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August 31, 2021

Delon and Deray - Two Films

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The Gang / Le Gang
Jacques Deray - 1977

Three Men to Kill / Trois hommes à abattre
Jacques Deray - 1980
Cohen Film Collection BD Region A

Iconic French film star Alain Delon made nine films under the direction of Jacques Deray. With the exception of their first collaboration, La Piscine (1969), the films were all produced by Alain Delon. The most famous of these films is probably Borsalino, with an even bigger French star, Jean-Paul Belmondo. Delon and Deray also made Flic Story with the formidable Jean-Louis Trintignant. Aside from those two films, Delon was supported by a cast of actors generally unknown outside France. Like the two films on this blu-ray, the films had limited distribution primarily in Europe as well as Japan, where Delon was extremely popular.

The Gang is about a group of criminals who made headlines in France around 1945. The film is loosely based on actual events. The source book was by Roger Borniche, a police inspector turned crime novelist. This film followed Borniche's autobiographical Flic Story which had Delon starring as Borniche, in pursuit of a vicious criminal played by Trintignant. In The Gang, Delon is Robert, the leader of the group of five men. Jean-Claude Carriere co-wrote the screenplay, and is hand is apparent in some of the dialogue. Part of the film is from the point of view of Marinette, a coat check girl who impulsively becomes Robert's girlfriend. The film hints at the wartime lives of three of the gang members with one a member of the Resistance, one who was a collaborator, and one who was a German prisoner.

This is one easy going gangster film. There is less interest in the crimes than in the camaraderie of the gang. From what I gleaned from the dialogue, the police were in a state of disorganization in the months that Paris was liberated from the Nazis. This allowed Robert and the gang to pull several robberies in a day. Part of the relaxed attitude of the film is conveyed by the tinkly piano score by Carlo Rustichelli. There is attention to period detail with the cars and clothing, but Delon's curly mop is distracting and anachronistic.

Far better is Three Men to Kill, one of Delon's most popular films. The source novel, available in English as Three to Kill is by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Delon had a credited hand in the screenplay. While I have not read the novel, I have read other works by Manchette, whose protagonists are usually loners with a jaundice view of the world. As portrayed in the film, Michel, a professional gambler, appears a bit more polished than Manchette's characters. What Delon and Deray bring over is a more graphic violence in keeping with Manchette's world.

Acting as a good samaritan, Michel takes a man injured in a one-car accident from a country road to a nearby hospital. What follows is the death of three associates of a top industrialist, with Michel over his head in a series of cascading events with an elusive connections. The film includes a car chase staged by Remy Julienne that includes crashes, turned over cars climaxing in a gas station on fire. The sense of mystery is maintained through the end. Even compared to Delon's films made with Jean-Pierre Melville, this is darker and more deeply pessimistic.

Both films were sourced from restored prints, in French with English subtitles. The only extras are trailers for the respective films.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:34 AM

August 20, 2021

Buddha Mountain - "Director's'Cut"

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Guan yin shan
Li Yu - 2011
Cheng Cheng Films

I had almost forgotten that I had seen and wrote about Buddha Mountain ten years ago. Seeing the film with English subtitles instead of a subtitle free DVD primarily meant adding a few more details to the narrative that I had previously missed. The other difference is that based on what I have read, this is Li's original version of her film that premiered at the Tokyo Film Festival in 2010. What was cut from the original release version was a brief scene introducing Sylvia Chang's opera singer dismissed from a theater, and a scene involving the attempted demolition of an old apartment building occupied by poor tenants.

In the ten years since its initial release, Li Yu has continued her collaboration with producer and co-writer Fang Li and actor Fan Bingbing, with continued commercial success in China. Curiously, while the two earlier films Li made, which both encountered problems with government censors causing them to be virtually banned within their home country, are both available to stream in the U.S., the two more recent films after Buddha Mountain are currently unavailable. What makes this striking is that those newer films were both major hits aided in no small part by Fan's stardom, and Li not dealing with government approval that has become more draconian in the past few years. It would be interesting to see the newer films as Li has incorporated scenes that have pushed the boundaries regarding how sexuality is presented in Chinese films. There is very little available on Li Yu online that I can only take her word that in order to have a viable career in China, she has chosen to be pragmatic. From what I have read, while she has worked with some different actors, Li's films are still female centered. Possibly, Li has found a way to be a "smuggler" as defined by Martin Scorsese, finding ways to work around the censors who stymied the release of her first two features.

It would be no accident that Sylvia Chang would be cast as the retired Peking opera singer. Not only an accomplished actor, but also a writer and director, Chang would be an inspiration for her own female centered films. With Li, Fan Bingbing gets to act without being in period costume. Here she looks younger than 29, dressed mostly in a plaid flannel shirt, cut-off shorts and cowboy boots. Even with a strong role as in her award winning performance in I am not Madame Bovary, Fan with Li portrays women of even greater independence and self-agency.

Li began her career with documentaries which has carried over in her use of hand-held camera work. Part of Buddha Mountain includes actual footage of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, as well as the actors in the still damaged parts of Chengdu, the provincial capital. As in Dam Street and Lost in Beijing, urban areas are the sites of alienation and dislocation. Daily life is especially uncertain for those living in the margins where jobs and homes can be temporary. Water, usually a river, is part of the geography of Li's films. Following a contentious relationship between the opera singer and the trio of aimless Twenty-somethings, as sense of family is achieved at a mountainside Buddhist temple. The opera singer finds peace with herself at a waterfall. Li also has a variation of a shot in Dam Street with Fan lying submerged in a shallow part of a river.

Buddha Mountain is currently available on several streaming platforms.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:40 AM

August 13, 2021

Searching for Mr. Rugoff


Ira Deutchman - 2019

Theater owner and film distributor Donald Rugoff figured into my life almost immediately when I moved to New York City in September 1969. I had seen a couple of films from his company. Cinema 5, earlier, Morgan and Elvira Madigan. The latter film is notable as it was one of the few times that not only did a foreign film get a theatrical run in Denver at that time (1968), but even rarer to be shown in the original language with subtitles at a time when English dubbed versions were often what was offered. But within a couple of days of my moving to my New York University dorm, right around the corner was a Cinema 5 theater that actually was called the Art Theater, where I saw my first Francois Truffaut film, Stolen Kisses.

While the name of Donald Rugoff may be unfamiliar, the titles of some of the films he brought to the U.S. are still remembered. As a distributor, his name was brought up in connection with the impact an idiosyncratic film from South Korea had with the audience and at the Academy Awards. The team of Neon accomplished with Parasite what Donald Rugoff had hoped to do with Z, fifty years earlier. Costa-Gavras' French political thriller was the first foreign language film to compete for the Best Picture award. For a brief period, between the end of the Sixties through the mid-Seventies, Donald Rugoff was able to make hits out of films with less than obvious commercial prospects.

Ira Deutchman's documentary is partially autobiographical. Deutchman's career in film distribution began by working for Rugoff in 1975. Several former employees, family members, competitors, filmmakers and cineastes offer their memories of Rugoff and his theaters. The film speaks not only of a time when films played in individual theaters, but also of a very specific kind of film culture that existed in New York City at the time. Rugoff started as the owner of a chain of movie theaters. With the dismantling of the elevated train system along Manhattan's Third Avenue, Rugoff built several theaters known for their stylish exteriors as well as interiors, becoming the prime theaters for foreign language films as well as the more artistic Hollywood films. In 1963, Rugoff dived into distribution as a way of getting films into his theaters. Rugoff also worked on getting those films seen primarily through the art theater circuit that existed in major cities and college towns. Both the business and the man could be wildly erratic. While there were successes such as Z and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there were flops including Jabberwocky and The Man who Fell to Earth. With Cinema 5 going public, Rugoff eventually lost control of his company and died a few years later unemployed and insolvent.

For me, this film does have a bit of personal meaning as I saw films at the cited showcase theaters located on the Upper East Side of New York City. But more often I was seeing films at the Art Theater or just up the street at the Eighth Street Playhouse (almost every day in early December 1969 for a Jean-Luc Godard retrospective). Deutchman mentions that not only would one of the Cinema 5 showcase theaters be the first choice for the world or U.S. premiere of a film, but that filmmakers also had their personal choice of which theater would show their films.

The film industry includes those small companies that usually for a brief period manage to clasp art and commerce successfully. Not that he was the first, but Donald Rugoff was able to raise the bar on what was possible in what has always been an unpredictable venture.

Searching for Mr. Rugoff will be available through virtual cinemas associated with non-profit theaters as well as screenings at select theaters.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:09 AM

August 09, 2021

Return to the Cinema Chamber

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We are continuing to live in a time where the pandemic has affected almost everything we do. After almost a year, movie theaters have reopened, if not completely, here in the U.S. What I offer here are some observations and reflections on cinema going in Denver in general, and my own stepping out of the house for the big screen experience.

Not all of the theaters in metro Denver have reopened. Landmark's small triplex, the Chez Artiste is still closed. There's a sign with a statement about waiting for new films to show there. In the meantime, the Esquire Theater has reopened which indicates some kind of resolution after Landmark failed to pay the rent for several months. Even though some good films have played at the Esquire and the Mayan, I probably will not be at either place because the seating is not always comfortable, the sight lines can sometimes be lousy, and there is no reserved seating. Which brings me to . . .

A brand new theater opened in Denver in 2021! The new AMC theater with the ungainly name of 9+CO was under construction near the hospital where I go for most of my medical care. I was not even certain if the place would be completed with news of AMC's financial distress during the past year. But lo and behold, the ten screen multiplex was completed, opening in March. Even though I could have gone to a closer theater, I decided to check the place out in early April after my second Pfizer shot fully kicked in. Godzilla vs. Kong was my first theatrical film since February 2020. The biggest theater within the multiplex is Dolby Everything - sound system and projection. My seat was vibrating from the sound. Also comfy reclining seats that still allow enough space for people to walk by. Between the reserved seats and the theater's current occupancy rules, there is also space between audience members. Unlike some other AMC theaters which had the ambience of a warehouse, I like this place enough to have seen In the Heights and F9 in their Dolby Cinema. The only downside is that I wish more independent films got booked there, but Landmark has a way of demanding exclusivity within Denver city limits.

Denver's true independent theater, the non-profit Sie Film Center has been hosting private screenings for the past year, but otherwise exists as a virtual cinema. There are plans for having a live Denver Denver Film Festival this November, or possible a hybrid of theater and virtual screenings. It is one of the only theaters in town that still is equipped for 35mm movies. This was also where I saw my last film before all theaters closed, the black and white version of Parasite. If I am uncertain about seeing anything theatrically at the upcoming festival, it is a because it means a full theater with people one can only assume are healthy, and because one year I was sitting next to a woman who claimed her cough during Thelma was nothing to worry about - only to have me miss the second week of the festival and some films I would never see any other way.

Of three Alamo Drafthouse theaters, the one south of Denver, in Littleton, is still shuttered. I had not been at the Sloans Lake theater since November 2019. Since the financial reorganization, it seemed like the chain would be even more dependent of mainstream films at the expense of foreign and independent work. There seems to be a little bit of easing into more English language independent films. Part of why I like the Alamo is that they have reserved seats, the seats are reasonably comfortable, and for now there is Covid spacing for the audience. My recent return there was to see Annette. The bonus was that whomever does programming included in the pre-show - two trailers for Jacques Demy's famous musicals that influenced the Maels, a video I could not even find online of the Sparks performing their song, "Mickey Mouse", an overview of movies that included Sparks songs on the soundtrack, and three musical excerpts from films by Annette Los Carax. The Maels also did their own version of the Alamo Drafthouse "Don't talk, don't text" bumper.

I do have a practical reason for going to the theater. From what I read, studios have cut down on the online screening links that were offered last year. I am not sure what this will been during awards season, but I am making a point of seeing some of the more likely films from those studios that have previously not offered screeners. In some cases, seeing those films theatrically is significantly less expensive than a PVOD screening of $20.00. Sometime in November, absolutely by December, I will known what the Disney-Fox merger means regarding award screeners. At this point, I have been hitting theaters since April with greater frequency than I had in 2019, discounting in person screenings at the Denver Film Festival. That said, the two films that I still care more about seeing, and seeing on the big screen, are The Eternals (because Chloe Zhao) and No Time to Die, although that three hour running time is a bit daunting.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:52 AM