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August 31, 2014

Coffee Break

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Elizabeth Cervantes in Oscura Seduccion (Walter Doehner - 2010)

Posted by peter at 07:47 AM

August 28, 2014

Baby Blues

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Po-Chih Leong - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region ! DVD

He doesn't talk, or stalk his victims with any tools for murder, but the malevolent doll in Baby Blues will probably remind a few viewers of Chucky, especially in the earlier films from the Child's Play series. This is a Hong Kong film, in Cantonese, made primarily for a local audience, and as horror films go, fairly mild. As a film from the director best known for The Wisdom of Crocodiles, Baby Blues is a disappointment.

An affluent young couple moves to a huge, modern house. The previous residents have left a doll that looks like a pasty faced Prince Valiant, that has somehow captured the heart of the wife. Hao is a staff songwriter for a record company, while his wife, Tian, is an obsessive blogger. Pressured to come up with a big hit, and a new direction for the company's popular singer, Bobo, Hao gets the idea to write songs about death, inspired by legend of "Gloomy Sunday. Hao's attempts at song writing get an unexpected hand, actually a couple of small feet, when the doll jumps on the keyboard of Hao's piano. As the film continues, it becomes apparent that the doll has more on its mind than writing a song that seems to coincidentally make the listener vomit or find themselves in a life threatening situation.

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Even worse, Tian becomes pregnant with twin boys. One of the infants dies after birth. Tian names the doll Jimmy, the name of the dead child, and becomes obsessed with treating the doll as a member of the family. Post-partum depression becomes Post-partum obsession. Later, Hao learns that previous victims of the house were two sets of twins.

The film was originally presented in 3D. The record company president blows perfect smoke rings at the audience while smoking a cigar. The doll frequently points an accusing finger towards the audience. The only other time that the 3D might have made a difference when a car spins out of control, briefly flying, before crashing in a nose-dive.

A bigger mystery might be about the making of this film. Calvin Poon, a filmmaker of some acclaim, is credited for a first draft of the screenplay. I've been unable to find anything in English concerning Poon's work on this film, although I suspect that Baby Blues was compromised in various ways primarily to pass mainland Chinese censors. Inadvertently, Baby Blues reminds me why I have a possibly irrational love of Thai horror movies. What I love about horror movies from Thailand is that no matter how utterly nutty, bizarre or downright stupid the given premise or the characters, Thai filmmakers usually run straight ahead without fear of such concepts as logical plotting or good taste. When a horror movie has neither smarts, tension, nor any frightening moments, you have to wonder what's scaring the filmmakers?

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Posted by peter at 07:09 AM

August 26, 2014

Ghost Bird

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Scott Crocker - 2010
Matson Films / Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

A bird thought to be extinct, the ivory-billed woodpecker, is thought to be seen in Eastern Arkansas, in 2004. The discovery brings in ornithologists, reporters, and bird lovers to the small, depressed town of Brinkley. For a very short while, Brinkley is a boom town with gift shops and a couple of new restaurants. There are questions about whether the observed bird was in fact the bird reportedly last seen decades ago. Kind of like the fictional bird, The Maltese Falcon, the ivory-billed woodpecker becomes the stuff that dreams are made of.

Whether that particular woodpecker was seen becomes less important than how the alleged discovery becomes follows a classic trajectory of the fleeting nature of any kind of celebrity, or as the old adage goes, putting one's eggs in one basket. Even without the brief fame from the woodpecker sighting, the story of Brinkley is one of a small community that has its existence based on transitory industries. The forest that once was home for eight species of woodpeckers was cut down by a lumber mill that eventually closed down when there was no more forest. The garment factory that made clothing for Wal-Mart closed when Wal-Mart chose to have their manufacturing done for less money in Third World countries. The forest now is a vast soybean farm. And the nearby Wal-Mart store, the creation of Arkansas native Sam Walton, has devastated Brinkley's small downtown.

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By focusing on Brinkley and the elusive woodpecker, Scott Crocker also provides a better understanding on how changes in the environment, frequently brought about by commercial interests, have caused the extinction of over one hundred species of North American birds. There is also the mind-boggling discussion of proposals to spend millions of dollars to save the ivory-billed woodpecker, some of which is discovered to be at the expense of documented rare birds.

For all of the environmental alarms, this documentary is not without humor. It's easy to see the story of Brinkley's brief brush with fame, and some of the town's more colorful residents, being the source of a comedy by Preston Sturges. That Harvard University has rooms with drawers and drawers of hundreds of stuffed birds almost begs for a reunited Monty Python "dead parrot" sketch.

There is also the clash of egos of the various academics and experts regarding what was seen by various bird watchers. That the woodpecker was thought to be seen in the bayou country for Arkansas makes it a perfect place for a mystery.

Posted by peter at 07:47 AM

August 24, 2014

Coffee Break

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Cowboy (Delmer Daves - 1958)

Posted by peter at 08:02 AM

August 22, 2014

Triad

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Jat jik
Daniel Chan - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

I would think it deliberate that the main narrative in Triad begins in 1997. Aside from being the year of the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to mainland China, the film can be seen as a reclamation of sorts of the kind of genre cinema that belonged distinctly to Hong Kong. Triad is a film specifically about Hong Kong, made primarily for a Hong Kong audience, and in Cantonese, as opposed to the Mandarin language productions made to appeal to mainland audiences and the Chinese diaspora.

Nothing here will come as anything new to those who have seen the now classic, or even not-so classic Hong Kong gangster films from John Woo, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To and a host of others. What distinguishes Triad is that it does place extra emphasis on the organized aspect of organized crime. Most of the crime is in the beatings and killings between gang members, and it is less important that respect for position and a sometimes complex structure of relationships. Blood oaths are made where the gang relationships take precedence over everything else. Gender is even set aside in the case of a female gang leader, given both honorifics of Big Sister and Uncle.

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The basic setup of three young friends who join the triads is familiar enough. The smart one, university educated William, comes to the aid of his mother, attacked by a self-styled gang operating a protection racket. The mother's extremely modest fruit stall hardly looks like it's worth the effort of extorting more than pocket money. William is assisted by his two best friends, but it is local gangster, Patrick, who puts an end to the street brawl. William vows to join Patrick's organization when he graduates, ultimately climbing the ranks with a combination of street smarts and book smarts.

It's the two main supporting players who are of the most interest here. Both are older, about the same age, and more interested in staying behind the scenes. Patrick, who acts as mentor to the the three friends, chooses to dress casually most of the time, and conduct business in the fruit market section of Hong Kong, away from the high rises and the expensive clubs and shops. Irene is something of a Lady Macbeth, who has men, especially her husband, act as her proxy for the physical violence meted out to various enemies. The two deaths near the end of the film might even strike some viewers as being Shakespearean with the bloody stabbings that take place.

A reference that might be lost on stateside viewers is when one of the characters mentions that he felt like he was in a "Teddyboy" movie. While the British roots can not be denied, what is actually referred to here is the graphic novel that inspired the Young and Dangerous film series. The visual aspects of Triad often appear inspired by the Hong Kong manga, and it is probably what has led Daniel Chan to have followed up this film with Young and Dangerous:Reloaded, renewing the Hong Kong gangster movie for a younger audience.

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Posted by peter at 07:30 AM

August 20, 2014

Worm

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Doug Mallette - 2013
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

Talk about support for independent filmmaking, Synapse Films has come through in a big way. Filmed in "Middle Tennessee" by a gang from Watkins College in Nashville, for a stated budget of almost $10,000, Worm is about as independent as a film can be. At the very least, this film may prove encouraging to those who think a degree from one of the better known universities and / or a budget of at least six figures, if not seven, is required for that first step in cinematic glory.

The film takes place in an unspecified near future where people apparently just completely go blank when they sleep. A new product allows people to dream, the kind that offer refreshing sleep, in the form of worms that are offered in jars with daily delivery. The worm are placed in the ear, and induce an immediate, dream filled sleep. And yeah, the premise is creepy, and you can guess that nothing good is going to come out of having a live worm, actually bunches of them, trolling around in your noggin.

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Socially inept Charles, the son of the apartment maintenance guy, tries to ingratiate himself with one of the residents, Reed. Trying to get at Reed's stash of worms under the pretense of fixing a light, Charles meets June, Reed's girlfriend. Not having much money, Charles gets the lower priced dream worms which he switches with Reed's higher priced variety. Charles also starts having dreams of being with June, with disastrous consequences in real life.

One might consider Worm something of a parable about the various "miracle cures" that turn out to have unforeseen, and deadly consequences. I don't know if this was intentional, but the basic premise of Worm reminded me of David Cronenberg's Shivers. The big difference is that Mallette's worms are suppose to be benign, so much so, that there is a cartoon mascot for the company, Fantasites, as well as children's masks and a stuffed Fantasites worm doll.

The DVD comes with a commentary track by Mallette with three members of the production team. One of the more interesting aspects is to know that while the basic story structure was planned out, the dialogue was improvised by the cast. For novice filmmakers, the commentary may prove useful in having an idea of what to watch for when making a film on an extremely limited budget, especially something like Worm that makes use of a few special effects. In some instances, the limited funding is a hindrance, as shown by a dependance on available light. The DVD also includes the original short film that inspired the feature.

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Posted by peter at 07:39 AM

August 18, 2014

When I Saw You

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Lamma shoftak
Annemarie Jacir - 2012
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

The first image in Annemarie Jacir's film is a pair of roller skates worn by a young boy. A title announces that the film takes place in Jordan, 1967. On the soundtrack is Arabic rock music. That opening scene belies what is to follow, although those with some knowledge of history should pick up on the clues immediately.

The young man, Tarek, lives in a refugee camp in Jordan with his mother. They are among the Palestinians displaced by the Six Day War. The population increases seemingly with another truckload of passengers. Tarek gazes at each truck with the hope that his father will be among those new residents, or that someone will at least have news of this father. While Tarek is illiterate, and barred from school for distracting the other students, he proves his ability with numbers, figuring out large sums in his head. For a moment there is the dread that what is about to come is a Palestinian variation of Rain Man.

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That Jacir indirectly addresses the political context of When I Saw You is ripe for interpretation. Tarek expresses his longing to return home to his mother. The reasons for why the two live in a camp in what is later revealed to be a more remote part of Jordan are never explicitly stated. Seeing Yasser Arafat on television discussing the Palestinian fedayeen, Arafat's paramilitary group, Tarek only understands that these are people returning to the Palestinian territories. Wandering on his own to return home, Tarek is discovered by a man he recognizes from the village, and is taken to a fedayeen boot camp. It is later at the camp that a news report mentions an attack by the Israeli military of the refugee camp.

There may be other reasons why Jacir chose indirect historical references for her film. In the greater scheme of things, Jacir's story might be understood as that of Tarek seeking out a place where he belongs. A perpetual outsider even in the refugee camp, Tarek seems to find a temporary home with the fedayeen, where his ability with numbers is noticed by the Mao enamored military leader. While home is a specific place for Tarek, Jacsir also suggests that home is an abstract ideal.

That the DVD is released at this time makes watching When I Saw You more difficult. For that matter, it's impossible for me to be entirely objective regarding the tangled history of Palestine and Israel, and that whole, messy, conflicted region. On the other hand, I'm not one to run away from a film or filmmaker that might want to challenge my point of view, because I like the idea of writing about independent filmmakers. And I hope to see Jacir's debut film, Salt of this Sea.

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Posted by peter at 07:18 AM

August 17, 2014

Coffee Break

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Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan - 2011)

Posted by peter at 08:09 AM

August 14, 2014

Mr. Majestyk

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Richard Fleischer - 1974
KL Studio Classics Region A Blu-ray

Anyone familiar with the novel by Elmore Leonard can not help but be a little disappointed that the plot for Mr. Majestyk isn't a little more clever. All Vincent Majestyk wants to do is harvest the watermelons on his 160 acre farm. Things start off badly when a would-be contractor shows up with a crew described as winos who are already working the fields. Chasing the small-time hood off his land, Majestyk gets in deeper trouble arrested with a trumped up charge. Things get worse when a fellow prisoner, a hit man, decides to hang around the town of Edna, Colorado, to extract revenge when the law-abiding Majestyk spoils his plans for escape.

I can pick on this film for a story that defies credibility. The migrant workers' clothing looks too clean and new. But I also like that a film about a Colorado melon farmer was actually filmed in Colorado, mostly in the southeastern part of the state, in Otero County. There's some state pride at work here. And at least that part of Mr. Majestyk is relatively accurate.

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This is unmistakably a Seventies movie. In addition to one of the most iconic movie stars of that decade, Charles Bronson, he is pitted against one of the actors who could well be considered one of the more iconic big screen bad guys, Al Lettieri. Putting aside the question of how a notorious hit man could have been caught by small town cops, Lettieri should have been arrested by the fashion police for those awful checked jackets and matching pants and shirt outfits that he's forced to wear in this film. Also pegging this film to a specific era of filmmaking is the score by Charles Bernstein, part Morricone-lite with a flamenco guitar styled riff, alternating with someone on the wah wah pedal. There's also an indirect reference to activist Cesar Chavez that might fly by younger audiences.

Richard Fleischer's visual style here is straightforward and economical. Much of the action and dialogue is done in group shots, with an emphasis on two-shots. Rather than cutting back and forth between characters, Fleischer takes his time to compose shots informing the viewer of where the characters are in relation to each other, as well as the space they are sharing. Without stretching the point too much, the film is about the dichotomy of shared spaces, Majestyk's open melon field versus the enclosed spaces of the jail, police station, even cars versus open bed trucks.

Keep in mind that Elmore Leonard's novel was written after the screenplay as a movie tie-in, and is closer to what he had envisioned for the story. Leonard was reportedly unhappy with the film, with the characters being a bit over the top, especially Lettieri as the volatile hit man. And yet, and yet . . . it's what makes Mr. Majestyk fun to watch. Sure, there is Linda Crystal as the Chicana union organizer, giving the proceedings a whiff of social consciousness. But there are also guys blown away with shotguns, a couple of car chases, a shoot out in a small town, and thugs blasting watermelons to bit with shotguns. This might not be classic Fleischer, classic Leonard, or even classic Bronson, but I'll take it just the same.

Posted by peter at 07:22 AM

August 12, 2014

We Won't Grow Old Together

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Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble
Maurice Pialat - 1972
Kino Classics BD Region A

The first thing I noticed was the frequency of blue. The blue came was in various shades - turquoise, powder, royal blue. The blues as it were would mostly be seen as part of the Jean's life - his shirts, bed sheets, table cloth, and his car. Probably not surprising considering that Jean is essentially the on-screen proxy for Maurice Pialat, not the happiest of men.

This was was first time seeing this film, though not my first exposure to Pialat. It took me a while to get into the rhythm established by Pialat. The narrative as such is a series of meetings and partings, sometimes within the same scene, of Jean, a documentarian, and Catherine, a younger woman who hasn't quite figured out what she wants to do with her life. The two aren't happy with each other, nor happy without each other. Jean is especially brutal at times, both verbally and physically towards Catherine. It is only through the dialogue that one understands that years have passed. The film begins when Catherine and Jean have been together for three years, and the next three are an irretrievable downward slide.

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In one scene, Jean refers to the Italian poet Cesare Pavese. An interesting choice in that Pavese was simultaneously a romantic, yet held most people at arms length, a celebrity during his lifetime with a very public, failed relationship with actress Constance Dowling. A prize winning writer, Pavese committed suicide at the peak of his career. In somewhat similar fashion, Jean wants the companionship of Catherine, yet can't get her out of his apartment, his car or his life, fast enough.

The supplements, Nick Pinkerton's booklet notes, and a video essay by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, are helpful in discussing the unusual structure of the film. There is also an interview, from 2003, with Marlene Jobert, discussing the conflicts between Pialat and Jean Yanne, who played Jean, and her own attraction to playing the part of Catherine. A hint for the youngsters - if you want to know where Eva Green got her looks, Jobert is her mom.

One of the surprises was to know that Luciano Tovoli was the cinematographer. Better known for more stylized work with Antonioni, Argento and others, the visual look here is stripped down, seemingly artless. This is not to imply carelessness, far from it. The shots are carefully composed on behalf of the interactions mostly between Jean and Catherine. While the hirsute Jean Yanne does much of his acting with his body, Marlene Jobert's acting can be seen in the various small facial expressions while she is being berated. This is not an easy film to watch, but Maurice Pialat would not have it any other way.

Posted by peter at 07:34 AM

August 10, 2014

Coffee Break

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Edgar Ramirez in Carlos (Olivier Assayas - 2010)

Posted by peter at 09:24 AM

August 08, 2014

Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through

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Mari Asato

Edited by Gabrielle Kelly & Cheryl Robson
Supernova Books - 2014

I don't know what it says about me that the problems I have with this book tend to keep on nagging me, even when there are chapters here worth reading. Certainly we have progressed a bit from Andrew Sarris dismissing Ida Lupino's abilities as a filmmaker, and his characterizing of the women film directors "as little more than a ladies' auxiliary". Various things that could have been dealt with better in Celluloid Ceiling also point out as what work still needs to be done.

A case in point is my inclusion of a photo I took of Mari Asato. Adam Bingham has a chapter providing an overview of Japanese directors. Well and good, and those who have been reading this blog might recall that I have written about two films by Yuki Tanada. Yet in closing his chapter, Bingham makes a general mention of women working in genre films, citing Wizard of Darkness and the existence of a sequel to Ju-On (The Grudge) without mentioning either filmmaker. Why Bingham does not feel the need to name these two capable filmmakers is unclear. Shimako Sato has a good number of accomplishments as writer and director. Mari Asato will hopefully be afforded films with more generous budgets, but in the meantime, her Ju-On: Black Ghost is worth seeing.

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Roh Deok

The chapters by Beti Ellerson and Maria Williams-Hawkins shed light on African filmmakers, usually the least represented in film festivals or in any kind of discussion of "world cinema". Ana Maria Bahiana provides as overview of filmmakers from Latin America. Dina Iordanova's chapter on filmmakers from South Eastern Europe (Greece, Turkey, the Balkans) is quite heartfelt. The chapters on Arab filmmakers came just in time with my scheduled review of a film by Palestinian Annemarie jacir. I should also mention that I have corresponded over seven years with Thai film journalist Anchalee Chaiworaporn who contribute chapters on filmmakers from Southeast Asia and South Korea.

Jacqui Miller's chapter on Hollywood directors points to a need for greater scholarship on the early silent era, when Lois Weber was not the only woman behind the camera. On the other hand, pioneer Alice Guy-Blache should have been represented by a chapter that did seem written for unsophisticated high school students.

I am also unsure what to make of a discussion of Canadian filmmakers that does not mention Patricia Rozema. I was surprised that the chapter on British directors did include Joan Littlewood. And if one is going to discuss women in Hollywood, how about a little note for Juleen Compton?

The choice of photos is especially questionable. Apparently Dennie Gordon is the BFF of editor Gabrielle Kelly. While it is interesting that Gordon is an American director who made a Chinese language rom-com for a Chinese audience, critical interest in her work might be characterized as negligible. Three photos in addition to a portrait on the back cover might make some readers certain that Gordon is one of the more significant filmmakers of our time. More so than Ann Hui, four time Best Director winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards (and still the record), more than Hong Kong's Mabel Cheung, two time Best Director winner, or Philippines' Joyce Bernal, who proved with D'Anothers that a woman can make a movie raunchier than Bridesmaids. Not to mention Cate Shortland, Australian Directors Guild winner for Lore, pioneering Swedish filmmaker Mai Zetterling, or France's otherwise overlooked Nadine Trintignant. Where's a photo of Julie Dash, a woman as beautiful as her films?

As one might tell from the other two photos included, of Siege Ledesma and Roh Deok, both presenting their debut features at the last Udine Far East Film Festival, the history of women directors has future chapters to be written. Celluloid Ceiling is not without its merits, but also is not without several caveats.

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Siege Ledesma

all photos by Peter Nellhaus - 2014

Posted by peter at 07:57 AM

August 06, 2014

Lyle

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Stewart Thorndike - 2014

I wouldn't be surprised if the ghost of Ira Levin comes to haunt Stewart Thorndike, demanding credit for his part in inspiring Lyle. Anyone who has read Levin's novel, or, more likely, seen Roman Polanski's film, can not avoid seeing similarities, especially near the end - a point of view shot of several people looming over mother-to-be Leah in Thorndike's film virtually duplicates a similar shot done from the point of view of Rosemary.

Unlike Levin's story, with a struggling actor and his wife getting a Manhattan apartment that in reality they could never afford, Thorndike has her youngish lesbian couple move into a vintage apartment in Brooklyn under mysterious circumstances. The couple, Leah and June, have a toddler, a girl named Lyle. Leah is also pregnant with a second child, another girl. Like almost all toddlers, Lyle is inquisitive, wandering around the apartment, causing Leah concern when she's nowhere to be seen. And when Leah is having an online conversation, Lyle finds her way to a front window, with fatal consequences.

There is also the strange apartment manager, a single woman "of a certain age" who feels the need to pretend she is pregnant, and the young woman upstairs, said to be a model. Leah does some online investigations regarding her home which further distress her, with the stuff of urban legends. Then there is Lyle's small toy horse which seems to disappear and reappear mysteriously. Like most intelligent horror movies, nothing is obvious or explained in detail, at least until the end.

While the story might be dismissed as a retread, what makes Lyle of interest are Thorndike's visual choices. At one point, there is a shot of the front of the apartment, with June and Leah framed by a window on the right third of the screen. In another scene, June and Leah are in bed, but we only see their arms in the shot. Thorndike also plays with focus, allowing one scene to be played out as an almost abstract image. The solo piano score by Jason Falkner is stark and effective, Amazingly, Thorndike shot her film in only five days.

Lyle can be seen online for free, coinciding with Thorndike's Kickstarter campaign to fund her new feature, Putney. Lyle is also the first of three proposed horror films, indicating a dedication to genre filmmaking that has increasingly interested a younger generation of female filmmakers. For any squeamish souls out there, the horror aspects are only suggested, not seen.

Posted by peter at 07:18 AM

August 04, 2014

The Bankers of God: The Calvi Affair

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I Banchieri di Dio
Giuseppe Ferrara - 2002
Raro Video Blu-ray Region A

This is one those films that should have been more interesting. The subject matter was there: a banker finds himself up to his neck, with complicated financial schemes involving the Vatican, organized crime, and the Italian government. If that's not enough, there are the rival factions within those various organizations, and the banker, Roberto Calvi, has damaging information on everyone. And this is a true story.

Whatever potential there was for an involving story gets lost. Maybe Italian audiences found this film to be of interest, but there seemed to be little of interest gong on here, until near the end when Calvi is set up for a murder staged to look like a suicide, hanging underneath the Blackfriar Bridge. The languid pacing did not help, with a narrative mostly composed of meeting between the various players. This is the kind of subject matter handled better by Francesco Rosi in several of his films.

I tried watching this film in Italian but found myself distracted by dubbing that did not appear to synch properly. The English dubbing is even stranger, sounding as it did as if recorded in an echo chamber at times. Neither voice used for Rutger Hauer, playing the Vatican's top banker, was anything close to Hauer's own voice. The blu-ray also includes a documentary supplement about Calvi and the Blackfriar Bridge that inexplicably does not have either subtitles or an English language track.

Unsurprisingly, the best part of this film is the score, by the usually excellent Pino Donaggio.

Posted by peter at 07:16 AM