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January 18, 2022

Sleep

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Schlaf
Michael Venus - 2020
Arrow Video BD Regions A/B

Sleep is a psychological horror film that ends with more questions than answers. The film begins with a flight attendant, Marlene, having recurring nightmares that take place in a hotel, with the death of three men. Marlene's daughter, Mona, wants her mother to get a psychological evaluation. Without explanation, Marlene shows up at the hotel of her nightmares, a large resort in a remote village. Marlene has a breakdown and is placed in a nearby hospital. Mona, using clues from a collection of notebooks with various drawings, goes to the Sunny Hill hotel in the village of Stainbach in search of answers. The nightmares of the mother become those of the daughter.

I am not sure if there is really such a thing as "dream logic". What bits I can recall from my own dream are a series of non sequiturs that are unified only as being evens from my point of view. Time and space are flexible with events that may or may not be simultaneous, and may or may not be imagined. Marlene's connection to the hotel may be part of suppressed or forgotten memories. In Sleep, those dreams and memories can be carried across generations. As the film progresses, various distinctions collapse so that the viewer is required to sort out the veracity of the images.

The title could well refer to sleep as a metaphor. The town of Steinbach is nondescript and presented as virtually depopulated. The forty year old hotel was built on the assumption that as part of Germany's economic success, the hotel would be a seasonal attraction for hunters. The town itself lacks any reason to be a destination, with the occasional car passing straight through on the main road. The financial failure of the hotel is just one reason why the three businessmen committed suicide inside the hotel. The current owner, Otto, thinks of himself as a pragmatist, but has convinced himself of bringing the hotel back to a glory it never experienced. Otto, as well as a group of the older townspeople, also have the shared dream of making Stainbach a home for neo-Nazis, although not named as such. From the aerial view, Stainbach and its people seem untouched by the physical damage of World War II. Although filmmaker Michael Venus does not mention it, and the connection may well be unintended, I was reminded of the novel by Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers. Broch's novel takes place in a fictionalized Germany between 1885 and World War I during various cultural and political shifts within the country. In discussing the novel, Stephen Spender notes that Broch's " . . . characters are sleepwalkers because their own lives are shaped by the forces of the nightmare reality in which they live."

The screenplay by Venus and Thomas Friedrich subverts conventions with the men proving to be ineffective whether as businessmen or as a potential hero. The casting is somewhat unusual with Sandra Huller, best known as the put upon daughter in Toni Erdmann as Marlene, mostly seen barely conscious in a hospital bed. Most of the film is carried by Gro Swantje Kohlhof, whose much shorter height and youthful appearance made me think she was still well into her teens and not mid-Twenties. Although there are clues regarding the time when certain events take place, they require paying attention to some small details.

As usual with Arrow, there is generosity with the supplements. Horror specialist Kim Newman and writer Sean Hogan have a casual commentary track primarily discussing the connection of Sleep with Grimm's fairy tales, Stanley Kubrick's film of The Shining and the work of David Lynch. The booklet notes by Allison Peirse explore the film through a Freudian perspective. The estimable Alexandra Heller-Nicholas provides a visual essay. Quite fun is the online discussion of the film and the filmmaking process by Michael Venus and the very animated Gro Swantje Kohlhof. The one criticism I have is that Sleep may have benefitted from a supplement by someone who could more deeply explain aspects of German culture and history that are touched on in the film. Very much a plus, and something I would hope other home video labels adopt, is having English subtitles for EVERYTHING. Between my own hearing problems, ambient noise, and technical problems that are not always resolved by turning up the volume, I really appreciate that all the supplements came with subtitles which should be of benefit to many viewers. Thank you, Arrow Video!

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:33 AM

January 11, 2022

China

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John Farrow - 1943
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

While China was in progress, it struck me that World War II era films about the U.S. support for China have to the best of my knowledge never received the kind of treatment given to films that positioned Russia in friendly terms. Farrow's film takes place in 1941 just prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Chinese guerrilla war against Japan is compared by Loretta Young to the American Revolution. The one real life name mentioned is Chiang Kai-shek, who was a unifying force the the country at least through the end of World War II. China is almost as much a work of propaganda when Hollywood was employed to help mold public sentiment regarding U.S. involvement in World War II as it is an adventure film.

Alan Ladd plays oilman David Jones, working in China, but also selling oil to the Japanese. This was still when the U.S. was officially neutral with war going on in Asia and Europe. Jones' outfit may have been the inspiration for another cinematic Jones with the fedora and brown leather jacket. Driving to Shanghai with William Bendix, Ladd gets shanghaied into driving Loretta Young and her group of young female students to safer ground.

Seen almost eighty years later, the cultural stereotyping is more glaring. On the plus side, there are no actors in yellow face. As Japanese-Americans were in interment camps at the time, both Chinese and Japanese characters are portrayed primarily by Chinese-American actors. One notable exception, the Korean-American Philip Ahn. Most of the Chinese characters are not reduced to speaking Pidgin English making the film somewhat progressive for its time. Definitely of its time is one of the Japanese soldiers seen in close-up, glasses and buck teeth. The names and places in Frank Butler's screenplay may sound Chinese to an audience that thinks Chop Suey is authentic cuisine. Glaring is a scene taking place in what is identified as a temple, presumably Buddhist, where Ms. Young recites "The Lord's Prayer" to a dying student. As if inspired by Charlie Chan, three of characters are known as First Brother, Second Brother and Third Brother, with Ladd dubbed as Fourth Brother by the film's end.

China may not have have the status of Farrow's films noir, especially The Big Clock and Alias Nick Beal. Where it especially shines in the opening scene with two complex traveling shots following William Bendix as he walks and runs through a city during an aerial attack. Amid shootings and explosions are large groups of extras sometimes crossing each other from both sides of the frame. The camera weaves in, out and around the remains of buildings while keeping Bendix mostly in medium or full shot. While Farrow's critical reputation has only seen an upswing recently, soft-core maestro Radley Metzger praised the camerawork in China in a 1973 Film Comment interview.

Eddy Von Mueller provided the commentary track. While the source print is not noted as a being restored, it did appear to be of good quality with no scratches or any other obvious flaws.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:52 AM

January 04, 2022

Shake Hands with the Devil

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Michael Anderson - 1959
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Even with a casual review of his filmography, it may be a surprise for some that at least one film critic thought Michael Anderson to be comparable to David Lean and Carol Reed following the release of his debut feature, Waterfront (1950). This was after Anderson had shared directing duties with Peter Ustinov on two earlier films. What I have been able to glean from the few films I have seen from Anderson's first decade is that these were the films where he put more effort into stylized visuals, but his greatest strength was allowing his actors room to create their own characters. Although he did a few more British productions sporadically from the 1960s onward, Shake Hand with the Devil might be viewed as a transitional work bridging Anderson's identity between films primarily produced for British viewers and his better known career as a Hollywood journeyman.

The film takes place in Ireland near the end of the Irish War of Independence in 1921. In our current time of sifting through "culture" and alll that entails, some may find Anderson's film to be a minefield. A story about Irish politics produced (indirectly) by Marlon Brando, with a British director working from a screenplay written by two Hollywood veterans, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, from the 1933 novel by the Irish Rearden Connor. Some purists may balk at the casting of Michael Redgrave, Sybil Thorndike, Glynis Johns and James Cagney instead of Irish actors in their respective roles. There is Don Murray, perfectly cast as the American medical student of Irish descent who finds himself caught in the turmoil. And while this might not have the classic status of John Ford's The Informer, Anderson's film does have the advantage of on location shooting in Ireland.

Don Murray, as an American World War I veteran, just wants to honor his parents by getting medical degree in Ireland. As sympathetic as he is to the cause of Irish independence, he has no interest in being involved with the Irish Republican Army. Almost shot by Black and Tans during a guerrilla skirmish, Murray discovers that his teacher, James Cagney is secretly a top I.R.A. leader. Initially planning to escape back to the U.S., Murray decides to join Cagney's I.R.A. squad, understanding that once he commits, he cannot choose to resign. The title may have its visual correlation when Murray shakes hands with Cagney. What I have read about Connor's novel suggests that the title is metaphorical, and that the Devil is the medical professor's misogyny, inflexible moral code that he also imposes on others, resulting in a lack of humanity.

Even though he is second billed, this is really Don Murray's film. There is a short, eight minute, interview with Murray that is part of this new blu-ray release. At age 92, Murray looks back at working with Anderson and several of the actors. One of names lower on the roster was Richard Harris, working on his second film. Murray's own best work was during his first decade, probably the least showy of method actors, with a career shifting between westerns and more socially conscious fare. I would not be able to say how authentic James Cagney's Irish accent is, but it did not strike me as calling attention to itself in the way associated with Irish characters in Hollywood movies. Glynis Johns charms as a pragmatic barmaid, while the regal Dana Wynter appears as daughter of a British diplomat, kidnapped by the I.R.A.

For a younger audience for whom the actors may be unknown, there is still the cinematography to be admired. Anderson gets visually stronger as the film progresses, working with favorite cinematographer Erwin Hillier. Hillier has been noted for his black and white cinematography, especially with several films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The blu-ray is sourced from a 2K restoration rendering very crisp deep focus images. Although Shake Hands with the Devil was reportedly a commercial success in Britain, the modestly budgeted film appears to have been given a half hearted release by United Artists in the U.S. The New York Times review by Howard Thompson noted the film opened as part of a double feature package in neighborhood theaters in the New York City area. Thompson own assessment begins, "One of the fastest, toughest and most picturesque dramas about the Irish Revolution . . . "

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:49 PM