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November 30, 2021

Giallo Essentials - Red Edition

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The Possessed / La donna del lago
Luigi Bazzoni & Franco Rossellini - 1965

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The Fifth Cord / Giornata nera per l'ariete
Luigi Bazzoni - 1971

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The Pyjama Girl Case / La ragazza dal pigiama giallo
Flavio Mogherini - 1978
Arrow Video BD three-disc set Region A

To title this three disc set as essential may be a bit of hyperbole. What we have does chart some of the ways the genre developed over the years. Also the three films in question have in various degrees attracted more critical attention than at the time of their respective releases. I should also note that the three films were previously issued by Arrow and do not have the booklets that accompanied the original separate releases of each film.

The Possessed might be more accurately described as proto-giallo. The violence is suggested by very quick shots of knives and dead bodies. I tend to agree with film historian Richard Dyer that The Possessed is closer in style to the European art films of the mid-1960s than to a more typical murder mystery, which in turn may explain why the film was a commercial failure in spite of the well known cast. A novelist returns to a hotel in a small, unnamed town in winter in hopes of reuniting with a maid who worked there. It is revealed that the maid was murdered under mysterious circumstances. The hotel is on the verge of closure, run by a family that is on the brink of disintegration.

The film itself was something of a family affair with director Luigi Bazzoni's feature debut, with brother Camillo as camera operator. Franco Rossellini, also credited for direction, was the son of the film's composer, Renzo Rossellini. Here is where the family connection gets truly strange, Pia Lindstrom, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman, has a small role. Franco and Renzo were the nephew and younger brother of famed director Roberto Rossellini. Ingrid Bergman abandoned Hollywood to live with and eventually marry Roberto, causing bad feelings between daughter and mother. That in a very brief acting career of three films, Pia Lindstrom would work with members of the Rossellini family might be the film's biggest mystery.

While in his commentary track, Tim Lucas identifies Bazzoni as "the primary director", the proof is in viewing Bazzoni's other films. There are lone figures dwarfed in an empty landscape, the sound of wind in several of the exterior shots, the use of point of view shots, and the protagonist trying to navigate his or her way in a situation that is not fully understood. Lucas explains why he considers The Possessed to be giallo, even though the tropes are not lurid as they would be with other directors. Also covered in the commentary are the film's literary and real life sources, as well as notes on the cast and crew.

In The Fifth Cord, several people who have connections with alcoholic reporter Franco Nero are murdered in mysterious circumstances. The victims are also interconnected in other ways as well. The film is more clearly within the conventional definition of giallo. The cops think Nero is the killer, but solving the mystery almost seems besides the point.

The nudity and violence is still relatively restrained although it does reflect the recent freedom following the end of the old Hollywood production code. Seen back to back with The Possessed, one gets a clearer sense of Bazzoni's visual style and themes, also part of his third giallo, Footprints on the Moon. Several times, characters are visible as silhouettes, at one point literally behind a screen, but usually as black figures on the run. Bazzoni also likes to use lateral tracking shots, most notably in a shot of the mid-century office buildings in Rome. Nero's reporter seems out of place even though he lives in Rome. He is virtually not welcomed wherever he is. The alienated protagonist is also part of The Possessed and Footprints. Voyeurism is also part of Bazzoni's films, with shots of eyes peering through cracked spaces, the act of photography, or simply looking at someone through a window. Nero's character has the Germanic surname of Bild which translates as image. The name of Bild is fitting for someone who is not certain who he is looking for or why the victims are connected.

Travis Crawford points out the use of reflected images and windows in his commentary track. One bit of information of interest is that Bazzoni and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro were cousins. The presentation comes off a bit disorganized. While it makes sense to review the career of star Franco Nero, the rest of the supporting cast gets ignored with the exception of Edmund Purdom. And with the research involved in the cast and crew members, Crawford incorrectly identifies the two movies Pam Tiffin made with James Darren in the mid-1960s as being from A.I.P. (This is where I admit that I have seen For Those Who Think Young twice theatrically, and can tell you the theaters and the co-features.)

The Pyjama Girl Case was made during the waning of giallo as a popular genre. What is of interest is that the film was partially shot on location in and around Sydney, Australia with a story inspired by a true crime history. The real crime took place in Australia in 1934 with the victim still not conclusively identified. Other documented events such as the public exhibition of the body for identification purposes have been included and updated in this contemporary fictionalization. Unlike many of the Australian films produced during this time, Flavio Mogherini presents a country populated by immigrants and outsiders. Ray Milland's retired police inspector is Canadian. An Italian and a German man both compete for the affections of a Dutch woman. Among the people the inspector encounters as part of his investigation are a midget, members of Sydney's Asian community, and a reclusive voyeur living off the grid. The film also is something of documentary of Sydney at the time of production with several shots filmed in or near the famous opera house as well as the Chinatown area.

Pyjama Girl is comprised of two seemingly parallel narrative strands, the investigation of the murder of an unidentifiable young woman, and the story of a waitress wavering between several lovers. The horror is in the victim's face burned beyond recognition. The inspector takes on an unofficial role, a break from retirement, and also a way to prove that some old fashioned pounding of the pavements is more effective than psychological profiling to resolve the mystery.

Definitely the way to watch Pyjama Girl is with the English language track as Ray Milland and Mel Ferrer, one of the waitress' lovers, dub their own voices. Even at age 70, one could see glimpses of the actor who was Paramount's top male actor thirty years earlier. Certainly starring in several film noir classics including Ministry of Fear and The Big Clock makes Milland's appearance here fitting.

I enjoyed Troy Howarth conversationally presented commentary track. Howarth discusses how the film goes against the usual giallo tropes as well as covering information on the prime cast and crew members. What I also liked was that the commentary was addressed in such a way that Howarth assumes the viewer is already familiar with gialli, generally dispensing with explanations and history of the genre or rattling off a bunch of titles. He also points out to the fallibility of IMDb, in this case misnaming several of the characters, as well as not identifying some of the actors listed with their respective roles.

As usual with Arrow, there are loads of supplements on each disc. The interviews cover in part the three films, but as one with interest in film history, what I found more interesting is learning more about the process of making Italian co-productions in the 1970s. One takeaway - it seemed like almost everyone interviewed had worked at least once with Pier Paolo Pasolini. Each disc could have easily received a longer, more detailed review.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:17 AM

November 23, 2021

Roy Rogers Double Feature

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Under Western Stars
Joseph Kane - 1938

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Macintosh and T.J.
Marvin J. Chomsky - 1975
Verdugo Entertainment BD Region A Two-disc set

Verdugo Entertainment has brough together the first film to star Roy Rogers as well as his last. While I acknowledge there is a nostalgia factor that may be at work here, the phenomena of Roy Rogers may be lost on younger viewers. My own discovery took place in the early 1960s when the television series went into syndication and was part of my regular Saturday morning viewing. It never occurred to me that this half-hour series was a peculiar mix of cowboys in rodeo wear, armed with six-shooters, with some of the classic western conflicts of cattle rustling, land rights and such, yet taking place in contemporary times with a comic sidekick driving an undependable jeep. The television series came out between 1951 and 1956. The episodes were essential similar to the movies Rogers starred in, minus the songs.

Which brings up the question, how do you explain the popularity of singing cowboys to a generation that has trouble dealing with the concept of the musical? The sub-genre began with real cowboy songs in 1925 on the radio evolving into newly created songs with big band arrangements. Silent western star Ken Maynard recorded a couple of songs in the late 1920s, and sang a couple songs in one of his early talkies, inspiring other "Poverty Row" studios to initiate their own series with their own stars. Many of these films are easily available on streaming channels. The films mostly played in rural areas, coming to an end when television broadcasting became more widely available.

Roy Rogers was born Leonard Slye, eventually becoming a singer of western songs which in turn led to his getting into the movies. I am not sure if it is accurate to say that Rogers played himself as much as he played a character also named Roy Rogers. Aside from being his first starring role, Under Western Stars offers the opportunity to see the 27 year old Rogers use his past talents that helped him get a foothold as an entertainer, calling a square dance and yodeling. The film is also unusual in that it incorporates a topical theme of dustbowl conditions in the Depression era. Rogers becomes a congressman to help resolve problem stemming from a dam preventing access to water. The song titled "Dust", sung to an audience of Washington D.C. elite, was nominated for an Oscar. This is not The Grapes of Wrath nor does it try to be, but even outside the context of the film's usage, the documentary footage of real dust bowl conditions is still powerful.

Under Western Stars was directed by Joseph Kane, a house director at Republic Pictures whose career spanned several serials, the hour-long features with Rogers, Gene Autry and early John Wayne, eventually making modestly budgeted westerns, adventure films and crime dramas from 1945 through the demise of Republic Pictures. Frequent collaborator, Jack Marta, served as cinematographer. Later in his career, Marta was cinematographer for the neophyte Steven Spielberg on Duel.

Macintosh and T.J, trades the ubiquitous location of so many B-Westerns, California's Alabama Hills for the actual roads and a working ranch in Guthrie, Texas. Rogers plays Macintosh, an itinerant cowboy driving a too old puck-up truck, looking for temporary ranch work. Along the way, he picks up the 14 year old T.J., who is living on his own, keeping the boy from shoplifting an apple. The pair finds work at the very real 6666 Ranch, with Macintosh showing he can still break the wildest of horses, while T.J. does more mundane chores like barn cleaning. The film was rated PG, touching on a variety of things that the classic Roy Rogers movies would never touch including marital infidelity and spousal abuse. In his last film appearance, Rogers seemed to want to be seen as still relevant at a time when Clint Eastwood was nudging the genre away from older conventions. That age was taking its toll on Rogers is most obvious when the film cuts between medium shots from the waist up with long shots of the stunt double doing the actual, and impressive, riding on the bucking horse.

One of the film's unexpected admirers was film critic Rex Reed, with the description of a "heartwarming, lyrical toast to the New West". What has received consensus is the use of songs written by Waylon Jennings, performed by Jennings and Willie Nelson. The cast includes Luke Askew and Billy 'Green' Bush, two actors who appeared in several westerns in the 1970s. The highly respected Joan Hackett plays the wife of Bush, while Andrew Robinson, Clint Eastwood's nemesis in Dirty Harry is a sleazy ranch hand. Director Marvin Chomsky has an odd filmography, winning Emmy awards for Holocaust, Inside the Third Reich and Attica. Chomsky's few theatrical features are mostly forgettable, with Evel Knievel attaining cult status due to the screenplay by John Milius. In retrospect Macintosh and T.J. succeeds in spite of itself, the various individual elements overcoming a storyline that does not always make sense.

The blu-ray also includes the documentary, Exploring the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA., about that familiar location for so many westerns.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:25 AM

November 22, 2021

White as Snow

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Blanche comme neige
Anne Fontaine - 2019
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

Snow White continues to be retold and reinvented. Anne Fontaine has made a contemporary version which plays with the familiar parts of the story. Instead of a castle, the film begins at a luxury hotel in Geneva. The princess, Claire, is an heiress, her deceased father was the owner of the hotel. The stepmother, Maud, is now in charge of the hotel. The stepmother only gradually reveals her wickedness, initially jealous due to the loss of attention with her lover gazing longingly at Claire. No dwarves, but seven different men are part of the life of Claire following her rescue in the woods from a would-be kidnapper.

Francophiles will recognize the obvious designations of the names. Claire sounds like clair, the French word for clear. Maud is a shortening of maudit - damned or condemned. Fontaine's Snow White is hardly virginal having discovered what she calls "desire", having sex with several men who are attracted to her appearance of innocence. Claire is played by Lou de Laage, not exceptionally pretty but she has beautiful full lips. As Maud, Isabelle Huppert takes on the appearance of a live action cartoon. Her deep red lipstick stands out against her own pale face. Red leather gloves, a red clothing are part of her wardrobe. In a later scene, Claire is also wearing a red dress at a dance which concludes with her partnering with Maud, a duel of love and hate. That Claire could well become like Maud is suggested several times.

Most of the film takes place around La Salette in the French Alps. The town is known for its Catholic shrine which also is integrated into the story. There is a certain leisurely pace with the camera exploring the woods, the mountains, and the twisting roads. Fontaine even incorporates a bit of Hitchcock when Maud, in her open top sports car, drives with a nauseous Claire along a part of the highway that is inches away from a straight drop on the passenger side, a scene similar to Suspicion with Joan Fontaine as the unlucky passenger and Cary Grant behind the wheel. There is also some comedy as Maud frustratingly finds herself unable to get away with murder.

A good amount of Yves Angelo's cinematography evokes Rembrandt in the lighting of Lou de Laage in the interior scenes, notably in the earlier scenes. The overall visual look of the film is soft, slightly hazy. My own interpretation is that Anne Fontaine tried to find a visual correlation that would make her story simultaneously contemporary and also dreamlike. There has been dispute regarding whether this version of Snow White is indeed feminist, if Claire is truly liberated. Some of these arguments may well be cultural especially with French films more frank in their presentation of sex. This is ultimately a Snow White for an era where women are not necessarily looking for a prince, or anyone else, to come to their rescue.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:22 AM

November 19, 2021

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch

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Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma
Noriaki Yuasa - 1968
Arrow Video BD Region A

In a quote found in IMDb, Noriaki Yuasa relates how he found it traumatic as a twelve year old boy that one of his teachers switched from being nationalistic to an ardent communist. Yuasa's most famous film series, Gamera, was aimed for children with a hero, even if he was a giant flying turtle, that was consistent and trustworthy.

For ten-year old Sayuri, none of the adults that are part of her new family are particularly trustworthy. Some of the story elements probably were never meant to be looked at too closely. Believing herself to be an orphan, Sayuri is reunited with the couple who claim to be her biological parents. That same day, the scientist father is called to Africa to investigate a rare, venomous snake. The mother has suffered from memory loss and initial calls Sayuri by a different name. The housekeeper sets strict limits when Sayuri starts exploring her new home. And who is spying on Sayuri from the hole in the ceiling?

The voyeurism may bring to mind the work of Edogawa Rampo, but there is no weird sex here. There are snakes, giant spiders, a mysterious sister who was snake bitten, disembodied laughter, and unexplained events. The story was adapted from the manga by Kazuo Umezo. Both the manga and the film are in black and white. It does seem unusual that in a genre film that was part of a horror double feature presumably designed primarily for a teen and young adult audience would have a pre-teen girl as the protagonist. This is a horror film from the point of view of a young girl, and for Yuasa, the fantasy elements emphasize the disorientation of a home that turns out to be neither stable nor fully welcoming.

David Kalat, a specialist in Japanese horror films, goes more deeply into how childhood trauma played a part in Yuasa's films. There is the usual coverage of the main cast members as well as some of the production crew. Kalat also places The Snake Girl . . . in the contexts of Japanese folklore as well as genre filmmaking. The most intriguing part of Kalat's commentary track is in questioning how much of what is shown in the film can be taken at face value or may be the exaggerated imaginings of Sayuri. The blu-ray also includes a supplement with manga specialist Zack Davisson that provides some history into Japanese folklore, especially stories of snakes that transform into women, and the origins of manga horror prior to the introduction of comic books in Japan. Writer Rafael Coronelli provides an essay that also discusses the folklore roots of the manga and film. The blu-ray includes a dedication to composer Shunsuke Kikuchi who died this past April. Kikuchi's score for this film features the theremin, helping create the appropriately creepy atmosphere.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:26 AM

November 17, 2021

Out of the Blue

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Dennis Hopper - 1980
Discovery Productions

The good news is that after decades of being unavailable to be seen in any form, Out of the Blue has been restored with upcoming screenings and a U.S. home video release. My own take on Dennis Hopper's third film is that it has not aged well. How the film was made is a more interesting story.

What originally was intended to be a made for television movie was transformed when the original director and co-writer was fired after two weeks of production. According to information included as part of the restored film, Hopper, who was initially hired as an actor, rewrote part of the screenplay convincing the producers to let him direct the film rather than allow it to be abandoned. Part of reshaping the film meant having it center on Linda Manz as the troubled teenage girl, using her pugnacious attitude to inform her fictional character. While Hopper is not credited for the final screenplay, the film appears to have at least partially been composed of improvised setups.

Manx's character of Cebe (pronounced as C.B.) is a perpetual rebel with an admiration for Elvis Presley, a love of punk rock, and a volatile relationship with her parents. Her father, Don, is an alcoholic, imprisoned for five years after driving his truck into a stalled school bus. Cebe was with her father at the time and spends time in the ruins of that truck. Cebe's mother Kathy works at a low end restaurant, occasionally shooting heroin (?). Cebe alternated between embracing and running away from her dysfunctional family. The relationship between Cebe and her father becomes uncomfortable viewing when Don's interest in his daughter appears more than paternal.

The title comes from the Neil Young song, remembered for declaring that "rock and roll is here to stay" and that it is "better to burn out than fade away". Forty some years after Young penned that song, rock seems to belong an aging generation of fans and musicians, and Johnny Rotten is a fan of Donald Trump. Punk taken to its extreme has revealed itself to be interested in disruption for its own sake. Cebe is not always a sympathetic character. Even with time spent alone, there appears to be no sense of self-reflection, with a constant need to be accepted only on her own terms. Maybe in my own way I have become more conservative, though not in the same way as Dennis Hopper had after he ended his own immersion of drink and drugs. Some other critics have used "masterpiece" and "classic" to describe the film. I may be in the minority but I am not convinced. Even more starkly now, the nihilism that permeated Out of the Blue has revealed itself itself to be literally a dead end.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:44 AM

November 16, 2021

Deported

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Robert Siodmak - 1950
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Deported falls outside of Robert Siodmak's series of classic films noir, and really can not be defined as such. The director's hand is still evident in a couple of scenes. Robert Buckner, producer and screenwriter, was a credited writer on several Warner Brothers classics from the Thirties and Forties, and imagining Deported as a Warner Brothers vehicle with their contract players is no stretch. The film was almost entirely filmed on location in Italy with only stars Marta Toren, Jeff Chandler and Richard Rober as the only Hollywood cast members.

The story may or may not have been inspired by one of several stories of Italian born gangsters deported from the United States. Vic Smith, born Vittorio Sparducci, is forced to return to his birthplace, the fictional Marbella in Tuscany for his first month of probation. First, on his way to catch a train, a "meet cute" encounter at a Neopolitan cab with a young woman turns out to be a ploy to have Vic meet with his former partner in crime. There is a dispute regarding $100,000 that the pair stole. Vic took the five year rap and claims the full loot, currently hidden in New York City. Proving he does not have the money with him, Vic goes on to Marbella. Welcomed by his uncle, he is taken in by his relatives where he spots the richest woman in town, a countess. Vic has his eye on the countess and also a way of retrieving his money using her humanitarian organization.

While not as flashy as the scene with Elisha Cook, Jr.'s mad drumming in Phantom Lady, there is a nice moment with Toren dancing with several men at the town's celebration. The camera tilts up at each pairing with Toren, moving with them in medium close-up, the lightbulbs of the tent seen above them. Rather than using hard cuts with the change of dance partners, Siodmak uses dissolves between each shot without cutting the waltz played in the background. Siodmak's film noir experience is most visible in the final sequence taking place in a warehouse, dim lights and shadows, as Chandler fights off a gang of black market truck drivers and has a final encounter with his ex-partner.

Marta Toren, top billed, was a Swedish actress whose brief Hollywood stardom lasted from 1948 through 1952. This was at a time when the studios were still looking for the next Ingrid Bergman or other European actress thought to supply some kind of exoticism that the home grown girls lacked. Like her peers and those before her, Toren would play a woman from any number of European countries. Toren had stage training in Sweden and returned to the stage, along with making films primarily in Italy through 1957. She dies of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1957 at age 31. Jeff Chandler's career was just on the ascent at the time he made Deported. Chandler's previous performance, Oscar nominated for Broken Arrow, elevated the actor from supporting roles to Universal's top contracted star for much of the Fifties. Premature death also affected Jeff Chandler in 1961, while Richard Rober died following a car accident in 1952 that eerily was similar to a similar scene in Siodmak's File on Thelma Jordan.

Eddy Von Mueller provides the commentary track. Aside from the usual overviews of the main cast and crew, Von Mueller helps put Deported into both the political context of the time, as well as how it reflects the post-War changes in Hollywood filmmaking.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:02 AM

November 15, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Drive My Car

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Doraibu mai ka
Ryusuke Hamaguchi - 2021
Janus Films

"I've heard it said that the happiest time in our lives is the period when pop songs really mean something to us, really get to us. It may be true. Or maybe not. Pop songs may, after all, be nothing but pop songs. And perhaps our lives are merely decorative, expendable items, a burst of fleeting color and nothing more.
Haruki Murakami from the essay, With the Beatles

The Japanese author Haruki Murakami writes about memories and dreams. And I remember the four novels I have read better than I can recall the two previous films I have seen by Hamaguchi. Murakami has a couple of short stories, an essay and a novel that use titles from Beatle songs and one album. The song titles are the initial tangent from which may spark memories but are not the subject matter. In "With the Beatles", Murakami begins by recalling the memory of a girl he only saw once in high school, who was clutching that album back in 1964. From there, he tells of his relationship with his first girlfriend, and learning by chance about twenty years later that she had committed suicide. Going back to the above quote, Drive My Car is in part about lives with unexpected endings, secrets people carry with them, and loss of control of ones life. And the lives of spouses, parents and children may appear as bursts of fleeting color that haunt Murakami's characters.

Yasuke is a stage actor and director. His wife, Oto, writes for television. Even when accidentally observing his wife with another man, Yasuke discretely exits. The evening that Yasuke comes home late, Oto is passed out on the floor, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage. Two years later, Yasuke goes to Hiroshima to stage a pan-Asian production of Uncle Vanya. The lines from Chekov's play, in which Vanya bemoans that his life has not turned out as expected acts as a commentary on Yasuke's sense of self. The organization hosting the production of Uncle Vanya has a contractual rule that the guest directors can not drive themselves due to a past accident. Yasuke reluctantly surrenders the keys to his beloved red Saab 900 to his assigned driver, Misaki.

I have yet to find Murakami explain why he likes to use Beatle song titles. It might simply be part of the playfulness of the author. For Yusuke, driving represents the one aspect of his life he has control over, but even that is tentative, as he has been diagnoses with glaucoma, limiting his vision. What Hamaguchi has done is also incorporate two other short stories by Murakami that ask multiple questions about the stories we tell ourselves or share with others. On the surface it may seem extreme that Hamaguchi has made a three hour film from a short story, but what he has done is taken some of the ideas by reworking Murakami to be part of the dialogue between characters and also further explore more detail in their lives. Because of the artistic choices made by both the source author and the filmmaker, there is a lot to unpack to go beyond any surface description.

As noted, part of the story is devoted to Yuskuke's pan-Asian production of Uncle Vanya. The actors speak their lines in their native languages which include Japanese, Mandarin and Tagalog. One of the actresses is mute, using sign language. While some may argue about Korean actress Park Yoo-rim portraying a person with a disability, she is undeniably affecting in her performance both as the former ballerina Yoon-a and as Yoon-a playing the part of Chekov's Sonya.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:04 AM

November 14, 2021

Denver Film Festival - The Devil's Drivers

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Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth - 2021
XRT

Something not always discussed is that part of Israel's labor force is made up of Palestinians from the disputed territories. Even those Palestinians who have legal permits to work in Israel are subject to slower checkpoints or border closings. There is also the illegal work force that is smuggled into Israel by a group of drivers who use roundabout routes and dodge the Israeli army.

The workers attempt to cross the border for what ever work they can get because there is little available work available in the Palestinian territories, plus the pay when they are able to get it is better. Likewise, for the drivers, it is preferable to unemployment or low paying jobs available locally. The documentary was filmed over the course of five years following a small group of current and former drivers. Part was filmed in Jenba, in the southern territory that has not yet been walled in.

Is it possible to make any kind of film that deals with Israeli-Palestinian relations without any kind of bias? Probably not. While there is discussion of some of the most onerous rules imposed by the Israeli government, most of the ire is directed towards the army, which acts with impunity, disregarding edicts by Israel's Supreme Court. There is also some drama with one of the drivers arrested for allegedly transporting two cousins who shot and murdered patrons in a Tel Aviv shop.

Most of the camerawork was done by the German, Carsenty, riding shotgun with the drivers. It is a rough ride across desert roads. Carsenty also puts himself in possible danger when one of the cars is stopped by the army. There is also I-phone footage taken by the drivers and family members. Also included is a look at a Bedouin family, sheep herders, whose property is part of the route, a reminder that there is a mix of Arab cultures in the region.

That the film is a sympathetic portrayal of its subjects is a given. Any demand for some kind of idealized sense of objectivity is impossible. There is also some historical context provided, some of which suggests that some of the current problems came following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and Shiimon Peres' decision to not follow the Oslo Accords. My overall assessment is that there is something to be gleaned from viewing The Devil's Drivers beyond what is made available from any news source.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:10 AM

November 13, 2021

Denver Film Festival - King Richard

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Reinaldo Marcus Green - 2021
Warner Brothers Pictures

There is a moment when Richard Williams, father of tennis stars Venus and Serena, has a meeting with a potential corporate sponsor. Williams is told how his accomplishments with his daughters are incredible. Although perhaps not intended that way, Williams interprets the remark as condescending. Still, for anyone else, except Richard Williams, what he did and how he did it is still remarkable.

With all the advance buzz on King Richard, I can some trepidation. How often are we suppose to be moved by that sports film where the underdog athlete or team wins at the end? Biographical films are even trickier because the audience usually knows the outcome. Even though it has been appearing in the film festival circuit, King Richard is a multiplex friendly crowd pleaser. If it is in any way manipulative of pulling heartstrings, it comes across more honestly, with less obvious effort.

Williams is presented as a man with a dream, perhaps better described as an obsession, which his daughters embrace. Simultaneously he appears to the tennis professionals he seeks for coaching his daughters as a "stage father", the parent who tries to live through their children's success. With his plans for his daughters' future, the certainty that propels him also at times is a stumbling block. It should be noted that while this is a biographical film, it is not entirely factual, with some events telescoped and others glossed over. The Williams sisters served as executive producers on the film, so have a vested interest in protecting their legacy. I would advise viewers to stick around for the end credits which feature Richard Williams home video of the teen and pre-teen sisters, which is mimicked by Green in the film's reenactments. The timeline for the film is primarily between 1991 and 1994, when Venus played her first professional match. While the film makes reference to several of the other well-known tennis players of the day, I would have liked to have seen mention of Althea Gibson, whom due to racial restrictions in place decades earlier, as well as restrictions on female tennis players, was unable to realize even a fraction of the kind of financial success available to the Williams sisters. It may also be worth noting that King Richard is similar to Green's other release of this year, Joe Bell with a story about a father trying to redeem himself through his children, and home movie credits at the end.

Even if the idea of a post-racial society has proven to be flimsy, the Williams sisters were able to bring a wider popularity to tennis than Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe. Intertwined with how the sisters became tennis stars is the quietly stated inclusion of living with grace off the athletic field. And since the film is titled King Richard, the praise given to Will Smith has been honestly earned in conveying the self-contradictions, the warmth and occasionally unyielding disciplinarian as a father. Just as Richard Williams' predictions for his daughters succeeded beyond expectations, sometimes a movie using some of very familiar tropes can also transcend the cliches.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:54 AM

November 12, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Moon, 66 Questions

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Jacqueline Lentzou - 2021
Film Movement

Jacqueline Lentzou's debut feature is about a woman, Artemis, about thirty years old, returning to Athens to tend to her ill father. The bedridden father, Paris, was found sitting in a car, dehydrated after a couple of days. Artemis has always felt distant from her father, reluctantly taking responsibility for his physical rehabilitation. After a series of starts and stops, a bond has been created between the two.

The film begins with a split between past and present. The first images are of home videos dated mostly from 1996, while what is heard are the thoughts of Artemis. It is not until much later that it is understood that the videos were taken by and of her father. There are chapters signified by the image of a tarot card, representing a theme within that chapter. The film is told from Artemis' point of view while Paris is mostly inexpressive, even when he is tentatively mobile.

Lentzou has described her film as a collage. As indicated by the division into chapters, there is no traditional narrative arc. Several of the scenes appear to have been improvised or at least created out of an improvised collaboration between Lentzou and Sofia Kokkali who plays Artemis. In one scene, Artemis is with Paris, eating ice cream straight from the scooper, laughing and belching, for the first time sharing a humorous moment with her father. Later, making a bed, Artemis breaks down in frustration, burying herself completely under a mound of blankets. In a scene, washing an SUV with a garden hose in a garage, sliding on the wet surface, Artemis breaks into a solo dance with music from the car radio.

The lack of communication between Artemis and Paris is echoed in a scene when family members seek a full-time nurse for Paris. One potential candidate is a woman who apparently does not speak Greek and responds to questions either with silence or nods that do not provide conclusive answers. There is also the unstated assumption that Artemis has no other life other than taking care of Paris.

As Paris, Lazaros Georgakopoulos does a convincing job as a middle aged man struck with multiple sclerosis. One of the credits indicates that Georgakopoulos used the Alexander Technique, usually a posture based form of physical therapy, in order to enact the role of a person with limited physical ability. At one point, Artemis notes offscreen that the day is also the birthday of Gena Rowlands. While it has yet to be confirmed in any interview I have read, Lentzou;s best moments seem to be under the influence of the Greek-American John Cassavetes.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:31 AM

November 11, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

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Babardeala cu bucluc sau porno balamuc
Radu Jude - 2021
Magnolia Films

An earlier film by Radu Jude is titled I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians. Jude grew up during the last decade of communist rule in Romania, but his films are about a country that essentially has not changed regardless of the government. Most consistently, as restated in this film is that if you scratch a Romanian, even if you do not find a Nazi, you will likely find an unapologetic anti-Semite.

The title refers to the home video a teacher, Emilia, has made with her husband who is recording their activity. Nothing artful or discrete or simulated for that matter. While there is no direct role playing, the music, presented as diegetic, is an instrumental version of "Lili Marlene", the World War II German song of a a mythical fallen woman. The video, intended only for a private adult site finds its way to a much broader audience including PornHub. Emilia's job is on the line, especially as some of her junior high students have managed to see the incriminating video.

Emilia is followed walking around Bucharest. The film is also a loose document of Romania during the pandemic with most citizens in face masks, following distancing protocols. Not to the degree that it has dominated news in the U.S., but there are those who equate mask wearing with infringement of rights, the doubts about vaccines, and harebrained medical cures. There is unprovoked belligerence on the street, with sense of self-worth based on conspicuous consumption. As much as people rely on having the current smart phone apps, there is also deep nostalgia and romanticism about Romania of the past, even those aspects that are questionable.

Jude breaks from the narrative to explore aspects of Romanian history as well as a look at the the blunt words used to describe sexual organs. Thinking about the film, it struck me that the filmmaker Radu Jude most resembles would be the Yugoslavian (later Serbian) Dusan Makavejev and two of his films from the early 1970s. WR -The Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie both connected sexual expression with politics. Sweet Movie was the more graphic in depicting sex and looking back at Soviet history with the Katyn Forest Massacre of 1943. Jude is more confrontational than Makaveyev in his view of Romania. For American viewers, while some of the issues are not exactly the same, a scene with school officials and parents deciding Emilia's professional fate should strike a chord of familiarity with the ensuing hysteria.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:20 AM

November 10, 2021

Denver Film Festival -Belfast

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Kenneth Branagh - 2021
Focus Features

I am not sure if the superlatives that have appeared since the first festival screenings took place in September got in the way, or something else I have yet to identify, but I was unmoved by Belfast. It is not that Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical film is bad. There is a bit to unpack in the story about a nine year old Protestant Irish boy navigating his way through sectarian conflict within a small neighborhood, along with the more everyday dealings of school and family. Branagh's proxy, Buddy, also delights in the popular culture available in 1969. The time period is the last months of Buddy's family living in Belfast.

A bit of historical context is probably needed. While the period euphemistically called "the troubles" is usually reduced to a religious squabble, it was also a civil war with the Protestants wanting to keep Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, while the Catholic population wanted to join the Republic of Ireland. Within Belfast were neighborhoods informally designated as Catholic or Protestant. The British army tries to hold a tentative truce when riots break out. Buddy is out of harms way in his elementary school, where getting a good grade in maths is one of his goals, the better to be seated with a Catholic girl he has his eyes on.

Branagh did put a lot of thought in the cinematography, most of it a very formal black and white. Some of the shots are composed to require the audience to pay attention to the entire frame, from foreground to back. An example is of Buddy in conversation with his grandfather on the left side of the frame, sitting outside the grandparents' house, while the grandmother pipes in on the right side looking out of a small window. At a time when most current filmmakers are satisfied with cinematography that primarily serves a utilitarian purpose, Branagh should be commended for his efforts at a visual style.

Buddy's cultural references include clips from High Noon, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years, B.C.. The two classic westerns provide a commentary on Buddy's father, and the attempted intimidation by a self-proclaimed neighborhood enforcer to force the family to move. A shot of young Buddy reading a "Thor" comic book is one of Branagh's little self-referential joke as is a glimpse of an Agatha Christie novel, anticipating the work of the future director.

Even though this is Buddy's story, it is the adults who are most interesting. With their nineteen year age difference, Ciaran Hinds looks older while Judi Dench looks a bit younger as the grandparents. In doing a bit of research, I found out that Dame Judi had directed Branagh in several plays, their professional career going back over thirty years. Jamie Dornan is the father, often away at work in England. Dornan gets to display some of his musicianship performing the soul hit "Everlasting Love". CaitrĂ­ona Balfe does most of the heavy lifting here as the mother trying to keep the family together when threatened by both forced and chosen dislocation.

The use of classic songs by Van Morrison make up most of the film's soundtrack. More than fifty years old, they have withstood the years. There is a bit of irony in that Belfast was produced with strict Covid protocols monitored by a credited crew, and Morrison has chosen to be a prominent "anti-vaxxer". Branagh probably did not anticipate the controversy that Morrison would create, but if Belfast offers a clue, it is that there space open for the contrarian.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:40 AM

November 09, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Social Hygiene

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Hygiene Sociale
Denis Cote - 2021
GreenGround Productions

Is it possible for a film to be too cerebral? Social Hygiene may test the patience of the more casual film festival viewer. The audience that most likely will feel most comfortable with the rhythms of Cote's film might be the Francophiles familiar with another Denis, Diderot, and his plays, whether directly or as incorporated by several Nouvelle Vague filmmakers. What we have is mostly a series of static shots of characters standing in the Quebec countryside. The actors are all seen in long shot. The only break is of the boyish Aurore feeding a horse and later dancing by herself. Most of the film consists of wordplay and debate.

While the women Antonin is in conflict with, his wife, his lover, and a tax collector, are immobile, Antonin fidgets in place. While he he is dressed in contemporary clothing, the others are in period dress of different eras. We hear, but never see, the birds heard in the background. The dialogue is in an archaic, theatrical style, while the characters refer to lives with the contemporary brands of Facebook, McDonald's and Volkswagen. Antonin gets by as a petty thief who wants to thinks of himself as a philosopher and would-be filmmaker challenging social order.

Some of the writing on Social Hygiene has described the film as post-modern. Yes, there is sound and color, but the use of the tableau format, the theatricality of the staging, makes me think of older cinema. More specifically this visual format is similar to many of the kinds of films from the earliest silent era when a static camera recorded performers mimicking the point of view of the audience at a stage performance as might have been done in 1905.

What may be of greater interest is that the initial screenplay was written in 2015, with the staging of the actors several feet apart already part of the design. According to Cote, Social Hygiene would have been the same film as intended even if there was not a pandemic - social distancing before the mandated social hygiene! Cote's films are deliberately not commercial, and he insists that he does not consider his work successful unless some members of the audience walk out. Cote's own assessment of his film may be the best form of preparation prior to viewing, "The humour comes from the dandy persona of Antonin and the formal approach of the project. For some people the long static shots will play like irony or humour, while others will just take pleasure in the compositions."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:51 AM

November 08, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

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Vincent Price in Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves - 1968)

Keir-La Janisse - 2021
Severin Films

Even with a total running time of over three hours, it would be a mistake to consider Keir-La Janisse's survey of folk horror films the last word on that subject. There will still be debate on what exactly constitutes folk horror for that matter. Be that as it may, there is much to glean, both from the various film clips and the thoughts of several cineastes and filmmakers. Even if it was only Janisse speaking for herself, those familiar with her previous work, especially her book, House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, are aware of the length and breadth of her cinematic knowledge.

The film begins with an overview of the three films that constitute the "unholy trinity" - Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan's Claw, and The Wicker Man (1973). Personal note here - I saw all three films around the time of their initial release, with Witchfinder General in its edited American-International release version, The Conqueror Worm. Fans of the first two films listed will be delighted to know that Linda Hayden and Ian Ogilvy contribute off-screen poem readings, along with Ogilvy discussing his work with director Michael Reeves. Beyond the facts that these are three British films made between 1968 and 1973, is the establishment of the constant theme of folk horror films being about tensions between the past and present.

How the past is manifested in these films is where there is a difference. While British films tend to be about secret societies with pagan beliefs, American folk horror films often have stories about groups that practice what has been described as "weird Christianity". Colonialism is addressed in Australian horror films, but also briefly touched in films that directly or indirectly look at the genocide of Native Americans. Jewish folk horror is limited to Demon (2015), a film that both looks back at Poland during World War II and more current Polish-Jewish relations. I would have liked to have seen inclusion of The Golem (2018) which takes the title character out of the confines of the ghetto and into a countryside shtetl. Asian folk horror primarily is represented by Japan, including such well-known films as Kwaidan and Onibaba as well as the clips from several black cat movies.

So back to that three hour running time. Maybe this should have been a longer series that went into some of its chapters more deeply. The chapter on international folk horror involves a bit of globe hopping that sometimes feels more like a tourist's view of select highlights. I know from my own viewing experience that there is so much more to Thai folk horror than Nang Nak, with my own time living in Thailand in 2007, when a new ghost story seemed to appear in theaters on a regular basis. Just the period of the importable Asian Extreme films needs to be placed in its cultural context. It should also be mentioned that while a couple of films from South America are included, there are no films inspired by African folklore.

I am familiar with several of the participants here, a couple of whom are online acquaintances. Included are film scholars Jonathan Rigby, Samm Deighan, Jasper Sharp and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, festival producer Briony Kidd and Lao-American filmmaker Mattie Do. The number of film excerpts will provide both the serious cinephile, the fan, and the more casual viewer a good selection of choices for viewing pleasure or further research. As part of the Denver Film Festival, Woodlands Dark is available both for in-person and virtual screenings. Additionally, three films cited by Janisse, Alison's Birthday, Clearcut and Eyes of Fire are part of the festival's in-person programming.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:39 AM

November 07, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Karmalink

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Jake Wachtel - 2021
XYZ Films

I only read fleetingly about Karmalink prior to my viewing. What I knew at that time was that it was Cambodia's first science-fiction film. While watching the film, I felt that the setting of a Third World Southeast Asian country, combined with a near future setting involving science-fiction, and an exploration of past lives, made me think of Mattie Do's The Long Walk. It was at the end of the film that I saw that Ms. Do's husband and artistic partner, Christopher Larsen, co-wrote the screenplay of Karmalink with Wachtel.

In this film, there is a greater use of the science-fiction elements combined with Buddhism. 13 year old Leng Heng has dreams about a small golden statuette of a Buddha, stolen from a temple and buried, perhaps in a tree or a rice field. Dr. Vattanak Sovann has invented a device makes it possible to delve into someone's brain and retrieve the memories of past lives. For the doctor, by understanding the lives one has had in the past is to enable a person to realize enlightenment. Leng Heng's dreams include memories of Dr. Sovann.

Against this story of psychological dislocation is the physical dislocation of Leng Heng and his family. The poor village is on the verge of being torn down as Phnom Penh continually grows and expands, absorbing the surrounding land for urban development. There are a couple of hints about how Cambodians see their place in the world with the announced construction of a bullet train to Beijing, while a small dollar transaction in U.S. dollars is considered worthless. Leng Heng's best friend, the girl Srey Leak, has her own enterprise of dealing with the black market of computer chips obtained through extralegal sources. Heng Leng and Srey Leak initially hope that the retrieval of the golden statuette will bring financial fortune.

Karmalink does bring up several questions regarding some of the philosophical concerns of Buddhism. Dr. Sovann calls his device Connectome. Connect to me. In addition to this device which reads brain waves, there are also small blue button-like devices which project memories. The greater concern though here involves medical ethics as well the understanding that perhaps enlightenment is a concept that is not meant to be clearly defined. (I should note that my own understanding of Buddhism comes from my own practice, and that there is no singular, uniform school of Buddhism.)

Is Karmalink truly a Cambodian film if the primary talent in the production was made up of expats and Westerners? Certainly a debatable subject. This is unlike most Cambodian films made for the local audience, love stories and horror films, made with very low budgets. Unlike many films shot in Cambodia, there is not the exploitation of the country as an exotic location or its people as props. Where I found Karmalink most interesting was in following the lives of its marginalized citizens, and Heng Leng's discovery of the true treasure.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:17 AM

November 06, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Fabian: Going to the Dogs

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Fabian oder Der Gang vor die Hunde
Dominik Graf - 2021
Kino Lorber

The German author Erich Kastner is known, if he is known at all by contemporary audiences, as the author of the classic children's book, Emil and the Detectives. Even those unfamiliar with the name may have seen one of Disney's various The Parent Trap films, inspired by another novel for younger readers. Less know are Kastner's poem and writings for adults. Kastner''s only adult novel, Fabian, was published in 1931. Through his protagonist, unemployed advertising writer, Jacob Fabian, observes the breakdown of German Society, primarily through is relationships with various people living in the margins in Berlin. The short novel has been filmed previously by Wolf Gremm. Dominik Graf has made a much longer film, almost three hours, that has most of the novel's episodes, but misses Kastner's black humor even with some off-screen narration.

On its own terms, Graf's Fabian is still worth seeing. Graf mixes in some documentary footage shot on the streets of Berlin from the era, as well as a bit of grainy footage creating an expressionistic montage. While some of the characters and episodes from the novel are jettisoned, Graf's screenplay combines dialogue from the novel as well as dialogue that attempts to mimic Kastner's writing. Where the novel ends abruptly with what might be best described as a punchline, Graf lingers for several minutes with a cinematic epilogue. What may be the most questionable choice on the part of Graf is to make the character of Jacob Fabian closer to Erich Kastner by making him an aspiring novelist, and inserting headlines referring to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, underlining what Kastner presented as vague strokes in the background. Some of the dialogue is specific where Kastner merely suggests.

Fabian is known primarily by his last name by everyone he known in Berlin. The film more specifically takes place in 1931. The effects of World War I are still felt with unemployment, an unstable government, and an uncertain future. Every relationship, whether intended or not, is transactional. Fabian may have his own sense of morality, hence the novel's subtitle, The Story of a Moralist, but he generally chooses to be on the sidelines. While Berlin seen in the film will be of little surprise to those who are familiar with Weimar Germany, the more lurid aspects lack the glossiness of Cabaret or Babylon Berlin.

Graf begins his film with a long traveling shot with the camera descending into a subway stop in present day Berlin, emerging into Berlin of 1931 when back on the streets. Can I assume that Graf is trying to link the present day with the past, perhaps as some kind of warning? For myself, the film works best when it is most faithful Kastner's novel. It may be worth noting that Kastner's novel has been described as cinematic, and Kastner also tried his hand at screenplay writing. The soundtrack includes a mix of classical and avant-garde music as well as pointedly a jazz dance number by the mostly Jewish Weintraub's Syncopators.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:22 AM

November 05, 2021

Denver Film Festival - as of yet

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Chanel James and Taylor Garron - 2021
Duplass Brothers Productions

I know I am not the only one whose sense of time has been warped in trying to remember events that not even from two years ago. Written and starring Taylor Garron, as of yet is a fictionalized first-person film taking place during the quarantine in New York City, sometime in May 2020. The timeline is a guess based on the announcement of number of days that Garron's character, Naomi, states she has been living alone in her Brooklyn apartment, three days beginning with Day 83. There are also references to protests that presumably refer to the activities that followed the death of George Floyd, also in that same month.

The film is composed mostly of conversations from video calls, to and from Naomi, a twenty-something unemployed woman trying to consider her post-pandemic options. Friends and family cope with life mostly lived in confinement in various ways. Naomi's apartment mate and putative best friend, Sara, is scheduled to return from Florida following living her parents and taking advantage of the lack of Covid rules there. Being separated from Sara has caused Naomi to reexamine their relationship. Naomi also has begun a virtual relationship with Reed, a man she met through a dating app. There are several moments when the film breaks from the video calls to more traditional narrative as when Naomi leaves her apartment to go grocery shopping. Occasionally text messages blip across the screen, usually acting as a way to introduce the various people in Naomi's circumscribed life.

Taylor digs out the uncomfortably comic moments out serious subjects. Naomi is a black woman from Amherst, Massachusetts. Racial issues are discussed with her black friends and family, while avoided with Sara, white, and tentatively touched on with Reed, who appears to be of Southeast Asian descent. When Naomi brings up that she may have a boyfriend, the query that becomes one of the film's running jokes is, "Is he white?". There is also Naomi and Reed trying to figure out how to have their first in-person date and follow the Covid rules at the same time.

This is a micro-budget film with Garron's friends and family improvising and playing versions of themselves. as of yet serves as a kind of time capsule of when there greater uncertainty about the pandemic, new rules of behavior, and a greater importance placed in virtual communications. Garron has previous written for The Onion and done stand-up comedy, so she brings with her the experience of making people laugh and perhaps feel a bit uncomfortable at the same time.

From an interview in Jezebel, "Everyone deserves the right to be represented as the truly average people that most of us are," (Garron) said. "Going forward, I would love to see women of color being entirely average, sometimes even just bad people with flaws-nothing special about them except for their story." In as of yet the characters are flawed but also funny.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:10 AM

November 04, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Spencer

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Pablo Larrain - 2021
Neon

It would appear that what the world did not need was yet another film about the former Princess of Wales. With the television series, The Crown, a film about Lady Diana's last days starring Naomi Watts, among other works, was there anything more to say? Spencer probably is best appreciated in understanding that the biographical aspects serve as an outline, but the film is more of an imagined psychological study.

The time frame is during the Christmas holidays of 1991. Diana is first introduced driving her car to Sandringham House, where Queen Elizabeth and the royal family are all gathered. Anyone planning on waiting to see this film on a home screen is advised that many of the shots are meant to be seen in a theater. Diana's car is first glimpsed from a distance driving through the Norfolk countryside. Larrain has several shots at various points where Diana is seen from a long distance. Diana admits to herself that she is lost, not recognizing the area where she had grown up. The car serves as a reminder of Diana's untimely death. Her sense of being lost extends to her navigating the rules of the House of Windsor, and her rebellion against the restrictions. The film is deliberately titled Spencer as it is about Diana reclaiming herself.

A pearl necklace as a suffocating noose is repeated. Diana also imagines Anne Boleyn, the best known of Henry Viii's ill-fated wives. All activity is supervised by the equerry, with everything scheduled for exact times, with traditions to be honored. In a Christmas Eve with sons William and Harry, Diana explains how for royalty there is no past, present and future, only past and present. Steven Knight's screenplay further teeters into psychological horror when Diana makes a nocturnal visit to her abandoned family estate, illuminated only by flashlight.

Unlike Natalie Portman in Jackie, who could almost pass for Jacqueline Kennedy, it may be an advantage for Spencer to have Kristen Stewart only resembling Diana in the choice of the familiar hair style and wardrobe. I think this works in the film's favor to help keep the events as depicted in the film from entirely taken literally. As the virtually unmovable equerry, who sees himself as the protector of the royal family and its secrets, Timothy Spall, provides an almost intimidating presence. Johnny Greenwood's score vacillates between classical chambers music similar to that composed by Henry Purcell, to more avant-garde, discordant sounds, emphasizing Diana's distress. The film is visually very formal, with Larrain frequently favoring lateral tracking shots. The constant sense of enclosure, of physical and restrictions, are such that the closing scene, with a car singalong, provides a much needed burst of relief. After several glum days among the royals, Mike + The Mechanics brings the real holiday cheer.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:24 AM | Comments (0)

November 02, 2021

Night has a Thousand Eyes

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John Farrow - 1948
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

One might consider Night has a Thousand Eyes to almost be the anti-Nightmare Alley. John Farrow's film was released just a year later. Both films center on "mentalists", men with supposed psychic abilities performing stage acts. Unlike Stanton Carlisle in Nightmare Alley, John Triton refuses to profit from his "gift" but also attempts to run away from his self-discovery of what appears to be real psychic powers. It is not only that he has unexplained visions, but he has convinced himself that he may also be the cause for the events that he has predicted. The film was adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich, author of so many stories of characters invariably in fated situations. That Woolrich named his psychic Triton may refer to the Greek god's role as a messenger.

The film is partially in flashback. The vision that frightens Triton the most is of the untimely death of the woman he was planning to marry, Jenny. Jenny also served as his partner in his stage act, with Whitney Courtland as his road manager. After running away from Jenny and Courtland, twenty years later Triton approaches Jean, their daughter, with visions of her death. Jean's fiance, Elliott has his doubts about Triton which are further boosted by explanations for the alleged coincidences.

There is a new documentary about John Farrow subtitled Hollywood's Man in the Shadows. That description of Farrow is also applicable to some of his films. Night begins very much in the shadows of darkness with John Lund searching for Gail Russell outside a small railroad station. Edward G. Robinson, as Triton, is a reclusive character who chooses the anonymity of living in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles. I am not sure that categorizing Night as film noir is accurate as it does not have the genre's narrative conventions, nor is it overly stylized after the opening scene. What probably interested Farrow in making the film was the tension between presumed free will and destiny, and the belief in something that defied easy explanation.

In retrospect, Night is something of a warm-up for some of the philosophy and visual style that would be more fully realized the following year with Alias Nick Beal. Lund pursuing Russell, both barely visible due to steam from passing trains in the opening scene anticipates Ray Milland drifting in and out of the fog in Alias Nick Beal. Farrow also is more comfortable with the more mystical aspects of the latter film, discarding the need for "logical" explanations.

Film historian Imogen Sara Smith provided the commentary track. As usual, when it comes to talking about movies in general or a specific film, Smith is one of the few people I always find worth a listen. There is the usual overview of the cast and crew, but Smith also provides her thoughts on why John Farrow may be need a more complete critical assessment, pointing out aspects of his visual style. Perhaps had Night had a longer running time than 81 minutes, Smith could have gone more deeply into the collaboration of Farrow with screenwriter Jonathan Latimer. There is no information regarding the source print for the blu-ray but the reproduction of the black and white cinematography by John Seitz is excellent.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:52 AM

November 01, 2021

Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate

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Mario Roncoroni - 1915
The Milestone Cinematheque BD Region A

Is it possible that a century or so from now, audiences will take a look at the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movies, and giggle at what seemed so technologically advanced at the time? The thought crossed my mind while watching Filibus, a reminder of that old joke that the future is not what it use to be. Filibus is just one of the identities of a Baroness who stages heists for the thrill of daring the authorities to catch her, dropping from the sky in her personal dirigible. She tries to implicate the detective who pursues her as the real Filibus, creating a glove with his fingerprints, and inserting a miniature camera inside the eye of a statue of a cat. Part of what has made Filibus of interest to contemporary cinephiles is that while the title character is a woman, she presents herself in men's clothing and is assumed to be a man by the police.

The sexual ambiguity continues with the Baroness also taking on the identity of a mustached Count, courting the daughter of the detective. Filibus belongs with the various screen characters of the era, Fantomas, Judex, even Irma Vep. They may possibly be criminals, and they have their own moral codes, but there is pleasure in watching them outwit their adversaries. Filibus appears to have been intended as the first in a series, but the production company, Corona Films, went out of business soon after Italy entered World War I. The Italian film critics of the time dismissed Filibus for its story as well as the special effects. It has only been more recently that the film has been reevaluated and appreciated for depicting an independent woman as an action hero at a time when Italian women mostly lived severely restricted lives. The more fantastic elements, clunky by contemporary standards, add to the charm.

The blu-ray is sourced from a 2K scan of the restored negative by Milestone in conjunction with EYE Film Institute of Amsterdam. There is some mottling, scratches, and other signs of aging. The print was monochrome tinted. The repeated adjective by contemporary critics of the film is "fun". And to be clear, this is not the condescending sense of amusement but enjoyment at seeing a world that was still straddling the 19th Century in some ways while imagining some of the technology of the 20th Century. Very little is known about director Roncoroni other than that he continued is career in the 1920s in Spain. The cast was made of actors who were relatively unknown at the time, and in some cases only recently identified. While Corona Films was based in Turin, Filibus was shot in Genoa. Filibus, along with the terrific extras, has Dutch intertitles with English captions, as these films were originally part of the collection of Dutch film distributor Jean Desmet. All of the films have scores by pianist Donald Sosin, with Filibus also offering a score performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. My choice is the third option of Sosin's piano with occasional vocals by Joanna Seaton. Seaton sets the mood with her lyrics and operatic voice singing, "Filly-boos!"

The extras include a recreation of how Filibus was originally presented to Dutch audiences with a newsreel that primarily features World War I soldiers in ceremonial events, a beautiful hand tinted travelogue on Rapallo, Italy, and a short French comedy, Onesime et la toilette de Mademoiselle Badinois by Jean Durand (1912). Durand's career only lasted through the silent era. The star is Sarah Duhamel, a gifted physical actor who could perform pratfalls with the best of Hollywood's silent comedy stars. Another French short, Live and Science (1912) may not have intentionally been a comedy, but it presciently depicts a Zoom call gone wrong. A short about Jean Desmet and his life as a film distributor and archivist rounds out the short supplements.

And if that was not enough, there is a second feature from Corona Films. Signori Giurati, a 1916 melodrama directed by Giuseppe Giusti. Filibus star Valeria Creti has a supporting role, while screenwriter Fabienne Fabreges stars as villainess Lina Santiago. The story concerns Santiago teaming up with a doctor to open a secret club, "The House of Forgetfulness", essentially a high class opium den where wealthy men get drugged, fall asleep at the premises, and get their pockets picked. Giusti adds a nice use of split screen with the doctor on the right side of the frame confessing his misdeeds while flashbacks are on the screen's left side. The blu-ray may well be one of the best releases of the year, but it also is a reminder than occasionally cinema history can be fun.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:06 AM