November 30, 2008
Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March in Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch - 1933)
November 27, 2008
The Minoru Kawasaki Collection
Executive Koala/Koara Kacho
Minoru Kawasaki - 2005
The Rug Cop/Zura Deka
Minoru Kawasaki - 2006
The World Sinks Except Japan/Nihon igai zenbu Chinbotsu
Minoru Kawasaki - 2006
all Synapse Films Region 1 DVD
Minoru Kawasaki has such an idiosyncratic view of the world that it's something of a surprise that he has a successful career in Japan. Then again, it could be because he is able to create an outlet with his films, and humorously attack Japanese culture and tradition that Kawasaki speaks on behalf of an audience that might otherwise be more introspective. In an interview, Kawasaki talks about being silly. Even if the intention is for the films to be enjoyed simply for the surface fantasies, the satire about contemporary Japan is also quite clear.
The basic concept of Executive Koala doesn't quite support a feature length film. What Kawasaki does, with his suit-wearing, six foot tall koala bear, is make a film about how people treat someone who is "the other". In this case, it is Tamura, a pickle factory executive, who is alternately respected, feared, or disdained. Tamura's boss is a human sized white rabbit, while another ally is the frog that works at the convenience store. By having an anthropomorphic character, Kawasaki is able to gently poke fun at Japanese attitudes.
Kawasaki's main story is a variation of that in Spellbound, with the koala a possible killer plagued by nightmares of murder, and memories that may not be real. Along the way, Kawasaki also plays with conventions of horror and martial arts movies. If Kawasaki can be compared to anyone, he comes closest to the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team in concocting a film that is essentially a series of parodies of other films. Even if some of the specifics get lost unless one is well versed in Japanese films from the Sixties and Seventies, with Ultraman frequently cited by Kawasaki, the jokes and action keep moving, with some excellent translations to convey the verbal humor as well. In addition to the sight gags, Kawasaki has no fear of the pun that will make an audience laugh and groan at the same time.
The Rug Cop has one of the loopiest beginnings ever with a bank held up by an unlikely robber. Without giving this hilarious opening scene away, the rest of the film is about a police detective whose weapon is his toupee. Some may be reminded of Oddjob with his killer derby in Goldfinger. The rug cop joins a band of outsiders, other detectives who make the most out of their physical differences, their nicknames saying it all: Shorty, Fatty, Old Guy, and Big Dick. The last named, not to be confused with The Bank Dick uses his, er, light saber, as a weapon (at least it looks like a light saber).
Along the way, a gang of thieves steals a nuclear bomb and threatens to blast Tokyo unless they get the ransom. The motley crew of police compete against a group of younger government agents to crack the case and save their city. Nothing is too urgent that there isn't time for a flashback to explain how the cop discovered the power of a well thrown toupee, or how a clueless, low ranking yakuza discovers that the bar girl of his dreams was friendly as part of her job. The cheerful silliness is maintained for the length of the film, Kawasaki understanding the motto that brevity is the soul of wit. One may debate just how much wit there is in The Rug Doctor, but even the dumb jokes are funny.
A sequel is highly unlikely for The World Sinks except Japan. The film, taken from the stories by Yasutaka Tsuitsui was released in Japan following the success of the 2006 version of Japan Sinks. Kawasaki's film can be enjoyed without seeing either version of Japan Sinks. I did see Roger Corman's cut of the first Japan Sinks retitled Tidal Wave, with Lorne Greene edited into the action, just like Raymond Burr was inserted into Godzilla, and found a few chuckles in the Toho disaster movie. Kawasaki pays tribute to Toho with the deliberately obvious special effects of world destruction and buildings blowing up into smithereens. A Godzilla, or should I say Gojira, type monster makes an appearance as well.
The satire comes to the forefront as criticism of Japanese attitudes towards the non-Japanese. There is also a moment, not fully explored though, where one of the characters mentions Japan's dependency on the United States for food, primarily soybeans. The title reveals the essential plot which investigates primarily how Japan reacts when it becomes the only safe haven for millions of refugees. As in becomes more clear that Japan is the only country that has not been submerged, the relationships between Japanese and non-Japanese become more strained. Some of the humor is a bit strained as well, such as the inclusion of refugees that look kind of like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and one that vaguely resembles Bruce Willis. More successful is the film clip from the monster movie, a genre popular due to the crushing of foreigners by giant feet.
Hopefully Kawasaki's other films will find their way to the U.S. Who wouldn't want to see a movie titled Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G-8 Summit? Here's a trailer from that film, as well as the trailer from the source of inspiration.
Posted by peter at 12:29 AM
November 25, 2008
The Alphabet Meme
I got tagged by the Siren, and a second time by Filmbrain. While I wasn't going to say no about doing my version of this meme, I had to wait until the film festival was finished. The challenge was to create a list that wouldn't resemble others. Searching for films beginning with the letter X, I found a film by Jesus Franco. I figured that I could probably cover most of the alphabet with films by the wildly prolific filmmaker. Close but not quite, I decided that I should be able to create something vaguely like a themed list by using titles from two other directors with similarly prodigious filmographies, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Takashi Miike. In addition to the outstanding number of films, the three could be linked by their interests in transgressive behavior, characters who exist in the margins, and their delight in being deliberately provocative. Most of the titles are in English. The couple of titles not in English should be easily understood. Most people checking this list are familiar with the rules. Blame this on Blog Cabins where this all began. I am not tagging anyone as everyone I know has been hit at least once.
A Audition (Miike - 1999)
B Blood of Fu Manchu (Franco - 1968)
C Castle of Fu Manchu (Franco - 1969)
D Despair (Fassbinder - 1978)
E Eugenie (Franco - 1975)
F Fox and his Friends (Fassbinder - 1975)
G Gozu (Miike - 2003)
H Happiness of the Katakuris, The (Miike - 2001)
I In a Year of 13 Moons (Fassbinder - 1978)
J Jack the Ripper (Franco - 1976)
K Killer Barbys (Franco - 1996)
L Love is Colder than Death (Fassbinder - 1969)
M Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula in 8 Legs to Love You (Franco -1998)
N Nora Helmer (Fassbinder - 1974)
O Orgasmo Perverso (Franco - 1986)
P Pioneers in Ingolstadt (Fassbinder - 1971)
Q Querelle (Fassbinder - 1982)
R Rainy Dog (Miike - 1997)
S Sukiyaki Western Django (Miike - 2007)
T Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties (Franco - 1980)
U Ultimas de Filipinas, Las (Franco - 1986)
V Vampiros Lesbos (Franco - 1971)
W Whity (Fassbinder - 1971)
X X312-Flight to Hell (Franco - 1971)
Y Yetterman (Miike - 2009)
Z Zebraman (Miike - 2004)
November 23, 2008
Jane Fonda and Alain Delon in Joy House (Rene Clemont - 1964)
Posted by peter at 12:09 AM
November 22, 2008
My SDFF - Two looks at Eastern Europe, Yesterday and Today
Two final films from the festival, both that look at Eastern Europe, both without distribution at this time, but may be seen at festivals.
Black Sea/Mar Nero
Federico Bondi - 2008
IntraMovies 35mm film
Black Sea is a low key film about an older Italian woman, and her caretaker, a young woman from Romania. Gemma, recently widowed, is hostile towards her son, and hardly hospitable to Angela, a virtual stranger to Italy. In addition to fighting the prejudices of being a foreigner in Italy, Angela finds little solace with members of the Romanian community in Florence, and communications with her boyfriend left behind have collapsed.
Federico Bondi explores the gradual friendship developed by the two different women. As Gemma, Ilaria Occhini becomes younger looking as the film progresses. Romanian actress Dorotheea Petre portrays Angela. The relationship between the two women takes on a fluidity based on respective needs as well as what each is capable of doing to support the other. Angela's uncertainty regarding her relationship with the young man back home, Adrian, motivates the two women to take a trip to Angela's small town in Romania.
As serious as Black Sea may sound from the basic description, Bondi has an eye from some unexpected humor. One such example is the use at one point of this Romanian pop video. There is also the scene stealing performance by Marius Silagiy as Angela's father, a much older man with whose old world charm overcomes any language barriers with Gemma. What makes Silagiy's performance more amazing is to know, as Bondi revealed, that the actor is both blind and deaf, yet still capable of indicating his ability as a veteran comic performer.
Torn from the Flag
Klaudia Kovacs & Endre Hules
Homage to 1956 35mm film
I watched Torn from the Flag as something of a companion piece to the documentary on Lazslo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond. The footage that they shot during the Hungarian revolt of 1956 is used, but also put into the context of Hungarian history and the history of the Cold War. The title refers to the Hungarian flag that had the crest that symbolized Communist rule, torn out to create a hole in the flag, creating an unusual framing device for filming part of the activity on the streets.
Cross cut with the documentary footage is a series of portraits, people who participated in the events, and pundits and historians. Most are trying to make sense of events for the viewers while some appear to be struggling to make sense for themselves. Among the participants is a man who was a political prisoner, with a story of torture so appalling just to imagine. Another man was a member of the Hungarian state police who helped enforce the communist rule, from a peasant family, who saw a role in the military as his only opportunity after World War II.
The documentary footage from Hungary is compelling to watch. Based on what was recorded on film, and how close some of the film students were to the action, the conditions were as perilous than that of any filmmaker caught in a battle zone. Klaudia Kovacs, no relation to Lazslo Kovacs, made the film as a means of preserving the memory of the events of over fifty years ago. While the events were significant to the people involved in the Hungarian revolt, what Torn from the Flag also attempts to explore is how the meaning of those events changed over the years.
Klaudia Kovacs and Lazslo Kovacs
Posted by peter at 12:53 AM
November 21, 2008
My SDFF - Two Lovers
James Gray - 2008
Magnolia Films 35mm film
One of the things I like about James Gray's films are his interiors of the homes of his characters. Everything looks used, lived in. The sets look like the homes of my relatives or friends of my parents, with the artwork, photos and books. Even though we never see the kitchen, I feel a certainty of finding a couple of cans of borscht and the ingredients for matzo ball soup at the ready, like in my grandparents' house in Detroit.
Anyone who thinks that Gray is shifting gears in Two Lovers because the film is not about gangsters has missed the point of Gray's films after the previous three films. Gray's films are first, and foremost, about families. In this case, the cause of fracture is psychological, rather than criminal, with Joaquin Phoenix's despair over the course of his life. As in Little Odessa the parents are Russian immigrants, but unlike the debut film, are relatively successful with their dry cleaning business, and provide a stable base for their emotionally unmoored son.
The title is deliberately misleading, as Phoenix shifts between the woman who wants to save him, Vinessa Shaw, and the woman he thinks he can save, Gwyneth Paltrow. Without belaboring the point, Two Lovers revisits the classic trope of the Jewish young man caught between the Jewish girl that his parents (as well as hers) wants to be with, and the dream shiksa who only seems available when her dream guy isn't around. Not much is provided in Paltrow's background, but it is suggested that she hasn't been in Brooklyn very long when she asks about Phoenix's family dredel.
Paltrow looks her prettiest when she is dancing with abandon in a nightclub with Phoenix. Shaw, who previously has not had as much opportunity to show her abilities, has the more difficult role of a woman who is less sure about her attractiveness. The plot is very loosely adapted from Dostoevsky's short story, "White Nights", and those familiar with either that story or the any previous film adaptations, most famously by Visconti and Bresson, will recognize certain elements.
On a more personal note, screenplay co-writer, Richard Menello was a good friend back in my NYU days. Two Lovers is a more serious work than films that had him credited as Ric Menello. For those interested, I would recommend simultaneously dumb and funny Drop Dead Rock.
November 20, 2008
My SDFF - Some Short Thoughts on Some Short Films
There are several programs of short films presented at the SDFF. I chose two of the programs based on past interests - "Faux Movements . . . and other excursions" to get a glimpse of the current state of so-called experimental filmmaking, and "Fear & Dystopia" in order to see something by local legend Ronnie Cramer. The problem with short films is sometimes they aren't short enough.
The two best films in "Faux Movement" are personal looks into geography and icons of the past, two Jacks, Kennedy and Kerouac. Not enough Light uses the words of Kerouac from On the Road against shots taken in and around Denver, particularly a crumbling gas station that has attained landmark status. Some of the places mentioned in On the Road were still in existence when I read the book forty years ago, and went to a couple of the coffee houses with my hippie friends. Now, Kerouac's relationship to Denver seems more tangential and anecdotal. Don't ask me to be the objective observer here - I went to the same high school as Neal Cassady.
The Spot is the X on the pavement where John Kennedy was assassinated. Alexandre Philippe contrasts footage of contemporary Dallas with excepts of Kennedy's recorded speeches. We see tourists, some reverential, some not. Among the more ominous graffiti are the words, "Don't tell" and "George Bush did it". The Spot is more timely in understanding why members of the Kennedy family supported Obama. Kennedy talks about politics and poetry, "politics corrupts, poetry cleanses". Also with the recent news about threats against Obama, and the quick forgetting about the outrage about a fictional film about the murder of George W. Bush, The Spot could serve as a catalyst regarding the perception of history and the real deaths of presidents.
"Fear & Dystopia" consists of short films by local filmmakers. The two that I enjoyed were The Clearing by Jack Gastelbondo, and Mugs by Ronnie Cramer. Mugs is simply the morphing of mug shots of the (in)famous - Larry King, Johnny Cash, Mel Gibson, Jane Fonda, among others. Some appear to be happy, while others look worse for wear. The film is five minutes of fun at the expense of people who sometimes behaved very badly.
The Clearing is the most dystopian tale of a future where people have memory chips implanted that require updating. A man temporarily escapes from his dark, cluttered apartment to discover what his late wife had written on the back of a photograph. Jack Gastelbondo wrote, directed and scored his short film. It's a slight story done right in terms of pacing of the action and dialogue. Checking out the website, Gastelbondo and his compadres will hopefully be heard from more decisively in the future.
Posted by peter at 12:28 AM
November 19, 2008
My SDFF - Happy/Chocolate
Terribly Happy/Frygtelig Lykkelig
Henrik Ruben Genz - 2008
Nordisk Film 35mm film
Advanced comparisons of the Danish Terribly Happy with films by the Coen Brothers are overstated. While Genz's film begins with the statement that the story is based on fact, with a fish out of water cop, this is no Fargo. There are moments that may strike some as similar in tone to Blood Simple, but again, that frame of reference is liable to mislead audience expectations.
Robert Hansen is introduced as a cop who has been transfered to a very small, rural town, having served on the police force in Copenhagen. His superior officer notes the benefits of this "second chance". The town legend has it that a two-headed cow was rescued from a bog, havoc followed, and peace was re-established when the cow was dumped back into the bog for good. The bog serves as the hiding place for secrets, real or imagined, for a town where everyone knows everyone else, and nothing stays hidden for long.
An attractive woman, Ingerlise, quickly insinuates herself into Robert's life. There are questions as to whether Ingerlise's marriage to Jorgen is happy, whether Ingerlise's wounds were caused by her husband or self-inflicted. Discord is indicated when their young daughter is seen on the streets pushing her squeaky wheeled buggy at regular intervals during the evening. Robert also finds that his position as the town's sole lawman is limited as the residents have their own methods of dealing with each other to minimize interference from outsiders. This is a town so insular that when a resident dies unexpectedly, the town's priest reminds those attending the funeral that the deceased wasn't truly one of them.
Robert sense of disconnection with the town is amplified by his disconnection with the family he had to leave in Copenhagen. Genz extends the feeling of isolation with shots of the flat, green-brown land, and a perpetually overcast sky. The use of tilted shots used in briefly also indicates Robert's sense of dislocation. In a story of shifting loyalties, the twists and turns are sometimes subtle. Terribly Happy concludes with a couple of surprises that satisfyingly do not come from left field but from the boggy field.
Prachya Pinkaew - 2008
Magnet Releasing 35mm film
As for Chocolate, I had to see this if only because I haven't seen a Thai film in a theater since I left Thailand. After a promising beginning, the film lapsed into the usual strengths and weaknesses of many Thai films, terrific martial arts set pieces, and a story that often denies logic. The script should have been better considering the involvement of Chukiat Sakveerakul, the writer-director of the award winning Love of Siam, Thailand's Oscar entry this year. There are also elements in Chocolate that one will only find in a Thai film.
The heroine, Zen, is often referred to as autistic although in the film she is simply described as special. Whatever the case, I'm calling Chocolate the Rainman of martial arts movies. "Jeeja" Yanin Wismitanan is almost as annoying throwing temper tantrums as Dustin Hoffman crying to see Judge Wapner. Watching the neighborhood kids practicing Muay Thai boxing and Tony Jaa movies on television, Zen first uses her abilities to defend the fat boy who becomes her only friend. Discovering that her cancer stricken mother, the former girlfriend of a Japanese gangster, is owed money, Zen goes around collecting past debts to pay medical bills.
The point of seeing Chocolate is to watch Jeeja in action. She doesn't have the grace or charisma of Tony Jaa, arguably the Nijinsky of Muay Thai, but there is pleasure in watching the skinny mop topped girl take on the bad guys. Prachya Pinkaew, director of Ong-Bak, understands how to film the fight scenes so that the action is clear to follow, making use of the props and obstacles of the different settings. Two of the more unusual settings for the fight scenes are a butcher shop with cleavers, meat hooks and pigs' heads, and an ice factory with its cutting machinery.
What makes Chocolate uniquely Thai are the ladyboys. They're both more dangerous, and somewhat better dressed than the gang in Insee Thong. As long as there are ladyboys in Thailand and in Thai films, I would hope that Prachya takes the next logical step. The villain in Prachya's Tom Yum Gong was portrayed by Jing Xing. One of the characters in Prachya produced Mercury Man was played by the true life "Beautiful Boxer", Nong Thoom. Nong is overdue a starring role that would make use of her fighting skills. In the meantime, Jeeja's Muay Thai skills are generously displayed in Chocolate with an abundance matched by the large cylinders of candy that are snacked on between fights.
November 18, 2008
My SDFF - Sita Sings the Blues
Nina Paley - 2008
I have a problem with most animated features. They put me to sleep. I know there are some people who really like Sita Sings the Blues, but for me, the gimmicks weren't enough to sustain the length of the film. The idea of an animated version of "The Ramayana" played against Nina Paley's own story of the break-up of her marriage is original. Sita may end up being remembered more for prompting the rediscovery of blues singer Annette Henshaw, whose portrait appears at the end of the credits.
What I liked best was that Paley played with the notion, through her shadow puppets who serve as narrators and "Greek chorus", that there is no absolute version of "The Ramayana". Not only are there references to the variations within the narrative, but there are also differing versions of the different characters, some variations on Indian art, while others, more similar to the newer efforts on The Cartoon Channel. What may be fundamentally wrong with Sita Sings the Blues is that I found myself caring more about the fate of the pet cat than what happened with the owner.
November 17, 2008
My SDFF - I see Tokyo! I see France
The Class/Entre les Murs
Laurent Cantet - 2008
Sony Pictures Classics 35mm film
Yes, The Class is as good as you've probably read by now, and will read more of, when Laurent Cantet's film gets its theatrical release in January. François Begaudeau should probably get much of the credit as well as the film is based on his autobiographical novel, he gets screenplay credit, and he plays himself as the teacher Francois Marin. The students are real Junior High age students, between 13 and 15. The school is in Paris, and while the teachers are almost all white, the students comprise a multi-cultural mix of African, Arab, Caribbean and Asian. Francois teaches French to a group of students for whom the language, in proper written and verbal form, is a foreign language, or one that is not used in their daily life.
Perhaps because it is the teachers and students re-enacting their lives, or something similar, that The Class is more involving than Cantet's previous films. The entire film takes place within the school, mostly in Marin's classroom, between the walls as the original French title would have it. The film tries to address the big issues of class, race, culture and identity. I cannot imagine an inner city school in the U.S. that would be dissimilar in many of the problems as well as how they might be handled. The one small classroom serves as a stand-in for the western countries grappling with shifts away from a homogenous history in a way that respects the older culture and the newer forms.
Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho - 2008
Libertation Entertainment 35mm film
Tokyo! is three different filmmakers with individual stories set in Tokyo. Michel Gondry's is the most city-specific being about a young couple that stay in a friend's cramped studio apartment while looking for their own place to live. They get discouraged with the high prices for small, dirty spaces. Their car get towed, but the girl is plucky enough to rescue her boyfriend's equipment so he can show his experimental film in a porno theater. The film begins with mention of the population mutating, and thought seemingly forgotten until the girl turns into a wooden chair. The girl doesn't always remain as a chair and his briefly seen running naked in the streets, seeming to turn into a chair at will. I'm not sure if Gondry is familiar with a short story by Edogawa Rampo, one of his few in English, about a man who is turned into a chair. Being Gondry, this is more whimsical than Rampo,
Leos Carax has perversely set himself up for criticism by titling his piece, Merde. Frequent collaborator Denis Levant portrays what looks like a tall, disfigured leprechaun, dressed in a green suit, emerging from a sewer to create havoc among Tokyo pedestrians. Levant's character is named Merde and he speaks a gibberish combined with guttural sounds and gestures. Carax may have been attempting to critique certain aspects of Japanese culture. Carax's segment didn't work for me and even worse, with his filming of a hanging, reminded me that Nagisa Oshima covered the same themes more effectively forty years ago.
Bong Joon-ho's film is about a man who has stayed inside his house for ten years. The character describes himself as a hikikomori with a life based on routines, with minimal contact with the world at large. The pattern is disrupted when he gazes into the eyes of a pizza delivery girl. An earthquake causes the girl to faint in the man's house. He revives her by pressing a tattooed button that says, "coma". The man ventures out in search of the pizza girl. On a more intimate scale than The Host or Memories of Murder, Bong is interested in stories about people who come together almost as a result of a catastrophe that they cannot control. Unlike Park's I'm a Cyborg, Bong doesn't dwell on whether the pizza girl thinks she is a mechanical being, or may actually be one. In spirit, this is kind of like the Bugs Bunny cartoon where the rabbit concludes, "So what if she's a robot?"
November 16, 2008
Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott in Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell - 1947)
Posted by peter at 12:35 AM
November 15, 2008
My SDFF - Two Documentaries on Hollywood Filmmakers
Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story
Jeffrey Schwarz - 2007
No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos
James Chressanthis - 2008
NC Motion Pictures
Seeing documentaries back-to-back on William Castle and Laszlo Kovacs seems less coincidental when you realize the two had crossed paths in real life. Castle has a small walk-on appearance in Shampoo on which Kovacs served as cinematographer. Additionally, Shampoo was directed by Hal Ashby, whose wife, Joan Marshall, starred under the androgynous name of Jean Arliss in Castle's Homicidal.
The basic story of Spine Tingler is about a young man who bluffed his way into show business based on his enthusiasm, and mentioned twice, chutzpah. Largely self-educated, Castle learned not only the craft of staging, but perhaps more importantly, promotion. The documentary also mentions that Castle was constantly fighting a fear of failure.
The overview of Castle's career mostly covers the more successful of his horror films from Macabre through Rosemary's Baby, which Castle bought for himself to direct. While the documentary briefly looks at Castle's output of B films for Columbia Pictures, not mentioned is the film that should have elevated Castle to the higher ranks, When Strangers Marry. Robert Mitchum was the main beneficiary from that film, while Castle went on direct more adventures of the Crime Doctor and The Whistler. There is also Castle's version of his involvement with the film that became Lady from Shanghai, with Castle hoping to direct that film. What is presented is that Castle sought out artistic validation as well as commercial success, but was never able to gain the upper hand against the studio heads who consigned Castle to low budget productions.
Clouzot's Les Diabolique is mentioned as the film that convinced Castle to specialize in horror. Worth mentioning is that fifty years ago, Hitchcock made Vertigo, from the novel by Boileau and Narcejac, while Castle was inspired to make Macabre. One film was a big budget flop while the other became a major hit, earning millions on a budget of less than one-hundred thousand dollars. Even though Castle is sometimes thought of as a Hitchcock imitator, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Psycho might not have been made, had William Castle not been so successful.
While it is fun to watch John Waters and Joe Dante talk about watching Castle's films in their youth, even better are the stories from former cast members. Darryl Hickman is amused and amusing, discussing The Tingler, while Anne Helm tells of being fired from Strait-Jacket for addressing Joan Crawford by her first name. The more compliant Diane Baker takes over the story about how Crawford controlled almost every aspect of filming, creating a virtual strait-jacket for producer-director Castle.
Fortune was no less foretold for Lazslo Kovacs or Vilmos Zsigmond. Two Hungarian refugees who fled their country with smuggled footage of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, their success came in spite inauspicious beginnings. Starting as a second unit cinematographer for Ray Dennis Steckler and Arch Hall, Sr., Zsigmond quickly became the main cinematographer on a series of extremely low budget films, quickly taking on Kovacs as assistant or second unit cinematographer. Not mentioned in the documentary on Kovacs and Zsigmond is Kovacs fortuitous collaboraton with Richard Rush, beginning with A Man called Dagger. Rush and Kovacs were of the same mind, attempting to create some artistic panache, primarily on the biker films made in the mid Sixties. It was a result of working with Rush that Kovacs was the cinematographer for Easy Rider, the film that propelled him to major studio assignments.
The documentary makes it appear that Zsigmond's career as a major studio cinematographer was a result of Kovacs being unavailable to film Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand. Working with Fonda probably helped, although Zsigmond did photograph a film that should have brought him attention earlier. From 1969, Picasso Summer was virtually shelved by Warner Brothers, with Zsigmond primarily working for schlockmeister Al Adamson.
The films they worked on, together or individually take a back seat to the look at a friendship that spanned over fifty years. Just three years older, Zsigmond was considered a mentor by Kovacs. As consistent as their friendship were their feelings towards Hungary and their goal of encouraging young cinematographers. While both made names for themselves in the early Seventies when Hollywood was looking towards younger filmmakers to attract a dwindling audience, any influence they may have had in changing how films were made is subject for debate. Kovacs ended his career with mainstream films, both with producer-star Sandra Bullock. Zsigmond has been somewhat more adventurous working recently with Brian De Palma and Wood Allen, and reportedly shooting a new film by Alejandro Jodorowsky. No Subtitles Necessary should be given some credit for making me want to see a film Kovacs shot, written by another Hungarian immigrant, Joe Esterhas, F.I.S.T..
Posted by peter at 04:06 PM
November 14, 2008
My SDFF - Trinidad
Jay Hodges and J. P. Ravel
Surly Puppy Production
The most interesting aspect of Trinidad would be the questions raised, and the conflicts revealed. Part of the film is the story about how a small town in southern Colorado became the "sex-change capital of the world" through an unlikely confluence of one doctor's opportunity with the needs of two communities. The doctor was Stanley Biber, who turned a request for a surgery he had never done before into a specialty, with almost six-thousand patients, fulfilling the needs of a growing number of transexuals. The surgery, in turn, has been considered an economic boon to a town that had seen the disappearance of its mining industry and much of its population, and was in danger of losing its hospital.
In addition to the divisions of opinion Trinidad residents may have about what makes their town famous, the documentary is open enough to show the divergence between some of the transexuals themselves in how they view their own lives. The film mostly focuses on Dr. Marci Bowers, an established Seattle physician, and herself a former patient of Dr. Biber's, who took over his practice when Biber retired. What Trinidad could really be said to be about is how people choose to define themselves and others.
The graphic footage of surgery is a distraction from any meaningful issues. That there is surgery brings up the question of sexuality and sexual identity based solely on genitalia. It is a Catholic priest in Trinidad, a self-described conservative, who acknowledges the idea of a sexual spectrum. If I were to recommend Trinidad to anyone, it would primarily be to those pounced on the notion of Colorado as the "Hate State" following the temporary passing of the notorious Amendment 2, which proportionately was not very different from California's Proposition 8 in the amount of votes. Change of sexual identity is one part of Trinidad. For some, a temporary stay has become permanent, as for Dr. Bowers. For others, living in Trinidad can be seen as a segment of a life long transition. Even if sexual reassignment surgery is less sensational than it was in the past, eyebrows might be raised in knowing how Trinidad changed Dr. Biber's life. What may be most amazing is that a five foot two Jewish doctor transformed himself into a real life cattle rancher, complete with the cowboy hat and boots, and the father of ten children. Sometimes it's the accidents of life that cause the most radical changes.
Posted by peter at 12:26 AM
November 13, 2008
My SDFF - Slumdog/Christmas
A Christmas Tale/Un conte de Noel
Arnaud Desplechin - 2008
IFC Films 35mm film
Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan - 2008
Fox Searchlight/Warner Brothers 35mm film
I'm titling my pieces on the Denver International Film Festival, officially now known as the Starz Denver Film Festival (SDFF), in the possessive because this will not be definitive coverage. I'm not seeing everything at the festival. I don't want to see everything. What I am seeing and writing about is a combination of films that interest me, plus some choices based on the recommendations of everyone who has written back to me. I may be missing some great stuff but that's the change you take when there are so many choices. Some of the films I am seeing are also based on scheduling. Some of the films are already scheduled for commercial runs and are familiar based on the festival coverage of others. Hopefully, some of what I write will incite some interest in other films. The first films I have had the opportunity to see have been introduced at other festivals.
Suzanne Vega wrote a song, "Blood makes Noise", in reaction to learning the true identity of her father. I thought about that song during A Christmas Tale, almost immediately. Arnaud Desplechin's begins with the basic story of the Vuillards, a family that grew primarily with the intention of creating a sibling with compatible bone marrow to save the first born son. The son dies in childhood, and while the parents continue to adore each other, the surviving siblings have discordant relationships with each other as adults. The days leading up to Christmas are in part about finding a physically compatible family member when it is revealed that the mother has an illness. The mother may choose to bypass any cure that seems as terminal as lack of treatment. Adding to the discomfort is that the only child to be judged medically correct is the son with the least emotional attachment.
While A Christmas Tale takes place during Christmas, the holiday is not the film's prime subject. Anyone looking for the warm fuzzies will more likely be confused and possible angry. What Desplechin's film examines is how tense, uncomfortable and sometimes outright disturbing family get-togethers can be, especially during a time geared around heightened expectations. The cast could be described as Desplechin's film family with Jean-Paul Roussillon as the family patriarch playing a character with the same name as his character in Desplechin's Kings and Queens. Emmanuelle Devos portrays the girlfriend to Mathieu Amalric, the prodigal son of the family. As Catherine Deneuve becomes more matronly in appearance, she makes me think of Simone Signoret in her later years. I am not as enthused as some others concerning Desplechin. For myself, Esther Khan is still the best of his films, although what I liked most about A Christmas Tale was the affection shown between Rousillon and Deneuve.
More heartwarming and more brutal is Slumdog Millionaire. In case no one has mentioned it, stay for the final credits. One of the features I like about Bollywood DVDs is you can see the musical numbers only. The credit sequence here is a Bollywood style dance number featuring the adult stars, Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto, alternating with the child counterparts. It's a joyous finale to a story about triumph following a series of devastating circumstances.
I have no familiarity with the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup, although the synopsis indicates that much of the content was reworked. Hopefully the almost inevitable DVD commentary will also clarify how much of the film was directed by Danny Boyle and what parts were the work of Loveleen Tandan. The main thrust of the story is a series of flashbacks explaining how Mumbai "slumdog" Jamil was able to answer the questions in India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire". The flashbacks also serve as an indictment about contemporary India, where the caste system may have been outlawed, but still exists, with abuse and death, or threats of death, towards the impoverished, Muslim, women and children.
Stories about people overcoming adversity tend to be sentimental favorites, and frequent Oscar bait, but Slumdog Millionaire may give audiences pause, especially those unfamiliar with the realities of Third World life. As in Boyle's previous films, money, or the lack of it, serves as a catalyst for the narrative, and having new found wealth is a blessing or a curse. The Indian pop music also provides the best soundtrack in Boyle's films since Trainspotting.
November 11, 2008
John Berry - 1949
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD
The only real tension to Tension is detective Barry Sullivan stretching a rubber band in the pre-credit opening. What makes this film instantly endearing are some great scenes of the characters drinking coffee. Is that a reason to like a film? Probably not. Still, whatever deficiencies Tension may have in suspense, it makes up for in being gorgeously photographed by Harry Stradling.
There may be an in-joke in having Richard Basehart portray a milquetoast with the last name of Quimby, also the last name of the head of MGM's animation unit. When Basehart decides on a new name for his alternate identity, his choice is determined when he sees a movie magazine featuring Ann Southern, who was also at MGM at the time.
Basehart is a pharmacist who's bad girl wife, Audrey Totter, leaves him for big and burly Lloyd Gough. Planning the perfect murder of the man who took his wife, Basehart creates a second identity with a different address. In addition to falling in love with the girl next door, Cyd Charisse, Basehart has second thoughts about killing his nemesis, realizing he might actually be better off without the perpetually pouting Totter. Gough is murdered anyways, and it's up to Sullivan, with partner William Conrad, to figure out who done it. Conrad is eating or drinking in almost every scene he's in, prepping for outsized television stardom to come in Cannon and Jake and the Fatman. Audrey Totter is not especially pretty to look at, but it's not her face that makes her the object of attention.
One small part of Tension clearly shows the hand of director John Berry. Two customers are portrayed by Hayward Soo Hoo and Theresa Harris. One can argue that these are token performances by a Chinese-American youth and an African-American actress respectively. Basehart treats these characters with the same respect as other customers at his all night drug store, serving as a surrogate for Berry. It's a small gesture using actors who might have appeared in other films as servants at best, or comic foils. It may be its familiarity that makes Tension entertaining. John Berry displays a sense of affection for all of his characters, no matter how foolish, but also found a way to quietly insert his own humanistic impulses.
November 09, 2008
Beyonce Knowles in Dreamgirls (Bill Condon - 2006)
Posted by peter at 07:02 AM
November 06, 2008
Five Minutes to Live
Bill Karn - 1961
Critics' Choice Region 1 DVD
Five Minutes to Live would probably be totally forgotten were it not for the casting of Johnny Cash and Ronnie Howard. This tawdry curio also features Vic Tayback in one of his early performances and Pamela Mason, wife of James, as well as Merle Travis, in supporting roles. The actors are generally better than what the film deserves, but Five Minutes to Live is another example of film as entertaining flotsam, in the days before inflated budgets and the claim of being a "major motion picture".
Neurotic hit man Cash holds the wife of a bank vice president hostage while Tayback negotiates walking out with Seventy grand. This is a low budget film with a low budget ransom. The wife, played by the film's screenwriter, Cay Forrester, attempts to seduce cash with a feathery number from Frederick's of Hoboken. Naturally, things go wrong, both for bank robber Tayback and guitar strumming Cash. Even though most of Five Minutes to Live is predictable, a version of The Desperate Hours produced with pocket change, it's fun to see Cash snarl his way as a small time hood.
The future Oscar winning director proves himself to be the best actor of the bunch. Ronnie Howard essentially is doing a sassier version of "Opie", embarrassing his parents, complaining about breakfast, and showing up the grown ups. Say what you will about Howard's films as director, the seven year old kid figured out the acting game pretty quickly. Clocking in at about 75 minutes, Five Minutes to Live lasts long enough to be diverting, a brief vacation from more meaningful film viewing.
Posted by peter at 07:49 AM
November 04, 2008
Election Day USA
November 02, 2008
Lauren Bacall in Dark Passage (Delmer Daves - 1947)
November 01, 2008
The Witch's Mirror
El Espejo de la Bruja
Chano Urueta - 1960
Casa Negra Region 1 DVD
Hola! Happy Day of the Dead! And what a terrific Mexican horror movie is here. There's a lot of classic Universal gothic atmosphere in The Witch's Mirror starting with a setting in what must be a castle that makes the interior of the house on haunted hill look like a cottage. The witch is the housekeeper for a prosperous doctor. The housekeeper's goddaughter is the doctor's wife. In spite of the witch's best efforts to appease Satan, the goddaughter, Elena, must die at the hands of Dr. Ramos. The bad doctor soon shows up with a new wife, Deborah. The mirror that foretold Elena's death now has the ghost of Elena showing up to haunt the newlyweds, making groaning sounds and playing a song on the piano that drives the doctor mad. The doctor attempts to strike at the vengeful ghost by throwing an oil lamp at the mirror and the story veers into a stitching of Eyes without a Face and The Hands of Orlac (or if you prefer, The Beast with Five Fingers).
The Witch's Mirror might not get points for originality. The film might have benefitted from a few more pesos for special effects, but as it's a thriller that actually is thrilling to watch. In his recent posting, Girish Shambu writes about filmmakers from different countries with shared affinities. As The Witch's Mirror was made in 1960, while Chano Urueta probably saw some of the Hammer series of horror films, what knowledge he had of Eyes without a Face, Corman's House of Usher or Bava's Mask of Satan, all produced that same year, can only be guessed. More strange is a bit of similarity to The Brain that Wouldn't Die both in the plot and some of the gruesomeness in the laboratory considering that Joseph Green's infamous film was shot in 1959, but not released until 1962.
There's a subplot about two police detectives who mostly stand around talking about a robber who not only is taking off with dead bodies, but the bodies of young women. Aided with nothing but a newspaper, the two conclude that the criminal must be someone abnormal, probably insane. The police don't take any action until the doctor's assistant, wracked with guilt and the hectoring voice of the witch, turns himself over to the authorities. And this is what makes The Witch's Mirror interesting from a theological viewpoint - the witch is clearly a worshipper of The Devil, but in the scheme of things here, she is a relatively benevolent character, motivated in her care for Elena. The real evil is in the form of Dr. Ramos with his misuse of science and medicine to save Deborah. At no time does any character invoke another deity either in name or with any symbols. The church is almost conspicuous in it's absence.
There is a clear need for better scholarship regarding the prolific career of Chano Urueta. I cannot find agreement on the initial release date of The Witch's Mirror but am leaning towards the date provided by the Mexican database. An edited version of The Witch's Mirror, that primarily excised the introduction with Goya-esque artwork featuring nude witches, was released in the U.S. in 1962. Some may recognize Urueta from his photograph from his later career as a character actor, most notably in The Wild Bunch.
If you haven't seen it yet, check out Jonathan Lapper for a look at Hollywood witches.