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December 14, 2021

Ever Since We Love


Wan Wu Shengzhang
Li Yu - 2015
Cheng Cheng Films

Ever Since We Love might benefit from a superimposed title indicating that the film takes place in the 1990s. Not that everything would be explained, but it would provide an immediate context as to when the story takes place. To summarize, this is mostly a look at mainland China when there was greater social mobility emerging with an emphasis on material success.

Unlike her previous films, Li Yu has adapted a novel that is told from the point of view of a male medical student, Qui Shui. He is one of a quartet of students who seem intent on prolonging adolescence as long as possible, getting drunk, pulling pranks and hoping to get by just enough to get a degree. The film opens with a large vat of skulls accidentally kicked with enough force to cause glass to shatter into tiny pieces and skulls to fly around the classroom. Initially, the film would appear to be a comedy about sexually frustrated young men, hovering somewhere between Porky's and Animal House. After several comic scenes, the more serious intentions become clearer.

Maybe not the most original of themes, and one probably taken from the novel, is the fragility of relationships with the fragility of the human body. There are two false alarms of unplanned pregnancies followed by a scene with a woman dead from ovarian cancer. That the deceased woman was an early love of Qui causes him to rethink his goal of becoming a doctor. Qui's lack of responsibility gets in the way of his concurrent relationships with two women, fellow student Bai Lu, and a medical supply saleswoman, Liu Qing. The original Mandarin title translates as "Everything Grows", and the film concludes with the fates of the main characters following departure from medical school.

Fan Bingbing is the nominal star here as Liu Qing, at least the best known member of the cast, the older woman who has an uneasy friendship turned romance with Qui. Former boy band singer Gang Han carries most of the film as Qui in what has been noted as his first serious acting role. As he has done before, Jian Zeng does double duty as both cinematographer and editor. Whether it is long traveling shots following Fan Bingbing, or abstract shots of the branches of bare trees, there is a constant sense of visual elegance. The film has also been noted for its depiction of sexuality, essentially pushing the limits as to what was at the time permissible in a mainland Chinese production. While not as personal a project as Buddha Mountain or Lost in Beijing, Li Yu has adapted a novel by a male author to partially comment on the limits of female agency in China.

Ever Sine We Love is available both on DVD and on streaming platforms.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:56 AM

December 13, 2021

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema V

because of you.jpg
Because of You
Joseph Pevney - 1952

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Outside the Law
Jack Arnold - 1956

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The Midnight Story
Joseph Pevney - 1957
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Three-disc set

Arguably, to call any of these films classics might be pushing things a bit. Describing them as film noir may also be up for debate among genre purists. These are the kind of films that would show up on late night broadcast television fifty years ago. At the time they were made, they were the bread and butter of Universal-International, modestly budgeted films made by in-house filmmakers and actors. Whatever one might think of the artistry, the professionalism of all involved can not be disputed.

Because of You begins with the camera focused on a pair of women's feet, following up on the seams of her stockings, the shot continuing until to settles on back of the very blonde women. It turns out to be Loretta Young in the clutches of Alex Nicol. In that opening scene, Young is a peroxide blonde, speaking in the kind of breathy voice one might associate with Marilyn Monroe. That scene also takes place in 1942, with Nicol and Young about to get married when the cops show up. It turns out that Nicol is a crook and Young is caught holding the proverbial bag.

That opening scene is really about a noir as things get in this film. Young gets rehabilitated in the poky, eventually working as a nurse in a military hospital, peroxide hair and flashy clothing gone Jeff Chandler is one of the patients there, suffering from what is described as melancholy, or what is currently referred to as Post-traumatic stress disorder. Young avoids revealing her criminal past in order to not trigger Chandler, but even after the two get married discovers that she can not entirely escape her past. The two have a daughter who also goes through trauma although it is not named as such. Because of You was Loretta Young's penultimate theatrical film. Based on that first scene, I wish she had taken more blonde "bad girl" roles.

Samm Deighan makes the unexpected connection between the romantic comedies with married couples having contentious divorces followed by realizing they can not live without each other in the last reel. Loretta Young's own life and tensions between her public image and troubled private life are posed against her character in Because of You.

Universal-International seems to have been the home for cinematic ex-cons to expiate their criminal pasts. Taking place in 1946, soldier and parolee Ray Danton is assigned to help solve the connection between the death of fellow a fellow ex-con and a counterfeiting ring. Danton is under the supervision of his estranged father, a federal agent. Danton falls for young widow Leigh Snowden, and crosses bad guy Grant Williams. Jack Arnold keeps everything to a brisk 81 minutes in an assignment that fells between the more memorable Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Danny Arnold (no relation to Jack) wrote a screenplay where two big clues are presented early on. Danton's character proves a little slow in figuring out what is virtually telegraphed to the viewers. For myself, the fun is seeing the aforementioned stars in their few lead roles as well as a supporting cast that includes familiar faces like Raymond Bailey, Mel Welles, and Jack Kruschen as agent "Phil Schwartz".

And it is the cast the delights Richard Harland Smith in his commentary track. Smith identifies the actor playing the janitor among the players who may just have seconds of screen time. More attention is given to the once promising career of Grant Williams. I share Smith's enthusiasm for Danton's most famous role, as Roaring Twenties gangster "Legs" Diamond. Additionally noted are the double features that packaged Outside the Law, as well as its critical reception at the time of release.

Just as in Because of You, The Midnight Story begins with promise before director Joseph Pevney drops the ball. A priest is walking alone in a studio set identified as the North Beach section of San Francisco. His murder is depicted with an extreme close-up of the priest's eyes, followed by the murder seen as a shadow against the side of a building. Following the opening credits, the camera moves from a full shot to a close-up of the priest's hand clutching his rosary. Tony Curtis is a traffic cop who quits the force to go undercover to discover who murdered the beloved priest. At the funeral, Curtis eyes a very anguished Gilbert Roland as the possible perp. A close-up of Roland's hand gripping a very similar rosary is an echo of the similar shot of the priest's hand.

There is some location shooting in San Francisco, but the effect is jarring when paired with studio sets used for several street scenes. The casting is questionable when 51 year old Gilbert Roland's mother is played by 49 year old Italian actress Argentina Brunetti. Roland also has a teenage brother in the film. Another Italian actress, Marisa Pavan, plays Roland's Italian cousins. The Midnight Story also marked the last time Tony Curtis appeared as a Universal contract player with Sweet Smell of Success released just a month later.

The high point of Professor Jason Ney's commentary track is providing information on the various locations in San Francisco where The Midnight Story was filmed. Also, lots of information on the life and career of Marisa Pavan. The overly familiar Tony Curtis and Gilbert Roland are discussed more fleetingly. Based on the half dozen films seen, I do not share Ney's enthusiasm for director Joseph Pevney. Ney does acknowledge that Pevney gave the studio suits what they wanted with little argument in his position as an in-house director. As a teacher at Colorado Christian University, Professor Ney also provides additional insights into the theological concerns of The Midnight Story.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:39 AM

December 07, 2021

Broken Lullaby


Ernst Lubitsch - 1932
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Tucked in between two musicals starring Maurice Chevalier, Broken Lulluby is now more easily available to assess as part of Ernst Lubitsch's filmography. Some of the previous available writing emphasizes this as the lone dramatic film from a director known best for his comedies. How much as been deviated from the source play, The Man I Killed by Maurice Rostand, I do not know, but there are two scenes that anticipate the kind of humor that Lubitsch is remembered for.

The opening scene taking place during a parade celebrating the first anniversary of the end of World War I demonstrates that Lubitsch could take the gloves off and force his audience to face some uncomfortable truths. A shot of the parade is taken from ground level, framed from below the knees of a soldier with one leg missing. While we hear the the cheers from the celebrants on the street, Lubitsch does an overhead traveling shot of wounded soldiers in a hospital. The first four minutes are part of the reminder that war is not always over for those who have been affected by it, directly or indirectly.

French veteran Paul Renard feels overwhelming guilt over killing a German soldier in the trenches. At a church, a priest attempts to console Paul by letting him know he was doing his duty as a soldier. Instead of expiating his remorse, Paul is more frustrated, responding, "Is this the only answer I can get in the House of God?". Paul decides he can only resolve his feelings by going to the German village of the soldier, Walter, that he killed. Leaving flowers at Walter's grave, Paul follows up by visiting the home of Walter's parents. A series of misunderstandings follow which eventually result in Paul, the enemy Frenchman, taken in by Walter's family.

Broken Lullaby is less of an anomaly in Lubitsch's filmography when it is understood that the director's films are about misunderstandings and misidentifications. Consider The Shop Around the Corner where the bickering co-workers are unknown to each other as romantic pen pals. Here, Paul presents himself as a friend of Walter's, two violin students who knew each other in pre-war Paris. Also to be considered is that Maurice Rostand was the son of the author of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, also a story of false identities.

The best known cast member is Lionel Barrymore as Walter's father. Phillips Holmes as Paul, and Nancy Carroll as Paul's fiancee, Elsa, were two actors with brief film careers, both at their peak of popularity at the time the film was made. Holmes and Carroll both had tendencies to be overly dramatic which may have contributed to their falling out of favor with audiences in the mid-1930s. The screenplay was by two Lubitsch collaborators, Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda, which also explains the continuity in the humorous scenes with other Lubitsch films.

Lubitsch historian Joseph McBride places Broken Lullaby within both the context of when the film was produced and also as part of Lubitsch's career. Also discussed is the director's collaborations with Samson Raphaelson. While there is some time spent also covering the difference between Broken Lullaby and Francois Ozon's remake, Frantz, there is nothing to be said about the source play. Even internet research regarding Maurice Rostand reveals very little about the playwright and nothing about his play. I would hope that the availability of this previously underseen film will inspire further research.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:48 AM