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April 28, 2023



Jalmari Helander - 2022

If a Western from Italy is called a "Spaghetti Western", would a Western from Finland be a "Reindeer Western"? Not thatSisu is a Western, but that it plays like one. If the non-verbal lead character is not enough of an indication, there is the Ennio Morricone inspired soundtrack. The title refers to a Finnish word that has no English language equivalent, but essentially means having the spirit to never give up, no matter how desperate the situation.

Off screen narration provides a bit of historical context to the film although some viewers may want to dig a little deeper into Finland's controversial history during World War II. The bulk of the story takes place in Lapland, 1944. Former soldier Aatami Korpi has withdrawn from society to live in a remote area. Nazi soldiers have been ordered to leave Finland but are following a scorched earth policy, burning towns and killing civilians. Aatami has discovered gold on his land and after gathering enough nuggets to carry, tries to travel by horseback to Helsinki. After Nazi platoon leader discovers that Aatami is carrying gold, he goes on an obsessive pursuit, ignoring both the orders that his platoon is to retreat, and that Aatami is a more than capable one-man army noted for killing 300 Russian soldiers.

Those who remember one of the popular bits on SCTV will find that Sisu was made to be reviewed by John Candy and Joe Flaherty in their Farm Film Report. Most viewers are going to show up to see see things "blowed up real good". By things, I mostly mean Nazi soldiers, tanks, and an airplane. There is also stabbings, punch outs, shootings and assorted mayhem. Also self-surgery with improvised needles and thread, as well as cauterization. How much is too much when it comes to slit throats and flying body parts? I guess the adjective overkill may be too obvious even if it is appropriate. The last twenty minutes or so take the film from simply being extreme to the ridiculous, although there is what appears to me a humorous nod to Dr. Strangelove.

Jalmari Helander has shown in his third feature that he likes to lean into the Finland of myths and traditions, again taking place in Lapland. His debut feature, Rare Exports took on Santa Claus. Big Game, digitally released in the U.S., was about a 13 years old boy whose rite of passage involves hunting a deer alone, only to find himself saving the President of the United States from kidnapping and death. Helander has a group of actors he has used in all his films, with Jorma Tommila as Aatami. Much of Sisu is dialogue free. Stateside filmmakers could learn a lesson or two from Helander both in keeping the exposition to a minimum and the running time to an audience friendly hour and a half. The more serious viewer might like to know that Sisu was the big winner at last Fall's Sitges Film Festival winning Best Film, Best Actor, Best Cinematography and Best Music. For everyone else, it is the fun of watching Nazis blown up real good.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:59 AM

April 25, 2023

The New Godfathers

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I contrabbandieri di Santa Lucia
Alfonso Brescia - 1979
Raro Video

The English language title is misleading here, hopping on the trend of the time to evoke an enormously popular film released seven years earlier. Yes, there are some crime family bosses, but they are not the main focus of this film. The original title translates as "The Smugglers of Santa Lucia" which is not quite as attention grabbing.

There are a couple of what I would call the obligatory requirements of the Italian crime film. A car is wired to explode when the ignition is turned on. If you have seen more than one such film, you can anticipate when it happens. There is also the inclusion of a Hollywood star, either someone who is a supporting actor stateside or someone getting by with name recognition. Edmund Purdom, whose career as a romantic lead in the mid-1950s flickered briefly, showing up for a couple of scenes as a commissioner of an unnamed agency. As revealed by film historian Mike Malloy in his supplement documentary, the two big car chases, also tropes of the Italian crime film, were recycled from other films. At least now I know why in the second chase there are mismatched shots as gangsters pursue each other out of a real New York City onto a highway where there is no other traffic.

Malloy also puts The New Godfathers into the context of other films of the time. Made with lower budgets, these films took place in Naples, had greater time spent on melodramatic situations, and were subject to more limited distribution even within Italy. Gianni Garko plays the customs official who tries to make a deal with a Neapolitan businessman portrayed by Antonio Sabato, to look out for a ship carrying heroin. In exchange, Garko will allow the smuggling of cigarettes, a trade financed by Sabato, to have a temporary reprieve from law enforcement. Where the film is most interesting is in its presentation of the lower level criminals, especially a family of street level husband and wife hustlers who get by selling smuggled cigarettes. Director Brescia also tries to tie his story with documentary footage making connections between the countries involved in the illegal trade.

In addition to Mike Malloy's short documentary covering the making of the film, the new blu-ray also includes the U.S. release version of The New Godfathers. Essentially it is the same film, dubbed in English. The difference of approximately half a minute is the loss of a little joke. In the original Italian version, we see the director appearing as a befuddled man walking up and staring at a large poster for one of his earlier films, scratching his head and asking, "Who's Alfonso Brescia?".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:30 AM

April 21, 2023



György Fehér - 1990
Arbelos Films

It will be interesting to note the reactions to Twilight from those who are not familiar with any version of Friedrich Durrenmatt's story. Originally a screenplay for the 1958 German film, It Happened in Broad Daylight, Durrenmatt's story was compromised be the insistence of a cheerful resolution. Durrenmatt adapted his story into the novella, The Pledge, also published the same year. The change was a narrative that set to deconstruct the conventions of the detective story as well as undermine some of the myths of actual police work.

The basic framework is that a police detective on the verge of retiring is at a crime scene on his last day. A young girl is found murdered in a forest, her throat slashed. The detective promises the victim's mother that he will find the murderer. Even though he is no longer on the force, the detective forgoes a planned vacation to resolve the case. He is insistent that a vagrant deemed guilty due to circumstantial evidence is not the murderer. Based on similar cases, the detective determines that the murderer lives by a certain road, and sets up residence in a rundown gas station on that road. A young mother is recruited to be his housekeeper with her elementary school age daughter to be used as the unknowing bait.

Durrenmatt's story has been filmed five times. Most of the basic elements are the same even though the details differ. As Durrenmatt revised his own screenplay into a novel, there cannot be said to be a definitive version of the story. The only version I have not seen was made for Italian television. While the basic framework is shared, the remakes all are contemporary to the time the films were produced. The more striking variations are with the details that are either emphasized or omitted. Some of the films use the ending from first film, while others use the novella's ending. The Hungarian filmmaker György Fehér credits his source material as inspired by tropes from Durrenmatt's screenplay.

Unlike the other film versions, this is quite elliptical in its story telling. Several scenes are considerably condensed. Durrenmatt's dialogue and exposition are virtually eliminated with brief statements by characters not always clearly seen. Most of the film takes in fog or rain. Even the interior shots are dimly lit shades of gray. The one time sunshine peeks through is when a suspect is apprehended. Instead, there are very studied upward tilts of a forest and the use of lateral tracking shots. The sense of detachment adds to ambiguity where solving a mystery seems besides the point. I have seen three of the other versions, and Feher also notably does not show any of the story's more exploitable moments.

Have I done myself a disservice by seeing the other films first? Those not familiar with the story in any of its other forms may possibly be frustrated with Feher's slivers that make up the narrative portion of his film. Knowing that Feher has also worked with Bela Tarr may help temper expectations based on any familiarity with the better known filmmaker. The film itself is sourced from a 2022 restoration, and is only now getting a belated stateside 4K theatrical release.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:15 AM

April 18, 2023

Martin Roumagnac


Georges Lacombe - 1946
Icarus Films Home Video DVD All Region

There is a scene in Martin Roumagnac in which the contractor from a French provincial town goes to a late night dinner in Paris with the more worldly widow for whom he is building a small house. Taking place in a restaurant evoking Romanov era Russia, the patrons are entertained by a string ensemble in which showmanship may be more important than the music. The contractor dithers at his plate, uncertain of the correct fork to use with his meal. Part of the string ensemble surrounds the couple, making them a very captive audience. The contractor tells one of the violinists that the music is dripping on his coffee. There is some humor in the scene, but not enough. I am reminded of a somewhat similar scene in Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon. And I wish that Billy Wilder was the director here because he would have milked this scene for all of its potential humor.

The main reason for viewing Martin Roumagnac is for the pairing of two iconic stars, Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin. Originally, they were to make a film under the direction of Marcel Carne. That fell through as Dietrich did not like the screenplay. That Gabin and Dietrich did make a film with the lesser known Georges Lacombe makes sense as he was part of the wave of French realist filmmakers best personified by Carne and Rene Clement. Lacombe started as an assistant to Rene Clair. Martin Roumagnac received U.S. distribution under the title The Room Upstairs. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's dismissed the film as, "a dull stretch of old-fashioned drama". While the film did nothing to make Lacombe stand out from his peers, neither did it hobble his career as a dependable director. For Dietrich, the film is a small blip, a false start on a post-war career in which she segued from film star to nightclub performer. As Jean Gabin's first French film post-war film, this was the beginning of what has been described as a career slump that ended with the release of Touchez pas au Grisbi eight years later.

I have to agree with Bosley Crowther here in that the story is familiar. Gabin, in the title role as the well meaning contractor who gets in over his head upon meeting the widow Blanche Ferrand after she sits next to him by chance at a boxing match. The town is small enough that everyone seems to know everyone else. Having upset the senses of propriety, Roumagnac loses potential jobs and risks losing his company due to his attentions lavished on Blanche. There are the romantic rivals as well as the questions regarding Blanche's own feelings about the relationship.

Georges Lacombe may not be the visual stylist on the level of Marcel Carne, but he seems to find multiple ways of filming Marlene Dietrich's legs, starting with that first shot of her descending a staircase. If that is not enough, Dietrich is briefly seen in lingerie and stockings, immediately immediately arousing Gabin and presumably members of the film audience. Gabin was 42 at the time the film was made while Dietrich would have officially been 45. To the film's credit, the film presents romantic love between a middle-aged couple who also happened to have been briefly a couple off-screen. Getting hot and heavy in the barn's haystacks is not just for the youngsters.

The DVD was sourced from a 4K restoration.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:52 AM

April 11, 2023

Arsene Lupin Collection

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The Adventures of Arsene Lupin/Les Adventures d'Arsene Lupin
Jacques Becker - 1957

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Signed, Arsene Lupin/Signe Arsene Lupin
Yves Robert - 1959

Arsene Lupin vs. Arsene Lupin/Arsene Lupin contre Arsene Lupin
Edouard Molinaro - 1962
Kino Classics BD Region A Two-disc set

Created in 1905 by author Maurice Leblanc, the gentleman thief and master of disguise Arsene Lupin has had an enduring cinematic legacy since the silent era. French by birth, the novels have inspired films from several countries including the U.S. and Japan, and multiple actors in the title role. The collection from Kino Classics represents the three films produced by the French studio Gaumont, with two actors as Lupin, and three directors making there own variations inspired by the novels.

The Adventures of Arsene Lupin was the first French film version in twenty years. While Jacques Becker is mostly known for his art house classics Casque d'Or and Touchez pas au Grisbi, what is overlooked is that he needed to make some more commercially viable films for career survival. Robert Lamoureax, who bears some resemblance to Golden Age Hollywood star Warren William, appears as Lupin. Taking place in 1912, he waltzes into high society, capturing the eye of Liselot (Lilo) Pulver, and waltzing out with two small, but extremely valuable paintings. As is his tradition, Lupin leaves a calling card helpfully informing his hosts that one of their prized paintings is actually a fake. Lupin is later challenged by Kaiser Wilhelm II to discover the hiding place of a valuable jewel.

The film was shot in lush Technicolor, very nicely rendered in this blu-ray. Becker delights in showing the mechanics of how the various thefts were accomplished. The story takes place in a Paris that seems to exist out of time, clinging onto what is left of the late 19th Century. It is the women who can identify Lupin past his fake beards and costume changes, yet they prefer to think they are the one keeping a secret. Even if The Adventures of Arsene Lupin is a lesser entry in Jacques Becker's filmography, it still welcome as providing additional representation of his work in his final decade.

While the Lupin films all have streaks of humor, the tone gets progressively lighter in the films that follow. Signed, Arsene Lupin is an early film by Yves Robert, best known for his comedies like The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe and his later Marcel Pagnol duology. Lupin is introduced as a World War I veteran recovering in a hospital from a leg wound. Robert Lamoureaux repeats his role as Lupin, with Robert appearing as La Ballu, a thief who enlists Lupin to join him in the theft of a painting. The painting is part of a triptych that leads to hidden treasure. Lupin is doggedly followed by the young reporter known as Veritas, who manages to never be believed even when he can identify Lupin. Shot in black and white, Signed, Arsene Lupin has a couple of moments that suggest some cost cutting measures even with the extensive location hopping between France and Italy. Lupin's sleight of hand is less important than resolving the mystery of the paintings.

The Japanese animated character Lupin III has a life of its own, exceeding the popularity of the original character. Arsene Lupin vs. Arsene Lupin might be the closest to Lupin II, if not by name. Jean-Claude Brialy and Jean-Pierre Cassel play the two sons of the deceased Lupin. Originally unaware of each other's existence, the two join forces to protect the family of exiled aristocrats. Edouard Molinaro employs some of the visual style used in his earlier films noir. A briefly seen poster for the silent serial, Le Tresor de Keriolet (1920) helps place the time setting with Molinaro referring to silent era filmmaking with the use of intertitles, cranked up chases, and a few funny sound effects. 20 year old Francoise Dorleac is seen too briefly as Cassel's reporter girlfriend. For Molinaro, what is of interest is how the brothers try to outwit each other as well as everyone else with their different disguises. The blu-ray was sourced from a very well preserved print, in wide screen black and white.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:07 AM

April 07, 2023

The Worst Ones

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Les Pires
Lise Akoka & Romane Gueret - 2022
Kino Lorber Films

Is it possible for a film to be too meta for its own good? I am not entirely certain how to write about The Worst Ones as it seems to bring up questions about the nature of filmmaking, the use of non-professional actors, and especially how children are used in film. Hopefully, I will be reasonably clear in my basic description.

The film is about the making of a film in a housing project in Northern France. The director, Gabriel, has chosen two boys and two girls to be his main characters. Without any clear indication, the film switches between Gabriel's film and scenes of his young actors' own lives. Gabriel has deliberately chosen from the children he auditioned those who appear to have had the most difficult lives. Among the residents of the neighborhood, the chosen children are considered the worst.

The entire film was done documentary style. What may have well been a case of art following life during production has two of the "stars" essentially walking away from the production, with the film mostly concentrating on Ryan, a combative pre-teen, and Lily, a sweet-natured 15 year old known reputed for promiscuity. The two become more emotionally invested in the filmmaking process, with Ryan experiencing the biggest change in channeling his anarchic energy.

It is never made clear what kind of story Gabriel is filming. At one point, Lily and a boy about her age, Jessy, are filming a bedroom scene. Lily is in bra and panties, while Jessy is wearing underpants. They are underneath a blanket and a filmed tentatively kissing. Simultaneously that scene and the filming of the filming bring up questions about child exploitation. Was Gabriel's scene necessary both as part of the film-within-the-film as well as in the overall structure of The Worst Ones? I bring this up as we are in a time of questioning of expressions and depictions of sexuality of minors. Making me wonder more so about Gabriel's film is his climatic scene with the release of hundreds of pigeons, with Ryan wearing a prothetic stomach making him appear pregnant.

Perhaps I missed the point. The concept may have been interesting enough, especially following some recent French films that have made use of non-professional youth such as Cuties and Rodeo. My own take is that for all the worthwhile issues raised in The Worst Ones, the filmmakers became so involved in their own funhouse mirrors of self-reference that they lost the audience on their way.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:09 AM

April 04, 2023

The Wildcat


Die Bergkatze
Ernst Lubitsch - 1921
Kino Classics BD Region A

The film is subtitled A Grotesque in Four Acts, but as Anthony Slide explains in his commentary track, the German meaning is not the same as in the English language usage. Some of the comic and visual elements are uncharacteristic for a Lubitsch film. Some of the sight gags would seem more a part of slapstick comedies. The interior set of a large castle fortress has rooms dominated by curlicue room dividers and furniture. Most conspicuous is the use of masking for many of the shots with framed within circles, lip shapes, diagonal shafts, and what anticipates the letterbox frame. The Wildcat was not only a box office failure in its native Germany, but unlike other Lubitsch films at the time, failed to get a U.S. release.

The basic setting resembles a fictional 19th Century German mountain village, except for the incongruous appearance of one chauffeur driven cabriolet, with a high ranking soldier falling in love with the daughter of a bandit chief. German militarism gets poked with the fort commander's mustache that resembles the propellor of a toy airplane. Morning starts with soldiers who would rather stay in bed than respond to that morning's bugle. Lieutenant Alexis is being foisted on the commander. Alexis' reputation as a ladies man is illustrated first by the hundreds of women who gather around his car, weeping at his leaving. This is followed by fifty or so little girls acknowledging Alexis' prodigious paternity. When we are introduced to Rischka, the daughter of the bandit chief, she wields a whip. Lubitsch admirer and collaborator, Billy Wilder, may have thought he was getting away with something with his Great S and M Amusement Corporation in Ace in the Hole, but what Lubitsch did thirty years earlier would probably make even the pre-Code Hollywood censors blush. A suicide gag anticipates To Be or Not To Be by about twenty years.

I admit to not having seen any of the other films star Pola Negri made with Ernst Lubitsch. The only other film I have seen is one I barely remember, Hi Diddle Diddle (1943), one of the couple of times Ms. Negri took a break from retirement after a return to Germany in the mid 1930s. As Rischka, Negri is raccoon eyes and rat's nest hair, essentially a force of nature. It is mostly a physical performance of rolling down snowy hills, sliding around a highly waxed floor, leading the bandits in dance, and intimidating the men in her presence. When Rischka encounters her romantic rival for Alexis, she simultaneously consoles the woman while stealing her pearl necklace. Once a thief, etc. Alexis is played by Paul Heidemann, a popular actor of the time, but arguably miscast as a great lover, his thining hair making him look even older than his 36 years.

Film historian Anthony Slide does what he can with a film that has little documentation. Even he is uncertain as to what motivated Lubitsch to use the masking, with some of the shapes repeated within the sets. Slide does explain how the masking was an in-camera effect done by cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl, so that those shots were specifically designed to be filmed within the variously shaped frames. In spite of the limited information available, Slide is still able to be informative about the film, cast and crew. The blu-ray was sourced from a 2K digital restoration that in turn was from a 2000 restored print.

The blu-ray also includes the featurette, When I was Dead, made in 1916, with Lubitsch as writer, director and star. The 37 minute long film begins with the three main actors being introduced as if on stage. Lubitsch's first appearance is self-deprecating. It also suggests that while totally leaving acting to concentrate only on directing was a few years in the future, Lubitsch was already in the process of making his name a recognizable brand. Lubitsch plays the part of a husband kicked out of the house by his mother-in-law for staying out late playing chess. He writes a fake suicide note to his wife and then returns home disguised as a servant. Film historian Joseph McBride provides a commentary track here, with more of an examination of Lubitsch career as a stage and screen actor. An extra bonus is that the film is tinted, restored in 1995, with the digital restoration done in 2012.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:10 AM