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March 31, 2016

The Purple Plain

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Robert Parrish - 1954
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Much of the reputation of The Purple Plain seems to rest on the citation Andrew Sarris wrote in discussing the films of Robert Parrish in The American Cinema. Wrote Sarris in 1968: What burst of Buddhist contemplation was responsible for such a haunting exception to such an exceptionable career?. I've only seen a handful of films by Parrish, enough not to write off Saddle the Wind or the several terrific action set-pieces in The Destructors. And I'm not sure what Sarris means by "Buddhist contemplation" is this context, although the film is very much a Christian allegory.

Fortunately, in that regard, Parrish, working from a screenplay by Eric Ambler, from the novel by H.E. Bates, makes his points plain enough without being heavy-handed. Taking place in Burma near the end of World War II, Gregory Peck plays a fighter pilot who experiences his own return from the dead near Easter time. His wife killed in the London blitz, Peck's suicidal actions in battle are confused with heroism. What initially appears to be what would later be identified as post-traumatic stress disorder is revealed to be something deeper, and hidden from others. Peck falls in love with a young Burmese woman who assists at a village mission, initiating is reconnection with others.

Filmed in what is now known as Sri Lanka, the British pilots in Burma are presented as men out of their element in a different environment. Uniforms are soaked in perspiration. Peck is bronzed and sweaty. Although Peck ably suggests are man haunted by his personal demons, Parrish also frequently films Peck from an upward angle suggestive of a heroic man against the sky. Most of the war in The Purple Plain is the conflict going on in Peck's head. There's only one brief scene of the RAF pilots in battle, and later, the suggestion that Japanese troops are nearby, but off-screen.

Contemporary audiences might scratch their heads regarding the presentation of the relationship between Peck and the Burmese woman, a one time performance by the Australian-Burmese Win Min Than. With the "Hays Code" still in effect, Parrish had to dance around filming the relationship between a Caucasian man and an Asian woman, enough to let the audience know that the two were in love with some indirect dialogue and an embrace. Credit reportedly should be given to Peck for his insistence in casting a part-Burmese actress when "yellow face" was still the norm in English language productions.

Some of the special effects look crude, but are only a brief part of the film. Among the credits to become major names in future films are cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, and future director Clive Donner, with his second to last credit as editor.

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Posted by peter at 06:10 PM

March 27, 2016

Easter 2016

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Pier Paolo Pasolini in Requeiscant (Carlo Lizzani - 1967)

Posted by peter at 11:06 AM

March 20, 2016

Coffee Break

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Phiiip Seymour Hoffman in A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman - 2012)

Posted by peter at 10:44 AM

March 17, 2016

The War Between Men and Women

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Melville Shavelson - 1972
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Does the name of James Thurber mean anything to contemporary audiences? Certainly Thurber's legacy as a humorist wasn't served by the recent film remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Thurber didn't care for the first film version, from 1947, for that matter. For a younger audience, The War Between Men and Women may seem like a curious period piece, from a time when the literary sources of films weren't comic books or novels aimed for "young adults".

Melville Shavelson seems to have been obsessed with adapting James Thurber, one way or another. Well before the short lived television series, My World and Welcome to It debuted in September 1969, Shavelson had worked on a Thurber inspired pilot in 1958. My World was produced by Danny Arnold, who also wrote several episodes. NBC may have been finished with Shavelson and Arnold's version of James Thurber's stories and cartoons, but Shavelson and Arnold weren't finished with Thurber. Taking Thurber to the big screen, the two were able to make a film more acerbic than their television version of Thurber.

The Thurber proxy here is named Peter Wilson, a bachelor cartoonist with failing eyesight, celebrity in New York City literary circles. Detesting any signs of domesticity, Wilson finds himself in awkward situations due to his near blindness. Literally bumping into Terry Kozlenko at his eye doctor's office, Peter fights his attraction to the divorcee with three children and a dog. An awkward courtship is followed by an awkward marriage, made more so when Terry's former husband, a war photographer, visits the family in their Connecticut home.

Jack Lemmon plays Wilson, but the real star is Barbara Harris. I'm not sure if Hollywood was uncertain about what to do with a talent like Harris, or if she just didn't care about stardom, but even before her well regarded turns for Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman, Harris shines here. It really starts with her laugh, heard but not seen, that attracts Peter's attention as well as ours. Sweet and sexy, Barbara Harris in retrospect was a talent under seen and underutilized. Even Vincent Canby, who panned the film in the New York Times, described Harris in her role as, "so lovely and intelligent".

It would probably be of no surprise to those familiar with James Thurber that the best part of the film is the opening credit sequence, Thurber's cartoons of the war between men and women animated. There is also a nice bit with Lemmon and screen daughter Lisa Gerritsen walking through parts of the animated short story, "The Last Flower". At this point, it appears that the best film adaptation of Thurber is of the play, The Male Animal, Elliot Nugent's 1942 film originally written by Nugent and Thurber. Like most of Melville Shavelson's other films, The War Between Men and Women is mildly amusing, although there is one very funny gag involving Lemmon, Harris, and a pregnant dog.

I'm not sure if Shavelson has a unusual sense of character placement, but when we first see Barbara Harris, her head is hidden by one of the lamps in the waiting room when Jack Lemmon bumps into her. What may have been more effective in a theater are the shots from Lemmon's point of view, fractured images of Harris, out of focus mid-town Manhattan, and a couple of moments of total darkness. What might have possibly provoked a chuckle in 1972 is when Harris bellows at Lemmon that he's a "male chauvinist pig". The War Between Men and Women might have been better had Shavelson not tried so hard to keep the film family friendly. For comparison, consider Elaine May's more caustic, and G rated (!) A New Leaf from the previous year. The War Between Men and Women has its moments, but most of those moments were drawn by James Thurber.

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Posted by peter at 02:16 PM

March 15, 2016

Donovan's Brain

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Felix Feist - 1953
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Will the recent death of Nancy Reagan, formerly known as the actress, Nancy Davis, born as Anne Frances Robbins, spur greater interest in the new blu-ray release of Donovan's Brain? Probably not. I admittedly have not found Nancy Davis, as she was known then, to have been attractive or memorable. I saw a film she was in, East Side, West Side, not too long ago, and can easily summon up an image of statuesque Beverly Michaels, who had a smaller part, while drawing blanks on Davis. Three films seen, and I am baffled that anyone thought Nancy Davis had any kind of star potential. Be that as it may, it is also one of film history's ironies that Lew Ayres, star of Donovan's Brain, made films with the first and second Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

On his commentary track, film historian Richard Harland Smith, is more convincing about the merits of Donovan's Brain as an influential genre film. Smith discusses Curt Siodmak's original novel, as well as comparisons with the two other filmed versions. A scientist played by Ayres, keeps alive the brain of a multi-millionaire, with the help of his wife, Davis, and alcoholic doctor buddy, Gene Evans. Ayres tries to communicate with the pulsing brain through mental telepathy, only to have the brain take over Ayres' body. As seems to be the case with stories about preserved brains, Donovan turns out to be one very nasty, and vindictive guy. While Ayres is trying to keep his scientific shenanigans secret, Donovan, through Ayres, makes sure that neither the government nor his children get hold of his millions.

If the story seems a bit cliched, keep in mind that some of those cliches began here. Where the film makes a clear break from cliche is in the casting of Ayres as the scientist. A bit remote in his interactions with others, Ayres' scientist neither looks nor acts like a "mad scientist", but more like a mild mannered academic whose whose curiosity gets the best of him. Ayres effectively indicates through his voice and mannerisms when Donovan takes over without overplaying the part of a megalomaniac.

I've only seen one other film by Felix Feist, The Man Behind the Gun, a reasonably entertaining Randolph Scott vehicle, also released in 1953. What I found significant was the way much of Donovan's Brain was filmed, with the two or three characters frequently filmed together. Part of this was sheer economics, the efficiency of filming and editing a group rather than separate set-up and shots for individual performances. For myself, the scenes within the laboratory are of the greatest visual interest, with Ayers, Davis and Evans filmed behind the glass container with the brain. Even when the actors are discussing the brain, the brain, being placed in front of the actors, dominates the shot. Even when the brain is not in the shot, the actors are filmed in such a way that lab equipment is always visible, often in the foreground.

The blu-ray comes with the always welcomed Joe Dante and his "Trailers from Hell" presentation of the Donovan's Brain trailer. Kino Lorber, to its credit, has kept the black and white cinematography suitably grainy.

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Posted by peter at 01:37 PM

March 13, 2016

Coffee Break

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Elsebeth Steentoft in Teddy Bear (Mads Matthiesen - 2012)

Posted by peter at 01:59 PM

March 10, 2016

The Vikings

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Richard Fleischer - 1958
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I had to remind myself that I wrote about the DVD almost ten years ago. And maybe it's me, but his film that launched a dozen or so movies about Vikings has aged quite nicely. Dismissed by Bosley Crowthers in his New York Times review, "But there is plenty of action and the scenery occasionally is superb-just like a lot of Westerns. It's strictly a Norse opera, in two words." It may be because of the emphasis on action that The Vikings turned out to be one of the big hits of 1958.

I've not read the source novel by Edison Marshall, but it struck me this time that someone with a more thorough knowledge of symbolism might make something of mutilation of the two main characters, half-brothers played by Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Neither men is aware of their relationship in the course of the story. Douglas loses his left eye, attacked by the hunting falcon belonging to Curtis. Curtis has his left hand lopped off by an English king, his punishment for making sure the Viking king dies a Viking death. Curtis is unaware that he is the son of the Viking king, and a relative to the English king, as well as heir to the throne of Northumbria. Without putting to fine a point on it, underneath the epic exterior is a discussion of masculinity, power, class and sexuality.

The best reason for the blu-ray upgrade is the cinematography by Jack Cardiff. Yes, there are lots many gorgeous shots in and around the fjords of Norway. There is one visually wonderful moment when the henchmen of the evil Northumbrian king, played by purse lipped Frank Thring, are sent to kill a traitor, a scene with deep shadows and illumination by torchlight. There is a later scene of Viking ships lost in fog, virtual silhouettes in a blue-gray haze.

The film plays up the strengths of the stars, Kirk Douglas is both charming and caddish, Tony Curtis eager to prove himself, while Ernest Borgnine is boisterousness personified. Has Janet Leigh looked more beautiful than in The Vikings? Leigh is seen in form-fitting bodices, one of which is subject of a mildly suggestive moment in a film that is in part about women as property or the subject of sexual desire.

The blu-ray comes with a half hour featurette, from the earlier DVD release, with Fleischer discussing the making of The Vikings. Snapshots were taken of the stars in the small ship that was home for cast and crew. We also see the tower constructed for an overhead shot looking down the side of a fjord, as well as the huge VistaVision camera used for filming. This is the kind of movie that's best enjoyed on the largest screen possible.

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Posted by peter at 02:24 PM

March 08, 2016

The Forbidden Room

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Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson - 2015
Kino Lorber BD Region A

It should be a surprise to no one that I have dreams about movies as well as dreams about seeing movies. I've even had incredibly vivid dreams about finding hidden movie theaters showing the kind of films that might only appear in the most specialized of cinematheques. One time I dreamt about a volcano and a Korean character from a film I just saw came wandering in.

Probably the best way to approach The Forbidden Room is to think of it as a two hour dream about movies. Characters wander in and out of several different, tenuously connected narratives. The narratives, such as they are, as well as the title, are inspired by a variety of lost films from different eras and countries. The title is from an Allan Dwan short from 1914, with Lon Chaney in a supporting role. Men trapped in a submarine with an unstable explosive on board segues to a story about a lumberjack rescuing a woman kidnapped by modern day cavemen which in turn becomes the story of a woman haunted by the Filipino vampire known as the aswang. Everything ends with a montage of characters all on their respective collision course.

As in previous films by Maddin, what we see looks deliberately archaic. With unnatural colors, and the effects of mottling, this is like a collection of scenes from films rescued from the attics and basements from people who had no idea about film preservation or just didn't care. While the Maddin makes films that have been inspired from forgotten genre films from the past, Evan Johnson's contribution was to make these reveries possible with digital technology. Several well known actors participated, mostly in brief appearances, including Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, and Geraldine Chaplin. The commentary track discusses some of the films that were sources of inspiration, as well as the making of The Forbidden Room. The Blu-ray also includes a booklet with an essay by Hillary Weston that provides some sort of explanation about the film, as well as a humorous account of filmmaking by Guy Maddin.

Posted by peter at 04:55 PM

March 06, 2016

Coffee Break

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Glenn Shadix in Dunston Checks in (Ken Kwapis - 1996)

Posted by peter at 01:52 PM

March 03, 2016

Victoria

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Sebastian Schipper - 2015
Adopt Films BD Region A

I admit to being ambivalent about films that are presented as one continuous shot, be they actually filmed that way or edited to appear as a seamless whole. At this point, the one film that worked best for me is still Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark which was dazzling enough with the artwork in the Hermitage Museum. Now that the technology exists to do the filming for the entire length of a feature, there is still the question of whether the challenge to make a film in this manner adds anything to the artistry of filmmaking.

While the craftsmanship of Victoria is admirable, there were times when I felt that at 138 minutes, the story could have used a bit of pruning. The real star of Victoria is Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen. That Grovlen followed the action going up and down staircases, in and out of cabs, and on the streets of Berlin, is the most amazing part of the film. The story itself is of some interest. Schipper began with the concept of a robbery and expanded the story from there. Unsurprisingly, it would be a French film critic who would bring up the comparison to the classic noir, Gun Crazy, noted for the long continuous take of a bank robbery and getaway. I would hope that Schipper has gotten around to seeing the Joseph Lewis film from 1950. In Schipper's film, a young Spanish woman meets a quartet of young guys so rowdy, they're denied entrance to a dive of a Berlin nightclub. Relatively new to Berlin, and barely speaking any German, Victoria takes the invitation to hang out with the guys. A night of drinking turns into something more serious as the guys, presumably small time criminals, are to do a robbery. One of the young men gets sick. Victoria, with no idea of what she is getting into, volunteers to do the driving for a what is suppose to be a quick and easy job.

It's some of the individual images that have the most interest. The film begins inside the small night club, dancers appear as shadows against the strobe lights and percussive beat. The camera wanders a bit inside the club until focussing on Victoria. As the story progresses, we are able to see daylight dimly over the city. Victoria and the man she latches onto, Sonne, speak English to each other. The other characters speak German. There are a few moments when there are no subtitles, or what is said is unclear, yet none of that matters. Most of what transpires can be understood visually. Hopefully, the interest in Victoria will make Sebastian Schipper's earlier work available for further evaluation.

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Posted by peter at 03:13 PM

March 01, 2016

Paprika

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Tinto Brass - 1991
Cult Epics BD Region A

It has been too long since I've seen Kenji Mizoguchi's Street of Shame. That film, about the last days of legal prostitution in Japan, and the women who work in a brothel, takes place within about two years of Paprika, and the efforts to close Italy's then legal brothels. I would not be surprised if Tinto Brass was familiar with Mizoguchi's final work, or if it was of some inspiration. The supplementary interview with this new blu ray includes an interview with Brass, discussing his own experiences and observations prior to 1958, when the law closing Italy's brothels took effect.

There is very little shame in Brass's world. His heroine is a naive young lady who initially goes to work for a couple of weeks with the goal providing her boyfriend with the finances to launch a small business. Discovering what the audience suspected, that the boyfriend is a cad, Paprika becomes dedicated to her work, with the goal of making herself financially independent. Not only are there a variety of sexual experiences, but most are found to be enjoyable. In spite of set-backs, Paprika is able to live her life on her own terms.

The perky score by Riz Ortolani sounds like something that might accompany a silent movie. And for the most part, Paprika is a comic fable, with lots of nudity. There is more care than I've seen in some bigger budget films to make everything era appropriate with the costumes and hair styles. One of the nice touches is the use of popular songs from that time, including Edith Piaf and Juliette Greco, as well as the high pitched vocals of the Mediterranean version of "The Chipmunks". There's also a terrific dance number that takes place at a dive in Marseilles.

That dance scene best employs a visual motif that appears frequently throughout Paprika. Brass has a several shots taken from floor level, usually with feet and ankles seen in the foreground. It's a nice touch by a filmmaker who could well have made more of a name for himself as a visual stylist, had he chosen to do so. Lateral tracking shots of women's bare asses isn't the stuff of serious film criticism, but that's never been the point of most of Brass's oeuvre.

Those familiar with the film of Tinto Brass from 1976 on, know what to expect. The interview suggests that for Brass, aside from making films is an enjoyment of finding a new "discovery" and making her his muse for one film. Apparently, Deborah Caprioglio found one kinky scene to be a challenge, although I would think it would be easier than living with Klaus Kinski as she had done prior to making Paprika.

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Posted by peter at 07:24 PM