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April 19, 2019

Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse

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Lukas Feigelfeld - 2018
Doppelgänger Releasing

With its 15th Century rural setting, Hagazussa treads some of the some ground as November and The VVitch. Unlike those two films, there is no obvious display of magic of any kind. And any horror may be too subtle for those viewers who demand graphic violence. The title is the old German word for witch.

The opening shot reminded me of another film where the horror was an unseen presence in the snowy woods. A girl, barely an adolescent, is walking alone in the snow. She is bundled up in clothing that is black or gray. Even the trees are drained of any color. At first there is the impression that the film is in black and white. Those first few shots made me think of Track of the Cat, where William Wellman's film shot in color, muted by costumes and design, save for Robert Mitchum's red overcoat. Whether this was deliberate or coincidental on the part of Feigelfeld is something I can't answer, but the visual and thematic similarities are there.

Whether or not Albrun, the young woman first introduced as the girl in the opening scene, is actually a witch is left open. There are accusations by some of the villagers whom Albrun encounters. This may be due to Albrun, like her mother before her, choosing to live further apart from the others, tending to her goats. The film is almost dialogue free, and Albrun barely speaks, even when visited by a neighbor woman. When asked about the paternity of her baby daughter, Lebrun only explains, "There is no husband", almost suggesting parthenogenesis. When Albrun visits the village priest, the only vague clue is that Albrun must resolve something deemed sacrilegious. She is also given the skull of her dead mother. Strangely, Albrun is undisturbed by any villagers during the time when she most likely could have provoked accusations.

As Albrun, Aleksandra Cwen is almost blank in her facial expression for most of the film. Her performance is primarily in her eyes. There is one scene where the camera focuses on Cwen's face. We can not see what is happening to Albrun, though the viewer can make some assumptions based on the previous shots. But what the audience does see are Cwen's eyes getting wider, while her focus remains looking down, below the bottom of the frame. More erotically suggestive is a scene of Albrun milking a goat. Feigelfeld keeps the viewer from knowing exactly what is going on, keeping the camera distant on Cwen's back in what may be the most horrific scene.

Hagazussa was primarily a student project by Feigelfeld for the German Film and Television Academy Berlin, produced over a period of four years, and partially financed by crowd funding. The unusual music track is by the Greek duo, MMMD, with a combination of custom made instruments and software.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:33 AM

April 17, 2019

Knife + Heart

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Une Couteau dans le Coeur
Yann Gonzalez - 2018
Altered Innocence

While Yann Gonzalez's film has been in release in the U.S. for about a month, some of my comments will reflect the screenings at the Sie Film Center in Denver.

In a perfect situation, an annotated version of b>Knife + Heart would be available to point out all the cinematic references. The opening scene takes place in a gay nightclub, and any reminders of William Friedkin's Cruising would be hard to miss. But what to make of the drummer seen in the background, wearing a full-sized eagle mask on his head, a mask similar to the one worn by Channing Pollock in Georges Franju's Judex? And the alcoholic lesbian director of gay porn movies, Anne, has a poster of Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer, a film about idealized, platonic, heterosexual love. The film mostly takes place in a dark and seedy Paris, in 1979. While there are those specific references to other films, as a whole this is a mash-up of slasher films of that era mixed with the making of a triple X film.

Anne is trying to reconcile with Lois, her lover as well as her editor. Her actors are the victims of violent murders. At the same time as she is trying to discover the connection to the killer, she films a virtual parody of the investigation, with scenes of gay sex. Gonzalez plays with old cinematic tropes of killers and sexual perversity. There is a shout out to William Castle when Anne decides to title her new film, Homocidal. And like the psychosexual films of the past, the explanations usually make any motivations for murder more confusing.

I do like this film much more than Gonzalez's debut, You and the Night. It's a more fully realized dreamscape of transgression. For those more squeamish about watching man on man sex, but don't mind displays of violent deaths, your secret is safe. There are plenty of shots of long knives, but none of long penises, or any full frontal nudity for that matter. Vanessa Paradis goes full diva as Anne as needed, a woman whose unfulfilled desires are barely sublimated by her need to direct men to perform sexually with each other on queue. Also in the cast are The Wild Boys writer-director Bertrand Mandico, Elina Lowensohn, and Romane Bohringer - a reminder that Savage Nights is way overdue a digital rescue.

As part of the Sie Film Center screenings, Knife + Heart will be shown with an actual gay porno film from 1980, Equation to an Unknown. Filmed in 16mm, and restored by Yann Gonzalez, who made his own homage to the original within Knife + Heart. The 1980 film credited to Dietrich de Velsa (Francis Savel), is primarily vignettes of sex mostly between the young members of a soccer team. Even without the explicit moments, Savel shows care in the use of framing and lighting. Was Caravaggio a visual influence with a cast mostly comprised of young men with dark, curly hair? There is also an indication of ambivalence, a suggestion that these young men, barely adults, may indulge in sex with each other, but may not think of themselves as gay. As such, the more narrative portions of Equation to an Unknown are close in spirit to the homosocial world of Eliza Hittman's Beach Rats.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:21 AM

April 15, 2019

Fantomas: Three Film Collection

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Fantomas
Andre Hunebelle - 1964

Fantomas Unleashed / Fantomas se dechaine
Andre Hunebelle - 1965

Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard / Fantomas contre Scotland-Yard
Andre Hunebelle - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD two-disc set Region A

I can't quite explain it, but for myself, these three films from the 1960s feel more dated than the classic French 1913 serial by Louis Feuillade. The original character was introduced by writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre in 1911 in a total of forty-three volumes. A criminal genius, Fantomas was the master of disguise, and had outlandish means at his disposal of committing his crimes. His goal was world domination. Fantomas battles the police inspector Juve and journalist Fandor. The three films here comprise the most recent theatrical version inspired by the books and silent serial. What is of interest to me is the way the films were made as a French response to the popularity of the James Bond films, and the ways the three entries differ from each other.

The three films are generally much lighter than the serial, with more comic moments. For all of his supposed villainy, this Fantomas most revels in acts of anarchy and thumbing his nose at the rich and powerful. He is introduced in the guise of a British lord shopping for jewelry at Van Cleef and Arpels in Paris, buying various diamond necklaces with the casualness of someone picking up groceries at 7-11. The purchase turns out to be theft as the check is written with disappearing ink. A group gathered in front of a store watch the wall full of televisions, all with Commissioner Juve declaring his intention to arrest Fantomas. Someone, Fantomas or one his his henchmen, tosses some dynamite through the shop window. I would think that for the average Parisian, Fantomas might be more of an annoyance than a threat.

In addition to all three films directed by Andre Hunebelle, there is Jean Marais in the double role of Fantomas and Fandor, Mylene Demongeot supplying the eye candy as Helene, news photographer and perpetual fiancee of Fandor's, and comic Louis de Funes as Juve. Marais, who was well into his forties when he became an action star in French movies, was 51 at the time of the first film. De Funes, who actually was a year younger, but looked older, was an established supporting actor at the time of production, becoming a major star with the release of one of his other films prior to the second Fantomas film. Between the physical demands of the roles played by Marais, and de Funes ascending stardom, the three films show a distinct shift in emphasis between the two actors, as well as a diminishing presence of Demongeot.

There are various set pieces that stand out, especially considering that the films were made without the use of CGI. Especially noteworthy is that Jean Marais did much of his own stunt work, especially in the first film. At one point, Marais is walking across the top of a very high crane, and climbs up the ladder from a helicopter, whisking him away from de Funes. The shot was done in a long single take which shows a bit of bravery or foolishness or both on the part of Marais. There must of been some well hidden safety devices used as one of Thailand's top action stars died doing a similar stunt because he was unable to hang on to the airborne ladder.

There is also a chase through a narrow winding road, with Marais and Demongeot going downhill fast in a car lacking brakes or a working transmission. As soon as I saw the car rolling sideways on two wheels, I assumed this was the work of stunt driver Remy Julienne. As it turns out, this is where Julienne's film career began.

The first film's comic highlight has de Funes plugging his ears, blocking out all noise for a night's restful sleep. He is woken by his none-too-bright assistant played by Jacques Dynam, who is seen from de Funes' point of view, miming getting an emergency call about Fantomas' most recent crime. The sound in the film is restored when de Funes removes his ear plugs. The second film features an amusing animated credit sequence which essentially covers the key moments of the first film. There is confusion taking place in Rome, with Fandor and Fantomas both disguises as a scientist, with the real scientist unexpectedly showing up. At a costume party, de Funes dresses up as a pirate with an eyepatch that won't stay down and peg leg that may well have inspired Quentin Tarantino. The third film mostly showcases the perpetually exasperated de Funes and clueless sidekick Dynam in a supposed haunted Scottish castle. Fantomas threatens to kill everyone on earth and move to another planet, but settles for scamming a dozen of the world's wealthiest people for a few million dollars.

The first disc is the first Fantomas film, with a commentary track by Tim Lucas. The history of the character is discussed along with notes on the film, the stars, locations, some of the crew members, and a couple of points on the two sequels. As usual, Lucas is able to add to previously known information regarding the films and filmmakers. This is especially helpful as only the first film received a limited release in the United States, while this is the first legitimate stateside release of the sequels. Lucas is right about cautioning viewers not to take anything that happens in these films seriously. The films also provide a reminder that while French cinema of the 1960s is often thought of in terms of the Nouvelle Vague and Left Bank filmmakers, the Fantomas series represent the kind of films that most French viewers were watching.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:09 AM

April 11, 2019

Phantom Lady

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Robert Siodmak - 1944
Arrow Films BD Region A

Phantom Lady is about a married guy who walks out on his wife and into a bar. He meets a woman with an unusual looking feathered hat. The woman, for her own reasons, is also unhappy. She agrees to go with the man to a Broadway show that night on the the condition that the two remain anonymous. Following the show, the man leaves the woman at the bar where they met. When he goes home, the man is met by detectives in his apartment. The man's wife is dead, strangled with one of the man's ties. The evidence is that the man murdered his wife, and all the potential witnesses claim that the woman with the hat never existed.

For me, the real Phantom Lady was the producer of the film, Joan Harrison. Some of my thoughts are speculation on my part due to lack of immediate documentation on how much of a hand Harrison had in the making of the film aside from the good sense to hire Robert Siodmak, setting the course for him to follow up Son of Dracula with a modestly budgeted film that led to more prestigious productions. The blu-ray release is my first time seeing Phantom Lady since it was broadcast about twenty years ago on the American Movie Classics cable channel. Bob Dorian, the host, had discussed how Joan Harrison had been able to go from being an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock to being a producer on her own. There are a couple of reasons why I think Harrison had a more active hand in the production here. For Hitchcock, Harrison had worked, sometimes without credit, on the screenplays. Amazingly, she was nominated twice for the 1941 Oscar for her hand in Foreign Correspondent and Rebecca. Harrison could well have had input in the screenplay for Phantom Lady. Also, the source novel is by Cornell Woolrich under the pseudonym of William Irish. Part of Harrison's work for Hitchcock involved reading novels and providing synopses for potential films. One episode from the television series, "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" is from a Woolrich short story, as was the Hitchcock film, Rear Window.

Not having read Woolrich's novel, I have no idea how close the characters are as realized in the film. What struck me, and I may be on my own on this, is that Harrison split the character of Guy Curzon from Hitchcock's Young and Innocent into a manic drummer and the murderous artist with the twitch in his eyes. Cliff, the drummer, who performs with the Broadway show orchestra, seems as easily distracted as Curzon, albeit due to his paying more attention to the women in the audience than to the conductor. As his identity is more likely to be revealed, the killer in Phantom Lady more frequently covers his eyes, literal and metaphorical light become brighter.

Phantom Lady is rightly celebrated for a brief scene of a jazz band playing in some barely lit hidey hole. Zoot suited Elisha Cook, Jr. asks Ella Raines if she jives. Raines, uncomfortably dressed as slatternly as possible declares herself a "hep kitten". This is followed by the scene of Cook sitting in with a group of jazz musicians, filmed primarily in tight closeups of the musicians, extreme angles and a sense of claustrophobia. Cook's drumming, dubbed by Dave Coleman, is furious, a storm of percussion. The scene may well be Robert Siodmak at his most expressionistic.

One of my favorite moments is a shot of fall guy Alan Curtis grilled by detective Regis Toomey, underneath a large full-sized portrait of Curtis' dead wife. Curtis' wealth and taste are as meaningless as his alibi. Underneath some flashes of mock sympathy, Toomey's look is of someone who has no problem telling Curtis he's guilty of murder. Being a film of its time, the detectives all but call Curtis a cuck.

The blu-ray comes with the radio version of Phantom Lady with Curtis and Raines. There is also an older documentary, Dark and Deadly: Fifty Years of Film Noir that appears to have been made for television. Clips from older films, notably Murder, My Sweet and several neo-noirs such as The Last Seduction and One False Move are featured with comments by Robert Wise, Edward Dmytryk, B. Ruby Rich, Dennis Hopper and John Alton. I would have preferred more Wise, Dmytryk and Alton for a better sense of making the films at the time before they were identified as film noir.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:24 AM

April 09, 2019

The Iguana with a Tongue on Fire

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L'iguana dalla lingua di fuoco
Riccardo Freda - 1971
Arrow Films BD Region A

This may well be the first time where some of the people commissioned by Arrow Films are virtually reduced to back-handed compliments. To put it another way, The Iguana with a Tongue on Fire a film will be appreciated primarily by genre enthusiasts, Freda completists and a few film scholars. The more casual viewer may be left wondering what the fuss is about with this relatively obscure work, from an Italian filmmaker best known for a handful of horror films.

The film could well be retitled, "Fish market full of red herrings". The camera zooms in on a pair of sunglasses worn by several characters, as well as a straight razor that shows up unexpectedly, accompanied by a metallic sounding musical queue. And yet, neither of these supposed clues lead to the identity of the killer. The title refers to a police inspector's convoluted description of the killer as an animal that can camouflage himself in his surroundings, seemingly harmless, but with a "tongue of fire", although that would more accurately refer to a chameleon. Riccardo Freda co-wrote and co-edited the film, and disappointed with the results, credited himself with the pseudonym of Willy Pareto. Beyond his wishing that Roger Moore had starred as a rogue detective, I have no idea what Freda was hoping to achieve. What we have is a maddening mix of craftsmanship and slapdash.

Did Freda, with writer Sandro Continenzo, simply make things up as they went along? We know that the alleged literary source, a novel called A Room without a Door, does not exist. The basic story about a serial killer who tosses acid in women's faces before slashing their throats, did not have to take place in Dublin. It could well be that the entire production was just a pretext for Freda to indulge in some international travel. The problem with Iguana is that there are just so many moments that even for a genre film do not make sense. A schoolboy opens the trunk of a car, revealing the maimed corpse of a woman. His response is to look blankly at the body, and then glance a crow flying near the roof of his house. A doctor offers help when a second victim is found murdered in a nightclub. The nightclub proprietor tells the doctor his help is not needed, only to immediately invite the doctor to investigate. A woman is lying in a bathtub with her throat cut, but no one is in a rush to get her out of the tub or call a doctor. That the film can be accused of casual misogyny, racism and homophobia is the least of this film's problems. The unnecessary reference to Swastika Laundry seems especially thoughtless.

Freda seems to care more about what he's doing with the brief scenes featuring Valentina Cortese. Expressively using her eyes and hands, Cortese is able to tell us all that's needed about her character, the lonely wife of ambassador Anton Diffring. Freda frames the shots to Cortese's advantage, the best of which is a two-shot of Cortese with Diffring seen as the reflection on a mirror, with the camera moving away from Cortese to a close-up of Diffring. There are lyrical shots along a rocky coast, with Luigi Pistelli, the rogue detective, and Dagmar Lassander, the ambassador's daughter. Pistelli has his hands around Lassander's throat as if to choke her, right before kissing her, somewhat suggestive of Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock's Suspicion. A later moment of Lassander holding on to the edge of a drawbridge recalls James Stewart in Vertigo. Freda also included several Irish actors in the cast, notably the frog-like Arthur O'Sullivan as the police inspector, Niall Toibin as a creepy doctor, and Ruth Durley as Pistelli's mother, hard of hearing, with failing eyesight, who turns out to be a better detective than her son.

Of the blu-ray extras, the commentary track by Adrian Smith and David Flint, described by Arrow as "giallo connoisseurs" is essentially amusing banter between friends. More informative is the discussion of the film by the estimable film scholar Richard Dyer. One little bit of information that Dyer brings is that it is singer/composer Nora Orlandi who provides the vocal work during the opening credits. Musicologist Lovely Jon goes into detail regarding the career of composer Stelvio Cipriani, whose score for this film provides much of the heavy lifting. Film editor Bruno Micheli discusses his career, mentioning that there were versions of Iguana that included pornographic inserts. Dagmar Lassander talks about her career with several minutes devoted to the production of Iguana. The source 35mm negative appears to have been preserved in perfect condition.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:22 AM

April 04, 2019

Craft Film Festival 2019

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I first became aware of the Craft Film Festival a couple of years ago through Fred Ambroisine. As is not so unusual among cineastes and filmmakers, connections can be roundabout. Depending on which festival he is with, Fred can be a photographer, videographer or involved in the programming. I met Fred at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, five years ago. His Facebook postings about the Craft Film Festival got me intrigued.

As it turned out, reading the festival's website did not prepare me for the changes of their third year. Based in Barcelona, Spain, the first big change was moving the festival from a movie theater in a more commercial part of the city to Nau Bostik, a former glue factory turned cultural center, located in the quieter, residential section of the city known as La Sagera. Unlike the past years, there was a heavier presence of Spanish films. Also, ironic at a time when there is a demand for film festival to display gender balance, only two of the the eight selections were directed by women. There is something to be said for the move aligning the festival with its do-it-yourself ethos to a more casual location. Held during the last weekend of March, relatively warm days were replaced by cool nights, with the screening room finally getting heat on Sunday. It also may be a reflection on my being old and fat, but those narrow canvas chairs were uncomfortable for an extended period. Consider some of my concerns part of the festival's growing pains.

The downside of the cold screening rooms was that I felt ill following the first screening on Saturday night. Of eight films, I saw five. Of the five films seen, the two Spanish films had English subtitles. The other three films had Spanish subtitles. I don't speak Spanish, though I can recognize some words. I do like to think that I speak Cinema.

The opening night film, Tungstenio still resonates with me. Seen in Brazilian Portuguese with Spanish subtitles. Heitor Dhalia's film is full of dynamic images. At one point, a scene was filmed with the widescreen camera lens positioned vertically, for a temporarily disorienting moment. I undoubtedly lost some details and nuances along the way, but essentially the film is about one very bad cop, Richard, and his volatile relationships with the world, including his wife. With much of the action taking place on a dilapidated beach in Bahia, the viewer isn't even certain if Richard actually is a policeman, or just a guy with a gun. Among Richard's targets are a couple of guys trying to get by with dynamite fishing. Dhalia and writer Marcal Aquino keep things going at a trim 79 minutes. What I also liked was having the opportunity to see a different kind of Brazilian film, away from Rio and Sao Paulo, and neither exotic nor particularly humanistic.

I would encourage the filmmakers to consider an alternative title for H0US3, if only to not get their film confused with the several other similarly titled films. Seen in Spanish with English subtitles. A low budget sci-fi thriller that mostly takes place in one room. A reunion of college computer nerds slowly builds up after establishing the basic premise - a specially encrypted file has been found in Wikileaks, and their are suspicions regarding the contents. Almost sixty years after Kiss Me Deadly, the Pandora's Box is an online entity, while the curiosity about what's inside has not changed. Manuel Munguia and his team make effective use of limited special effects. Once the major plot twist kicks in, the narrative becomes riveting, especially during moments when reality gives way to virtual reality. I would hope H0US3 finds life in other film festivals.

Curiously, the two films by female filmmakers originated from countries that were satellites of the Soviet Union, and have stories about the effects of the changes when several eastern European countries declared independence and the two sections of Germany reunited. Natalie Saufert's Resentment takes place in Moldova during the Transnistria War in 1990, a conflict that was generally ignored by western news agencies. Transnistria is a stretch of land on the border between Moldova and Ukraine. Galina is thirty, alone, and living a life with few available options. She falls in love with a man, a mercenary, who is out of her life when she is pregnant. Galina establishes a life with another man who raises Galina's child as his own. This film was seen in Romanian with Spanish subtitles. What did not need translating were the observations of life in a small town, and the presentation of presumed male entitlement.

Irina Arms' Extreme Number is German film inspired by true events. Arms alternates between a narrative that takes place in 2004, and documentary footage of Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev. Taking place in Berlin, a young Chechen refugee, imprisoned, gets involved with a young woman who serves as his translator. She helps him escape from prison only to find herself horrified to discover that he is part of an underground network, and is planning a suicide bombing mission. Most of the film is in German, with some Chechen and Russian, with Spanish subtitles. I could only do a very rough translation of a scene with philosophical implications that would figure into the latter part of the narrative. What any viewer could understand is the moment when the would-be suicide bomber makes his way into an embassy reception and hesitates once he is aware that there are children in the room.

Mark John Ostrowski's Le Vrai Film est Ailleurs (The True Film is Elsewhere) is a Spanish film in French. The film centers on an older man, an expatriate, his son, and the the son's Argentinian girlfriend. There are various philosophical ramblings and symbolism, such as an American flag washed up on a beach. I'm usually a sucker for black and white films made in the 21st Century, but this is the kind of pretentiousness that gives art movies a bad name.

If there is to be a Craft Film Festival in 2020, I would only ask that if it is still at Nau Bostik, that the enthusiastic Craft team make sure the screening room is warmed up first if needed. And also convince the food truck people to show up on Sunday.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:32 PM