« February 2023 | Main | April 2023 »

March 31, 2023

The Severing

the severing.jpeg

Mark Pellington - 2022
Kino Lorber

While Mark Pellington has been credited as the director, The Severing probably is best understood as a collaborative work outside the scope of Pellington's narrative films. Describing this as a dance film does not quite fit. Perhaps calling this performance art on film comes a little closer. Although the concept of expressing grief and loss originated with the filmmaker, the performances are the work of choreographer Nina McNeely. While McNeely's name may not be familiar, cinephiles would be familiar with her work as the choreographer of that manic dance filmed in a single extended take in Gaspar Noe's Climax.

The dancers appear almost nude, bruised and bloody, as if dragged through coal dust. The dances, as such, are small vignettes with some superimposed texts or titles. The physical contortions are simultaneously amazing and almost painful to watch. On the soundtrack is a barely intelligible voice that resembles the squawk from a barely working drive thru system. The dances are abstract expressions of feelings. The film may have been shot on a set, but appears to have been done in an abandoned factory. Pellington has stated that he was inspired by the collaboration of Wim Wenders with choreographer Pina Bausch for the film Pina. Maybe it was quite unintended regarding artistic influences, but The Severing struck me as a work having its roots in The Living Theater's Paradise Now. The pioneering Living Theater created ensemble work that was an expression of political rebellion, with an ensemble that was nearly nude. This was well over fifty years ago - I saw them in their return to the United States tour in 1968. It is only because The Severing is on film that it is arguably less confrontational.

Returning back to the film as a collaborative work, this brings up questions on how one judges dance, or performance art, on film? A finer point - how does one film dance? I have had my own experience as a videographer documenting performances on behalf of several local choreographers. Since dance and performance usually involve the whole body, the act of filming dance can reshape and redirect that performance. Pellington cuts in to show the movement of a single hand, or shift the focus to a dancer in the background. Even the placement of the dancer within the frame can make a difference. Most of the performances are of one or two dancers. The illumination of the dancers with what appeared to be available light emphasizes mood over performance.

The Severing has its antecedents albeit not all widely known. I would still give Mark Pellington credit for trying something that may well have been artistically outside of his own comfort zone as well as that of the audience.

The Severing is currently available in select screenings at specialized venues.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:01 AM

March 28, 2023

Code of the Assassins

code of the assassins.jpeg

Qing mian Xiuluo
Daniel Lee - 2022
WellGo USA Entertainment

My interest in seeing Code of the Assassin was based on seeing how some current factors have influenced the wuxia film. At my age, I am not part of the demographic that this film was made for, primarily teens and young adults. Nor was this film made to be given any true critical examination. There may have been some smuggling of a serious theme, but it could also be that I might be reading too much into Lee's film.

The plot, such as it is, is almost generic. Taking place in the fantasy past, there are rival kingdoms and shaky alliances. The film follows Qi, a young made raised in the Ghost Valley to be a masked assassin. He is seeking revenge on the unknown people who murdered his parents and other family members, and to reclaim a small, golden block on which a guide to hidden treasure has been inscribed. The Ghost Valley assassins all wear golden masks, and some have special weapons. Qi has a special replacement mechanical arm. Making things more convoluted is having some of these masked assassins recruited to fight each other. Qi meets a pretty female assassin and a plot twist most can guess at an hour before its finally explained by the film's characters.

There is very little depth to the characters. What the filmmakers are more interested in is the spectacle of battles between armies, explosions, and some man-to-man fighting. The film takes place in a CGI heavy universe. Code of the Assassins was made for the viewer whose visual diet consists of comic book inspired films and video games. Even some of the music score sounds inspired by video game music with its blend of classical themes, synth, and the thumpety-thump bass guitar. There is also some unnecessary speeding up and slow motion employed. That the narrative elements do not entirely cohere is besides the point. The various Batman films seem to have also influenced the film taking place in dark places, as if darkness signifies some sort of gravitas. The closing scene suggests the launching a superhero franchise for the local audience, a Chinese dark knight.

Being a filmmaker in China has never been easy. Daniel Lee identifies himself as a Hong Konger, but that means that if he wants to make the big budget films that require funding from mainland China, he would either have to make a "patriotic" film or something apolitical. And here is where i think Lee may have possibly included something that could be read as a hint. Qi asks the main villain to identify his weapon. The reply is that the "plot" is his weapon, changing or creating some kind of narrative that will affect others. One does not necessarily have to look at China to understand how historical or current events get subject to revision. Again this is a subjective reading on my part, presented almost in passing.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:25 AM

March 27, 2023

Border River

border river.jpeg

George Sherman - 1954
KL Studio Classics

The Rio Grande seems almost incidental to Border River. Most of the film takes place in a nearby town, a part of Mexico independent of the government, run by a self-appointed general. Taking place in 1865, this free zone is made up in part by communities of Union and Confederate soldiers who may no longer be part of the military, but still carry over their respective rivalries. Clete Mattson is a Confederate major chased into the free zone by Union troops, with a plan to sell two million dollars worth of Union gold to the Mexican general in exchange for ammunitions for the Confederate army.

Aside from making a deal with General Calleja, Mattson has his eye on Calleja's, um, business partner, Carmelita. This is a western designed to play as part of a double feature package, but with pockets of unexpected humor in the screenplay, and a few touches of visual style from director Sherman. An example of the occasional snark is after several spies are captured, Calleja assures Mattson, "We will give these men a fair trial, then we will shoot them in the morning." Everything is kept within the tidy running time of 80 minutes. One scene involving Mattson and his horse seems like a digression but is revealed later to be an important plot point. The climatic fight scene, if not inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog, bears a striking similarity. I also liked that the writers Louis Stevens and William Sackheim had historical points that were not anachronisms with their references to the earlier version of the Denver Mint. Border River was made at a time when studios were grounding out modestly budgeted westerns on a regular basis as dependable money makers, with only a handful of critics who may have noticed the films that exhibited even a shred artistic ambition.

Joel McCrea, at this point exclusively making westerns, stars as Mattson. Yvonne De Carlo is the woman caught between McCrea and Pedro Armendariz as the general. De Carlo is often dressed to distract from the men, especially in a bright red dress. While the story is about the theft of gold, the real theft is that done by Alfonso Bedoya as Callejo's Captain Vargas. Even if one does not recognize the name, the face should be familiar. Bedoya is best remembered for telling Humphrey Bogart (paraphrasing), "We don't need no stinkin' badges". Bedoya does not disappoint here either. Say what you will about a performance that is arguably exaggerated and cartoonish - it is also the most entertaining part of the film.

Western genre specialist Toby Roan provides an enthusiastic commentary track, digging deeply into various aspects of the production. In addition to the better known cast members, Roan points out various supporting and stunt players, anecdotes about filming on location in Utah, and an extensive dive into the filmography of director George Sherman. Roan lightly touches on the historical setting of Border River as well with a brief history of the free zone. The source print appears to be a well preserved Technicolor print that is especially complimentary for Yvonne De Carlo's array of bright monochrome dresses and close-ups that could serve as commercials for her red lipstick.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:46 AM

March 24, 2023

Lucky Jordan


Frank Tuttle - 1942
KL Studio Classics

Lucky Jordan was the second of three films Alan Ladd made with director Frank Tuttle. Coming after his breakout role in This Gun for Hire, it was also Ladd’s first with star billing. Ladd's final collaboration with Tuttle, Hell on Frisco Bay from 1955 provides a kind of bookend marking the end of a commercial plateau in the actor’s career. Tuttle has generally been considered a competent, if uneven, journeyman director. His most stylish thriller, Gunman in the Streets made in France in 1950 while under investigation by the House of Un-American Activities, stars Simone Signoret and Dane Clark, and is worth a look for being made without totally adhering to the Hollywood production code.

We never know if Lucky Jordan actually has a conventional first name because everyone calls him Lucky. The film itself defies easy categorization with its blend of gangster drama, spy thriller and wartime comedy, in addition to tonal shifts. Jordan is the top gangster of a gambling operation in a large, unnamed city. His second-in-command, Slim, tries and fails to bump him off, coveting the big chair in the well-appointed office that serves as a legitimate front. Jordan finds out that he has been drafted and can not get out of it. Through a series of circumstances that only happen in the movies, Jordan manages to go AWOL, kidnap Jill, a pretty canteen worker, and get hold of a briefcase with military information that he is willing to sell to the highest bidder.

There is some resemblance to Sam Fuller’s Pickup of South Street, made almost a decade later. In Fuller’s film, the career criminal is asked to act upon a sense of patriotism in making sure that the unintentionally stolen microfilm does not get turned over to "enemy agents". While out on the lam, Jill explains to Jordan why she volunteered to work at an army base and why she is anti-Nazi. Jordan’s own shift may have more to do with the Nazi spies being a totally untrustworthy bunch. Here is where some extra context is needed as the film was produced when U.S. involvement in the war was only a few months old. There was still a significant number of Americans who were either isolationists or simply did not favor what was considered a foreign war with Germany. (Anti-Japanese sentiment would be a different matter.) Setting aside the leftist politics of Tuttle, the U.S. government has actively encouraged Hollywood to make films that would serve as propaganda to influence popular opinion. Lucky Jordan does the right thing, if not necessarily for the right reason.

The politics are lightly served. What makes Lucky Jordan enjoyable include Sheldon Leonard as Slip, the gangster who can never outwit Jordan, playing on his typecasting as the heavy, Helen Walker in her film debut as Jill, the actress’ last name more notable with two scenes involving her legs, and Alan Ladd’s smart-aleck remarks throughout much of the film. The high point is Jordan’s relationship with the elderly Annie (Mabel Paige), a grifter begging for quarters to spend on alcohol. Paid to pose as Jordan’s needy mother at the draft board hearing, the two develop an ad hoc mother and son relationship both comic and sentimental.

Samm Deighan provided the commentary track. In addition to discussing the main cast and crew, Deighan places Lucky Jordan as part of the films portraying espionage in the early years of World War II as well as general societal shifts during that time. In Deighan’s talking about Frank Tuttle’s career and his eventual choice to provide names to HUAC, there is the confusion, also perpetuated by others, in mixing the blacklisting of Hollywood communists or sympathizers with the completely separate activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:24 PM | Comments (0)

March 21, 2023

Kubrick by Kubrick


Gregory Monro -2020
Level 33 Entertainment

At just a shade over an hour in length, Kubrick on Kubrick does not offer any revelations about Stanley Kubrick as much as it reinforces what is already known. The main attraction here is that we get to hear the filmmaker speak for himself in taped interviews with French film critic Michel Ciment. As might be indicated by the relatively short running time of this documentary, this is not in any way a thorough look at either Kubrick or his films.

The interviews with Ciment were done in response to an article Ciment wrote on 2001 in 1968. Ciment published the first edition of his book on Kubrick in 1980. At that time, Kubrick, who generally did not grant interviews, wanted to counteract some of the myths surrounding his persona. In the years following Kubrick's death in 1999, Kubrick has been humanized by the documentaries of his assistant, Leon Vitali, and his driver, Emilio D'Alessandro. What really makes Stanley Kubrick appear as a mere mortal are the home movie clips at the end. Kubrick appears to be maybe eight years old at the time. Those who have seen photos of the filmmaker when he was clean shaven will see a familiar face on a smaller, mildly stocky body. Dancing with a younger sister or playing with her in a park in their Bronx neighborhood, the sister gets knocked over a couple of times. Nothing in these old film clips from some time in the mid-1930s to indicate a future genius.

Monro presents Kubrick's career roughly in chronological order. Not all films are represented from those released prior to 2001. We do get to hear Kubrick's own thoughts on his narrative film debut, Fear and Desire, making it more understandable why he chose to make it unavailable for public viewing after its initial release. Monro uses archival interviews primarily from several of the actors and some crew members who have worked on various films. Perhaps familiar to some is the story of how R. Lee Ermey went from technical advisor to playing the part of the drilll sergeant in Full Metal Jacket with his scathingly funny insults from his own real life military activity used to create a character beyond what Kubrick initially imagined. Sterling Hayden discusses his difficulty during the filming of Dr. Strangelove, his first acting after literally sailing away from Hollywood six years prior, in 1958. Most astonishing is cinematographer Russell Metty on Kubrick's obsession with composing every shot in Spartacus, although that did get Metty his only Academy Award.

The enormous number of takes and extended periods of production are recounted. In terms of actual production, one of the more interesting stories is why Full Metal Jacket's scenes of combat in Vietnam were filmed around a factory outside of London, discovered by accident, but resembling the damaged buildings of Hue. Kubrick by Kubrick may be puzzling for those viewers who are less familiar with Kubrick and his thirteen feature films especially at a time when too directors are hailed as "visionary". For who either admire Stanley Kubrick in general or find themselves revisiting any of his films multiple times, there will be something to glean here.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:46 AM

March 14, 2023



Lola Quivoron - 2022
Music Box Films

The famous poem by John Donne states that "no man is an island". Julia, the perpetually combative young woman, would contest that view. Fierce and fiercely independent, Julia is from the Caribbean island country of Guadalupe, living a mostly rootless existence in a suburb north of Paris. At the beginning of the film, Julia discovers that her motorbike has been stolen. Getting a replacement is more important than showing up for work. Finding a bike for sale online, she hoodwinks the seller into allowing her to take a test run.

The rodeo referred to in the title is where young men gather to show off their biking skills. Especially popular is the ability to ride only on the rear wheel at a 45 degree angle or higher. It is strictly a boys club, with Julia insistently busting into the fraternity. This is where Rodeo is at its best, with the feel of a documentary looking at an unknown sub-culture. Most of the cast is non-professionals, bikers who Ms. Quivoron got to know, including lead actress Julie Ledru. The bi-racial, gap toothed Ledru is a step or two away from the conventional lead, but so is the story.

At first glance one might expect a variation on the kind of film often involving fast and furious cars. The girl is as daring a driver as the best of the guys. Rivalry turns into respect which turns into love. That's not this film. Julia is only interested in being one of the guys. There is a slight hint that she may not be totally asexual in her friendship with the wife of the imprisoned gang boss. Julia's narrow existence is defined by participating in the rodeos and stealing bikes on behalf of the gang that has uneasily taken her in.

There is also a glance at class differences. Aside from being a racially mixed group, it is suggested that the bikers are from economicly marginalized backgrounds. Locked out of her mother's public housing apartment, Julia talks her way into making the gang's garage her home. In contrast, the victims of Julia's scams in her bike thefts are mature white men who reside in houses denoting comfortable upper middle class life. There is the puncturing of masculine pride in the way that the men who fall for the dolled up Julia's con take her at her word that the purse she hands over as a form of security deposit is never examined for its true contents.

Ms. Quivoron began documenting the bikers in 2015, first with photography and later, a short film, The screenplay was written with Antonia Buresi who also appears as the wife of the gang leader. The screenplay was modified to incorporate parts of Julie Ledru's life. Ms. Quivoron has stated - "For these people, who come from very poor environments and backgrounds, the bike is a way to take revenge on the card fate dealt them. It's a way to create an alternative family and to express the rage and anger they feel inside. I like the idea of them needing to make noise in order to be heard by the people, the society, around them."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:58 AM

March 10, 2023



Agnieszka Smoczynska - 2018

In the seven years since the release of The Lure, I had somehow lost track of director Agnieszka Smoczynska's career. I really liked her debut feature with the killer mermaid. Until I bothered to check her filmography before seeing Fugue, her second film, it had slipped past me that Smoczynska has also directed the recent The Silent Twins. Fugue is more reality based, yet it also has hints of the fantastic.

In this case, fugue is used as a medical term describing a temporary dissociative state of amnesia with the person discovered in an unexpected place, with a different sense of identity. Parts of the narrative might be described as creating the cinematic equivalent to the musical definition of a fugue with several shots breaking the narrative to eventually provide a flashback to the opening scene introducing the woman who calls herself Alicja.

Alicja is first seen waling in a dark tunnel, on what are revealed to be subway tracks. She is disheveled and grimy, but also well dressed. Two years later, Alicia is in a police station where she signs a form with the initials K.S., indicating that she has some memory of her true identity. She appears on a television program where she is interviewed with the hopes that someone can identify her. Reunited with a family she does not recognize, Alicia is in almost constant conflict with the people who knew her as Kinga. Unlike the more conventional stories of people recovering from amnesia, Fugue poses the question of what makes for a true sense of identity, and if a marked change in personality is any less valid than how that person may have lived and behaved previously.

Smoczynska repeatedly uses dark, constricted spaces, from the tunnel in the film's opening to scenes taking place driving through country roads at night. Bright, but claustrophobic, is the shot of Alicja seen through the shaft of an MRI machine. It is here we have the most dreamlike imagery of the brain scan animated with bursts of colors and flowers. There is also a nightmarish image of Alicja appearing to pull herself out of the ground at night in the woods, explaining her appearance in the opening scene.

It should be noted that the screenplay was by Gabriela Muskala, who also stars as Alicja. Muskala's inspiration was also a television show with a woman unable to identify her husband and son. Muskala's performance is the kind that would be unimaginable for most English language actresses.

Fugue begins its U.S. theatrical release in Los Angeles, with New York City to follow at the end of the month.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:16 AM