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May 30, 2023

Montreal Girls


Patricia Chica - 2022
Level 33 Entertainment

The dramatic arc of Montreal Girls is a variation of a familiar story. In this case, a young man, an aspiring poet, begins medical school to please his parents. Following episodes of heartbreak with two woman, and walking out on a class lecture, he is at a crossroad determining his future. Just as he has appeared to hit rock bottom, there is both family and personal reconciliation that allows the young man to continue his future as a literature student and appear at local poetry readings.

This Canadian production is atypically cast with characters who are ethnically or socially marginal, or both. The young would-be poet, Ramy, is from an unnamed Mideastern country. His host uncle is still somewhat traditional, as indicated by serving tea in a glass. Ramy's cousin, dyed blond hair and leather jacket, plays in a hard core punk band. Ramy is attracted to Yasmina, also of Arab descent, who states she is rebelling against any traditional life, choosing to play the part of the exotic other. Ramy, an English speaking Arab in Montreal, gets lost among Francophone poets, punk rock fans, and rockabilly club patrons. Ramy is an outsider among the bands of outsiders.

Except for a couple of shots of back alleys at night, Montreal presented here looks very pretty, like a commercial to encourage tourism. I am not sure anyone else would be as happy riding their moped in the rain like young Ramy. Also included are close-ups of leaves in Fall colors. This is Patricia Chica's debut dramatic feature after almost thirty years of short films and documentaries. Ms. Chica immigrated to Canada from El Salvador at a young age, making me think that perhaps something inspired by her own story might be of greater, and more substantial, substance.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:36 AM

May 26, 2023

There's No Tomorrow


Sans lendemain
Max Ophuls - 1939
Kino Classics BD Region A

This may be my own idiosyncratic reading of the end of There's No Tomorrow, but it seems to anticipate the closing montage of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse. Evelyn, a Parisian showgirl, is distressed following the departure of her young son who has gone to Canada with her former lover. Henri, the comic at the cabaret where they work, takes Evelyn out for drinks at a bistro. While Henri is making a phone call, Evelyn leaves. Ophuls repeats three similar shots, the abandoned table in the bistro, a telephone left off the hook, and an empty street. I am unaware if Antonioni had ever seen Ophuls film, and taken the same visual idea, but extended and abstract, for his own way of saying there was no tomorrow for Alain Delon and Monica Vitti.

Ophuls' film was made during his French period, from 1935 through 1940. There are some of the same elements of other films, although Evelyn's professional life places her in margins of Lola Montes or Gaby, the movie star of La signora di tutti. Evelyn's closest contemporary equivalent would be one of the women who work in a "gentleman's club", providing companionship long enough to last several bottles of champagne. Evelyn accidentally is reunited with Georges, a doctor she had last seen ten previously when she lived in Montreal. The attempt to hide her currently reality from Georges, presented as just a rung above prostitution, beginning with renting a second, expensive apartment, begins a cycle of events that get further out of control. Caught could well be the title of several Ophuls films, with several of his female protagonists in above their heads following a lie.

There's No Tomorrow has a different visual style. There are some signature traveling shots that Ophuls is known for. But with cinematographer Eugen Schufttan, Ophuls begins his films with a sequence, the interior of the nightclub, La Sirene, with shots of the dancers on stage, and off-stage in their dressing room following a sequence of shots of patrons dancing to the house band. That sequence is the most stylized part of the film. While the job of the sirens at La Sirene is to catch customers, the sequence of dressing room shots is viewed through a net, with the showgirls equally trapped. This is followed by shots of the club's comic filmed with part of a superimposed net on the right side of the screen. Caught indeed. It may be just as well that There's No Tomorrow was never imported to the United States at the time of release as it would have been partially shredded because of nudity and narrative elements that were more in common with pre-Code Hollywood films.

Film scholar Adrian Martin provides the commentary track which primarily discusses how There's No Tomorrow fits in thematically with Ophuls other films. One of the interesting points is the casting of Edwige Feuillere, comparing her to Lola Montes star Martine Carol, another actress not taken seriously until working with Ophuls. Martin also discusses that while Stanley Kubrick has noted how his visual style has been influenced by Max Ophuls, any similarities may be overstated. The blu-ray has been sourced from a restored print and appears virtually flawless.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:14 AM

May 24, 2023

Film, the Living Record of Our Memories

film the living.jpeg

Inés Toharia Terán - 2021
Kino Lorber Films

I would think that most documentaries about film preservation are primarily seen by an audience that does not have to be convinced of the importance of film preservation. What we have here goes beyond the rescue of lost Hollywood films. What is perhaps the most eye-opening aspect is the depiction of film preservation as labor.

The first images are silent era footage of work in film labs. Even if there was not always a sense of the films themselves being art, or of being of any interest beyond their theatrical screenings at that time, someone thought that the actual unseen work should be documented. It is not indicated who did this documentation or the identity of the intended audience. Still, it was a jolt to see that whatever the original intention, some understood that the process of filmmaking went beyond the finished product or even behind the scenes depictions taking place on a film set. This is augmented by more recent shots of can after can of films in varying states of decay. We see film archivists handling film that disintegrates in their hands, or scraping away at the mold built up over the years. Even scanning and restoration are labor intensive, frame by frame work, taking years to complete.

Several related topics are touched within the two hours. There is the basic history of how and when the first film archives were established, with a special focus on the work of Henri Langlois of the Cinematheque Francaise. Martin Scorsese and his Film Foundation work is recognized for going beyond Hollywood to rescue films from Africa. Also the importance of preserving home and industrial films as part of a sense of history. Kevin Brownlow, whose book, The Parade's Gone By has been considered one of the best histories of silent era cinema, discusses how his own sense of film history was altered after attending the Pordenone Silent Film Festival which showed several previously unknown films. The film festival, now a major event, had an audience of eight people its first year, 1982.

Brownlow joins others whose understanding of film history has changed over the years when it was generally limited to work made in the United States or Europe. One of the reasons why D.W. Griffith may have had outsized credit as a pioneering filmmaker is because he found a way to copyright his work as early as 1903, when copyright protection for films was not codified until nine years later. Among the other early films discussed is the work verifying the first film version of the Chinese Journey to the West, which much like its contemporary remakes, featured the major action stars of the time.

Among the filmmakers offering comments are Ahmad Kiarostami, Costa-Gavras, Patricio Guzman, and Jonas Mekas. Most of the comments and anecdotes are from an international group of archivists and those who do the hands-on work of rescuing film footage. While some are already aware of this problem, home video collectors will be reminded that even their DVDs and Blu-rays have a limited life span.

Film, the Living Record of Our Memories is currently available on multiple VOD platforms.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:44 AM

May 22, 2023

Fist of the Condor


Ernesto Diaz Espinoza - 2022
Well Go USA BD Region A

I am going to be honest and admit that I am not the audience for whom Fist of the Condor was made. This is a niche film for a niche audience. What is of interest to me is that this is an unexpected hybrid, a Chilean martial arts movie, in Spanish with English subtitles. The set-up is that the Incas of the 16th Century had a special martial arts manual passed down through generations from one master to another. Only one copy remains. A reclusive master is reputed to have that one copy. If the story seems in any way reminiscent of other films, it was deliberately designed as homage to the Chinese language martial arts films. Rather than being overly generic, Fist of the Condor may well have been a better film if it had leaned more deeply into its Incan roots, whether real or imagined.

Marko Zaror plays the martial arts master who fights to retain his reputation. Were it not for the scenes with him traveling on his motorcycle, the film appears to be taking place in a hard to determine time period. Zaror also plays the part of his twin brother. The story really is not that important except as a framework to allow Zaror to show off his skills. The aphorisms the characters spout off at each other are neither profound nor original unless one has never seen a kung-fu movie or any any film that includes fake Eastern philosophy in its dialogue. On the other hand, if you want to see why Matko Zaror is a cult action hero, Fist of the Condor explains everything.

With his clean-shaven head here, it would come to no surprise that Zaror once was a stunt double for Dwayne Johnson. Unlike the former wrestler, Zaror displays amazing physical dexterity, especially in running like an animal, stretching out on both hands and feet, and the quick pummeling of his hands when boxing. There is a bit too much reliance on rendering some of the flying fists and high kicks in slow motion. I was previously unfamiliar with Ernesto Diaz Espinoza, who as writer, director and producer has established a career as a genre specialist with several films starring Zaror, with several other cast members who have been part of his previous films. While most serious film scholarship on South American cinema is centered on those films that are on the film festival or art house circuit, Fist of the Condor should be appreciated as a small glimpse into the frequently ignored popular cinema.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:59 AM

May 19, 2023

Last Holiday


Henry Cass - 1950
Criterion Collection Channel

It is now approximately five years since I was told I had cancer. At the time, several medical professionals seemed to be in more of a panic, asking if I had medical directives and plans for palliative care. Based on what the x-rays indicated, it was certain that I would not see the end of 2019. Having both Chronic Kidney Disease and cancer in my left kidney put me in the position of choosing the Devil or the Deep Blue Sea in terms of alleged cures, both that would be guarantees of making me weaker. Rather than absolutely reducing my kidney function with removal of the cancerous kidney or going through dialysis, I figured I would let nature take its course. I was referred to a woman whose job was to explain and advise on the various housing options for seniors, who told me to "purge everything", seeing my collection of books and films as so much clutter. In retrospect, I probably dodged the bullet of Covid-19 by staying in my little apartment.

Last Holiday is about a salesman of farming equipment in rural England who is told he has a fatal disease, and at best has a few months to live. George Bird, portrayed by Alec Guinness, cashes out his savings to live in an expensive hotel in a resort town. It is at the hotel that Bird meets with people who see his professional potential, and where he has the romantic entanglements that were previously unknown. George is so certain of impending death that he cannot enjoy the changes in his fortune. The film was remade as a vehicle for Queen Latifah with Georgia Bird responding to her fate by taking off for an expensive European resort along with a new designer wardrobe. The remake eliminates the ironic ending of J.B. Priestly's story in exchange for a more comforting, and essentially pointless, resolution.

Last Holiday is hardly alone in having a story about the choices one makes when told that they have a limited amount of life. I had not seen Henry Cass' film and it was on my mind. Especially in comparison to the remake, George Bird's idea of so-called posh living comes off as exceedingly modest. A rough estimate is that Bird has the equivalent to $45,000, more than enough to get him out of driving distance within Southwest England. Probably the idea of Bird taking off for a more exotic location was besides the point for Priestly as the story is also a critique of class hierarchies in a part of England that appears untouched by World War II. While I have possibly been conservative in my own choices, when it became apparent that my declining health was on a long, flat plain with no discernible ending, I took off for a week in Barcelona to attend what may have been the world's smallest international film festival, March 2019. Now with the various Covid related protocols removed, I feel comfortable enough to plan to attend another film festival abroad this Fall. Sometimes I feel like I am tempting fate. What I am unable to do is rationally explain how or why I have so far lived, and in some ways lived well, beyond my prognosis. Maybe my Buddhist practice. Certainly not my diet which has only been moderately modified to be more kidney friendly. At this point I would rather have an adventure that does not quite work out as planned rather than regrets over not ever leaving my safe space.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:57 AM

May 12, 2023



Matt Johnson - 2023
IFC Films

On the surface, BlackBerry is an addition to the sub-genre of films about brand names and the people who were key in creation of those brands. Perhaps not consciously, but these films also reflect the self-identification people have with brand names, be it what were formerly known as sneakers, t-shirts with company logos, or owning the most up-to-date mobile phone. Conspicuous consumption as classically understood does not apply as applicable items come in a variety of price ranges. BlackBerry is less interested in how a small, undisciplined tech bros were able to create the first cell phone that had multiple uses, than how the BlackBerry dominated the cell phone market, setting the standard for almost decade, only to be eclipsed by a combination of newer technological advances and bad business decisions.

While acknowledging the non-fiction history of BlackBerry, Losing the Signal, the film is partially fictionalized. Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin have a small tech company and a dream of creating a cell phone that connects with the internet and can also be used for sending text messages. While they and their team may technical skills, neither Mike nor Doug are skilled at doing business. Jim Balsillie, the recipient of one of Mike and Doug's sales pitches, buys into the company, sharing CEO duties with Mike. Jim's aggressiveness is a counterweight to Mike's seeming passivity, although it is soon indicated that it is Mike's ability to explain the technology of the BlackBerry which helps change the fortune of the company. The story is one where business culture eventually takes over the bro culture where working hours were once spent with constant gaming and movie nights. Mike eventually starts dressing the part of a highly successful businessman while Doug refuses to change from his ultra casual t-shirts and shorts.

Like many previous stories about businesses and businessmen, pride comes before the fall. The BlackBerry is sold as a status symbol, only to lose its place to Apple's I-Phone and its many successors. Jim takes unethical steps in hiring the best technical engineers, and tries to buy his way into the National Hockey League. Mike's response to Apple's touchscreen technology is of outright dismissal that there could be anything better than the operating system and use of a keyboard that he created in the late 1990s. Not that there is an unhappy ending as Mike, Jim and Doug left BlackBerry quite wealthy.

The main roles are taken by Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton and director Johnson, and unsurprisingly lean into the comic aspects of their respective characters. That axiom of Canadian cinema, Saul Rubinek, appears as the head of a cell phone company. The film runs two hours long, and is admittedly reasonably entertaining and distracting. The film, in keeping with the times we live in, also has the substance of a social media tweet or posting, equally ephemeral.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:28 AM

May 05, 2023

The Taking

The Taking.jpeg

Alexandre O. Philippe - 2021
Dekanalog Films

Alexandre Philippe's most famous documentary, 78/52 is a feature length analysis of the shower scene in Psycho. By contrast, The Taking introduces several different ideas inspired by the history of Monument Valley as a film location, each of which could be explored more deeply. There is the sense that there is a much bigger film, or series of films, than what is crammed within the 76 minute running time.

Unsurprisingly, much of that time is devoted to John Ford, his use of Monument Valley as the American West mostly of his imagination, and how a small portion with its notable rock formation became a visual cliche. The cranky, evasive Ford, through clips from Peter Bogdanovich's documentary, offers no explanations. What is striking for me is the visual analysis of how Ford composes his shots. While most discussion of Ford would center on narrative elements as well as the general composition of his shots, what is brought up here is that the background of the exterior shots reveal that Ford was filming within a small radius where the same giant rock formations are visible. It is also pointed out how Ford planted cactus for My Darling Clementine, appropriate for a fictionalized Tombstone, Arizona in a fictionalized biography. Ford was confident enough to use Monument Valley to stand in for other parts of the United States, especially in Cheyenne Autumn that neither audiences nor critics would take notice.

Philippe with a couple of Native American historians point out that Ford's use of Native Americans as extras in his Westerns was not simply based on authenticity. The area had been the site of uranium mining which was the main source of income for the residence. Between the destruction of part of the land through the mining, the adverse effects on the miners, and the decimation of the sheep population, working as a film extra was one of the few ways the local Native American residence could earn some money. There are shots of the some of the homes, a hodgepodge of earthen huts and mobile homes. The normally unseen poverty stands in contrast to the austere beauty presented on film.

One of Philippe's other tangents is the idea of how some locations are mythologized in film. I am not certain if Philippe was intentionally being ironic by citing a couple films by Andrei Tarkovsky but I flashed back to the reports of the Telluride Film Festival, 1983. At that event Tarkovsky and Richard Widmark were both guests of honor. Tarkovsky has gone on record objecting to Monument Valley as a location for westerns, a combination of his sense of aesthetics of the location and his dislike of film as entertainment. Widmark's response that there was room enough for different kinds of films, mentioning his own work with John Ford.

While Philippe nicely notes the titles for every film clip, I wish he had done the same for the various contributors who are heard though not seen. The best known of the historians and critics is Sir Christopher Frayling who compares the openness and sense of permanence of Monument Valley with the destruction and limited sense of space in post-war London. While one could easily expand on all the other filmmakers who used Monument Valley, what might be of more significance would be a documentary on the history of the area both before and after it became an official reservation, its time as a mining community, and the use of the local population as employed by film studios.

Following its festival run, The Taking will begin limited theatrical screenings.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:14 AM