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September 25, 2018

Joaquim Pedro de Andrade: The Complete Films

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Joaquim Pedro de Andrade - 1959-1981
Kino Classics BD Region A Three disc set

I may have bitten off more than I can chew here. This set contains six features and eight shorts which I saw over the course of three days. I know that there are a bunch of cultural references that I missed, and that may also be missed by those not familiar not only with Andrade, or Cinema Novo - the Brazilian "New Wave" of the Sixties and early Seventies, but the history of Brazil from its days as a Portuguese colony to its more recent history at the time the films were made. None of this should dissuade anyone from taking a look at these films but instead serve as a reminder of how those of us in North America are generally better informed about Europe than the continent south of us.

By the time Cinema Novo had made its way to art theater and film festival showings in the U.S., it was in a state of decline in Brazil. This was a time when some cineastes were looking for the various waves of young filmmakers around the world, with several of the films picked up by New Yorker Films or Grove Press Films. Unlike the French New Wave, where we had some idea of what the rebellion was all about, Cinema Novo was both a rebellion in terms of filmmaking and of taking a political stance. I don't think too many of us were aware of Brazilian film history, and only had the vaguest ideas regarding culture and history. I would think that for many of us, the only Brazilian film we were aware of prior to Cinema Novo was Black Orpheus - the Greek legend transposed to Rio during the Carnival, by French filmmaker Marcel Camus.

It is the short films that offer the most accessible viewing. Tropical Lane especially will come as a surprise. Sex is frequently a part of Andrade's work, and this film, about a young man and his erotic encounters with watermelons was made forty years before the pineapples of Girls Trip and the peaches of Call Me by Your Name. Animal lovers may be upset by Cat Skin, about a young boy from Rio's favelas who steals a cat for the purpose of selling it, cat skins being used to make tambourines. Cinema Novo, made for German television, provides a brief history of the loose group of filmmakers who in turn were inspired by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who amazingly died at the age of 89 last April, outliving many of the filmmakers he inspired. Andrade even shows one of the filmmakers getting a loan from a bank to finance his film. There is also a scene of an editing crew gathered around the flatbed Moviola, the film editing machine that they all share, a gift through UNESCO. Brasilia: Contradictions of a New City is fascinating in its history of a city completely built from the ground up, with idealized intentions, but without fully anticipating certain consequences. As the capital of Brazil, many of the top political leaders still preferred to live in Rio or Sao Paulo. Housing was made up of blocks of huge, six story apartments. Even with housing available for lower income families, there was still the spontaneous creation of shacks in distant outskirts, either for those who worked in Brasilia but could not afford to live there, or for the many who came for the limited jobs in construction. As noted in the final credits regarding the restoration of this film, the producers may have been expecting a different film than the one made by Andrade.

Among the features, Garrincha: Joy of the People is a documentary about the popular soccer star with unusually twisted legs. Nicknamed after a bird, Manual Francisco dos Santos is seen feted by fans and the political elite. The film is also about the Brazilian love of soccer. Conjugal Warfare jumps between three narratives - an elderly couple, finding reasons to be unhappy with each other, a married man seeking happiness with an unusual variety of prostitutes, and a sleazy lawyers whose sexual advances a rebuffed by several women, who then finds himself on the receiving end of a male admirer.

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The Conspirators takes place in 18th Century Brazil, with several men discussing possible rebellion against Portugal. The incident was known as the Minas Gerais Conspiracy, taking place in 1789. One of the leaders, Tiradentes, was executed, while the others were exiled. One of the sources of inspiration was the then recent American Revolution. After Brazil was became a republic in 1889, Tiradentes was declared by martyr, and ironically also made a patron of the Military Police, a point made at the conclusion, featuring a parade. It should be noted that The Conspirators was made during the time of military rule in Brazil.

The original poster for MacunaĆ­ma is the inspiration for the cover of this blu-ray set. This film and Andrade's final feature, The Brazilwood Man are both freewheeling allegories about Brazil, its government, culture, race, and sexual relations. Andrade also uses distancing devices adding to the artificial qualities of many of the scenes. As such, I feel in discussing these films that they are better served surveys on Andrade by Olaf Moller and Ela Bittencourt.

All films end with credits regarding to 2K restoration required for each of the films. An essay by Fabio Andrade is also enclosed.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:00 AM

September 23, 2018

Coffee Break

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Stephen Boyd and Susan Hayward in Woman Obsessed (Henry Hathaway - 1959)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:42 AM

September 20, 2018

The Farmer's Daughter

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H. C. Potter - 1947
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The Farmer's Daughter is one of those films that straddles that sometimes thin fence that separates the classic from a film that is simply old. Certainly, the title has lost its meaning, originating from a series of jokes from the period, usually regarding a naive country girl taken advantage of by a salesman from the city. And there is some reference to that in the initial set-up that takes Loretta Young's Katie from the mid-western family farm to Capital City. For myself, until I saw the blu-ray, the film was only known as the basis for the television series from the early Sixties, with an actress of Swedish origin, Inger Stevens, as the Swedish-American title character.

With her resolution to be totally self-reliant, Katie hitches her way Capital City virtually broke, still hoping to attend nursing school. A one day temp job as a fill-in maid becomes an offer of full time employment based on her talent for making coffee served to a group of politicians. The widow of a famous senator, Mrs. Morley, is the unnamed political party's kingmaker. Her son, Glenn, is a congressman. While this is the Morley home, it is Clancy, the majordomo, who is in charge of operations within the household. Katie's blunt political opinions raise some eyebrows, but she endears herself to the Morley's, at least until her public questioning of a congressional candidate gets her recruited to run as the opposition.

Politically, The Farmer's Daughter has its heart in the right place. In one of her campaign speeches, Katie talks about representing all citizens regardless of race and religion. The bad guys, led by the unctuous Anders Finley, are revealed to be members of an unnamed white nationalist group. When Finley reveals his true agenda to Mrs. Morley, Clancy bodily tosses him out of the mansion, throwing Finley's hat with message, "Take your hood with you." And while some of politics can still be considered timely, what feels missing is some of the satiric bite of a filmmaker like Frank Capra or Preston Sturges.

Loretta Young won an Oscar for the title role. I can only assume that this was more for career recognition, and that her character was more likable than the competition made up of flawed characters portrayed by Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward and Dorothy McGuire. Maybe the slight Swedish accent helped. It is worth noting that Ingrid Bergman turned down the role, not wanting to be typecast based on her accent. Both actresses were about ten years too old for the role. If Loretta Young was going to get an Oscar nomination for that year, her role as the wife caught between earthbound husband David Niven, and heavenly Cary Grant, in The Bishop's Wife is of greater interest.

The commentary track by film historian Lee Gambin mostly concentrates on the career of Ms. Young, and how The Farmer's Daughter fits in with the history of female led films of the Forties. Ethel Barrymore and Charles Bickford, Mrs. Morley and Clancy respectively, are given short shrift here even though they provide the true heart of the film with their slyly knowing performances. Joseph Cotton is barely acknowledged as well, although this is in-between some more memorable films as part of David O. Selznick's stock company.

Of some historical interest are several of the supporting actors. As Katie's brothers, James Arness, Lex Barker and Keith Andes would achieve varying degrees of future fame. The Swedish born silent film star, Anna Q. Nilsson is seen briefly as Katie's mother. Virginia, the conniving journalist with an eye for Glenn, and the stink eye for Katie, is played by Rose Hobart, the actress immortalized in the experimental short by artist Joseph Cornell.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:11 AM

September 18, 2018

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji

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Chiyari Fuji
Tomu Uchida - 1955
Arrow Academy BD Region A

You know something's up when you're about to watch a Japanese period film, and the opening music track hints at less serious activities. Divorced from any images, the occasional jazzy stylings of Taiichiro Kosugi's score suggests an urban melodrama, or possible comedy, set in the 1940s. As it is, most of the expected tropes of the period samurai film are undermined or ignored here. Even the English language title is misleading.

The samurai isn't even the main character. We first see a group of travelers on foot, walking on a ridge dotted with bare trees, with Mount Fuji in the background. They are on their way to Edo, bound together simply sharing the same route and staying in the same inns. The samurai is with two servants, one whose job is specifically as his spear carrier. The samurai, Sakawa, is noted by his two servants, Genta and Gonpachi, to be avoiding sake during this trip, and also having a reputation as a mean drunk. Getting in the way of his duties, Gonpachi is followed by a very young orphan, Jiro, whose stated ambition to go to Edo to be a spear carrier.

The sometimes idealized view of Japan in the Shogunate era is examined for the illogic of the rules that governed social roles at the time. The travelers are temporarily unable to continue walking when a group of nobles block the road in order to have an outdoor tea ceremony. Several samurai take Sakawa to task for treating Genta as an equal, drinking sake with him in public. Sakawa's small sip of sake become full blown inebriation, angrily pulling rank on Genta. Mount Fuji, the tradition symbol of Japan, is seen as becoming obscured by clouds, just as the idealized notion of the country is lost amid increasingly absurd rules.

Tomu Uchida was a peer of such filmmakers as Ozu and Mizoguchi, with his first directorial credit in 1922. Unlike most Japanese filmmakers, he never aligned himself for any significant period with any of the studios, and left Japan to make films in Manchuria during World War II. Manchuria during this time was a Japanese colony. There appears to be disagreement regarding Uchida's activities after the war, as he did not return to Japan until 1954. Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji was Uchida's first film after fifteen years. Yasujiro Ozu, Daisuke Ito, and Hiroshi Shimizu are credited here as advisors to the production. Uchida also had the benefit of having Chiezo Kataoka, a major star of period films, appear as Gonpachi. Two of Kataoka's children are in the cast with his son as Jiro, and daughter as Okin, a very young singer and dancer, daughter to the woman, an itinerant shamisen player. I have to wonder if anyone involved in the writing of the screenplay had seen George Steven's Shane. The final scene, with Gonpachi walking alone into the sunset, refusing to let young Jiro tag along, recalls Brandon DeWilde calling after reluctant hero Alan Ladd.

Arrow was able to port over supplements from the French label, Wild Side. Included here are an interview with Uchida's son Yasuka, and a very informative interview with former publicist Kazunori Kishida which provides more details on the history of Toei Studios. French critic Fabrice Arduini also provides an overview of Uchida's career with excerpts from some of his other films. The consistently reliable Jasper Sharp also provides a commentary track made for this new release. The supplements should be of interest and value to those with a general interest in Japanese cinema.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:04 AM

September 16, 2018

Coffee Break

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Robert Middleton and Cornel Wilde in The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis - 1955)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:38 AM

September 11, 2018

The Guardians

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Les gardiennes
Xavier Beauvois - 2017
Music Box Films

The opening of The Guardians is a traveling shot surveying a group of dead soldiers, all wearing gas masks. Most of the film takes place during World War One, beginning in 1916 when it is clear after two years that the war will not be as short as anticipated, ending two years later with France now settled back into civilian existence. Except for a soldier's nightmare of being in battle, the war is unseen, taking place well beyond the small rural village. The impact is visible with a population made up of women, young children and old men.

Hortense, the matriarch of a farm, hires a young woman, Francine, to help out, initially as seasonal help. Francine is kept on full-time. The sturdy redhead attracts the attention of Hortense's son, Georges, who is temporarily on leave. The two become lovers. Francine is later seen by Hortense and Georges fending off the advances of an American soldier stationed in town. Even though Hortense is aware of Francine's innocence, she is dismissed due to Hortense's concerns about the reputation of the family.

All of which brings up the question regarding who are the guardians and what or who is being protected. Even the idea of the soldiers being the guardians of France is questioned. An early scene is of school children reciting an anti-German poem with reference to "the Krauts". Hortense's other soldier son, Clovis, has a more human view of the Germans. Georges has a nightmare of fighting of the enemy single-handedly only to unmask a soldier and see himself. Hortense sees her role as defending her family, while Francine declares that her yet to be born son will act as her protector. Tradition is forced to give way to modernization as machinery is used to replace the manual harvesting of the wheat fields.

Nathalie Baye is virtually unrecognizable as Hortense, looking much older than her actual age. Francine is played by Iris Bry, spotted by a casting director on the street with no reported acting experience at age 22. A new French female star? I'm not making any predictions, while one critic has compared Bry to Isabelle Huppert, probably more for the similar hair color.

One of my favorite moments is when Georges and Francine meet for a discreet render-vous in the woods, stopping at an area with what appears to have been the remnant of a neolithic monument. Beauvois films the hands of Francine and Georges feeling the surface of one of the large standing stones. The two hands are next to each other, finally locked together. The scene is one of the few with Michel Legrand's sparsely heard music on the soundtrack. The music is wistfully romantic, and as such recalls the kind of moments associated with the earlier films of Francois Truffaut and Jacques Demy.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:58 AM

September 09, 2018

Coffee Break

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Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni in Three Hearts (Benoit Jacquot - 2014)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:28 AM

September 04, 2018

Goldstone

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Ivan Sen - 2016
Lightyear Entertainment

Goldstone could easily be described as a contemporary Chinatown, set in Australia's outback. What begins as the story of a detective looking for a missing woman, constantly reminded that he is an unwanted outsider, is also the story of exploitation - land deals, shady financial schemes, displacement of the local population, and environmental ruin. Keep in mind that this comparison is restricted to the main narrative elements. In no way does Ivan Sen try to mimic the look of other films except for a shoot out near the end.

The film is the second to center on freelance detective Jay Swan, seen previously in Mystery Road (2013). Swan is racially mixed, Aborigine father, white mother, so is viewed with suspicion by both the indigenous population and the white authority figures and settlers. The themes of race and cultural as well as physical displacement are personal for Sen, whose own background is mixed. Sen announces his themes as the film opens with a montage of vintage photos of white settlers in shacks, Aborigines in western clothing, and Chinese workers. Sen suggests here that the history of Australia has always been been an untidy intertwining of the native people, settlers and immigrant labor that is still in progress.

It might be an exaggeration to call Goldstone a mining town. Scattered at random along a two-lane highway are various pre-fab buildings, a police station, a bar, and a motel that is comprised of small trailers. A large portion of land is block off as the property of the mining company. The mayor, a middle-aged woman, and the mine's supervisor, plot to expand mining operations into land belonging to the indigenous community, attempting to bribe their leaders. The mining operation also involved with human trafficking, bringing in Chinese women who have been forced in prostitution, primarily on behalf of the miners. The environmental impact is suggested by a shot of several dead fish at the edge of a lake.

While integrated as part of his story telling, Sen uses many panning shots of the sunbaked area, hard, dusty land and mountains. Sen also likes to use extreme overhead shots with the camera looking down on his characters, a sort of god's eye view of the action. The only location that easily can be described as beautiful is a stream hidden between a narrow mountain pathway, with indigenous artwork along the wall. It is suggested that this stream is only known by a few, and the artwork has mystical meaning.

While it isn't necessary to see Mystery Road to enjoy Goldstone, it does help as there are some references to the earlier film. Aaron Pedersen returns as Swan, this time significantly worse for wear. One of Hong Kong's first female action stars, Cheng Pei-pei, plays the madam in control of the prostitutes. David Gulpilil is virtually typecast here as the Aborigine leader who refuses to be corrupted by the mining company. Jacki Weaver has also been making a career as a villain, here offering homemade cakes and a toothy smile while using her position to intimidate others. Sen not only wrote and directed his film, but also served as cinematographer, editor and music composer. Goldstone and Ivan Sen were nominated for several Australian Academy Awards, losing to the juggernaut that was Hacksaw Ridge.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:15 AM

September 02, 2018

Coffee Break

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Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti - 2018)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:47 AM