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September 30, 2007

Coffee Break

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Mahasamut Boonyaruk in Citizen Dog (Wisit Sasanatieng - 2004)

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

September 28, 2007

The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. 2

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Scorpio Rising (1964)

Kenneth Anger - 1964/1965/1969/1979/1981
Fantoma Region 1 DVD

The good news is that the second DVD of films by Kenneth Anger is now available. But after years of discussion about the mythic content in Anger's films, the filmmaker's own commentary virtually reduces some of this work to glorified home movies. While some of Anger's comments about the making of his films is of interest, there are times when it seems to be better to allow the work to speak for itself.

A particular case in point would be Scorpio Rising. That Anger met some bikers in Brooklyn while staying at Marie Menken's apartment helps give the film some geographical context. I mostly liked the film for its soundtrack, a selection of pre-Beatles rock tunes that begins with Ricky Nelson's Fools Rush In and ends with The Surfari's Wipe Out. The music is used as a commentary on the preening bikers, with the best bit being excerpts from a movie about Jesus playing against Little Peggie March singing I Will Follow Him. Anger tells about how he accidentally wound up with the movie produced by the Lutheran Church, and it is a pretty funny anecdote.

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Rabbit's Moon (1979)

Too often, Anger makes the point that the bikers he filmed are working class guys who spend most of their money on their bikes, and whatever is left on their girlfriends. I'm not sure who Anger is trying to convince here.

A faster, skip-printed version of Rabbit's Moon is more fun and less precious than the original version. Made for Stan Brakhage's son, the new version has a rock soundtrack. Anger also has some interesting comments on his short and funny Kustom Kar Kommandos. I don't have anything to add to what I wrote about Lucifer Rising, Invocation for my Demon Brother or The Man We Like to Hang. One has to read the comments by Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant and Guy Maddin to return to the myth and mythmaking of Kenneth Anger. Maybe in discussing his own films, Anger is being modest. It is in the text of the filmmakers who admire Anger that unfamiliar viewers may understand the importance of this icon from those long ago days of underground cinema.

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Lucifer Rising (1981)

Posted by peter at 03:10 AM | Comments (1)

September 26, 2007

The Victim

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Phii Khon Pen
Monthon Arayangkoon - 2006
Tartan Asia Extreme Region 1 DVD

The Victim is another film where great effort has been put into the visual design, but not enough into constructing the narrative. Monthon is a filmmaker who seems to be happy making what is essentially a Thai film for Thai audiences who couldn't care less about the gaping plot holes that make me wonder what kind of film was intended in the first place.

That The Victim could have been more inventive is revealed almost midway through the film when the story of a vengeful ghost turns out to be a film within the film. What could have been a parody of Thai film cliches, and the demands of the Thai film industry is instead yet another Thai horror film. The Victim is certainly inventively photographed, with an eye towards creating unease for the viewer. Monthon's debut film, Garuda, about a giant flying monster let loose in Bangkok, had a narrative that made more sense, while Monthon seemed to have fun with the genre, as well as poking fun at Thai attitudes towards Europeans and Americans. With an film industry that churns out ghost stories on a regular basis, Monthon drops the opportunity to play with genre conventions.

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The film within the film starts off promisingly showing a young actress, Ting, in drama school. A policeman invites Ting to re-ennact crime scenes. During my almost five months in Thailand, I never saw any crime scenes re-staged for the police and public, although in Chiang Mai, the main crime seemed to be bad driving. Ting is concerned about offending the dead women she is impersonating. Giving the preposterous set-up a chance, Ting finds herself visited by many wandering ghosts. Ting is possessed by the spirit of a victim, one with a wrongly accused killer. Where The Victim falls apart is that the film within the film ends up making more sense than the narrative about the making of the film, with the actress May, who plays Ting, haunted by a vengeful ghost. If most Thai films can be described as vernacular, The Victim concludes by attempting to connect the dots in an extremely hasty manner. On a technical level, the montage is a dazzling display of technique. What little explanation about what was seen seems barely related to the previous events. The result is that Monthon lost his way, confused by his own film within the film, and his several dreams within dreams.

Where The Victim is somewhat unusual from many Thai ghost stories is in the choice of Pitchanart Sakakorn in the lead role. Pitcharnart as Ting almost resembles a Thai Audrey Tatou, a change from the films that usually feature actresses that look like popular Thai star Paula Taylor. What few twists are offered in The Victim are, in addition to the technical virtuosity, not enough to disguise what ends up being just another Thai ghost story.

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Posted by peter at 12:23 AM

September 24, 2007

Luis Bunuel Blog-a-thon: Gran Casino

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Luis Bunuel - 1947
Lionsgate Region 1 DVD

I recall a line from an interview in which Luis Bunuel stated he made Mexican films for Mexican audiences. No truer words were spoken in the case of Gran Casino, any yet I have to admit that the film is enjoyable on its own terms. Except for one very brief shot of glass breaking, there is little to indicate that this is a Luis Bunuel film. Missing are the iconic images - the straight razor cutting the eye or the parody of "The Last Supper" for example. There is, however, the comic absurdity of seeing Jorge Negrete backup chorus, Trio Calaveras appear whenever Negrete bursts into song. Additionally, there is the oil field, looking like nothing but a cheap studio set, filmed as infrequently as possible.

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I think that to dislike Gran Casino is an absurd gesture. Had it not been for this film, Luis Bunuel would not have had the film career he eventually was able to achieve. More likely, Bunuel would be remembered by academics for his first three films, but otherwise would be one of those filmmakers mentioned in the same breath as Jean Epstein - an interesting experimental filmmaker from a bygone era. Gran Casino was successful enough that Bunuel would make one other film before making Los Olvidados, the film that re-established him critically.

In its own way, Gran Casino thematically fits in with Bunuel's concerns. As far as the film is concerned, the real villain is not the casino owner who murders the manager of the competing oil field, but his boss, a German businessman. The dialogue pointedly suggests that the character of Van Eckerman was a Nazi. In this scene, Bunuel is allowed to make an indirect jab at Franco as well as the politics that he had always opposed.

Bunuel even seems to have paid a sort of tribute to Gilda with the performace of Meche Barba. If anything, Gran Casino, more than his two English language films, makes one wonder what kind of films we might have seen had Bunuel actually embraced making films north of the Mexican border.

More Bunuel at Flickhead.

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Posted by peter at 12:18 AM | Comments (3)

September 23, 2007

Coffee Break

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Leif Erickson and Dorothy Lamour in The Big Broadcast of 1938 (Mitchell Leisen - 1938)

Posted by peter at 10:23 AM | Comments (1)

September 21, 2007

William Wyler and the Funny Girl

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The Love Trap
William Wyler - 1929

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Be Yourself
Thornton Freeland - 1930
both Kino Video Region 1 DVD

I found out by chance that there is a William Wyler blog-a-thon going on this weekend. It is purely by coincidence that my writing about these two films is at this time. My own feelings about Wyler change from film to film. I love Dodsworth and greatly enjoy The Good Fairy and Roman Holiday. The last time I attempted to watch Ben-Hur from beginning to end, I fell asleep during the much touted chariot race. Even less enjoyable is the over-long, over produced Funny Girl. As little as I like Funny Girl, that has not disuaded me from seeing other films by Wyler or even seeing one film starring the real funny girl, Fanny Brice.

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Seeing The Love Trap and Be Yourself close together is instructional in seeing two films made during the transitional period from silent films to talkies. In terms of narratives, if the cliches didn't start with these films, they weren't too old either. The Love Trap is about the chorus girl in love with the boy from the wealthy society family. Be Yourself is about a champion boxer and the manager-girlfriend who loves him. Anyone who’s seen more than three films from the early Thirties can pretty much guess the story arc. What may be of more interest than either narrative is seeing, and hearing, how two filmmakers take on the challenge of sound.

The Love Trap would seem the more awkward, starting out as a silent film with titles and a synchonized music score, more than halfway shifting to spoken dialogue. Wyler appears to have instinctively understood how to film people speaking without it looking stagey, cutting from full to medium shot. Even if there is less camera movement, the use of editing allows The Love Trap to flow rather than falter.

The Love Trap features Laura La Plante as an early version of that filmic archtype, the ditsy blonde. Thrown out from the chorus because she can't dance, La Plante temporarily plays party girl for the night before deciding she has her scruples, no matter that the rent is due. Escaping wearing a robe from what appears to be a compromising position, she finds her belongings out in the street. As if that's not enough, it rains that night. La Plante is rescued by wealthy young man Neil Hamilton. While happily married, La Plante's past comes to haunt her.

Even though the dialogue is spoken in a style more suitable for stage than screen, Wyler uses that as way way of underscoring the silliness of the story. La Plante, who I have never seen before, is fun to watch because of her ability to make a fool of herself, whether stumbling drunk or literally getting mud in her eye. It may also be that Wyler, who has had a reputation for being involved with some of his leading ladies, found The Love Trap a great excuse for filming Laura La Plante frequently in her lingerie. The Love Trap is everything that Ben-Hur is not - short, sexy and funny.

Be Yourself is primarily of interest for those who might want to have a glimpse of the real Fanny Brice. While her singing voice is closer to that of Ethel Merman, Brice is not the mugging, annoying screen presence that is Barbra Streisand. While the film starts of nicely with a dolly shot of the audience at a boxing match that moves into the ring with the two boxers, too often the film is static. Director Thornton Freeland is remembered, if at all, for Flying Down to Rio. Be Yourself looks like the work of people who were intimidated by the new technology. Many of the scenes are shot as full shots, with characters entering and exiting through doors. Robert Armstrong, as the dumb lug of a boxer who wins Brice's heart is especially awkward. Better is seeing Brice sing two very different versions of the same song, once upbeat and again as a tearjerker. It is quite possible that this film played a part in the title of the musical version of the life of Fanny Brice. Twice, her character is refered to as a "funny girl".

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Posted by peter at 01:08 PM | Comments (2)

September 19, 2007

List-o-mania

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It's Wednesday morning here in Denver, and the lists of favorite foreign language films has been posted over at Edward Copeland's site. I don't think there are many surprises on the list. I'm sure the people at the Criterion Collection are pleased at how many of their films were included. As anticipated, even though there was some diversity in choices of films, there were certain filmmakers that were agreed on, particularly Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. Of the 122 nominated films, I still have not seen Satantango or Story of Late Chrysanthemums, am working my way through The Decalogue, and will see the more complete version of Cinema Paradiso at a later date.

The one title that surprised me by how high it scores was Spirited Away. Maybe it's a weakness on my part, but more often than not, I fall asleep watching Japanese anime. The one exception may be this year's Paprika, perhaps a nominee for a future list. It is nice to know that there are twenty-one other people who love Suspiria as much as I do. As far as more foreign language films being made available on DVD, it is encouraging that Lionsgate is making films available for Studio Canal's library, as Criterion can't be expected to do it all. There are some of us who would like to see Max Ophuls' films on Region 1 DVD, including his earlier films like Yoshiwara and Liebelei.

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For those who haven't seen it, I recommend checking out this list from Sight and Sound of 75 Hidden Gems: The Great Films Time Forgot. I was first made aware of this list by Filmbrain. I have seen twenty-five of the listed films, several on network television back when it was a terrific source for random film exploration, which is how I have seen The Pumpkin Eater, The Actress, and yes, The Adventures of Hajji Baba. Many of these films are unknown to me, especially the Eastern European titles. Some of the films may only be available on DVD-R or European tape formats if they are available at all. Some of the films, such as Peter Ibbetson and Grace of my Heart are available on DVD. I might even check out Terminal Island from Stephanie Rothman. While the list highlights films for further exploration, there are also proportionately more female filmmakers listed. A list that encourages a few more people to check out films by Allison Anders and Sally Potter is OK by me. And if we're really lucky, Paramount or somebody, will be encouraged to release a DVD of Sam Fuller's original version of The White Dog.

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Posted by peter at 10:08 AM | Comments (1)

September 17, 2007

Il Posto

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Ermanno Olmi - 1961
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

On Wednesday, Edward Copeland will post the top vote getters from from a list compiled last month. To a certain extent, the films may reflect not only critical choices but will generational as well. What has me reflecting about that viewpoint was reading an interview with Jack Nicholson where he mentioned Il Posto as his idea of a truly great film. There is very little of substance in English on Ermanno Olmi. Seeing Il Posto for the first time made me think about how inconstant the critical landscape is, with the "discovery" of newer filmmakers, or of other past films and filmmakers that at an earlier time were considered less worthy of serious evaluation.

What made the biggest impression on me in seeing Il Posto was how in subject matter, it showed how little has changed in the workplace in the past forty-five plus years. Except that employees are considered disposable by many large, and even not so large companies, much of what happens in Il Posto would be not only recognizable, but also easily identifiable, for those still in the workforce. The tests that seem remotely related to the actual job, the absurd interview questions, and the fidgety waiting for the word that one is chosen to spend one's days enclosed in an office doing something that is more about paying bills than about personal fulfillment remains. Even the office New Year's party, like many office holiday parties, is more a place of desperation than merriment. That fellow employees seems to be busy doing something other than the actual work they were hired to do is a given. Except for the technology, the office space in 1961 Milan is not too different from Office Space.

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Olmi's film is an update version of neo-realism with a cast of non-professionals. In a recent interview, Olmi mentions that the "star" of the film, Sandro Panseri, was now a supermarket manager. The object of Panseri's tentative affections, Loredana Detto, left acting to become Mrs. Ermanno Olmi. The documentary flavor comes from shooting in the streets of Milan and the Lombardy countryside, and especially inside the office building with the miles of hallways, and cramped and badly lit working spaces. There is a montage that almost seems like a non sequitur until the realization comes that one is watching excerpts of the lives of some of the staff outside of the office, a reminder that one's working life is not always how one thinks of oneself.

The ending of the film is perhaps more ambiguous than Olmi intended, or at least is up for more than one interpretation. Panseri has finally been promoted from messenger to clerk, in part the result of the sudden death of one of the employees. The former employee's desk turns out to represent a degree of status and seniority, meaningful only to those who have dutifully shown up for several years. In some ways these fellow employees may remind some of Takashi Shimura's characters in Ikiru, who showed up to work every day because he was afraid that if he was absent, he would not be missed. The film ends with a close up of Panseri to the sound of a loud mimeograph machine. While Olmi has claimed that Panseri is looking to his life beyond the office, one could also read this shot as that of someone who realizes that his goal has turned out to be far less than what he had hoped for, with little promise for the future, especially if the lives of his older co-workers is any indication. Even though Il Posto is partially autobiographical, while Olmi's life as a young office worker eventually lead to a career as a documentary, and narrative filmmaker, the more typical scenario is that the promotion to low level office worker is as far into the future as many would ever see.

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Posted by peter at 12:31 AM

September 16, 2007

Coffee Break

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Leo Genn in Circus of Fear (John Moxey - 1966)

Posted by peter at 10:14 AM

September 15, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

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Michael Davis - 2007
New Line Cinema 35mm Film

Shoot 'Em Up would have been a far better movie had as much attention been spent on the dialogue as had been expended on the visual aspects of the film. The film is a terrifically realized series of set pieces punctuated by some cringe-inducing patter held together by a story that makes little sense. I can understand why there has been negative response to this film, yet the action choreography and cinematography are so much better than such crowd pleasers like the Rush Hour series.

Shoot 'Em Up more closely resembles the kind of films that Jason Statham usually stars in that I was wondering if Clive Owen was actually the second choice. There is a scene with Owen sliding on his back on a floor with an oil spill, shooting at the bad guys, that was similar to a scene in The Transporter. Similarly, the almost nonsensical plot is reminiscent of Crank, a film of similar visual bravura and little logic. The major difference is that Owen is complimented by cast that includes Paul Giamatti as the chief bad guy and Monica Bellucci as the girl, plus a supporting group of players with the kind of faces usually seen in comic book villains.

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While a couple of critics have noted that the image of Owen with a gun in one hand and a baby in his other arm recalls Chow Yun-Fat in Hard Boiled, it should also be noted that Shoot 'Em Up was photographed by Peter Pau. How much of the credit for the look of the film should go to Pau may be up for debate, but considering that Pau was the cinematographer for Woo's The Killers, Ronnie Yu's Bride with White Hair, Tsui Hark's The Chinese Feast and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might easily explain why the action sequences look so good. That Pau has also directed films in Hong Kong suggests that he may have had a more active role in production of Shoot 'Em Up than his screen credit would indicate.

Unlike most Hong Kong films, Shoot 'Em Up does get uncomfortably misogynistic. Writer-director Michael Davis displays most of his venom regarding women through Giamatti's character who tells a joke that the difference between a woman and a gun is that you can put a silencer on a gun, burns Bellucci's thighs with the hot end of his pistol, and has a running gag involving his wife calling him at inappropriate times. There is one undeniably funny scene when Owen spots a woman spanking her son, and after lecturing the woman on the cruelty of corporal punishment starts spanking the mother, much to the glee of her son. More frequently, Davis' idea of wit amounts to a male adolescent's idea of a double entrendre.

At one point, Paul Giamatti mentions James Cagney to his crew. Michael Davis might be wise to pay closer attention the such films as Public Enemy and White Heat. While the Warner Brother classic gangster films were directed by the visually able William Wellman and Raoul Walsh, the screenplays were written by guys who learned how to coin phrases as journalists and playwrights. The reason why the old gangster films are classic is as much because of the great dialogue that complimented the visuals, which is why these films will be remembered after Shoot 'Em Up is forgotten.

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Posted by peter at 11:49 AM | Comments (2)

September 13, 2007

The Earth Dies Screaming

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Terence Fisher - 1965
Twentieth Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

For those of us who still enjoy watching horror and science fiction films from the Sixties, the Midnight Movies label is back, with Twentieth Century-Fox joining MGM for the fun. For almost a year there was uncertainty about whether the series would continue following Sony's partial acquisition of MGM. For those unfamiliar with the Midnight Movies series, most of the films were issued as double features of generally complimentary titles. Unlike MGM, which has been issuing their Midnight Movies DVDs from films acquired from American International and United Artists, the Fox films are from their own library. While some of the films, such as The Mephisto Waltz, were main features, other films were clearly made as parts of double feature combos, or as second features.

A case in point is The Earth Dies Screaming. It's a great title for a less than great film. The movie was produced by Robert Lippert who provided low budget features for Twentieth Century-Fox for more than a decade. Clocking in at slightly more than an hour, The Earth Dies Screaming was designed to be booked on the bottom half of double features. The C list cast is topped by forgotten actors Willard Parker and Virginia Field, with Dennis Price, the star of the classic Kind Hearts and Coronets getting third billing. Hammer horror film veteran Terence Fisher does what he can within the confines of a meager budget.

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The story may well have been the source of inspiration for a more critically acclaimed and commercially successful film. Consider that the film begins with people dying mysteriously. A group of survivors find each other and band together against the unknown, and unseen enemy. What they have in common is that while the air was temporarily poisoned, they were in isolated quarters with individual ventilation systems. The dead people start coming back to life as mindless zombies set to kill the surviving humans. Did a young Danny Boyle and Alex Garland see The Earth Dies Screaming? I wouldn’t be surprised if they had. The opening premise may remind some of 28 Days Later.

Contemporary audiences will more likely scream with laughter than with horror, especially at the sight of the robots sent to terrorize the earthlings. In addition to Terence Fisher's efficient direction, the film features a terrific score by composer Elizabeth Lutyens, an underappreciated film composer as well as one of the few women in this field. The Earth Dies Screaming is not exactly a classic, but it is worth a look as a film that may have inspired a couple of future filmmakers.

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Posted by peter at 11:23 AM | Comments (3)

September 12, 2007

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

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James Mangold - 2007
Lionsgate Films 35mm Film

Was James Mangold thinking about 3:10 to Yuma well before he made his film? One indication is that his main character in Cop Land shares the same last name as the actor who played Dan Evans in Delmer Daves' film. Similarly, both the character of Freddie Heflin in Cop Land and Dan Evans in Mangold's Yuma are both disabled enforcers of the law, but find that they are both serving on behalf of interests that view them are little more than useful tools.

Even though Mangold's film is based on a fifty year old film, his version of Yuma shares more in common with the revisionist westerns of the Seventies. Most of the men are dirty and bearded, but more importantly the conflict between outlaws are struggling ranchers is less important than how they both get in the way of corporate progress. Mangold's Dan Evans is motivated to escort outlaw Ben Wade for money to pay for his ranch. But the money comes from the same corporation that would profit by taking over Evan's ranch for the railroad. In Mangold's film, everyone except Evans has his price.

The major difference between the two versions is that Daves' film emphasised the psychological tensions between Wade and Evans, while Mangold's film is more action oriented. Those who have seen the Daves film will recognize some of the dialogue from Halsted Welles' screenplay lifted verbatim. Mangold devotes more time to giving his characters motivation for their actions, and devotes more time to making the journey to the train station more perilous. In spite of greater screen time, Mangold's characters are ultimately less interesting than those in Daves' film.

Part of what makes Daves' film more interesting in my view is the sense of romantic longing conveyed by his characters. One of the key moments in the original Yuma is the scene where Ben Wade virtually allows himself to be caught in the small town, distracted by a pretty barmaid. In Daves' film, Wade and the barmaid talk about the difference between how their lives are and how they wish it could be lived. Most of that dialogue is jettisoned in Mangold's film. That his Ben Wade is an amateur artist is suppose to indicate his sensative side, yet Russell Crowe's Ben Wade never charms in the way that Glenn Ford did in the first film version. Even a glimpse of the nude Vinessa Shaw clearly indicating what the first film only hinted at is no substitute for the sparks between Ford and Felicia Farr. Likewise, in the first film version there is a wonderful sweeping shot of Heflin's wife, played by Leora Dana, facing the open plains, helpless as her husband leaves for his foolhardy mission.

After guiding two women to Academy Award winning performances, I was hoping Mangold would have Gretchen Mol and Vinessa Shaw be as vivid as their 1957 counterparts. I also have a problem with Christian Bale as a foil to burly Russell Crowe because even though he is actually taller, he photographs as if he were small and fragile. As Bale's wife, Gretchen Mol is shortchanged in a small part made smaller by Mangold. It's not that Mangold's version of 3:10 to Yuma is bad, but given what he had to work with, I was hoping for something that had more than a few moments of inspiration. On the other hand, as Mangold has demonstrated with Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon, he can bring out the best in his actresses. If Mangold were to remake a film by Delmar Daves, how about a new version of Rome Adventure with Lindsay Lohan and Anne Hathaway?

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Posted by peter at 11:55 AM

September 10, 2007

Virgin of Nuremburg

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La Vergine di Norimberga
Antonio Margheriti - 1963
Shriek Show Region 1 DVD

I received my copy of Tim Lucas' epic study of Mario Bava last week. I hope to find the time to read this huge and heavy book sometime soon, and perhaps comment on it. In the meantime, I got around to seeing this film that was inspired by Bava as well as the Hammer films that were released in the early Sixties. There is also a nod to Rebecca for good measure. One of the related tangents is that Virgin of Nuremburg was co-written by Ernesto Gastaldi, the extremely prolific wriiter who also co-wrote Bava's Whip and the Body and served as that film's second unit director.

It is in fact some of the behing the screen credits of Virgin of Nuremburg that I found more interesting than the actual film. In addition to Margheriti, who co-wrote and directed the film under his English language pseudonym of Anthony Dawson, and Ernesto Gastaldi's credit as Gastad Green, the third writing credit went to Edmund Greville, the director and sometimes writer who began his career with Abel Gance and Rene Clair. Seeing Ruggero Deodato's name as an assistant director was no big surprise, but Bertrand Blier? Which reminded me that the last film that I had seen by him was Too Beautiful for You back in 1989.

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While she does portray a newlywed, Rossana Podesta does not play the title role. The title actually refers to the torture device better known as the iron maiden. I have know way of knowing if John Schlesinger was thinking of this film with the horror film segment in Darling, but through the first hour of Virgin of Nuremburg, Podesta's costume consists of her frilly, somewhat suggestive nightgown. A spirit from the past, known as The Punisher, has come back to make use of the torture devices in the castle Podesta now calls home.

While lack of logic has never gotten in the way of my enjoying a horror film, my big problem is that trying to make this particular villain sympathetic is the most tortured element of Virgin of Nuremburg. The Punisher turns out to be Podesta's father-in-law, a former Nazi officer. In the most gruesome part of the film, we are provided with a back story that tells of how the man was one of several officers who attempted to kill Hitler rather than continue fighting. This particular officer was operated on while alive and surgically altered to look almost like Max Schreck in Nosferatu. Perhaps Virgin of Nuremburg in Italian was different regarding this part of the narrative, but in the dubbed English version, I saw a guy who never learned the lesson of karmic payback.

There is some fun to see the actor, billed as "Cristopher Lee", as a menacing presence with his scarred face. Riz Ortolani's jazzy score seems out of place when the screen image is of the iron maiden, but on its own terms makes this film more interesting to listen to than actually see.

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Posted by peter at 09:31 AM | Comments (3)

September 09, 2007

Coffee Break

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Julian Glover and Lelia Goldoni in Theatre of Death (Samuel Gallu - 1966)

Posted by peter at 07:57 AM

September 07, 2007

Django

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Sergio Corbucci - 1966
Blue Underground Region 1 DVD

With The Great Silence as one of the 122 favorite foreign language films, this may signal a deeper look into the films of Sergio Corbucci. For many film scholars, Corbucci has been overlooked, his westerns in the shadows of that more famous Sergio. One of the the interesting little facts presented in the supplements to Django is that Corbucci actually filmed the first spaghetti western, beating his friend and rival Leone by several months.

Django should be mandatory viewing for those who love to gush about Quentin Tarantino. This is the film with the ear cutting scene that inspired the most notorious moment in Reservoir Dogs. Corbucci's film was considered too violent by some and never received a U.S. theatrical release. In the interview about the making of Django, the assistant director of that film, Ruggero Deodato mentions that Corbucci was himself inspired by samurai films. One can easily identify a narrative that is a variation of Yojimbo, itself the reworking of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.

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What makes Django still interesting to watch is the ways in which Corbucci upends various conventions from more traditional westerns. The virtual ghost town where much of the action takes place is the muddiest location I can recall. No one can pass through town without being caked with dirt. Inside the combination bar and hotel, the place is so cold that it takes little effort to see the breath of the actors. The town’s prostitutes are not the most attractive of women, and one sports a faint mustache. When the bartender joins in to play his violin with one of the piano playing girls, amateur gusto replaces any semblance of musicianship. Corbucci's west is not the land of promise or of new futures, but the broke down end of the line for people who have nowhere else to go.

While Franco Nero bears some resemblance to Clint Eastwood, his character of Django is a chatterbox in comparison to the man with no name. Django also has room for sexual liaisons, coupling with Maria, the woman he saves from the two rival groups at the beginning of the film. While Leone's hero is almost all business, Corbucci's hero selectively displays his vulnerability.

While not as developed as in other films, Django shares Corbucci's interest in using the western as a political parable. The chief villain, a former Confederate officer named Jackson hopes to carve out a new Dixie for himself in the small, unnamed border town. Leading a band of red hooded gunmen, Jackson shoots Mexican peasants for sport. His rival is the leader of a group of Mexican rebels, more interested in plunder than in any real political change. Power is seen as both a corrupting influence and something transient for those who are not part of the political establishment. For Corbucci, the best his heroes can hope for is a small moral victory.

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Posted by peter at 10:12 AM

September 05, 2007

A few words about Carl Dreyer

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Day of Wrath/Vredens Dag
Carl Theodor Dreyer - 1943

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Ordet/The Word
Carl Theodor Dreyer - 1955
both Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

Even though I have pretty much made up my mind on the favorite foreign language films I would be voting for, I still felt it important to see the films others had chosen. I had avoided seeing Carl Dreyer's films in part because what I had read made his films seem like chores to sit through. Herman Weinberg actually did Dreyer no favors with his constant harangues about how Robert Altman or John Schlesinger could get millions to make another movie while poor Carl Theodor had to scrape by, as if they were financed from the same pool. I might have seen Day of Wrath and Ordet a lot sooner if someone had mentioned that Carl Dreyer had a sense of humor, used to sly effect in his films.

The contrarian in me does think that if Carl Dreyer wasn't so intent on being an artist, he could have done well in Hollywood. The big shadows and general gothic look of Day of Wrath isn't too distant from the look of Universal horror films of the Thirties and Forties. The sexual tension in Day of Wrath, even the narrative of a woman who may or may not really be a witch, is similar to the stuff of Val Lewton's horror films. In a very roundabout way, one can connect Day of Wrath to Jacques Tourneur's Cat People by way of Paul Schrader, who wrote about Dreyer in his book, Transcendental Style in Film, and filmed a remake of Cat People. As for Ordet, considering how the film ends, bringing dead wives back to life was the basic plot of two of the Corman/Poe films.

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More seriously, what is interesting about the two films is the examination of faith as a devisive, as well as unifying force. Unlike some of the more recent films which present faith as a given, that falls within certain parameters, Dreyer acknowledges that nothing is obvious, and that there are no easy answers. No one may be entirely right, or wrong. Instead, Dreyer seems to acknowledge that his characters are all sincere about their respective beliefs in Ordet. The flip side is that manipulation of faith destroys the characters of Day of Wrath.

What is also interesting about Ordet is that even though it takes place well into the 20th Century, the characters live not too differently from earlier eras. The hand crank telephone and the automobile, heard but not seen, almost seem to be anachronisms.

Even though two older men almost come to blows, for the most part, discussions of faith allow characters to agree to disagree in Ordet. Seen in terms other films, especially The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer's men seem to be more prone to dogmatic thinking, while the women are more flexible in how they feel faith can be expressed. The farmer's son in Ordet, who thinks he is Jesus, provides a comic commentary on both the activities in the film as well as how faith can be literally interpreted. After an unexplained absence, the son reappears, apparently himself and no longer claiming to be Jesus. That the dead woman comes back to life following his prayer indicates that, at least for Dreyer, maybe the son could have been Jesus reborn as the son of a Danish farmer.

What makes both films interesting also is that Dreyer is purposefully ambiguous so that there is no correct interpretation. It is as if Dreyer knew that by making films that took place in a past that could in some ways reflect upon present day concerns, without being too specific, that his films would still be meaningful to those who took the time to see them in the future.

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Posted by peter at 12:45 AM | Comments (2)

September 03, 2007

Lights in the Dusk

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Laitakaupungin Valot
Aki Kaurasmaki - 2006
Strand Releasing 35mm Film

A couple of days ago, I was taunting Michael Hawley over at The Evening Class about the fact that of the fifty films he was hoping to see in worldly, cosmopolitan San Francisco, I had seen two in little ol' Denver, the city film tourists fly in and out of if they're going to the Telluride Film Festival. Even though I have a short stack of Criterion DVDs to see in my quest to see Edward Copeland's favorite foreign film finalists, I felt obligated to get out of the house and visit the Starz Film Center to see another film on Michael's list. I also figure that anyone who books an Aki Kaurasmaki film needed all the encouragement they could get which became clear as I was one of only three people in the theater.

If there is some clever film booker at a revival theater somewhere, that person might want to consider a double feature of Lights in the Dusk with Sam Fuller's Underworld U.S.A.. Maybe I'm the only person who thinks these films go together. Keep in mind that Fuller acted in Aki Kaurasmaki's version of La Boheme. Both filmmakers share an affiinity for telling stories about peripheral characters.

It was the actress Maria Jarvenhelmi that made me think of Sam Fuller. As the femme fatale of Lights in the Dusk, Jarvenhelmi is the kind of woman who is still attractive, but neither pretty nor beautiful in the conventional sense. In this way, she is similar to Dolores Dorn in Underworld U.S.A.. One can also view Lights in the Dusk as the reverse mirror image of Fuller's film in which his main character, the framed security guard Koistinen, attempts to keeps his optimism in spite of all that has happened to him. Underworld U.S.A. ends with the image of Cliff Robertson's fist, with Robertson dying angry and alone. Lights in the Dusk ends with Janne Hyytiainen, physically beaten, but still alive, stating that he is not dead yet, his hand touching that of the pure-hearted Maria Heiskanen.

It is this sense of optimism that is the big difference between Fuller and Kaumasmaki. Fuller's films follow the main character's descent into hell. In Aki Kaurasmaki's films, no matter how dire the circumstances, his characters almost always are not without hope for a brighter future.

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Posted by peter at 08:59 AM | Comments (3)

September 02, 2007

Coffee Break

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Warren William, Rochelle Hudson and Claudette Colbert in Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl - 1934)

Posted by peter at 11:55 AM