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July 31, 2014

Curtains

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Jonathan Stryker - 1983
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

As the "Making of . . . " supplement explains, there's a good reason why the director's credit for Curtains is that of the character in the film, a film director named Jonathan Stryker. The released film was was actually the work of original director Richard Ciupka, completed by producer Peter Simpson. For all of the problems, with Simpson shooting approximately two years after Ciupka left the set, this is pretty good "body count" film.

The basic premise is that the fictional Jonathan Stryker has invited six actresses to his mansion to audition for the starring role in his next film. The main character is a woman, gone mad with jealousy, who kills her philandering husband. The part was originally slated for Stryker's live-in love, Samantha Sherwood. In order to understand the character's mental breakdown, Sherwood has herself committed to an insane asylum, which as everyone who's seen at least one movie with this kind of set-up knows, is a terrible idea. Stryker decides to make his movie without Sherwood, who in turn manages to escape from the asylum to claim the part she knows should be hers. Not so coincidentally, the other actresses competing for the same part have unexpected dates with the grim reaper.

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Just don't look too closely because there are a few bits and pieces that don't quite make sense, like the creepy dolls which appear in a couple of scenes and then seems to have been forgotten as a recurring motif. Unlike many of the films of this type, this one has an older cast, led by John Vernon, virtually typecast as an aloof and arrogant character, as director Stryker. Almost as much fun to watch in his brief scene is that axiom of Canadian cinema, Maury Chaykin, as the agent of one of the actresses. As for playing the part of a woman with issues, Samantha Eggar probably found this part to be a breeze compared to her work in The Brood. Too bad Peter Simpson had issues with the accent of French-Canadian actress Celine Lomez, she was (and still is) far more attractive than Linda Thorson, a woman best known for attempting to step into the boots worn by Diana Rigg in the television series, The Avengers.

That said, what is nice here is that the film takes time to allow for some distinction between the six actresses, among them a stand-up comic, an ice skater and a dancer. It should be no surprise that care was taken visually - Ciupka worked as a cinematographer, for Louis Malle prior to Curtains, and Claude Chabrol a few years later. In the meantime, Simpson, as a producer, made the far better known Prom Night and that film's three (!) sequels.

This is one of those times when it's worth watching the DVD supplement with several cast and crew members discussing their experience with Curtains. Everyone seems to have been embarrassed that they participated in making this film, which seemed to take on cult status on cable television and home video following a desultory theatrical release.

I hope someone has told Lynne Griffin, who plays the stand-up comic, Patti, that the Embassy Theater, where Curtains had its New York City premiere, was not in the Lower East Side. For a former New York City resident like myself, such a geographical faux pas is scary.

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Posted by peter at 07:10 AM

July 29, 2014

Dragonwolf

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Raimund Huber - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Raimund Huber needs to just admit that there is an inverse scale between his ability to stage amazing martial arts fights and his ability to construct a decent screenplay. The reason why his previous film, Kill 'Em All is his strongest achievement to date is because there was little pretense here, just a bunch of assassins finding ways to kill each other until they realized that they needed to kill the guy who pitted them against each other. As it stands, Dragonwolf is mostly worth watching for the intricately choreographed fights, spiced up by gratuitous topless displays from various females. On the down side, the story gets in the way.

The story is essentially a bromance between Mozart and Julius, who meet as schoolboys, when Mozart comes to the aid of Julius, pushed around by a trio of equally young punks. The favor is returned when Julius and his mother take in the orphaned Mozart. The two grow up to be top ranked gangsters in a city called Devil's Cauldron, crime capital of the world, and a place that looks remarkable like Bangkok. And then along comes Mary, the girl with the dragon tattoo on her back. The inevitable sibling rivalry takes place, made worse by the fact that the dying mother of Julius is hardly subtle about her preference for the adopted Mozart.

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It does't help that the entire cast seems to have been unconvincingly dubbed in English. Actions speak louder than words, and they have to in this kind of movie. The effort put into the fight scenes is obvious with the high kicks, the quick movements of legs and hands. There is a trio set out to put down Mozart, dressed in flashy garb that screams an obvious lack of taste. They don't seem very bright, yet for all of their apparent goofiness, their fight skills can not be dismissed, even if they do get vanquished by Mozart.

There is also the sight of a small army of about twenty thugs, all dressed in identical black suits, white shirts and white masks, as well as the three ninjas dressed in black leather. In other words, a few moments of visual pleasure in seeing how some of the characters are dressed, but that scene with identically dressed thugs is one of the reminders that Raimund Huber sometimes tries to be a low rent Quentin Tarantino, at least as far as some of his action scenes are concerned. Huber also tries to keep things interesting with one very manic bad guy whose facial tics and maniacal laugh become so much that it's a relief for the viewer when he is suddenly killed by Julius.

The ending of the film suggests that we might be seeing more of Guk Srisawat as the vigilante Umiko. Sure, you have to get through almost two hours of Dragonwolf for the one seen that will probably endear her to fanboys of all ages. If Raimund Huber can put as much thought into a screenplay as he does with the martial arts and costuming, a movie about the sword carrying Umiko might be quite entertaining.

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Posted by peter at 07:02 AM

July 27, 2014

Coffee Break

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Jack Carson and Eve Arden in My Dream is Yours (Michael Curtiz - 1949)

Posted by peter at 09:56 AM

July 25, 2014

Love in the City

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L'Amore in Citta
Cesare Zavattini - 1953
Raro Video Region A Blu-ray

While there may be some debate as to which film marked the beginning of Italian Neo-realism, this omnibus film certainly marks the end. What ideas Cesare Zavattini had when he came up with the concept, commissioning several mostly new filmmakers to create short films around a central theme, the best work here are the films that stray furthest from the kind of work associated with such classics as Shoeshine or Bicycle Theives.

Federico Fellini couldn't be bothered with making his segment, "Marriage Agency", appear like a documentary, albeit a staged recreation of reality. Anticipating future work, the film is about a journalist, in this case one investigating a small match-making operation. Much as Marcello Mastroianni would wander through various maze-like environments, Antonio Cifariello gets lost through several impossibly long hallways looking for the marriage agency. Claiming he is looking for a friend who has the tendency to turn into something like a werewolf, his story and money are happily accepted. The woman this imaginary friend is matched with turns out to be something of a dim bulb, faintly attractive, looking for a real home. Like the women portrayed by Giulietta Masina, this would be bride is virtually kicked to the curb.

Better is the final segment by Fellini's directorial collaborator on Variety Lights, Alberto Lattuada. Shot with a hidden camera in a truck, "Italians Turn Their Heads" is purportedly cinema verite of Italian men ogling attractive women. As notes and the commentary track indicate, the women in question are mostly young actresses, the most famous being an eighteen year old Giovanna Ralli. Marco Ferreri, a producer on this film, also appears, chasing a babe up a flight of stairs only to find that the young lady has a rendezvous with a man at the top. This segment is undoubtedly sexist with its presentation of gorgeous women with wide hips and spectacular breasts, but it also serves as a reminder as to why Italian movies were a popular art house staple when Hollywood was still under the yoke of the Production Code. The music by Mario Nascimbene might be worth mentioning for possibly inspiring Ennio Morricone to use the Jew's harp in his own scores.

Dino Risi nowadays might be remembered for a remake of one of his films, A Scent of a Woman. The only available feature for stateside viewers is Il Sorpasso, released with the English title of The Easy Life. Risi's segment, "Paradise for Three Hours" shares much of the flair for observation and humor of Il Sorpasso. Taking place on a Sunday evening, the film takes place in a dancehall. The women are housemaids, the guys are probably blue collar workers slicked up for the evening. Some of the couples are oddly matched - either in height, girth or looks. A shy soldier sits next to an equally shy young woman - they exchange glances, but no words until the young woman bolts out of the dance hall due to the time, and the soldier, realizing that he's almost lost his moment, chases after the woman, catching up with her at the film's end. There is also the woman who has captured the eyes of most of the men, a beauty in a dress with a checkerboard pattern more appropriate for a table cloth. Risi's segment is sweet and funny, and my favorite chapter here.

I don't have anything more to add on the segment by Michelangelo Antonioni, also seen as an extra on the new Blu-ray of I Vinti. Carlo Lizzani's segment on street prostitutes was considered shocking at the time, but comes off as the work of a condescending male whose notions of middle class morality have been upset. As indicated by the poster below, Lizzani's episode was excised in the original release outside of Italy. While the credit is shared with Zavattini, Franco Maselli's commentary seems to indicate that the filming of "The Story of Caterina" is mostly his work. The recreation by the real Caterina of her time as a homeless woman who temporarily abandons her child, the film very much resemblesUmberto D with its tale of someone with minimal resources trying to find their place in a virtually indifferent Rome.

All of the segments have commentary tracks, some of which were done by Italian documentary filmmakers. Lizzani and Maselli contributed commentaries to their segments. Based on notes with the Blu-ray, the commentary tracks were done around 2001 for the Italian DVD release.

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Posted by peter at 07:26 AM

July 24, 2014

Noel Black (1937 - 2014)

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This one hits me personally. I have written what may well be the only serious consideration of Noel Black's films. This was for The Velvet Light Trap No. 13. I convinced the editor that there were a bunch of great new filmmakers that deserved analysis, rather than more retreads on John Ford and Howard Hawks. Some are writing now about the early Seventies as one of the great ages of American Cinema, but at the time, my suggestion was considered a radical idea. In those days before the internet and IMDb I missed a few things about Noel Black's career that I should have included. I should add that I briefly knew Noel, visiting him in Los Angeles a couple times when I was there, and exchanging a couple of letters.

I may still have the letter somewhere in storage, but he sent me a newspaper clipping of a stripper going by the stage name of "Pretty Poison" with a note from a friend declaring that Black's film now had the ultimate accolade.

There may be some kind of irony in that along with winning the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1966 for his short film, "Skaterdater", Black also shared the Technical Grand Prize with Orson Welles for Chimes at Midnight. Although the perception of Welles' career has changed over the years, for both filmmakers, their peak films would generally be considered their feature debuts. As it currently stands, interest in Noel Black seems to begin and end with Pretty Poison. And if you care at all, get the British DVD of Pretty Poison. Officially it's Region 2, but trust me, it's playable anywhere, and unlike the Fox DVD, this one has commentary by Black.

My personal knowledge of the rest of Black's career is spotty. I haven't seen most of the television work. On the other hand, when Black's ill-fated second feature, Cover Me, Babe very briefly played at the Baronet theater in New York City, it took me several minutes to convince the cashier that I was not lost on my way to see Five Easy Pieces at the adjacent, and larger Coronet. I even saw Cover Me, Babe again when it snuck in to New York City's worst theater, Variety Photoplays, appearing in a double feature with Carousel.

The last time I saw Noel Black was when he was in Denver, for a short period favored by the studios for advanced previews. He was with a couple of production associates for a screening of A Man, a Woman and a Bank.

Black went from promising newcomer to forgotten journeyman, also devoting much of his time to special projects for the Directors Guild of America. While the cult for Pretty Poison is mostly based on Tuesday Weld, Black's other best remembered film, Private School is beloved for Phoebe Cates' seen in various states of undress.

Those interested might also want to check out A Change of Seasons. The film might well be retitled, "A Change of Directors". The first half of the film is Black's work, the second half by Richard Lang. A light comedy was replaced by broader humor. Too bad the suits didn't trust Black on this one. It might not have been much, but it would have been better than the film that was released.

One of Noel Black's disappointments was having Robert Forster star in Cover Me, Babe. Black's choice was a relatively unknown stage actor named Al Pacino. That Black had a good eye for future talent is indicated with the unknowns in supporting roles in 1973's Jennifer on My Mind - Barry Bostwick, Jeff Conaway and as a mad cab driver, Robert De Niro.

Posted by peter at 08:02 PM

July 23, 2014

Bethlehem

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Yuval Adler - 2013
Adopt Films Region 1 DVD

At this particular time, it would be impossible to watch Bethlehem without thinking about what is happening in Gaza. And while real life and what a movie may reflect as reality are not the same, I would like to think that Bethlehem offers some kind of reminder that there might be some nuances that are overlooked in much of the reportage.

Keeping in mind that this is an Israeli film, what is presented might well be questioned. The basic story is of an Israeli agent, Razi, who has cultivated a friendship with a Palestinian teen, Sanfur. Sanfur's brother is a known militant wanted by Israeli authorities. Razi has an awareness that Sanfur could well become a part of the Palestinian resistance movement in the near future, but uses his trust to track down the brother, Ibrahim, albeit indirectly.

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Where the film is of interest is in its depiction of the internecine rivalries among the Palestinians. Ibrahim is secretly funded by Hamas. Even within their association with Hamas, there are smaller "brigades" out to prove themselves as being the most truly radical. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority tries to keep a balance of asserting their role over the demands of Hamas, while keeping the peace with Israel. In one scene that plays out like a crime thriller, Ibrahim meets with the militant leader with close ties to the Palestinian Authority, suddenly pushing him back over a staircase railing, several floors up.

While how the Israeli army performs its role within the West Bank is questioned, there is a greater look at the quandary of Palestinian life. More cruel than the Israelis are the Palestinians who choose public executions for those branded as collaborators. Ibrahim's lieutenant, Badawi, isn't trusted by either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, being of Bedouin descent.

Beyond the political, Bethlehem might be viewed as an examination of how masculinity is defined. Sanfur and his friends are first seen playing with a loaded rifle. In a deadly game of chicken, one of them is to wear an old bullet proof jacket, and be able to take being shot. The ideals of trust and honor are continually shredded by self-serving lies. No one is allowed neutral ground. There are choices to be made, but all are equally bad. Women are in the periphery. It's if life is just one continual pissing contest, where the men are trying to outgun each other literally and figuratively. I would not think it coincidental that the film that takes place in a town of religious significance ends with an act that might remind some of Cain and Abel.

Posted by peter at 07:26 AM

July 21, 2014

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

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Boksuneun naui geot
Park Chan-wook - 2002
Palisades Tartan Video Blu-ray Region A

Once upon a time, there was Tartan Video, famous for its "Asian Extreme" label. Tartan Video was bought out and became Palisades Tartan in 2008. Palisades Tartan is now revived in affiliation with Kino Lorber, but the movies that are identified most with the label are the one that were released under the watch of Tartan founder Hamish McAlpine. And yes, I have seen most of those releases, and was saddened when the original company went under, the victim of its own success with a couple of imitators, perhaps too many films marketed as "Asian Extreme" and critics and viewers who didn't bother with, or care about, any cultural context for many of the best films.

I think what makes the revival of the Tartan label worthwhile is that for many of us, it allows for an opportunity to see the films again with greater familiarity with the filmmakers and actors. In the case of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I have now seen the bulk of films by Park Chan-wook. Bae Doona, still in the early stages of her career, evolved to become a pan-Asian star, to a star in international productions. Korean film, once virtually unknown in the west, has emerged as an international powerhouse. Much has changed in the past decade.

This new home video release consolidates extras from previous releases - an audio commentary by Park with filmmaker Ryu Seong-wan who has a small role in this film, "Making of . . . " footage from the original Korean DVD release, and a brief overview of Park's career from a 2006 BBC presentation. This is one of those times when the commentary is worth listening to, as Park discusses the changes and choices made during the shooting of this film. Mentioned several times is that while Mr. Vengeance was a critical success, it was also a commercial failure, more striking in that it followed J.S.A., not only Park's biggest box office hit, but the biggest Korean film of 2000.

Park and Ryu joke about the green hair of Shin Ha-kyun, but it's the kind of comment that may prod the viewer to take notice of how green is used throughout the film, such as in a scene on an escalator, and in various rooms. There is also pink, seen on Bae Doona's t-shirt, and the radical leaflets she hands out. Helpful also is to learn that the portrait on Bae's t-shirt is of Korea's most famous anarchist. Removed from the "Asian Extreme" label that introduced Park and his earlier films to western audiences, Mr. Vengeance can now be seen for helping lay the groundwork for the visual and narrative themes Park Chan-wook would explore again in his more recent work.

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Posted by peter at 07:19 AM

July 20, 2014

Coffee Break

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Randolph Scott and Ruth Donnelly in A Lawless Street (Joseph H. Lewis - 1955)

Posted by peter at 07:49 AM

July 17, 2014

The Suspect

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Yonguija
Won Shin-yun - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

It isn't until the epilogue that the shots in The Suspect are held long enough to get a sense of the environment and the people within the shot. Up till then, the film is virtually like a two hour series of action paintings. Each shot is so fast, in some cases almost subliminal. Had The Suspect been made with film rather than produced digitally, it would have probably been even more of an editor's nightmare. Just as the film seems composed of many small shots with small hints of information, so it is with the story, that it takes a while to piece it together to make some kind of sense.

On the most basic narrative level, Ji, a former North Korean agent who defected to South Korea, is accused of murdering a businessman, him employer. The businessman is known to have dealings with North Korea, but the nature of his business is in question. The pursuit of Ji involves rival South Korean security agencies, with eventual involvement of what seems like every cop in Seoul. Ji is alternatively the pursued as well as the pursuer, chasing after the people who set him up. Ji's main pursuers, Min, had a run-in with Ji years earlier - that neither spy killed each other put a cast on both in their respective countries. As is eventually revealed, both are pawns used by others.

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The double dealings extend to both side. A flashback shows the punishment meted out to Ji by North Korean officers, leading to his defection. Those in power in South Korea prove themselves to be almost equally treacherous. Unlike Won's previous films, this one was written by Lim Sang-yoon, whose A Company Man was a notable film about a hit man considering getting out of "the business".

Won, a former stuntman, uses all of his past resources here. Hollywood filmmakers might want to take notice of a car chase scene where Ji races forwards, backwards and even sideways through the streets of Seoul. Cars crash, flip over and spin out of control. There is even, for the blink of an eye, the equivalent of Roger Ebert's favorite car chase cliche, the fruit cart, in this case, oranges flying across the screen. According to AsianWiki, The Suspect took nine months to shoot which makes sense considering how many quick shots were used for a film with a longer than average running time.

Not exactly an "in joke", but there is also a subplot with data held on a disc contained in a DVD case for Mr. Vengeance. Nothing here is as brutal as what's found in Park's trilogy, but most viewers should feel quite sympathetic about Ji's vengeance as the screen fades to black.

Posted by peter at 07:56 AM

July 15, 2014

Five Dances

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Alan Brown - 2013
Wolfe Video Region 1 DVD

I might be exaggerating a bit here, but I think Alan Brown was very daring with Five Dances - he allows the camera to be still while filming parts of the dances, and even has shots of the four dancers in full frame. I know I've harped on this before, especially when some directors who have been former choreographers, think that the cuisinart style of fragmented editing makes the filmed dance look more cinematic. Actually, it just makes the dance look like an incomprehensible jumble of movement. There is something to be said about keeping things simple.

The first time we see the main character, Chip, he's doing a solo in the studio. When his dance ends, Brown ends with a close-up of actor Ryan Steele's face. There are a few beads of sweat. What a lot of films miss is the physical effort of performance dance, whether it's "Swan Lake" or something like Twyla Tharp's "Sinatra Suite".

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What hobbles this film is the bit of narrative that holds the dance scenes together. Chip, an eighteen year old, fresh from Kansas, is now dancing with a small company in New York City. He's suppose to have a scholarship, yet he's sleeping on the floor of the dance studio, not going to any kind of school, and describes what he's doing to his mother as his job. I don't mind some implausibilities in movies, but Brown, the director, should have let, Alan Brown, the screenplay writer, work with a collaborator to create a screenplay that made a little more sense in its setup. Also chafing is the portrayal of Chip's mother, only heard as a voice in telephone conversations, distraught at losing her home. There's a heavy Southern accent, and a strong hint of homophobia, the kind of stereotype of straight people from the landlocked parts of America, that is both unnecessary and offensive.

Brushing the narrative flaws aside, the film is, aside from dance, about loneliness and connection. Chip is invited by one of the dancers, Katie, to sleep on her couch. After tentatively rejecting the openly gay dancer, Theo, Chip gets hot and heavy and naked on the dance studio floor. Aside from providing a temporary home for Chip, the not to much older Katie becomes a surrogate mother when Chip asks her permission to be with Theo. Heterosexual couplings don't fare as well here: Chip's parents are divorced, Katie has broken up with her boyfriend of seven years, and the other female dancer, the married Cynthia, is having an affair with the choreographer, Alexander.

The dances of the title more or less coincide with Chip's evolution from a kid from Topeka trying to maneuver his way through New York City, to someone starting to get more comfortable with himself and his new environment. The film is at its best when Brown isn't trying to tell a story, but allows the camera to move back and let the dancers, through their performances, speak for themselves.

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Posted by peter at 07:15 AM

July 13, 2014

Coffee Break

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Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman in Talk of the Town (George Stevens - 1942)

Posted by peter at 08:31 AM

July 10, 2014

The Rise and Fall of "Legs" Diamond

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Budd Boetticher - 1060
Warner Archives DVD

It hasn't happened often, but I ran out of screeners. Part of it was deliberate, as there were some new DVD releases I just didn't care to see, so I passed on those invitations. On the plus side, it gives me the chance to see something that I bought a while back, that had been on the shelf (actually two shelves at two different addresses) for over a year.

I know I had seen "Legs" Diamond at least once, maybe twice on late night broadcast television. The time I do remember was some times in the very early Seventies, when I was starting to get acquainted with the films of Budd Boetticher, and Dyan Cannon, listed as Diane Cannon in this film, was at her peak at stardom. I also recall Cannon mentioning being in this film, her big screen debut, on the "Tonight Show" when Burt Reynolds was the substitute host, with Reynolds making a snarky comment about movies starring Ray Danton.

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Regardless of how one might feel about Ray Danton, this is still an entertaining film. Screenwriter Joseph Landon plays with some of the facts, no matter what the opening titles say, but that's hardly why I've enjoyed this film. Part of it is the zeitgeist, made at a time in the late Fifties and early Sixties when there were a slew of biographical films about Prohibition era gangsters. While contemporary audiences may watch the film for early performances by Cannon and especially Warren Oates, as Diamond's ill-fated younger brother, there is also the visual comfort food for those who grew up in an older era, where supporting players Jesse White, Sid Melton and Simon Oakland were familiar faces. For those primarily interested in "Legs" Diamond as part of Budd Boetticher's filmography, this also contains the last performance by frequent muse Karen Steele.

The story, possibly apocryphal, is that Jack Warner, or producer Milton Sperling, was upset with Boetticher and cinematographer Lucien Ballard for deliberately making the film look like it was shot in the Twenties. If that were really the case, than Boetticher and Ballard failed. That it was produced in black and white was not unusual, and would have been standard, in part to also make the incorporation of documentary footage easier. Without calling too much attention to itself, there are some nicely composed shots using frames within frames, often using car windows, as well as use of the dividing barrier when Steele's character of Alice visits an imprisoned Diamond. Boetticher's tenure as director of several westerns starring Randolph Scott comes to good use when Diamond is seen shooting down two rival gangsters, with pistols in both hands.

One can view "Legs" Diamond as thematically the reverse image of the films Boetticher made with Scott. The Scott westerns generally followed a similar template with Scott as a loner, both by choice and circumstance, who usually stops traveling and settles with either the woman he was always suppose to be with, or the woman who conveniently gets widowed during the course of the narrative. Diamond lets it be known that he's out for himself. Any relationships formed, whether with women, or with other gangsters, are primarily for his own advancement. Unlike Scott's characters, who would frequently go out of their way to help those most vulnerable, Diamond lets his brother die, viewing him as needless emotional and financial baggage.

And yes, the guy is cold-blooded, but there is also amusement in seeing Diamond, witnessing a bungled jewel story robbery, eye the surrounding area to figure out how to break in, or work his way into Arnold Rothstein's mob by racking up charges at various Miami Beach stores in Rothstein's name.

In what has been listed as his last interview, Boetticher discussed his own inspiration for making a film about "Legs Diamond": When I was doing research for that picture, I went out to Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, and I met all the hoods. They would meet me in restaurants, and they would say, "Mr. Boetticher," pronouncing my name correctly, "may we sit down?" always two guys, very well dressed, Brooks Brothers suits, and they would sit down and say,"we understand you're gonna make a picture about Jack Diamond." I said, "well, I'm gonna try." They said, "what kind of picture is it gonna be?" I responded, "well, the greatest picture I ever saw was made by a woman, Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will (1934), about `one of the most despicable men of all time, Adolf Hitler. So I want to make a picture about a miserable, no good son-of-a-bitch that when you walk out of the theater, you say, "God, wasn't he great!" And then you take two steps, and you say, "wait a minute, he was a miserable son-of-a-bitch!"

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Posted by peter at 07:05 AM

July 08, 2014

Snowpiercer

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Bong Joon-ho - 2013
Radius-TWC

If I'm hopping on this train a little later than some, it's because Snowpiercer didn't open in Denver until this past weekend. Especially with the hubbub between Bong and Harvey Weinstein that deleted the release in the U.S., I figured that seeing this film theatrically would give a little bit more support to Bong and his demand for artistic integrity.

Even allowing myself to process the film overnight, I still feel mixed. I can't explain why, but I don't have the enthusiasm for Bong's fantasy films that I have for his crime films. I recognize that The Host and Snowpiercer are good, but I don't share in the enthusiasm generated. Not that this is to dissuade anyone from seeing Snowpiercer if you can theatrically, or in the upcoming weeks when it is available on VOD.

The experience of watching Snowpiercer is similar to being on a train. The film moves slowly at first building up steam, setting up the premise. After a while you realize that everything is hurling forwards and will neither slow down nor stop. Most people are now aware that the film is based on a French graphic novel. I would also consider the comparison to Atlas Shrugged to be apt, albeit from an opposing political bent. As I understand it, it was the scenes that focused on the political philosophy of Snowpiercer that Harvey Weinstein had wanted cut, arguing that such scenes would not be understood by viewers in the landlocked states.

To which I say, "Hooey!". It's an attitude both condescending and false. Even if Snowpiercer might not be embraced by the multiplex crowds, that the film was booked in more theaters than originally planned indicates how badly Harvey Weinstein underestimated interest in Snowpiercer or the existence of an audience outside of New York City that might be educated and worldly but not living in the usual cultural hot spots. Originally slotted for one theater in Denver, Snowpiercer opened on four screens in the metro area.

As for the film, as acknowledged by almost everyone else, Tilda Swinton owns the screen while her character is around, as the buck toothed liaison between the owner of the train and the impoverished passengers who are riding in the back. It is fitting, in view of Bong's career, that the same actress who played the young girl kidnapped by the creature in The Host, takes on the frozen world of Snowpiercer. Ko Ah-sung could well be on her way to becoming one of the more significant young actresses of South Korean cinema.

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Posted by peter at 07:30 AM

July 06, 2014

Coffee Break

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Unstoppable (Tony Scott - 2010)

Posted by peter at 07:26 AM

July 03, 2014

Cannibal Holocaust

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Ruggero Deodato - 1980
Grindhouse Releasing BD Regions ABC

What is striking about Cannibal Holocaust is how the film as taken a life of its own almost thirty-five years after it was produced. Much of the film's reputation is based on its reputation, the reports of the various times the film was banned for its depiction of violence. The after-life of Cannibal Holocaust is much like the film itself, where fact and fiction, outrage and ambivalence all seem to blur together. One of the pull-quotes is from Tim Lucas describing Cannibal Holocaust as the Citizen Kane of cannibal movies. This might not have been the intent of Lucas, but both films share somewhat similar trajectories with the character piecing together a mystery, trying to discern fact from legend.

I may be putting more into this film than Deodato may have intended, but there is, at least for myself, more here that the surface shock that has made the film a cult item for gore hounds. I am proceeding with the assumption that more readers have a general idea of the story, which is essentially in two parts - an anthropology professor goes to the Amazon to find out what happened to a quartet of young filmmakers who went searching for "lost" aboriginal tribes. The filmmakers have been discovered dead, but their film stock has been saved, and viewed by the professor. Cannibal Holocaut has since its initial release been considered the progenitor of the "found footage" horror genre.

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And it is the scene when Professor Monroe discovers the hanging film cans decorating part of a tribal village that I decided that Cannibal Holocaust is, in its own very idiosyncratic way, a film about the acts of making and watching movies. There is some kind of magic that the tribal people attributed to those cans of film, and to revisit a beloved cliche, movies are magical. Also, keeping in mind that much of the film is fake documentary that many people thought was actual footage, there should be consideration that there are audience members who put their trust in what they see on the screen, whether it is something that looks like it was videotaped in the woods of Maryland (The Blair Witch Project, or supposedly based on a true story (Fargo). Never mind that in real life, tribal people unfamiliar with films or how they are made would have probably taken that last roll out of the camera and left it exposed to the sun, heat and moisture, or that there are moments when you see the four film crew members in a single shot, making the more observant wonder: who's operating the camera? Deodata further confuses things by using documentary footage of actual atrocities filmed primarily in Africa and Southeast Asia. The film explores the various notions about the power of the image, and the investment the audience has on believing what they are seeing.

When the footage of the young explorers is viewed, Cannibal Holocaust takes a self-reflexive turn. There is discussion as to whether the footage should even be made available for public viewing. The depiction of sex and nudity simultaneously straddles the divide between exploitation and a critique of exploitation, especially when the lone female of the quartet questions what is being filmed. I am deliberately trying to avoid spoilers for those who have yet to plunge into what is frequently referred to as "the green inferno".

And again, without giving a key moment away, I would like to think that Cannibal Holocaust is a critique of the sense of privilege that those of the industrialized world have in a so-called "Stone Age" environment, especially the sense of of white male entitlement. It may not have been consciously intended by Deodato but the scene I am referring to made me think of American soldiers in Vietnam. The scene is anticipated by an earlier scene of local soldiers shooting a group of natives, powerful rifles versus blow darts. That Cannibal Holocaust has the ability to be provocative in this way is what elevates it above other films in this genre. I had put off seeing earlier versions of Cannibal Holocaust with a certain amount of dread, not interested in blood, guts and gore for their own sake.

In addition to the original release version of the film, there is also a version without scenes of animal cruelty, commentary tracks by Deodato and three of the actors, and scads of interviews. Deodato fans Eli Roth and Chas Balun have contributed to the liner notes in an accompanying booklet. While the film will always be the subject of controversy, there is almost universal agreement on the beauty of Riz Ortolani's score, which is available on a separate CD.

Posted by peter at 07:46 PM

July 01, 2014

I Vinti (Revisited)

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Michelangelo Antonioni - 1953
Raro Video BD Region A

It's been a little more than seven years since I was able to catch a rare 35mm screening of I Vinti at the Pacific Film Archives, my first full day back in the U.S., following a flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Blu-ray probably will be of greater interest to the Antonioni completist but is worth checking out not only for the nicely transferred film, but also the extras. There is also a booklet that goes over the history of the making of the film, and various controversies at the time of production and initial release.

Antonioni's second feature is three short stories taking place in Italy, France and England. Inspired by true newspaper stories, all three about about murders committed by young men, late high school age or early college.

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I do wish Raro Video had included information on when the two interviews included as supplements were done. Producer and co-writer Turi Vasile, who died in 2009, gives his side of the production of I Vinti which involved re-writing and re-shooting the Italian sequence. Franco Interlenghi, star of the Italian sequence, also tells entertaining stories about his professional and personal relationship with Antonioni, which based on one comment, was filmed sometime prior to Antonioni's death in 2007. The Italian sequence in question was originally about a young man on the run for blowing up a munitions factory. While no specific political organization is mentioned, the sequence was still considered such a hot potato that it was re-done with the young man now involved in an operation smuggling cigarettes and killing a cop. That original sequence is included, and is worth watching to see the ways Antonioni shifted around some of the footage for the version that was included in the official theatrical release.

The inclusion of the short film, Tentato suicidio for the omnibus feature, Love in the City, also filmed in 1953, provides an interesting contrast. While I Vinti is three short stories about meaningless deaths at the hands of disaffected youth, Tentato suicidio is about young women who have failed suicide attempts in the name of love. The women re-enact parts of their lives in addition to telling their respective stories. One of the young women, nineteen years old at the time, in both appearance and attitude, anticipates Antonioni's most famous muse, Monica Vitti.

It would seem that Antonioni's sympathies towards the younger generation changed in the fifteen years between the completion of I Vinti and the initial work on Zabriskie Point. The finger-wagging scold of the older film, with his scorn of "boogie woogie" music, would refashion some of the same elements from the original Italian sequence for another look at kids on the run from the law, complete with music by Pink Floyd. The two films seen back to back would make for quite a juxtaposition.

Posted by peter at 07:51 AM