memorial montage played, his last major film appearance being in the 1978 version of Superman. Sure, there was respectful applause, but most viewers and not a few Academy members were probably aware that there was a time, about forty-five years ago, when signing Glenn Ford was a guarantee of getting the green light from the studios.
On the downside, Ford managed to star in three major flops almost in succession. The films in question, Cimarron, Pocketful of Miracles, and Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, were all big budget remakes helmed by directors at or near the close of their careers. Anthony Mann's was hurt least by the last and least of his Westerns, Capra's film barely earned a pocketful of money, and Minnelli's film was such an expensive catastrophe that after a second film with Ford, and a re-teaming with Elizabeth Taylor, he no longer made films for MGM, his contract fulfilled grudgingly by his longtime studio.
Gilda is of course famous for Ford's first teaming with Rita Hayworth. What had interested me was that the film also marked Ford's first work with Rudolph Mate, working here as a cinematographer. I had written about two films Ford and Mate made together with Mate as director last year. I'm not familiar enough with Charles Vidor to identify themes or visual styles. What is interesting about Gilda, visually, is the use of putting the characters in shadow. One fantastic image is of George Macready seen in silouette. I had forgotten that Gilda takes place almost entirely at night. George Macready's mansion is filmed to resemble a gothic castle. The size and emptiness of the mansion is conveyed when the tiny figure of Rita Hayworth walks away from Ford and Macready to her bedroom.
Ford still looked a bit to baby-faced to convincingly play the grubby, unshaven gambler in the opening shots of Gilda. Even shaved and dressed in a suit, Ford looked a little too fresh to portray someone as cynical as the character of Johnny Farrell. Gilda could be seen as Glenn Ford practicing his screen persona. That practice payed off in the films Ford starred in, particularly in the period between The Big Heat and The Money Trap. Rita Hayworth had a cameo appearance in The Money Trap, but it's hard to watch her without thinking about her torturing Glenn Ford with the removal of one glove in their first film together.
May 03, 2007
"Wayout" on Espanola Way
As part of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Espanola Way (seen above in a promotional shot), was quite busy last night. A total of twenty-three different performance pieces were presented in various locations, curated by Dana Keith of the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Some of the presentations were combinations of live performance with film or video. Other works could be described simply as mixed media. Most of the work was by local artists, plus films by Guy Maddin, Kenneth Anger and Barbara Hammer.
Guy Maddin's short Sissy Boy Slap Party was presented as a peep show loop. Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome was projected in a small gated area between two building, on a screen, with performance artist Octavio Campos lounging underneath playing with jewels and flowers.
Juan Carlos Zaldivar's installation piece, "Strings #8" was made up of video images projected on linen panels. Part of a series, the images made me think of small versions of exquisite shoji screens. Dinorah De Jesus Rodriguez' piece, "Telepathia", was a video loop projected onto a large white ball. More conventional in presentation was Jan Wandrag's photo series "Jonathan + David".
Corporate sponsorship combined with performance art with the Tylenol PM Boys and Girls doing something titled "Sleepy Boys, Sleepy Girls". The gray pajamas with faint stripes made me think of the concentration camp uniforms. I don't have quite the imagination to make up this kind of stuff. There were also the Stoli girls in matching white, form fitting dresses.
Definitely not corporate were the Wrestling Rooster Girls, giving new meaning to the phrase, "shake your tail feather". I couldn't begin to explain the meaning of Heather Maloney's performance, "The Panty Scene". What I can report is that when the piece was over, there was enough underwear on the floor to make one person comment on Maloney's laundry bill.
In addition to Flamenco lessons by drag performers Geraldine and Fernandicute, David Rohn, as "Modern Bride" Esperanza tossed dandelions from a balcony, when not seeking potential husbands. The main event of the night belonged to local legend Adora performing a comic lip-synch of an aria from La Traviata. "Singing" from a balcony to the crowd below, Adora lived up to her name as one of the most beloved characters of Miami Beach.
Posted by peter at 04:41 AM
May 01, 2007
Shelley Novak: I'll Shave Tomorrow
I feel ambivalent about The Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. My problem with these kinds of film festivals in general is that many of the films booked are qualified by content but not quality. The programmers at Miami actually turned down the opportunity for a rare theatrical screening of Tropical Malady, waiting for the Miami Beach Cinematheque to premiere the film when it was on DVD. As I don't have a car, I'll be missing the more interesting films such as The King and the Clown which is playing up in Fort Lauderdale, and Dai Sijie's new film, The Chinese Botanist's Daughters in downtown Miami. The most interesting stuff at the festival this year is being presented by the Cinematheque, and it's not necessarily on film.
Films like The Birdcage have cemented an image of Miami's South Beach that persists in the imagination of people who haven't been here for years. Shelley Novak is a link to that particular era when Miami Beach seemed to be re-discovered for its art deco buildings, and attracted a younger crowd of artistic and sexual adventurers. A South Beach resident since 1992, Novak, also known as Tommy Strangie, created a one-man show retelling his story of growing up gay in Massachusetts, and becoming a drag queen icon in Florida.
Through most of the performance, family and "family" photos are used to illustrate Novak growing up, and later in performance. Two film excerpts are used from the films that Novak took his stage name. First up is the scene from Lolita where Shelley Winters shows prospective tenant James Mason around the house, a long glance at bikini clad Sue Lyon clinching his decision. Next up is Kim Novak, lit to first appear like a ghost for obsessed James Stewart in Vertigo. Novak's South Beach stories include how he chanced into becoming a professional drag performer, as well as his life as Tommy Strangie, doorman at the now defunct dance club, Crobar. As Shelley, he impersonated Madonna with the star in the audience. As Tommy, he suffered from an untimely upset stomach in front of Ricky Martin, ruining Martin's shoes. Shelley found himself doing performances in unexpected situations, at one finding himself alone in a kitchen with George Harrison.
Part of Novak's popularity comes from the fact that he looks like he shouldn't be a drag performer. He's refered to himself as "Barney Rubble in a dress". Novak also hosts movies at the cinematheque, when possible the kinds of films that can be enjoyed as "camp" or display a performance by a classic screen diva. In spite of the economic and demographic changes in South Beach, Strangie has continually found ways to keep Shelley Novak active. While Novak performance is mostly comic, there is a sadness about a part of Miami Beach that no longer exists.