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November 29, 2022

Knife in the Head

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Messer im Kopf
Reinhard Hauff - 1978
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

What I first found striking about Knife in the Head is that it is the first film I have seen that presented West Germany as a police state. The images of a police raid on what appear to be student activists, random checkpoints on the road, and surveillance cameras are all depicted as part of life in Munich, 1978. The implication is that for some citizens, there is only marginal difference on which part of Germany is home.

Bullet in the Head might be a more accurate title as the titular knife is one that is imagined. A scientist, known by everyone by his family name of Hoffman, goes to meet his wife, Ann. With a group of people at what is later identified as a youth center, Ann is being arrested. Hoffman runs into the small building. Hoffman is seen in a freeze frame with the sound of a gunshot. The actual event is the subject of conflicting descriptions. How Hoffman gets shot in the head is unclear. What is known is that he has brain damage causing him memory loss and lack of motor skills. Hoffman rebels against his sense of being an infant in the body of a adult male, and being the subject of gawking by some of the other patients due to newspaper reports depicting Hoffman as a political terrorist.

Even if the political aspects of Knife in the Head have lost their topicality, the film is still worth seeing due to the performance of Bruno Ganz as Hoffman. The depiction of physical and mental impairment and gradual, if partial, repair has been noted for its accuracy. In this regard, this is not a feel-good story about one man's victory overcoming adversity. Reinhard and screenwriter Peter Schneider are able to find humor in Hoffman's relearning simple words that offer brief breaks from the drama. Simultaneous to Hoffman's physical and mental recovery are his dealing with Ann's relationship with another man, and a dogged detective's insistence that Hoffman is faking his maladies and is guilty of stabbing a policeman in the raid.

While not as well known as his peer, Volker Schlondorff, Reinhold Hauff has a tangential connection with the New German Cinema. In addition to founding the production company Bioskop with Schlondorff, there is the casting of Bruno Ganz with Angela Winkler as Ann. Ganz is probably best known for Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and his performance as Hitler in Downfall, while Angela Winkler had the title role in The Lost Honor of Katherine Blum in 1975, and was more recently more widely seen in recent version of Suspiria. The sparingly used music for the film was composed by Krautrock keyboardist Irmin Schmidt from the band Can. The blu-ray was sourced from a 2019 4K restoration. The two supplements are a 2007 interview with Reinhard Hauff where he discusses his working methods and work with his cinematographer and editor, and a 2008 interview with producer Eberhard Junkersdorf.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:42 AM

November 22, 2022

French Noir Collection

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Speaking of Murder / La Rouge set Mis
Gilles Grangier - 1957

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Back to the Wall / Le Dos au Our
Edourard Molinaro - 1958

Witness in the City / Un Temoin dans la Ville
Edouard Molinaro - 1959
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Two-disc set

If there was ever a home video release that should have come with commentary tracks, or at least a booklet, this three film collection would have benefited from some extra care. Ideally, French film noir expert Ginette Vincendeau would be the person for such a task. Anyone else would be forced to rely on Professor Vincendeau's writings as well as their own personal investigations into both the history of the genre and of lesser known French films and filmmakers. Especially for the U.S. based film cinephile, there is a limited understanding of French cinema based on those films that were imported for the art theater circuit as well as the vaulting of the filmmakers associated with the Nouvelle Vague at the expense of almost everyone else. Vincendeau would remind us that aside from being a French term that first became popular in in describing certain Hollywood films, film noir has its roots with several French films from the 1930s that explored people who lived in the margins of society.

The two directors here, Gilles Grangier and Edouard Molinaro, are not part of Francois Truffaut's despised "Cinema de Papa". Neither are they transitional figures between generations like Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker. Instead, they are craftsmen who essentially made French films primarily for a French audience. Grangier is in need of further research as a director with a record of commercially successful films locally, unknown abroad. Described by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, Grangier ". . . was a working-class film-maker who came up from the streets of Paris, and started in the movies as a stuntman, grip, prop boy, any job he could get." Bradshaw's article was written in conjunction with a retrospective at Lyon, France in 2021. The two films from Molinaro are both early works when the director specialized in crime films for his first five years. The films are both interesting to watch within the context of a career with Molinaro making an international reputation with his comedies, especially, La Cage aux Folles.

Jean Gabin carries his own freighted history in his roles as a crime boss since the mid-1950s. In Speaking of Murder, Gabin is Louis, the owner of a garage who augments his income with a trio carrying out the occasional robbery. His younger brother is out on parole, with the police leaning on him to help bust Louis. Family honor trumps honor among thieves. Grangier saves the visual panache for the climax with Gabin pursued on a staircase. The title translates as "the red light is on", the signal for when a heist is to take place. Among the better known supporting cast members are Lino Ventura as Gabin's volatile partner in crime, Marcel Bozzuffi as the younger brother and Annie Giradot as Bozzuffi's less than faithful girlfriend. Jacques Deray, best known for directing several films starring Alain Delon, served as an Assistant Director.

Back to the Wall is the outstanding film in this collection. An industrialist discovers his wife has a lover and creates a blackmail plot against the two. The plot gets disrupted by an unforeseen event. What was Molinaro's debut feature after a decade of short films comes closest to the classic concept of film noir. The music by Richard Cornu seems to have taken its cues from the scores Max Steiner wrote for Warner Brothers melodramas in the 1940s. The influence of Orson Welles is apparent from the many shots making use of depth of field, deep shadows, extreme angles and emphasis on scale with someone or some object in the foreground with a character seen at a distance. The opening scene is almost dialogue free while Gerard Oury is seen methodically cleaning up an apartment, removing and disposing of a corpse. Jeanne Moreau stars as Oury's wife in a year that included Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, cementing her place as one of France's top actresses. Claude Sautet, who would make several notable crime films, served as the Assistant Director.

Witness in the City was Molinaro's second film. Not as stylized, the story zig-zags from following a man murder a woman on a train to his being released from criminal prosecution. The narrative shifts to being about the husband of the murdered woman. Lino Ventura, in an early starring role as the wronged husband, takes his revenge. Seen by chance by a taxi driver, Ventura is certain of being identified. The film is based on a novel by the team of Boileau and Narcejac, source authors for Vertigo and Les Diaboliques. There is nothing otherworldly here though there is some suggestion of horror with the opening scene murder and the hanging of the wife's lover. Molinaro also employs a jazz score. What is also notable is the elaborate car chase scene that included a reported 400 Parisian cab drivers that concludes in an actual zoo. What the film has in common with other works by Boileau and Narcejac is the fatalism. The image of Ventura behind bars edited with the shots of the caged birds might strike some as too obvious. Sandra Milo plays a cab company dispatcher, while Francoise Brion briefly is seen as Ventura's wife. Gerard Oury also had a hand in the screenplay.

Reviewing the filmographies of the directors, writers and several of the actors, there are a variety of connections to be found mostly in French crime films. The most obvious connections are with Jean Gabin who reestablished his stardom as an aging gangster for most of career from the mid-1950s. Lino Ventura would switch more frequently between cop and criminal and would co-star with Gabin. For myself, my appreciation of French crime films became deeper following the viewing of several films and having more of a sense of the history that these actors brought with them.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:24 AM

November 16, 2022

Lost Illusions

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Illusions perdues
Xavier Giannoli - 2021
Music Box Films BD Region A

There is a close-up of a man eating a pastry at an artistic salon. The scene takes place in a provincial French village during the 1820s. The French Revolution is well over and royalty is reasserting its place in all aspects of life. There are similar shots where the consumption of food takes place where a privileged audience is also consuming art. While there is no exact correlation, Lost Illusions shows both some of the roots of what has become part of mass culture and the similarity to some of the hucksterism that currently exists.

The film is based on the first two volumes of a trilogy by Balzac. I have not read the novels, but from what I have gleaned from other sources, Xavier Giannoli trimmed much of the source material concentrate on the rise and fall of the aspiring young writer who goes to Paris to seek his fortune. There is some off-screen narration by the man who would act as his nemesis and friend. What is helpful is that this narration helps place the story into its historical context, although some general knowledge of French history is useful.

Lucien Chardon works at a printshop in a small country village. As a poet, he has the patronage of Madame de Bargeton. Lucien wants to be recognized under his mother's royalty connected family name as well as making a name for himself as a writer. Both he and his patroness run off to Paris where their relationship is undone by the unstated rules of Parisian society. At a time when upward mobility was rare, Lucien learns quickly how to sell his skills as a writer for a small, politically liberal, newspaper. Lucien dives into an environment where class, money, and social and family connections mean everything.

Capitalism and consumerism run amok. Reviews of novels or plays are based on who pays the writer the most to express a bias one way or the other. An small army of paid audience members will applaud or boo on opening night. Everything has a price depending on the highest bidder. Nathan, the narrator points out how advertising was created to encourage people to buy things they do not need. For Lucien, he gets the invitations and the social standing he believes are rightly his, while maintaining a facade of being wealthier than he is, and being unaware of the unstated rules. While Lost Illusions takes place in early 19th Century France, Lucien's story arc has some resemblance to that of Sidney Falco, the columnist played by Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success.

The best known cast members here are Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan, Gerard Depardieu and Cecile de France. The blu-ray comes with brief interviews with four of the cast members and a short montage of the film's locations. Lost Illusions won seven Cesar awards, the French equivalent to the Oscars, including Best Film last February.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:34 AM

November 13, 2022

Denver Film Festival - My Small Land

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Mai sumoru rando
Emma Kawawada - 2022

I might have overlooked My Small Land had it not been for the recommendation of Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling. Even while making the circuit of several film festivals, Emma Kawawada's feature debut is running below the radar and at this time does not have U.S. distribution. Kawawada worked for a time as an assistant to Hirokazu Kore-eda. As other critics have pointed out, there is some similarity with the low-key tone and the story about a family in some kind of peril.

The family here is Kurdish refugees in Saitama, just outside of Tokyo. While not precisely stated, it is indicated that the family has lived in Japan for at least a decade as the main character, Sarya, meets with a favorite elementary school teacher during her senior year in high school. Sarya uneasily carries a duel sense of self, of being a Kurd at home while more thoroughly Japanese at school and at her part-time job at a convenience store. Kawada introduces this duality by opening the film with a Kurdish wedding celebration. There is no indication where this celebration is taking place until Kawada cuts to a shot of Emma on the commuter train to Saitama. Sarya's plans to go to college collapse when her family is denied political asylum. Even greater than the possibility of Sarya forced to return to a country that she barely remembers is the threat to her father's life as a political dissident.

Sarya also complicates her life by telling her friends that she is German rather than try to explain what it means to be a Kurd. Because of her fluency in Japanese, she is also called upon to act as a translator, bridging the language gap for the Kurdish community in her Saitama neighborhood. The is a universality in the portrait of immigrants in another culture, between keeping traditional practices and language that collide with assimilation. For Sarya, this means expectations of an arranged marriage with a young Kurdish man versus her aspirations to go to college. There is a humorous scene where the father, attempting to cheer the family after they have had their visas rescinded, takes them to a restaurant where they debate whether it is proper to audibly slurp ramen.

While Kawawada's sympathies are on the side of Sarya, she lets the characters speak for themselves. The film serves as a critical look at some of the more insular aspects of Japanese culture, especially when certain restrictions have unintended consequences. Kawawada spent two years interviewing Kurds living in Japan. Not mentioned in the film is that Japan only allowed citizenship for less than one-hundred refugees. Due to the immigration laws, Kawawada had to be careful in her casting. Sarya is played by teen model Lina Arashi, birth name Lina Kahafizadeh, with members of her own family as her father and siblings. Rather than rely on the script, several of the family scenes were improvised. While mostly in Japanese, there is dialogue in Turkish and a Kurdish dialect. There is also a bit of autobiography with Kawawada having a British father and Japanese mother, with that being treated as an outsider within one's own country while wanting to establish a sense of belonging.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:20 AM

November 12, 2022

Denver Film Festival - EO


Jerzy Skolimowksi - 2022
Janus Films/Sideshow

Always mentioned in discussing EO is that Jerzy Skolimowki was inspired by the French classic, Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson, from 1966. While it is not a requirement to appreciate the new film, I would recommend seeing Bresson's to compare the similarities and differences, but also because it is great filmmaking. For myself, I cannot write about Skolimowski without discussing Bresson, but also some thoughts on Skolimowski's past work.

There is a streak of fatalism in Skoliowski's work. Deep End (1970) opens and closes with excerpts from Cat Stevens' song, "But I Might Die Tonight". The more recent Essential Killing (2010) ends with the death of the Arab terrorist on the run. Even the titles suggest finality. Even when there is no death, characters find themselves in situations over which they have no control.

Au Hasard Balthazar is about the life of a donkey in a small French border town. Initially adopted as a pet by a school girl, Marie, Balthazar grows to be a working animal, mostly abused by his respective owners and neglected by the now teenage Marie. The majority of the film takes place in the unnamed town, and several scenes to not involve Balthazar at all. The one scene the Skolimowski takes from Bresson is of Marie in a tight two-shot embracing and petting the donkey. EO, the name of the Skolimowski's donkey and the sound of the donkey's bray, is embraced and petted by his young, redhead owner, Kasandra. While not outright duplicating the older film, the visual similarity can not be missed.

Where EO is markedly different is that it more significantly is from the point of view of the donkey, with fewer scenes exclusively of people and very little dialogue. Eo not only goes through a series of multiple keepers, but travels from Poland though unidentified parts of Europe including an Italian villa. Freed from being part of a circus that has gone bankrupt, EO has his own sense of independence and mischievousness. Even with the few comic moments, it would be a mistake to confuse EO with an animal film intended for family viewing. Even the people with the best intentions towards EO are questionable. More questionable are the interactions between those people.

Unlike Bresson, Skolimowski makes extensive use of extended traveling camera shots. There is a greater sense of intimacy in choosing the narrower Academy ratio rather than a wide screen format. Paweł Mykietyn provided an unusual film score with parts incorporating the gamalen. The screenplay, co-written by producer Ewa Piaskowska was also inspired by the desire to break away from the traditional narrative film structure. Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes last May, EO is now Poland's entry for the International Film Oscar.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:56 AM

November 10, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Hunt


Lee Jung-jae - 2022
Magnolia Pictures

South Korean star Lee Jung-jae has made a very assured debut as a director with the big scale Hunt. Lee may be best known in the U.S. for starring in Squid Game, while those who have followed popular South Korean cinema would be familiar with several of his films prior to Netflix stardom. Hunt can also be included as part of South Korea's spy genre involving an agent from North Korea set to cause some form of political disruption, distinguished by elaborate action set pieces that rival anything in the James Bond series, including several gun fights, a couple of car chases, and big explosions.

The film takes place in 1983, inspired in part by real life events. Lee revised the film since its initial screening at Cannes to make it more clear for those unfamiliar with Korean history from that time, with opening credits advising that the film should be understood as a work of fiction. The film opens with an attempt to assassinate South Korea's president while he is in Washington D.C. A sniper is discovered and guns are blazing within the building where the North Korean operatives are hiding, pursued by South Korean security forces. Due to the suspected security leak, the chiefs of two rival security forces are tasked with discovering the mole in the government. This is somewhat analogous to having the FBI and the CIA both given the same assignment. The two chiefs, Park and Kim, have their own messy history, working together while also suspicious of each other.

While relationships within the government are internecine, they are reflective of attitudes in South Korea. Those supporting the pro-democracy movement in South Korea. at a time when martial law was imposed, were deemed to be communists. Clubbings and torture were part of the order of the day for those enforcing state security. Because of the various twists and turns in the story, attention is required to follow what is going on with the constantly changing relationships between characters. One of the tensest action scenes involves the two security teams given conflicting orders, causing confusion in an attempt to assist a defector and his family, resulting in a gun battle between North and South Koreans agents. While it might be clear who the bad guys are, by the end of the film one is not sure if there are any good guys.

Lee co-wrote the screenplay in addition to starring as Park and serving as director. Jung Woo-son plays Park's rival, Kim. Jung may be familiar as the "Good" in The Good, the Bad, the Weird and the more recent Beasts Clawing at Straws. Another Squid Game actor, Heo Sung-tae, appears here as a North Korean pilot and possible defector.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:46 AM

November 08, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Alcarras


Carla Simon - 2022

Carla Simon's parents both died when the filmmaker was six years old. That event inspired her partially autobiographical debut feature, Summer 1993. Alcarras is set in present day Catalonia, at a peach farm. While the cast is an ensemble of non-professionals, it is little Ainet Jounou, seven years old at the time of production, who would seem to be the stand-in for Simon. As Iris, the youngest daughter of the farming family, Miss Jounou takes commands the screen with her combination of a vivid imagination, naivety, and total conviction. While the film takes place in the present, it is the past that informs the current disruptions of the family.

The peach farm is on land that was given as a gift to the Sole family in appreciation for protection to the landowner's family in World War II. The Sole family ownership was based on a verbal understanding passed through two generations. The grandson, Pinyol, has sent the Sole family a letter stating they are to vacate at the end of the harvest. Even with farming at a financial loss, the father, Quimet insists that the family will stay. Pinyol plans to set up fields of solar panels from his factory. On a larger scale, Simon is looking at a way of life and culture being threatened by industrialization.

The film switches between incidents involving different family members, with Iris capturing attention with her verve. She is the first one we see, using a derelict Volkswagen Beetle as a space ship, fighting aliens with her two younger twin cousins, two boys who fully follow her around. Later, one of the boys is stuck in the raised shovel of a large crane. Iris insists that the buttons of the crane magically acted on their own. Occasionally Iris becomes self-absorbed, oblivious to the annoyance created by her tuneless playing of a toy recorder. Even if she is unaware of the meaning at this time, Iris also carries on the political heritage of Catalonia, singing a workers' protest song learned from her grandfather. Based on an interview about her intentions, Simon does not quite achieve her aim of providing a mixed image of the two main adversaries - there is greater sympathy for Quimet in spite of his stubbornness to remain a farmer, even with the offer to stay on the farm by maintaining the solar panels, while Pinyol comes across as an unfeeling businessman, even if his business is beneficial.

As she did in Summer 1993, Simon shot the film in Catalan. Local inhabitants of Alcarras were also part of the cast. Simon also grew up on a peach farm belonging to two uncles. It is significant that Simon makes her films in Catalan rather than standard Spanish as it goes beyond mere authenticity. Alcarras is Spain's entry for the International Feature Oscar. Last February, it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Even with some of its specificity, there are also some elements that remind us that family run farms in industrialized countries share similar issues.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:07 AM

November 07, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Holy Spider

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Ali Abassi - 2022

There is not great distance between Tina, the troll (the fairy tale kind) in Ali Abassi's previous film, Border, and the Tehran based journalist, almost always formally addressed as Ms. Rahimi. Tina's genetic and physical differences maker her an asset in investing crime on behalf of Sweden while simultaneously making her a perpetual outsider to society at large. Arezoo Rahimi is an outsider in the Iranian city of Mashhad, sent be her newspaper to investigate why a serial killer is still at large. The basic story of the serial killer is real, while Ms. Rahimi is the invention of Abassi. Holy Spider exists as more than a story that splits between the murderer and his pursuer, but a portrait of the institutionalized contradictions regarding women that exist in an Islamic state.

Especially as Iranian life and politics are at best vaguely understood by a stateside audience, a few things should be mentioned. Mashhad is a city in the northwest corner of Iran, and the second largest city in the country. Mashhad is most famous for the shrine of Iman Reza, and is the site of religious pilgrimages. Mashhad is also known as the "place of martyrdom", which helps explain how the killer, Saeed, justifies his actions. As a yet to be identified murderer, Saeed is identified in the newspapers as "The Spider". The "holy" comes from Saeed seeing is actions as part of a self-appointed fatwa, clearing Mashhad of "corrupt" women. Saeed is a war veteran feeling guilty for being neither wounded nor being able to claim martyrdom by death in battle. From the point of view of his neighbors and possibly law enforcement, the murder of sex workers is a public service. For all of his problems, Saeed is also a caring family man. In a break from the overall seriousness, Saeed is shown playing with his young daughter when she interrupts his afternoon prayer.

Arezoo is the vehicle by which Abbasi shows the difficulty of life of women who exist by choice or circumstance outside the traditional family. Simply checking into a hotel room requires some verbal jousting between Arezoo and the clerk who initially denies her reservation. Arezoo comes with her own baggage of an alleged sex scandal involving a previous employer. That the victims are all sex workers makes Arezoo suspect that solving the crime is not a priority of the police. A local official notes that some of the women were in desperate situations through no fault of their own, yet how seriously should one take the homilies? There is one scene that uses a classic trope with Arezoo, hoping to bait the Spider by pretending to be a street walker, is pursued through dark alleys by an unidentified man on a motorbike.

As a crime thriller, the putative villain is already identified for audience but not the investigators. In addition to the story of how Saeed is caught are the strands of how Saeed lived in an environment that helped protect him, while Arezoo had to work around ingrained sexism to get at the truth. Even when the case is closed, there are still a few more twists to be revealed. Most troubling of all is the suggestion that there are others who have expressed the desire to take Saeed's place.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:00 AM

November 06, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Chile 1976

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Manuela Martelli - 2022
Kino Lorber

I have some trepidation about describing a film as Hitchockian as it usually applied to films with graphic shocks. What I have in mind are the earlier films with the central character caught in a situation they do not fully understand, with growing paranoia and distrust of the people in their immediate environment. From almost the very beginning, there is a sense that the middle-aged housewife, Carmen, whether driving or simply walking, is moving towards some dark fate.

It should be pointed out that the original title is simply 1976, with geographical augmentation for the U.S. release serving a couple of functions. While there is no reference to any specific event, this is a film that takes place during the third year of Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship in Chile. With fear of imprisonment or worse, even talk between friends needs to be coded. Any kind of political discussion is officially discouraged. Even being an accidental witness is dangerous.

Carmen is introduced buying a very specific shade of pink paint for the coastal house she is remodeling. Outside of the store, noise, presumably gunshots, are heard. The customers stay within the confines of the paint shop. When Carmen steps out, she finds a shoe that has fallen under her car. Being the wife of a successful doctor, Carmen also does volunteer work for the church. She is persuaded by a priest to house a wounded young man, described as a thief who stole some bread, to protect him from an unjust prison sentence. She hides the young man in what might be considered an act of Christian charity. While becoming aware that she is now responsible for a political activist, Carmen also becomes more committed in spite of the dangers posed to both herself and her family.

Is Carmen being followed by the driver behind her? Is the stranger at the roadside restaurant merely looking for brief conversation? Was Carmen's car broken into with contents strewn by some government agent or was it simply the result of parking in a poor neighborhood? Maria Portugal's score helps supplement the sense of suspense, with some of the music being electronically treated and distorted. Martelli discussing the music in an interview: "“The sounds and the music in the film are important because, in the end, I was asking myself how to portray that horror from the point of view of Carmen. That was my initial premise. I wanted to observe the period from her angle. For her the horror was invisible. Even when she begins to feel it, it is still invisible. She starts to perceive it, she knows it is there, but she cannot see it."

While 1976 is Manuela Martelli's directorial feature debut, this follows a handful of shorts and two decades of acting. A significant number of key production positions are held by women including the editing and cinematography. Ms. Martelli has already won several awards for directing a first feature.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:40 AM

November 05, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Corsage


Marie Kreutzer - 2022
IFC Films

Probably the most famous film incarnation of Empress Elizabeth of Austria was that by Romy Schneider. First came the German Sissi trilogy, a romantic version of the young empress' life. This was followed by playing the same part, but as a mature woman a bit more than a decade later in Luchino Visconti's Ludwig. In an interview following one of the festival screenings of Corsage, Vicky Kriep's briefly discusses not simply playing a film role associated with Schneider, but how she sought to create the kind of performance she thought Schneider might have done has the older actress had been allowed greater latitude.

Corsage begins like a traditional biographical drama. There are titles informing the viewer of the time and place, 1877, Austria. The opening scene is of Elizabeth getting squeezed into her corset prior to one of the many royal ceremonies she is expected to attend. There are a couple of scenes involving the binding of the corset, the most obvious signifier of a life lived under restraints. Elizabeth has turned 40 years old, virtually the end of life socially if not literally at this point in the 19th Century. As presented by writer/director Maria Kreutzer, Elizabeth is a woman seeking ways to rebel against the restrictions and expectations of her role as a woman and as a symbolic representative of the shaky Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Kreutzer undermines audience expectations by not being totally historical accurate and by incorporation of several anachronisms. Musicians with instruments of the time play "As Tears go By" and "Help Me Make it Through the Night". Though there was never a actual meeting, one of the fantastic but true moments is the inclusion of Louis Le Prince, who invented a single lens motion picture camera with the images on long strips of paper. As for any meaning, Kreutzer at this point has been pointedly elusive, refusing to offer any explanations. A partial answer might be found in a deeper dive into history, in how events in the Austro-Hungarian Empire led up to World War i, with the end or diminishment of the role of the monarchy in Europe, as well as the beginnings of greater independence of women. The two years that Corsage takes place is of a romanticized era that would be forced to disappear in the upcoming century.

The idea of making a new film about Empress Elizabeth was initiated by Vicky Krieps, while the actual writing was Kreutzer working independently. In keeping with this being a female led project, key production positions were also held by women. The main soundtrack was composed by the singularly named Camille whose song, "She Was" is excerpted several times. For those whose only familiarity with Vicky Krieps is in her English language films, this is a much more playful performance, with a solo dance that is reason enough to stick around for the end credits.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:43 AM

November 04, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter

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Rebecca Halpern - 2021
Greenwich Entertainment

Until I saw this new documentary, I had never heard of celebrity chef Charlie Trotter or his Chicago restaurant. I never watched the Food Network when I had cable. The only chefs I could name off the top of my head would be Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child. As for food, my tastes are mostly plebeian, the higher end burger joints or Korean barbecue. Even when I visited Spain and Italy, I went to the neighborhood restaurants where a good, filling meal could be had for around ten euros. My taste buds are not what they use to be, so spending one-hundred dollars or more on a tasting menu would be both a financial and culinary waste.

While the main thrust is about a man who became became an influencial and innovative chef, the deeper story is about obsession in the professional sphere becoming self-destructive. Usually the story is about business tycoons, the plot of several movies. In this case, Trotter opens a restaurant that is known for its unusual menus, a destination for customers from around the world. A hard taskmaster, some of his former employees open their own restaurants. The dream is to be the first American chef to get three stars from Michelin. The cost is failed marriages, ill health, business expansion followed by loss and closure.

I do view documentaries about celebrities with some suspicion. Is the person of interest because of their particular fame? Would this person be of interest if they were not famous? For someone like myself who has not paid much attention to culinary artists, part of the reason why someone like Anthony Bourdain was of interest was because of his travels where he immersed himself, for better or worse, into the local culture. When Charlie Trotter traveled, he went to check out the competition, other high end restaurants. Even without checking out street food in Vietnam, Bourdain was an engaged and engaging personality. Trotter, in comparison, seemed to have mostly lived inside a bubble of his own making. The documentary ends with a mention of the scholarships and other philanthropic contributions made by Trotter, but it comes as an afterthought.

It is possible that Halpern's film was made for a niche audience. I have no problem with that, being the kind of person who has eagerly watched documentaries on filmmakers obscure or forgotten. That the two excerpted reviews I came across by Chicago film critics suggests that the most enthusiastic audience is Chicago based. Aside from the arc of an innovator who eventually stopped being inventive, the saga of Charlie Trotter is not very compelling. A good documentary is one that makes the viewer interested in a person, idea, or event that they might not have previously considered or known of prior to viewing. Love, Charle is the cinematic equivalent to a flavorless meal lacking any real substance.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:45 AM

November 03, 2022

Denver Film Festival - Bad Axe

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David Siev - 2022
IFC Films

The title alone suggests a horror movie. Bad Axe is a small town near the Eastern coast of Michigan in what is known as the "thumb" if you look at the state map. By small town, the population is currently a bit over 3000 residents. David Siev has thought of his film as love letter to the town where he grew up prior to moving to New York City. What has been constructed can be loosely described as a documentary about Siev's family between March 2020 and March 2021.

The Siev family is multi-racial in a predominantly white community. Chun Siev is a Cambodian refugee who remains haunted by memories of the killing fields, the sites where approximately two million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge government. Chun's wife, Rachel is Mexican-American. The two founded a restaurant named after Rachel that evolved into a family business. What evolved became a story of how outside events, Covid 19, the protests following the death of George Floyd, and anti-Asian racism impacted the restaurant and the family. For Chun, especially, it is about living "the American Dream".

Chun's story is augmented by archival footage of Cambodia at the time of the Khmer Rouge genocide, between 1975 and 1979. There is also home movie footage of Chun visiting Cambodia as an adult. There is also the contrast with Chun and Rachel's children, in their Twenties, having grown up in the United States with different sets of expectations about what it means to be part of a racial minority. The pandemic provided an unintentional framework for drama as the Sievs pivot to serving take-out food during the enforced closure of businesses, dealing with customers who refuse to wear their masks when the restaurant re-opens, and the tension within the family about whether they should even continue to stay in business.

David Siev discussed the making of his film in interviews following Bad Axe screening at the SxSW Film Festival last March where it won a special prize. The premise that there can be such a thing as a totally objective or impartially documentary is impossible. Even if David Siev had chosen not to include any footage of himself, he is still brought into his film as an active participant by Rachel while filming Rachel dealing with a crank phone call. As it turned out, family life also provided the serendipitous ending with the Siev's welcoming their first grandchild.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:45 AM

November 01, 2022

Le Soldatesse


Valerio Zurlini - 1965
Raro Video Regions ABC

The original Italian title translates as "The Female Soldiers". Zurlini's film also has the English language title of The Camp Followers. There are cultural aspects that make either title loosely accurate, but require understanding that this is a story taking place during World War II from the point of view of an Italian soldier, originating as a novel by an Italian author.

A young lieutenant, Martino, is stationed in Greece, 1942. Greece has surrendered to Italy and Germany. Martino takes the assignment of taking a dozen Greek prostitutes by truck to several Italian outposts in rural cities, where two or three volunteer to work in army run brothels. The women are pragmatic in that they are getting shelter and decent meals rather than the uncertainty of life in bombed out cities. What may be incomprehensible to some contemporary viewers is that the women here do not present themselves as victims or think of themselves as such, but as women who have made certain choices in life and are not shamed by their choice of profession. While the film begins and ends with scenes of war, most of narrative is the road trip, showing the evolving relationships of Martino and his truck driver Sergeant, Castagnoli, with the women he is escorting.

The cast is made up of mid-level European stars as befitting an international co-production. The best known of these is Anna Karina as the cheeriest of the women, with a sly sense of humor. Tomas Milian appears as Martino, opening and closing the film with off-screen narration. Unlike the volatile characters in the crime films and westerns, Milian here is mostly quiet and introspective, questioning his role and the loss of humanity in wartime. The solid and square jawed Mario Adorf plays Castagnoli. Marie Laforet and Lea Massari are two other familiar names from the 1960s.

Fim festival director Marco Muller provides a video introduction to Le Soldatesse. Like several other film scholars, Muller mentions how Zurlini is relatively unknown to contemporary viewers. Of his eight narrative features, only a handful are available in English language subtitled versions in home video formats. As a filmmaker, Zurlini began as a documentarian. His own war experience would be in his late teens, reportedly with the resistance. Le Soldatesse contains elements that are found in other Zurlini films usually with a young protagonist, taking place in or near a war zone, where ideals are questioned but death is certain. Also as in some other films, the location is barren, more often than not inhospitable. Death does not have to be literal. Martino defines himself by what he describes as his mission. Zurlini might roughly be described as an existentialist, with his characters grasping at abstract ideals in spite of the uncertainties of life.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:30 AM