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June 21, 2022

Charlotte

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Eric Warin & Tahir Rana - 2021
Good Deed Entertainment BD Region A

Charlotte Salomon (1917 - 1943) was a German-Jewish artist whose collection of 769 autobiographical paintings are grouped under the title Live? Or Theater. The paintings were gouache on paper, with people reminiscent in the style of Marc Chagall. Some of the paintings are combined with autobiographic text. Most of the artwork was done between 1941 and 1943, when Salomon was permitted a visa to stay with her grandparents in Nice, France. Salomon died in Auschwitz in 1943.

This is the second film about Charlotte Salomon, but the first to get wide distribution. There is a 1981 Dutch-German film that includes Derek Jacobi in the cast. This time, Charlotte Salomon's story has been recreated as an animated film with Keira Knightley's participation as the main selling point. What is troubling is that while the life of the artist is worth telling, I am not convinced that an animated film, or at least this animated film, is the best way of recounting her art and life. There is also the question of use of well known actors providing voices for animated films. Does the use of Knightley, Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn, etc. provide greater gravity for the film or bring about more attention, unlike an adult skewing animated film like Flee? Does it matter that the only Jewish actor of the well known names, Sophie Okonedo, provides the voice for voice for a non-Jewish character?

Even with a Wikipedia biography, it is obvious that some of the harsher aspects of Salomon's life have been smoothed out or completely ignored. I can accept that there will be some fictionalization and encapsulation of events. One might even argue that we do not need to see how vicious Nazis were toward Jews in public because it is common knowledge. That depression and suicide seemed to be family traits is only superficially addressed. And while Salomon's murder of her grandfather is depicted, the motivation is elided, with those only knowing the history from this film to assume Salomon was unhappy taking care of a demanding old man, rather than a family member whom it is suggested had sexual interest in his granddaughter. Animated films have explored various subject matter such as war, racism and sexuality, in some cases made primarily for an adult audience. It would seem that Charlotte Salomon's story was softened, with the filmmakers aiming to make the film marginally family friendly.

The blu-ray comes with several short supplements. One features the directors explaining the process in which they made the film. The producer, Knightley and several voice cast members briefly share what they hope is their sense of inspiration. This is a film made with the best of intentions and that may be why Charlotte is not quite the film it could, or definitely should be. Ultimately, its characters are as flat and two-dimensional as they are rendered here.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:25 AM

June 14, 2022

Last Passenger

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Omid Nooshin - 2013
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

I like movies that take place on trains. This runs the gamut from The Lady Vanishes to Runaway Train to films that tangentially involve trains like Fritz Lang's Human Desire. The restriction of interior space combined with the restriction of movement by the train, usually but not always, moving forward on its tracks towards an already defined destination. There are also the literal tracking shots, often overhead shots, of the tracks. Thinking of the combination of the tracks and the trains can be appreciated as metaphorical story-telling or for its own visceral appeal.

Taking place during the winter holiday season, Dr. Lewis Shaler and seven year old son, Max, are on a commuter train traveling from London to their southeastern town. What seems like a routine journey becomes increasingly dramatic when, with only a handful of passengers left, the train moves rapidly forward, skipping the scheduled stops. The identity and motives of the rogue train operator remain unknown. Shaler, with the help of a couple of other passengers, attempts to stop the train before its seemingly inevitable crash.

Omid Nooshin's only feature was reportedly produced with an austere budget of 2.5 million dollars. What makes this worth noting is that the film looks it costs more. The running time is 96 minutes. Just those two elements should be a reminder that you do not need inflated budgets and running times to make a reasonably entertaining film - and Last Passenger is more than reasonably entertaining. Most of the action takes place on the train with a small cast. There are a few brief exterior shots. The exteriors, when viewed from inside the train are too blurry to be more than abstract shapes and shadows. Nooshin does make use of a judicious combination of CGI and practical effects, but they pass by so quickly that the viewer does not have the time to fully register what is being seen in the most dramatic moments other than bursts of sparks and flames. Some of the imagery is closer to a vague memory rather than a detailed evocation.

There is very little information on Omid Nooshin. He had one produced screenplay in 2016 as well as a couple of short films, and died in 2018 at the age of 43. Last Passenger was nominated for the British Independent Film Awards in the directorial debut category. The blu-ray comes with a suite of supplements that cover some of the technical aspects of the film including how a special rig was created to film within the confines of an actual train car. One of the other aspects I liked was that even though most of the film was shot inside train cars inside a studio, the train cars were constantly shifting just enough from side to side for a sense of verisimilitude.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:06 AM

June 07, 2022

The Paramount Fu Manchu Double Feature

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The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu
Rowland V. Lee - 1929

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The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu
Rowland V. Lee - 1930
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Normally, I would pass on a film that starred a caucasian actor in yellow face. What caught my eye was that Jean Arthur was in the cast of these two films. This was about five years before Jean Arthur became a major star associated with films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, and especially George Stevens and Frank Capra. What really surprised me was that real stardom was attained when Arthur was 35 years old. Maybe it is age or maybe it is make-up, but the actress does not look fully formed in the earlier films. As for her acting, this was when filmmakers were still figuring out how to use sound technology and the studios were plucking stars from the Broadway stage. Arthur and her romantic partner, Neil Hamilton, get melodramatic, more so in the first film than the sequel.

My previous encounters with Fu Manchu were in a couple of the 1960s films starring Christopher Lee. The two Paramount films give the title character some nuance. The opening scene shows Dr. Fu as having dedicated himself to revenge following the accidental death of his wife and son during the Boxer Rebellion around 1900. Without going to deeply into the context, the nationalistic young men of China who fought against the influence of western culture practiced martial arts which was referred to by westerners as Chinese boxing. That they were responsible for the death of Christian missionaries was part of the reason why several western countries sent armed forces to China. Dr. Fu's victims are the western military officers. He has trained his ward, Lia, to be a trained assassin under hypnosis. The two are in London in pursuit of General Petrie and Petrie's son, Jack.

Taken on their own terms, both films are entertaining. Rowland Lee and his writers seem to acknowledge the pulp origins with some dialogue that borders on self-parody in the first film. The sequel shows how much the technology had improved over the year with the varied placement of the actors and shots that show greater depth of field. Visually, my favorite scene involves Lia locked in a cell with cross hatched bars on the ceiling. There are some nice alternating shots with the camera looking down at Jean Arthur or tilted up at Warner Oland, making use of light and shadow. In both films, Lee has scenes that take place in momentary darkness that would certainly have had a visceral effect on movie theater audiences at the time of release.

Much of Tim Lucas' commentary is devoted to author Sax Rohmer and how the films differ from Rohmer's novels. In addition to discussing the cast and crew, Lucas includes some notes on some of the otherwise uncredited contributions, as well as reviews of the films from 1929 and '30. Both films are sourced from new 2K masters. Both films are in their original aspect ratio of 1.20:1. The first film does show some signs of wear while the second appears to be in perfect condition. Some of the orientalism is certain to raise a few eyebrows, especially for those more familiar with Asian culture. As for a cast of white actors plus the black Noble Johnson in yellow face, I find that less offensive as a film of its time. On the other hand, when Peter Ustinov played Charlie Chan fifty years later, one would have assumed Hollywood would have known better.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:27 AM