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September 30, 2005

Love and Anger

Amore e Rabbia
Carlo Lizzani, Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard and Marco Bellochio - 1969
NoShame Region 0 DVD

Taken out of its historical context, I have to wonder about the value of Love and Anger. An omnibus film that tried to capture the spirit of what was happening in Europe in May of 1968, I suspect that the film may have seemed a bit dated by the time of release at the end of May 1969. The topicality and political stance as expressed make this film a cinematic time capsule of a brief moment in history when there was a genuine belief that art and politics would not only fuse, but change the world.

In the supplementary DVD, Carlo Lizzani explains his role as catalyst for this film. Originally to have several directors using the Gospels as the unifying thread, Love and Anger is a collection of shorts looking at aspects of the human condition. Because of the freedom given to the film makes, the sense that there is a theme tying the five films together is often ignored and finally lost.

I have not seen any of Carlo Lizzani's films previous to his entry here. An indictment of urban indifference, Lizzani cuts between shots of a rape observed but not reported or stopped, homeless men sleeping on the sidewalks of New York City, and an injured driver on a highway trying to get someone to take his injured wife to a hospital. The driver and his wife are reluctantly rescued by a man who turns out to be a criminal. While the film making technique is the most conventional, what ever Lizzani was trying to say is unclear.

Bertolucci's segment is not as interesting as an example of his film making as it is a record of The Living Theatre. Known for their controversial fusion of politics and theater, The Living Theatre during the Sixties stopped doing formally staged productions in favor of more interactive performance pieces that incorporated improvisation and audience participation. I had the opportunity to see them twice in Colorado when they were performing at college campuses in their return to the United States after living and performing in Europe. Especially as Living Theatre co-founder Julian Beck is best known for his last filmed performance, as the gaunt Reverend Kane in Poltergeist II, he can be seen at his intense best in Love and Anger. I will admit here that I can not be totally objective regarding The Living Theatre.

Pasolini filmed actor Ninetto Davoli walking down the street with documentary footage fading in and out. Off screen voices of God and the Devil provide commentary, and there is an Italian pop song on the soundtrack. I guess Pasolini was saying something about man's destiny but as a religious allegory, it comes off as cinematic doodling compared to The Gospel According to Matthew of Hawks and Sparrows.

Those who have read my previous postings know that I am something of a Marco Bellochio partisan. His short is of University of Rome students depicting the factionalism of the students and faculty, as well as of the differences within the left in what looks like an improvised work. In his interview in the supplement, Bellochio states that he felt he should have expressed a clearer point of view. As sincere as the politics of the students may have been, and I shared in some of these beliefs, they seem at best naive in retrospect. That students would claim to speak on behalf of workers was, looking back, extemely arrogant.

The politics in Godard's piece are also based on Marxist Utopianism. The framing narrative, a self-reflective bit of Godardian cinema with a couple discussing film in general is classic, with one of the characters declaring that true cinema is young Dreyer, or old Murnau. A second couple are suppose to be an Arab man and a Jewish woman, lovers on the verge of separation. Setting aside the politics, this is Godard again meditating on love. While I cringed at some of the "revolutionary" statements, the camera never faltered. Karl Marx may be discredited, but the image of a blonde French woman, stylishly dressed in red, smoking a Gauloise cigarette, never goes out of style.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:13 PM

September 29, 2005

Founding Fathers Double Feature

George Washington
David Gordon Green - 2000
Criterion Region 1 DVD

Peter H. Hunt - 1972
Columbia Region 1 DVD

Sometimes there are titles that look like they should be part of a double feature, even if the films really don't belong together. Maybe it's a cheap shot, like pairing Breakfast at Tiffany's with My Dinner with Andre or The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend with The Ugly American. In any case, I saw the two above titles, wondering what they could say about being an American.

The junction of film and politics has made the news recently with air hostesses calling for a boycott of the film Flightplan. I haven't seen this film, and probably won't until it comes to cable. In spite of all the previous films that have shown air hostesses in less than flattering light, someone has the belief that this particular film will do serious damage to the professional standing of air hostesses. What makes this more appalling is that 9/11 is invoked. You have to wonder if the protest is actually genuine and not a way to create publicity for Flightplan. No such objection has been made following Red Eye or Soul Plane. How this relates to the two DVDs I have seen is in raising the question about what it means to be an American and what it means to represent ourselves on film.

I realize that I may be in the minority, but I was not enamored with George Washington. Perhaps I am being to facile by describing it as Harmony Korine as filmed by Robert Bresson. I can recognize and appreciate the craftsmanship and austerity. The people don't resemble any of the small town people I have met in Wyoming or Colorado. In his notes, Green talks about wondering about the historical George Washington, yet what connections he has in mind were not conveyed in the film. I am glad that the Miami Public Library has George Washington as the DVD includes the short A Day with the Boys.

Directed by Clu Gulager, this eighteen minute film was a thematic influence on Green. Made in 1969, the short is about a gang of boys, about ten years old, rolling down hills, playing "war", and generally goofing around with each other. The film was produced by Universal at a time when some theaters still showed short films before the feature. Not only did Gulager enlist Laslo Kovacs to photograph the film, but it was a nominee at Cannes. The film is dated by Gulager's overuse of the various techniques that were in vogue in the late Sixties, such as freeze frames and use of negative color. While the narrative suggests the topical Viet-Nam war, it also suggests Lord of the Flies. Among the boys is one chubby little guy, Clu's son, John, who will be heard from more this January when his feature directorial debut is released.

1776 is more interesting for its subject matter than as a film. Most of the time, the film looks stagy. Even when Abigail Adams is running out in a field, the Broadway origins of this film seem just outside the frame. I can't watch William Daniels, even in 18th Century garb, without thinking of St. Elsewhere. 1776 is valuable in this time of dubious political discourse and absence of thoughtful dialogue. The DVD is a relatively complete version of the film as I understand from the Internet Movie Data Base. The film was screened for Richard Nixon by his friend, producer Jack L. Warner. The song "Cool Considerate Men" was edited out. The song was sung by members of the Continental Congress that felt that they had much to lose in supporting a revolution, and the lyrics mention moving "ever to the right, never to the left". The basic civic lesson is that the Declaration of Independence was the result of both passion and compromise. The secondary lesson is that the founding fathers were a randy bunch that couldn't resist a double entendre.

While there are some good songs and performances, 1776 suffers from having the original stage director responsible for the film. Peter H. Hunt, not to be confused with the Peter Hunt who worked on James Bond films, went from 1776 directly to a long career in television. Hunt was unable to reconceive this play in the way that someone like Bob Fosse could make Caberet a truly filmic experience. As a musical, 1776 is of the template of the big stage musicals like My Fair Lady. Films based on Broadway musicals were well on the way out by 1972 following film flops like Hello, Dolly! and Camelot. Especially after Camelot, one would think Jack Warner would have learned his lesson. Hunt was so protective of his material that 1776 exists as a recreation of a stage musical, but has little life as cinema.

At least Thomas Jefferson has been served well by film with Blythe Danner in 1776 and Thandie Newton in Jefferon in Paris. Not only should we have films about the founding fathers, but more film makers should honor the founding babes of our country.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:09 PM

September 28, 2005

No Direction Home

Martin Scorsese - 2005
Paramount Region 1 DVD

In the song "All Across the Watchtower", Bob Dylan sings about a joker and a thief. By the end of the two discs that comprise No Direction Home, I was pretty much convinced that Dylan is both a joker and a thief. The film covers Dylan's life, growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, through his concert tour of Europe in 1966, with titles noting the motorcycle accident of July 29, 1966. Dylan as joker can be seen in his interviews of the time, with Dylan trapped between being taken too seriously and and sometimes not seriously enough. The thief is the budding musicologist who stole hundreds of records from his friends while developing a broader knowledge of folk music and creating his style.

In some ways No Direction Home compliments parts of David Hadju's account of the creation of Bob Dylan, Positively Fourth Street. In establishing his credentials as a folk singer, Dylan was as creative as rap artists creating their "street cred". Prior to getting a recording contract, Dylan created the image of of a much traveled singing hobo, a contemporary Woodie Guthrie. Stories of growing up in Gallup, New Mexico or riding the rails were taken as fact. Part of the film explores the selling of Bob Dylan, with the song writer paving the way for the performer. In one part, Scorsese has cut excerpts from several cover versions of "Blowin' in the Wind" together. In the beginning of the second disc, Dylan is seen stating twice that all of his songs are "protest songs". The protest could be against success that was greater than that of his peers, against unwanted acclamation, against the constaint examination of every note and word written and performed.

Dave Van Ronk sums up Dylan best in pointing out how Dylan changed his image to be what he thought the public was looking for, the Zelig of folk music. With Bob Dylan, people saw what they wanted to see. With the recent interviews, there is no way of really knowing if Dylan is being any more honest now than he was in the past or if he is simply presenting a new image, the artist as a more reflective man. The bigger question may if Bob Dylan still matters and if so, why? I ask this question as one who identified himself as a big Dylan fan during the years of No Direction Home. I have to suspect that just as audience members felt personally betrayed by Dylan for picking up the electric guitar, that most of the criticism of No Direction Home will be autobiographical, based on the respective writer's sense of their relationship with Bob Dylan.

In my case, you can blame my mom for bringing home the first album and letting me know that it was by the guy who wrote "Blowin' in the Wind". I was familiar with the version by Peter, Paul and Mary, a big hit in the summer of 1963. I probably would have been blown away had I also known that PP & M was the creation of manager Albert Grossman, making them the O-Town of folk music. The first album was much like other folk albums of the early Sixties with versions of traditional songs and a couple of originals. By the time the second album came out, I was a confirmed fan. I saw Dylan in concert twice, first in Denver in 1966, and in 1974 at Madison Square Garden when he resumed performing live following the accident. I had also seen Don't Look Back, and continued buying albums up through John Wesley Harding.

Much of No Direction Home is footage of Dylan in concert in England in 1966. Maybe I'm missing something but considering that Bringing It All Back Home had been out for almost a year, the audience should have known that Dylan had changed musically. During the concert I attended in Denver, there was no problem with Dylan performing with with his band, The Band as they were to be known. Maybe people in England figured that by virtue of buying tickets they bought the right to boo, yell and complain that Bob Dylan deserted folk music. Maybe the disappointed English fans should have taken a clue from the Dylan song, "I Don't Believe You", and pretended they never met Dylan.

While Martin Scorsese is credited as the director, what he has done here has been to primarily shape hours of footage into a coherent, cohesive unit. This isn't as personal a vision as, for example, My Voyage to Italy, or Scorsese's personalized versions of film history. In a recent interview, Scorsese's usual editor, Thelma Schoonmaker notes that Scorsese let Dylan and the others "speak for themselves". Dylan points out that his electric music was never "folk-rock". Although he correctly credits Sonny Bono for this hybrid, he makes it clear that he didn't care for this style and seems annoyed that other musicians even bothered covering Dylan's songs. (Sonny Bono may seem like an easy mark, but "Needles and Pins" is one of the best pop songs ever written.) Probably the best title for a Bob Dylan album was Another Side of Bob Dylan. For Bob Dylan, there always seems to be another side.

For those looking for those other sides, check here.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:37 PM

September 27, 2005

Two Turns of the Screw

A Whisper in the Dark
Un Sussurro nel Buio
Marcello Aliprandi - 1976
NoShame Region 1 DVD

The Innocents
Jack Clayton - 1961
Umbrella Entertainment PAL Region 0 DVD

"We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, " that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them."
from Turn of the Screw by Henry James

According to the Internet Movie Data Base, there are currently twelve movies with the title, Turn of the Screw. This doesn't include films like The Innocents which are based on James' story, but are re-titled. None of the many films inspired by James are counted either, which could conceivably include
Alejandro Amenabar's The Others. It should be no surprise that there is even an acknowledged television version of Turn of the Screw titled The Others. What James created was the prototype for virtually every movie about children and ghosts and to a certain extent, demonic possession, in such variations as Robert Mulligan and Tom Tryon's The Other and The Sixth Sense.

One such variation of James is A Whisper in the Dark. In this case, the film centers on a young moon faced boy, Marco, and his imaginary friend, Luca. While no entity is seen, Luca's presence is suggested by various accidents, noises, and even a stray red balloon. While the film takes place in present day Italy, the setting in a very large villa strongly suggests an earlier time. A Whisper in the Dark is better in atmosphere than in being scary or suspenseful. Pino Donaggio's music aids in setting the mood. While not indulging in the gore of the giallo film makers of this time, the film does not achieve the sense of unease of the best psychological horror films such as Robert Wise's version of The Haunting.

This is the first Marcello Aliprandi film to get a major DVD release. According to IMDB, Aliprandi worked as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on his stage productions. Of the eleven films listed in his directorial credits, I could only recognize Fraulein Doktor, with directorial credit shared with Alberto Lattuada. What makes A Whisper in the Dark interesting was the use of color with most characters primarily wearing shades of black, brown and white, and this color palette broken with large and small shades of red. The high point in this film was the scene of a masked ball. It took several moments to realize that I was viewing children in costume, viewed from overhead. This is one of several scenes to include Joseph Cotten in what is essentially a cameo appearance. His voice falters a bit, and he does little more more than a couple of magic tricks and couple of scenes in a bath tub. Cotten's brief turn seems to have brought out the virtuosity of the rest of the cast and crew.

As with other DVD releases from NoShame, this has an interview. In this case it is with cinematagrapher Claudio Cirillo. Associated with such better known films as Scola's We All Loved Each Other So Much and Dino Risi's original Scent of a Woman, Cirillo discusses some of his challenges not only in shooting A Whisper in the Dark, but a bit about his own life and career. Cirillo takes the time to discuss other filmmakers he admires, and shows off a very old movie camera that may have been used by pioneer documentarian Robert Flaherty on Man of Aran.

I figured that as long as I was to review A Whisper in the Dark, it was time to re-see The Innocents. While probably not the definitive film version of Turn of the Screw, this is standard to which the other films are compared. Andrew Sarris is accurate in describing Jack Clayton's directorial style as academic. Maybe it wasn't that way at the time of its release, but The Innocents seems like a horror movie for people who consider themselves too intellectual for horror movies. Clayton does some interesting things with the use of sound distortion, but there is a sense of distance that minimizes involvement with the characters.

As Miles, Martin Stephens has the condescending air of Dirk Bogarde in knee pants. Pamela Franklin, the film's Flora, made a career of being a young girl in peril and worked again with Jack Clayton in Our Mother's House, which starred Bogarde. As much as I usually like Deborah Kerr, at 40, she was was too mature to be playing the part of a new governess. As for Clayton, he did horror better with the under-rated and under-appreciated Something Wicked this Way Comes, produced and disowned by Disney. Although he does little more than stand around and look threatening, lean Peter Wyngarde looks more like James' character of Peter Quint than does chubby Marlon Brando. Brando portrayed Quint in the James inspired film, The Nightcomers. While The Innocents is remembered for the less than innocent kisses between Deborah Kerr and Martin Stephens, The Nightcomers most memorable moment is of Marlon Brando smooching a horse.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:20 AM

September 25, 2005

Sunday Funnies

A dream of a Hollywood icon.

Gary Trudeau once again looks at contemporary Hollywood.

Horror greater than George Romero has imagined.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:17 PM

September 24, 2005

Infernal Affairs Trilogy

Infernal Affairs
Andrew Lau & Alan Mak - 2002
Tartan PAL Region 0 DVD

Infernal Affairs II, Infernal Affairs III
Andrew Lau & Alan Mak - 2003
Mega Star Region 0 DVD

As some people know by now, Martin Scorsese's newest collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio is a film titled The Departed. While there are also those who know that this is yet another Hollywood remake of a Hong Kong film, fewer have seen the first film in the series, which was given a perfunctory release in the U.S. by Miramax. As the information regarding Scorcese's version is sketchy, and could possible incorporate elements from all three films from the original series, I took the time to re-see the first film, plus the second and third film.

For those not familiar with the Hong Kong movie scene, it is common to have multiple sequels for popular films. The first Infernal Affairs was so successful that some feel the film "saved" the Hong Kong film industry which has been on the verge of collapse, with much of the talent and money going either to the mainland or the West. The first film is about two "moles", an undercover policeman, Chan, who has infiltrated organized crime, and a police detective, Lau, who is actually a gangster. If the premise sounds a bit like Face/Off, co-writer and co-director Alan Mak has stated in an interview that John Woo was an inspiration. The Chinese title, Wu Jian Dao, translates as I want to be You, which makes more sense in the third film.

The English language title is both an obvious pun, but also a reference to the Buddhist concept of a hell of continuous suffering. Both Chan and Lau have to suffer because of the strain of maintaining dual roles as cops and criminals. Even the people they have to report to, the gang leader, Sam, and the police inspector, Wong, are secondary mirror images. While Sam is shown to be not entirely bad, Wong is shown to be subject to corruption. Chan's struggle is to reclaim his true identity as a policeman. Lau eventually fully embraces his false identity, at a cost to himself and others. The four main roles are played by Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Anthony Wong, and Eric Tsang, probably the hardest working man in the Hong Kong film industry. Those who follow Hong Kong filmmaking know that Andy Lau and Andrew Lau are two different people. In addition to the occassional verbal and written references to Buddhism, the film makers have visual references, such as the opening scene showing the giant golden statues at a monastary. Another visual motif is with shots of an elevator shaft, with the elevator in descent. Much of the look of the first Infernal Affairs is due to the work of Christopher Doyle, most famous for his work with Wong Kar-Wai.

The second film is in part about Chan and Lau as young men, with greater focus on the relationship between Wong and Sam. While the second part shows more of the history of Chan and Lau, it doesn't quite fit with the information established in the first film. The strength of the second film is in the narrative showing how Sam became the gang leader. A frequent refrain in the film is the saying that what goes around, comes around. The film's best set piece is a scene where the previous boss has arranged to have his rivals killed at the same time. The film alternates between characters, maintaining suspense while not losing the narrative thread. One of the two editors on the Infernal Affairs series was Danny Pang, a terrific filmmaker in his own right.

The third film is primarily about Lau eventually identifying with Chan while trying to identify a new "mole" in the police department. The film is more character driven than the first two films. I'm not sure if Hitchcockian would be accurate a description. The film is actually closer to Brian De Palma's films and I mean this in a good way. The film plays with the characters sense of reality and identity. While there are some perfect moments in this film, Infernal Affairs suffers from two major weaknesses. The narrative is suppose to overlap part of the narrative of the first Infernal Affairs. Not only is this confusing, but it doesn't always fit in a logical chronology. While Tony Leung is scruffy throughout the first film, he is clean shaven throughout the third film, further undermining this film as a compliment to the original film.

While the two latter Infernal Affairs films lack the quality and consistency of the first film, all three were commercial and critical successes, as well as award winners. Martin Scorsese and company are likely dreaming that the The Departed would do as well as the first Infernal Affairs did with the Hong Kong Film Awards.

I bought the British DVD several months before I was aware that there would be a U.S. release of Infernal Affairs. The U.S. DVD is essentially the same, except for a "director's commentary" on the Tartan version. The commentary is actually from both directors as well as the stars. Since no one introduces themselves, it is often unclear who is actually speaking. What is also frustrating is that the commentary and the featurettes do not clarify how Andrew Lau and Alan Mak work together. Previous to Infernal Affairs, Alan Mak had directed several films alone. Andrew Lau has made films both alone and in collaboration, in itself not unusual with Hong Kong films. Lau and Mak's latest film, Initial D, was a major hit in Asia, outdoing the Hollywood entries of this past summer. Lau is now set to make his Hollywood debut with Richard Gere and Hillary Swank.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:59 PM

September 22, 2005

Rock and Roll Double Feature

Rock, Rock, Rock
Will Price - 1956
Stardust Records DVD

Roy Lockwood - 1957
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

When reading about the nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I have to wonder how meaningful any of the musicians are for a younger generation. The reason I ask is because I like to see the movies made of rock musicians from the Fifties, for an audience that was born about ten years before me. Even though the narrative framework is silly, and the production values are often sloppy, I like these films as documentation of certain performers, particularly those who have maintained some vitality almost fifty years since the films were made.

The two films I saw were produced by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. The men eventually formed a company called Amicus which attempted to compete with Hammer in the realm of horror films through the mid-Seventies. In terms of film making, Rock, Rock, Rock and Jamboree are not memorable, and neither director is noteworthy for anything else. Subotsky and Rosenberg seemed to have gotten things right in their last rock performance film, It's Trad, Dad!, the debut feature by Richard Lester.

Rock, Rock, Rock is notable also for being the first starring film for thirteen year old Tuesday Weld. Even if her performance is not indicative of a future Academy Award nominee, she's better than the rest of the cast. Will she go to the prom with Tommy? Will she get the strapless gown she covets? Will anyone care? At the other end of the scale is Alan Freed who somehow believed his talents as a disk jockey would translate to screen stardom. While I can tolerate his introducing the performers, Freed also demonstrates his lack of any musical talent by standing in front of a big band, arrythmically clapping while croaking, "Rock and Roll Boogie". At least Tuesday Weld's singing is dubbed by Connie Francis.

The musical highlights in this film include Chuck Berry doing "You Can't Catch Me" while doing a pidgeon-toed dance, followed by his famous duck walk, rockabilly singer Johnny Burnette doing "Lonesome Train", and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers performing "I'm not a Juvenile Delinquent". Who knew that fifty years later, the Frankie Lymons of the current generation would instead record songs boasting about their criminal activities? The fast forward button was used for Jimmy Cavallo, a musical stand-in for Bill Haley. Co-star Teddy Randazzo's songs were slow, sincere, and syruppy sweet. The film was done on the cheap, with some of the performances done on empty stages. Not helping is that the DVD seems to have been made from a worn video tape.

Jamboree is a very good transfer of a film made with a bit more money. Some of the performances were done on artfully designed sets. In some ways this film is even harder to watch because there are too few good musical numbers and too much of another lame story. Paul Carr and Freda Holloway play two young people who find their greatest success as a duo, and unhappiness as solo performers. Life seemed to imitate art as Carr has had a long career as a character actor, while Holloway seems to have retired from acting in 1964.

Instead of Alan Freed hogging the spotlight, Jamboree features a slew of now forgotten disk jockeys from the U.S., Canada, England and Germany (!) introducing the performers. The one disk jockey who went on to much bigger and better things was a young guy from Philadelphia, Dick Clark. Carr, who's character is doing a big solo tour of Europe, shown in obvious stock footage, is seen in front of an audience of senior citizens. Maybe the show was on a school night.

In between the treacly songs of Carr and Holloway are some performances worth savoring. Carl Perkins is solid. Jerry Lee Lewis is good, if restrained here. He is seen to better effect in the opening of High School Confidential singing the title song while jumping all over the piano. Seeing Fats Domino, knowing that he barely escaped from Hurricane Katrina, was a wistful moment. For fans of Mars Attacks! there is the opportunity to see future world saver Slim Whitman yodel. Even a very young Frankie Avalon makes his debut here, setting the stage for a career in which charisma won over dubious material.

Of interesting coincidence is that Tuesday Weld and Paul Carr previously were uncredited actors in the same film, Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. Of course Hitchcock would plead innocent to having anything to do even remotely with rock and roll.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:18 PM

September 20, 2005

Rebel Without a Cause

Nicholas Ray - 1955
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

I originally was going to write about Rebel Without a Cause next week, closer to the 50th anniversary of the death of James Dean. While the weather isn't as bad as some feared, Hurricane Rita has disrupted the flow of films from Netflix and Nicheflix. That I have Rebel as part of my DVD collection has more to do with Nicholas Ray than with Dean.

When I first saw Rebel, it was on a black and white television broadcast in the late Sixties. I had heard about James Dean but didn't really know much about him other than that he starred in this film. I had also read an article stating that MGM was going to produce a remake starring Bob Dylan. Based on what has passed as Bob Dylan's acting career, let us give thanks that the proposed remake never happened, and that no one yet has been dumb enough to try and remake Rebel. While seeing the film on television gave me the gist of the narrative, I felt like I never really saw Rebel the first time until I saw it in a theater, in CinemaScope and color.

The opening shots of Rebel need to be seen in widescreen in order for the film to be properly understood. Even though the principle characters do not meet until several minutes into the film, Ray unites Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo within the screen, even when they are separated by glass partitions. Throughout the scene at the police station, Ray groups the trio as well has having Dean with Wood or with Mineo, within the same shot. Even when the characters see themselves as isolated from others, Ray has visually placed them together, anticipating the narrative. It wasn't until a few years later that I learned Ray had spent some time studying under Frank Lloyd Wright which at least in part explains why Ray understood how to take advantage of the wide screen.

I had the opportunity to meet Nick Ray twice. The first time was at a screening of Rebel at Columbia University in 1971. The print was even more faded than the one I saw at the Thalia Theater a couple of years earlier. Even worse, the print tore during the screening, prompting Ray to yell about the lack of care given the film by Warner Brothers. I met Ray again almost a year and a half later at Portland, Oregon. I was working at the Northwest Film Study Center. Ray was going to various venues with prints of his films. We could have screened Rebel, which would have been the more financially responsible choice, but I argued in favor of They Live by Night, Ray's little seen debut feature. I admit this was selfishness on my part. The screening did not attract as many people as we would have liked, but those who saw the film enjoyed it. Afterwards, at a friend's house, a bunch of us got together for beer and pizza with Ray. What little I remember after thirty years was asking Ray about the Elia Kazan and the blacklist, and Ray justifying that Kazan gave no new names. Of younger directors, he expressed admiration for Robert Altman but seemed visibly shaken when I told him that Altman was filming a new version of Thieves Like Us, the same novel used as the basis for Ray's first film. I have a vague memory of Ray singing a folk song which would be in keeping with part of his pre-Hollywood life. Ray was of course asked about James Dean and talked about how they had planned to work again after Rebel.

What we do know about Dean is that he was set to star in Somebody Up There Likes Me and Left-Handed Gun. It makes one wonder if Paul Newman owes his career to the death of Dean. Based on Nicholas Ray's filmography, would Dean have starred in The True Story of Jesse James or King of Kings? As it turned out, Dean didn't have to pretend to be Jesus. As of September 30, 1955, James Dean became bigger in death than he was in life.

An interesting evaluation of Nicholas Ray has been written by Jonathan Rosenbaum. I also recommend an interview with Rebel screenwriter Stewart Stern at Cinematical.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:35 PM

September 19, 2005

Barbara Stanwyck Double Feature

Lady of Burlesque
Willam A. Wellman - 1943
Roan Group DVD

Forty Guns
Samuel Fuller - 1957
Twentieth Century Fox Region 1 DVD

When I first became aware of Barbara Stanwyck, it was when she was starring in The Big Valley. Eventually I learned that she use to be a movie star, but it wasn't until I started seriously watching films in New York that her name meant anything to me. I had seen her in Meet John Doe on television, but my first favorite film was Bitter Tea of General Yen, from one of William K. Everson's screening from his private stash of 16mm classics. Inspired by fellow blogger, Girish, who posted his discussion about Ms. Stanwyck a few weeks ago, I added a couple of her films to be Netflix list.

Based on Gypsy Rose Lee's ghost-written mystery, Lady of Burlesque is a mildly entertaining look at burlesque performers on and off stage. Considering that the Hays Code was still very much in effect, the film is forced to cheat the audience. Between strippers with way too much clothing and cleaned up comic routines, the police raid that takes place looks totally unnecessary. I realize this is the kind of film that requires a certain type of suspension of disbelief but I have always found the presentation of "adult" venues in so-called family entertainment awkward. Conversely, by the time the film makers could be less coy about burlesque, as in The Night They Raided Minsky's, the Gypsy Rose Lee era of entertainment was killed by the more liberated Hollywood.

Stanwyck portrays the Lee type character, Dixie Daisy, the star of S.B. Foss's burlesque house. Dixie is seen fighting off the advances of comic Biff Brannigan, as well as some of the women who are jealous of Dixie's stardom. We see Stanwyck doing a little bump and grind, as well as show off her legs, but we also see lots of reaction shots from various men. A couple of the strippers are murdered, with garter belts around their necks. The tough talking Stanwyck virtually takes over the investigation. The biggest mystery is that with overdressed strippers and unfunny comics, how Lady of Burlesque was ever popular.

On a personal level, I did enjoy seeing Pinky Lee in the cast. Back when I was very, very young, I would occassionally watch Pinky Lee's Saturday morning children's show on television back in the Fifties. The frenetic Pinky Lee was the prototype for Pee Wee Herman in his dress and mannerisms. He's hardly a laugh riot in Lady of Burlesque, but his presence in the film was cause for a nostalgic smile.

A bigger reason to smile is that Forty Guns is finally on DVD. This is one of those films that absolutely needs to be seen in the wide screen version. Fuller has several shots which were composed using the full parameters of CinemaScope. The beginning of the film shows Stanwyck's "dragoons" riding around both sides of Barry Sullivan's wagon. Another shot is an extreme close-up of Sullivan's eyes. For some reason, Twentieth Century Fox chose to make this a double sided disc with a full screen version on one side. The only reason to bother watching a full screen version of Forty Guns is to show people how much is missing when a film is made taking full advantage of the wide screen.

While I am glad that Fox finally released a U.S. DVD version of Forty Guns, I wish someone had been smart enough to have Fuller do a commentary track. Anyone who has seen Fuller in person, like I have, or read his interviews or his autobiography, knows that he was a great raconteur. One of Fuller's frequent stories was that Marilyn Monroe wanted the part of Jessica Drummond, the "woman with a whip".

It's hard to imagine Monroe speaking with the authority that came easily for Stanwyck. Forty Guns was one of three films Stanwyck made in 1957. At 50 she managed to stretch her career as a romantic lead longer than many of her peers. She did look great in her black shirt and tight black jeans. One can believe Stanwyck leading a personal army and having men humiliate themselves for her. Maybe this is coincidence, but Jessica Drummond is shown living in a very big house, in a very big valley.

The real star of any film by Sam Fuller is always Sam Fuller. His visual audacity is on display with two point of view shots. Fuller has several out of focus shots to convey the blindness of Hank Worden. There is also the famous shot through the rifle barrel when Gene Barry sets his sights on Eve Brent. When Barry is shot on his wedding day, cuts immediately from Brent in wedding white to widow black. While the happy ending was studio mandated, Fuller seems to have filmed his script without much interference. When conversing with Sullivan, Stanwyck asks, "Can I feel it?", and Sullivan replies, "It might go off in your face." This film could well be titled Freudian Guns.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:15 PM | Comments (2)

September 17, 2005

Face of Another

Tanin No Kao
Hiroshi Teshigahara - 1966
Eureka Region 2 DVD

I came across a news story that could be seen as another example of life following art. Some of the issues in this story were addressed in Face of Another, one of the best of several face transplant movies. There are some other good films, Face/Off and Eyes without a Face, and some not so good films. One could do a fairly good sized essay on face transplant movies. As it happened, I saw Face of Another just a couple of days ago.

One of several films by Teshigahara based on a novel by Kobo Abe, Face of Another is about physical appearance and identity. On a deeper level, the film is a meditation on Japanese sense of identity following World War II. The film mostly is concerned with Tatsuya Nakadai's character, a man who's face was severely burnt in an industrial fire. There is a counter-narrative of a young woman whose physical beauty has been affected by the burn scars on one side of her face. In discussing her childhood, it is revealed she was a witness to the bombing of Nagasaki. The film gets seriously symbolic in the subject matter, and Teshigahara's images are occassionally surreal. In other words, this is what made film making seem so exciting in the Sixties.

In Joan Mellen's book, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, Teshigahara discusses Face of Another:
"This movie is about the breakdown of communication between people, not only in Japan, but universally. The protagonist loses his face once and finds a new face. It is a form of irony. He thought that his isolation was a result of not having a face, having to wear a mask. When he got the new face through plastic surgery, he thought this would mean that he could communicate with people again. But he never recovers what he sought through this transformation. Not only couldn't he obtain what he wanted, but even worse, his alienation deepened. I sought to convey the magnitude of human isolation and loneliness."

Teshigahara is remembered best for Woman of the Dunes, his previous collaboration with Abe. While it is more easily available, in some ways Face of Another is more accessible, in that it can be appreciated as much for the basic narrative, even when the meanings behind the narrative are not as easily understood. Teshigahara also did a documentary on the architect, Antonio Gaudi, which is also available on DVD. Of course, this being Teshigaha, this is hardly a conventional documentary, with the filmmaker virtually allowing the fantastic buildings to speak for themselves.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:55 PM

September 16, 2005

Guy Green

Is there some kind of strange ju-ju going on? This is the second day in a row that the death of a director has been reported. While as a director, Guy Green was not in the same league as Robert Wise, their careers verify the general rule that editors more frequently become distinguished directors, while cinematographers do not. A couple of former editors: David Lean and Hal Ashby. A couple of former cinematographers: Jack Cardiff and Freddie Francis. Even the exception, Nicolas Roeg, began his film making career learning the fundamentals of editing as a lowly gofer. Still, Guy Green made a couple of films as a director that are worth considering.

The Light in the Piazza has gotten more play from Turner Classic Movies now that there is the successful Broadway musical based on the book. I guess you could call the story a fairy tale. We are to believe that the beautiful daughter, made "simple" by a kick in the head from a horse, will find happiness with an Italian playboy. Sure, the film has two of MGM's prettiest stars - Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton. Watching the film, I got the feeling that Hamilton wasn't the brightest bulb on his family tree either. If there is a film begging for a sequel, this is it.

Maybe it's my morbid imagination, but I had to wonder after seeing this film how the marriage fared. Considering that it was constently pointed out how child-like the Mimieux character was, one wonders if the marriage was actually consumated and if there were any children, whom I would imagine to be very photogenic. Would Hamilton get tired of Mimieux in a matter of days, weeks or months and start going out with various mistresses or have discreet liasons with prostitutes. Would he keep Mimieux locked in the family villa or institutionalized? There may be light in the piazza, but the premise for this film logically leads to someplace dark and gothic as far as I'm concerned.

Green's previous film, The Mark, is amazing in that you had relatively major Hollywood talent making a film that probably could not be made today. Actually, the only film I can think of off-hand that was made recently about a child molester was The Woodman, which pretty much came and went from theaters in a hurry. It's been almost forty years since I saw The Mark, which was broadcast on late night television a couple of times. The film is about a convicted child molester, Stuart Whitman, who upon release from prison, attempts to live a "normal" life. In addition to checking in with his psychiatrist, Rod Steiger, Whitman tentatively establishes an adult relationship with Maria Schell. Based on what is more common knowledge now, child molesters usually do not change, or have an even harder time than Stuart Whitman does in this film. The Mark seems more meaningful when one considers how much harder it seems to make a thoughtful film on a serious subject in today's current film making landscape.

Going back to Green's career as a cinematographer, he co-founded the Royal Society of Cinematographers with Freddie Francis and Jack Cardiff. As a cinematographer, Green is probably best remembered for his work with David Lean on the two Dickens adaptations, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Green won an Academy Award for the latter. On the downside, Green worked on two of Lean's least remembered films, The Passionate Friends and Madeleine.

Green's last theatrical film as a director was the camp classic, Once is not Enough. Unlike Francis or Cardiff, Green never had enough sense to go back to being a cinematographer when recognizing that the directorial assignments would never get better. The closest Green came to being awarded as a director was for a film he also wrote, A Patch of Blue. Maybe as the first British cinematographer to win an Academy Award, once wasn't enough.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:06 AM

September 15, 2005

Robert Wise

I realize this seems like a wholly contrived coincidence, but last night, my significant other and I were watching the DVD of The Devil and Daniel Webster. I had noted to myself while watching the credits that this was one of several films edited by Robert Wise when he was an editor at RKO. This morning I had checked the various headlines at Yahoo where I first read that Wise had died last night.

While not not all of his films were great or even good, Wise's reputation should not be based strictly on his two Academy Award winning films. While The Sound of Music is admittedly enjoyable fluff, repeated viewings of West Side Story have me convinced that the best parts of that film appear to have been shot by Jerome Robbins. My own favorite Wise films are the more somber works that he shot in black and white.

I did have the opportunity to see Wise in person at the Museum of Modern Art. This was in conjunction with the release of The Hindenburg. The film was one of the last of the so-called disaster films that followed in the success of such films as The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake, directed by Wise's friend from his days at RKO, Mark Robson. Not only did the film depict the historical disaster, but disaster could be applied in describing how the film fared commercially and critically. When I saw Wise, he introduced I Want to Live!, still a valid film in examing the application of the death penalty.

What I found the most interesting about Wise is that he seemed to periodically revisit certain genres, perhaps as a way of reworking ideas from the previous films. One can make the connection from his first directorial effort, Curse of the Cat People, with its emphasis on the suggested and the psychological, to The Haunting, ending with Audrey Rose. While the first and third film are about a young girl, the Julie Harris character in The Haunting is in many ways a child in an adult's body, a woman who has been forced to defer her maturity in order to take care of her mother. In terms of the science fiction genre, one can argue that The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture were all literal explorations of man's relation with the universe, with fumbled attempts to learn from the unknown and the alien. Rooftops is the grittier version of West Side Story, shot in New York City's lower East Side. His last theatrical film, Rooftops, showed that at the age of 75, Wise still had a youthful, adventurous spirit.

Two films that are among Wise's best are his two boxing films, The Set-Up and Somebody Up There Likes Me. I got to see The Set-Up theatrically a long time ago on the giant screen of the New Yorker Theater in NYC. Told in real time, about a boxer set to take a dive, this is one of the films cited by Martin Scorcese as an influence on Raging Bull. The biography of the young Rocky Graziano, Somebody Up There Likes Me is also famous for its boxing scenes. It's hard for me to watch the film and not wonder what it would have been like had Graziano been played by James Dean instead of Paul Newman. In a small role, Steve McQueen makes his film debut as does George C. Scott. Wise would work with both as stars twenty years later with The Sand Pebbles and The Hindenburg, respectively.

My favorite film by Robert Wise is Odds Against Tomorrow. Co-produced by star Harry Belafonte, with a screenplay by an uncredited Abraham Polonsky and Wise's favorite screenwriter, Nelson Gidding, the film works as the tale of a heist undone by the tensions between the co-conspirators, and as a glance at the racial tensions of the time. Robert Ryan manages to be sympathetic, even when his racist attitudes are clearly not condoned.

In an interview at the Pacific Film Archives, Wise summed up both what he has tried to achieve as well as what he looks for in films: "Films are so universal, you know. I go to see the foreign language film submissions at the Academy. We get films from 42 or 44 different countries on that particular program at the Motion Picture Academy. And so you see films from all these different countries and see different cultures, different lifestyles, different religions. And it's very, very fascinating, very illuminating. At the same time as you're seeing these differences you're seeing how much we all have in common -- love of children, love of family, love of continuity and life. So I think films are a great educational tool to paint all the peoples of the world with their different cultures and different religions, different nationalities, and understand that we have much more in common than we have in disharmony."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:46 PM

September 14, 2005

A Story of Sorrow and Sadness

Hishu Monogatari
Suzuki Seijun - 1977
Panorama Entertainment Region 0 DVD

That Suzuki Seijun is quite a joker. Based on the title alone, one would expect a different kind of film. With someone like Mizoguchi, a film called A Story of Sorrow and Sadness would be about an unhappy geisha, probably committing suicide by a body of water. Ozu would show Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu stoicly enduring the domestic tragedy of somebody moving out of the house. Only Suzuki would make a film titled A Story of Sorrow and Sadness about . . . golf!

More precisely the film is about a professional woman golfer who is also a swimsuit model and television personality. I think Suzuki was trying to say something about the fleeting and mercurial nature of celebrity. In any event, this film is significant as the return to theatrical film making for Suzuki after Branded to Kill got him fired for being "incomprehensible". The ten years between these two films made no difference. If anything, A Story of Sorrow and Sadness makes even less sense than Suzuki's nutty gangster films.

That this is not a yakuza film makes it an unlikely part of the Suzuki canon. This being Suzuki, A Story of Sorrow and Sadness hadly fits into that normally unwatchable genre of golf movies. Even a comedy like Happy Gilmore has more respect for the game. Instead, Suzuki goofs with the audience with scenes of gratuitous sex and nudity (not that there's anything wrong with that), and shots of the reflection of a neighbor that indicate she may be otherworldly. This strange neighbor ingratiates herself and eventually blackmails Reiko to glom onto Reiko's celebrity status. For Suzuki, being a celebrity is a worthless goal. Reiko signs up with a promoter who informs her that she will earn thirty million yen in exchange for losing her freedom. When trying to research this film, there were no Suzuki comments on this film, and no commentary by Suzuki scholars.

I may be misreading this film, but compared to his other works, there seems to be a sense of detachment in the making of A Story of Sorrow and Sadness. Lacking the cheerful anarchy of Tokyo Drifter or Branded to Kill, or the more serious Elegy to Violence, there is no consistent attitude holding the film together. Maybe it took Suzuki a while to get his groove back as he clearly did with Pistol Opera. Only the violent finish recalls classic Suzuki. There are some brief moments of inspiration, but clearly Suzuki is more comfortable with a nine mm than a nine-iron.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:46 PM

September 13, 2005

Sergio Martino "Animal" Double Feature

Your Vice is a Closed Room and Only I have the Key
IL Tuo Vizio e una Stanza Chiusa e Solo Io ne Ho La Chiave
Sergio Martino - 1972
NoShame Region 0 DVD

Big Alligator River
Il Fiume del Grande Caimano
Sergio Martino - 1979
NoShame Region 0 DVD

The two newest Sergio Martino films to be presented by NoShame on DVD could almost be called animal revenge films. While Big Alligator River is pretty self explanatory, "Vice" is a variation of Edgar Allen Poe's The Black Cat which is actually a bit closer to the literary source than so many of the other films inspired by this particular work.

The plot to "Vice" is as convoluted as the title, which after viewing the film still doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Made immediately after All the Colors of the Dark, "Vice" takes an opposite tact taking place primarily in one location and concentrating more on mood. While the film is part of the giallo genre, it is more restrained in the violence. The film takes place in a provincial villa, where author Oliviero (Luigi Pistelli) lives uneasily with his wife, Floriana (Anita Strindberg). Oliviero is obsessed with his deceased mother, and has not written anything in about three years. When he is not taking his frustration out on Floriana, Oliviero distracts himself with mistresses and parties with the local hippies. An unknown person has slashed to death two of Oliviero's mistresses. Observing the domestic discord and making mayhem is a black cat named Satan, the pet left by Oliviero's mother.

Edwige Fenech shows up as the bisexual cousin who beds Strindberg and the young stud who delivers groceries. In spite of her billing, it's really more of a supporting role as someone who distracts Pistelli and Strindberg from solving the mystery, as well as distracting me because frankly, when Edwige Fenech is nude, the plot is no longer important.

One aspect of the film that I had discomfort with was with the racial attitudes expressed by the characters in the film. One of Oliviero's mistresses is a black woman. Some of the statements may be able to be placed in the context of Italian culture at the time the film was made. Likewise, with Big Alligator River, the natives are called "savages", although the "Jungle" genre that was popular in Italy for a while can be generalized as "retro", having pretty much gone out of style in the U.S. by the late Fifties.

Martino admits in the DVD extra that he was inspired by Jaws. Big Alligator River also tips its hat to the old films and serials with characters like Jungle Jim who saved the white people from the angry "natives". Mel Ferrer portrays the operator of a resort on a remote jungle island. Barbara Bach is his assistant. She also has a background in anthropology. People mysteriously disappear, equipment is sabotaged, and in the last half hour Big Alligator River kicks into high gear. Maybe this is a reflection of my living in the tourist trap called Miami Beach, but it was fun seeing tourists trapped between "peaceful" tribe with flaming arrows and a very large, very hungry alligator (or is it actually a crocodile) reducing the hapless tourists to crunchy snacks in his own all you can eat buffet.

In addition to seeing Martino discuss shooting Big Alligator River in Sri Lanka, there is also an interview with Antonello Geleng, the production designer. Martino places this film as one of his last to get international distribution, prior to the general collapse of the Italian film industry and Martino's eventual transition to television. Geleng discusses working with Fellini as well as several giallo film makers. He is introduced with a panning shot of his collection of art and artifacts in his studio. Behind Geleng is a large abstract painting that I wanted to see more of. I googled his name which led me to Cinecitta's website where he was one of several artists who created posters for the studio.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:43 PM

September 11, 2005

The Spaghetti West

David Gregory - 2005
Independent Film Channel

Call it synergy or cross-promotion but the Independent Film Channel, Netflix and Blue Underground joined forces to produce this survey of Italian Westerns. For those not familiar with Blue Underground, filmmaker William Lustig's company specializes in the DVD release primarily of Italian police and horror thriller, as well as directors as varied as Jesus Franco, Gillian Armstrong and Lustig himself. This overview mostly succeeds in not only giving an overview of so-called "Spaghetti Westerns", but also luring people to add titles to their Netflix list or buy more DVDs.

If you are a fan of the genre, you pretty much are familiar with the history of the films and the main creative people. The one bit of information that was new for me was from film historian Howard Hughes (his real name) pointing out that the genre was initially inspired by the German produced westerns based on the novels by Karl May. As it turns out, Sergio Leone wasn't the only person shooting a western in Spain in 1964. Fistful of Dollars made a fistful of dollars while the other film has since been forgotten. It also is revealed that Fistful of Dollars wasn't released in the United States until 1967 because Akira Kurosawa sued Sergio Leone for re-working Yojimbo without permission. Considering that both have acknowledged the book Red Harvest as their source, the Dashiell Hammett estate seems entitled to some profits as well.

Some of the talking heads include Sergio Martino, Damiano Damiani, Alex Cox, and Clint Eastwood. The genre is presented as going through an evolution from essentially straight-forward genre films such as Leone's Dollars trilogy through the political allegories of such films as A Bullet for the General, with a closing of the genre with infirmed gunfighters (Blindman) and parodies (My Name is Trinity). I was familiar with most of the films excerpted although not all of the clips were captioned with their respective titles. In addition to the Leone-Eastwood trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West, the other films discussed in some depth included The Great Silence, Bullet for the General, My Name is Nobody and Django. I haven't yet seen any of the Django films, but in addition to making a star out of Franco Nero, there is a scene in the first film that made a big impression on Quentin Tarantino.

The Spaghetti West was narrated by Robert Forster, a guy who never was in a Spaghetti Western, unlike Burt Reynolds and Eli Wallach for example. Forster has appeared in a couple of films by William Lustig which probably explains how he got this gig. It would have been more interesting to have Tomas Milian narrate. As a Cuban born American actor who became a star in Italian films, Milian makes a worthy subject of a documentary. The Spaghetti West has a bit of flavor, a bit of sauce, but not a lot of substance to be truly satisfying.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:04 AM

September 10, 2005

Transporter 2

Louis Leterrier - 2005
20th Century Fox 35mm movie

I went to my neighborhood multiplex, the Regal South Beach 18, to see Transporter 2 with my significant other. Part of out going to see the film in a theater is because we both liked the first film. More pressing was that we actually got to see part of the film made right on the street where we lived.

We moved to our temporary South Beach home on Euclid Avenue near 3rd Street in mid-August of 2004. The day after we moved in, bullitins were posted in the building explaining that filming was scheduled and that we would need to park our cars outside of a specified area. The day of shooting, we watched the stunt doubles of Jason Stathan and Kate Nauta speed down Euclid Avenue several times. Normally this is a pretty quiet street that merges with the lower, quiet part of one of South Beach's main arteries, Washington Avenue. My significant other thought Jason Stathan's stunt double was as attractive as Stathan. I was looking more longingly at the new Audi that is the real star of the film. The chase scene had so many quick shots that a frame by frame analysis on DVD may be needed, but we concluded that the shots filmed on Euclid Avenue were not used, but we did recognize the alley behind our building.

Transporter 2 definitely takes place in a fictional, computer enhanced, Miami metro area. While the character of Frank Martin zips up and down the streets and causeways after the bad guys, I can testify that just in South Beach it can take me twenty minutes to get drive about fifteen blocks and find parking. This film takes place in a parallel universe where there is no road construction and traffic isn't congested by lost tourists or the celebrities in their stretch limos or Hummers.

Clocking in at under ninety minutes, the film is fairly entertaining. In the first Transporter film, Cory Yuen directed while Louis Leterrier was billed as the Artistic Director. Leterrier is credited as the director, while Yuen was responsible for the martial arts and Second Unit. I may be in a minority here, but I liked the first film better. The fight scenes in Yuen's film are more organic, and filmed more like a ballet with the emphasis on choreography with the motion of people and objects. The fight scenes in Transporter 2 are extremely fragmented, expertly edited to be sure, perhaps as many of the actors were not trained in martial arts as was evident in the first film.

Maybe this can also be attributed to producer-writer Luc Besson, again collaborating with Robert Mark Kamen on the script. The new film seems to deliberately choose to be almost opposite of the first film by filming the fights differently and have the various bad guys be cartoonish is appearance and action. This difference is in the first scene with Martin threatened with a car jacking by a very developed young blonde in a very small school girl uniform who is backed by a thuggish version of the Fat Albert gang. Martin also has to battle Lola, a tatooed blonde who stomps around essentially wearing a bra, panties, "fuck me" shoes, and two very big guns. It's great that Stathan keeps his word with the little boy who gets kidnapped, but I truly missed his squabbling with Shu Qi who livend up the first film.

While Leterrier has been more fully on his previous film, Unleashed, which I also wrote about, he has a few revealing words in an interview I was unable to link up. http://www.iesb.net/fox2005/083005.php

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:12 PM

September 08, 2005

Frank Capra and Hurricane Katrina

I am currently reading Joseph McBride's biography of Frank Capra, "The Catastrophe of Success". I'm not sure how I will be reacting when I see, or more precisely re-see, Capra's films. It is sad to read the portrait of the aging artist as a racist and anti-Semite. The split between an artist's works and the personal life of an artist has always been problematic. For myself, my favorite Capra films will probably remain from the early Thirties when the there was less of a schism between art and life for Capra. Specifically, my favorite titles are It Happened One Night and Bitter Tea of General Yen.

What prompted my writing about Capra now was reading about Lost Horizon. I don't know how the conservative Republican Capra would have reacted to the government fingerpointing, or if he would have, privately more likely than publicly, joined the ranks of several Republicans in their criticism of FEMA chief Michael Brown, if not George W. Bush. Screenwriter Robert Riskin, who identified as a New Deal Democrat would clearly have been critical of what occurred in New Orleans, most likely laying the blame on an administration that failed to protect its citizens. The idealist in me is longing for a real life Jefferson Smith to put things right.

What I want to share is this amazing quote from Lost Horizon. Although it refers to a fictional riot in a non-existent country, and is a criticism of British imperialism, I found this passage from the screenplay to be very appropriate at this time:

"Did you make that report out yet? Did you say we saved the lives of ninety white people? Good. Hooray for us! Did you say that we left ten thousand natives down there to be annihilated? No. No, you wouldn't say that. They don't count."

from Lost Horizon (1937)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:25 PM

September 07, 2005

Bob Denver

This may sound totally out of place with other, more urgent events, but I miss Bob Denver already.

Although I watched it more frequently than I should have, I wasn't a big fan of Gilligan. It was Denver as Maynard G. Krebs that made a bigger impression on me. I was about eight years old when I first saw The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Like some other kids my age, we watched it for Denver. Being in elementary school, and not knowing anything about the beats, Denver was our introduction to beatniks.

All I knew about beatniks were that the guys had little goatees and wore berets, the woman had very long hair, everyone wore mostly black clothes, and used the word "cool" frequently. I also knew that I wanted to be a beatnik when I grew up, even if I could not articulate a reason for this dubious goal. The one thing I absolutely was certain of is that I didn't want to be a square.

In between the time that Dobie Gillis went off the air and Gilligan was first aired, Denver was a co-star in the film For Those who Think Young. I actually saw this film twice in theaters, first with a World War II film, 633 Squadron, and the second time with A Hard Day's Night. Denver plays the wacky friend of James Darren, named Kelp. Interestingly, this is the same name as the Jerry Lewis character in The Nutty Professor. Future Gilligan co-star, Tina Louise also appears in this film.

Not being the most sophisticated twelve year old, I wasn't going to be suspicious of a film that took its title from a Pepsi commercial. While I considered James Darren passe, as was any singer from the pre-Beatles era, I thought Pamela Tiffen was hot stuff. Nor did it bother me that Frank and Dino's daughters had roles in the film. At that time it was pretty standard that the children of older Hollywood stars have appear in "teenage" films. Seeing this film in a double feature with A Hard Day's Night was an interesting contrast of an older type of film that was targeted towards a young audience with a film that was using a new form of film language coupled with the more contemporary music.

What I remember from For Those who Think Young is a scene on a beach. It took a few moments to figure out that what the audience saw was the upside down chin and lips, painted to look like a face, buried in the sand. Bob Denver, completely buried in the sand, performed what could almost be called a rap piece, with the rest of the cast dancing around him. It sounds kind of dumb, but it was also kind of funny. I have the feeling that if I ever had the chance to see For Those who Think Young again, it would still be the high point of an otherwise negligible movie.

Rest in peace, little buddy.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:30 PM

September 06, 2005

Summer Things

Embrassez qui Vous Voudrez
Michel Blanc - 2002
20th Century Fox U.K. Region 2 DVD

I figured it would appropriate to catch a movie titled Summer Things as close to Labor Day as possible. What caught my eye more than the title was noting that Charlotte Rampling was the star, and Michel Blanc was the director. Probably better known in the U.S. for his acting, Blanc has also been starring in films where he has served as screenwriter and director. The one previous film that I saw in which he performed triple duty, Dead Tired, Blanc presented a comic critique of the French film industry, and played both himself and an imposter. Rampling is better known now as the mature star of films by Francois Ozon, at a respectable career plateau as the woman of a certain age after several peaks and valleys after forty years. Summer Things is basically a trifle, an almost stereotypical French movie for French audiences.

The movie follows several couples and singles on vacation. A couple that are broke, but attempt to keep up appearances, go to the same resort town as their more affluent neighbors. The affluent couple have a daughter who is secretly going to Chicago with one of Dad's employees. Dad is having a secret affair with a sexual ambiguous employee. A husband accuses his very faithful wife of having affairs. Virtually everybody is going to bed with someone other than their spouse. While their are nods to homosexuality, bondage and voyeurism, the basic framework is from the classic French bedroom farce.

The film isn't very funny. Perhaps the problem is that one can sense the effort that has been put into making Summer Things. Rampling is the best thing of Summer Things as she is the calm center, the gravity that holds the film together. My own favorite summer vacation films are still two by Eric Rohmer - Summer and Pauline on the Beach, two films that are both funnier and more meaningful than Summer Things. In terms of a vacation with Charlotte Rampling, she lost a husband in Under the Sand and found a dead body in Swimming Pool, but both are better films.

The best part of this DVD was the featurette. I was afraid this would be another, boring documentary showing Blanc putting the actors through their paces, and the actors and director voicing praise of each other. Instead we have what are like little visual haikus - stills from the production with Blanc discussing the challenges of filming actors in cars, very small trailer housing, working with babies, and bringing out the right kind of performance after twenty takes. There is a lightness and poignancy in this brief short that the feature does not achieve.

Summer Things was popular in Europe. While I do not think the film is as good as Dead Tired, some may be interested in reading an interview with Michel Blanc.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:19 PM

September 04, 2005

Saturday Night with Jesus (Franco)

The Girl from Rio
Jesus Franco - 1969
Blue Underground DVD

Blue Rita
Das Frauenhaus
Jesus Franco - 1977
VIP Region 0 DVD

Sadomania - Holle der Lust
Jesus Franco - 1981
Blue Underground DVD

"I feel that cinema should be like a box of surprises, like a magic box" - Jesus Franco

After seeing about ten films by the extraordinarily prolific Jesus Franco, nothing surprises me about his films. Franco is so agressively transgressive that he makes the films of Takashi Miike look like Merchant-Ivory productions in comparison. The word "gratuituous" is virtually meaningless. For Franco, a film's narrative is primarily an excuse to show as many women as possible in little or no clothing, having sex with each other, and humiliating men when not killing them. Still Franco fascinates because of his idiosyncratic, and admittedly idiotic, films.

In the DVD of Blue Rita, the producer, Erwin Dietrich, expresses the opinion that Franco was the original Dogme 95 film maker. I'm sure this would surprise Lars von Trier among others. If unpolished film making was all that was required, one could go on this particular tangent and argue on behalf of Andy Milligan, a guy who worked with budgets smaller than Franco's, making horror movies with a 16mm Auricon camera that recorded synch sound while shooting. Dietrich also throws out the description "post-modern" for Franco for good measure. Even most of Franco scholars will admit that Franco has more misses, than hits.

As amazing as the fact that Franco is still actively making films at 75, so is one of his former producers, Harry Alan Towers, age 80. I've seen a couple of films Towers produced with other directors, so I don't understand why the films he produced for Franco look so hastily cobbled together. Franco did one of his best, that is to say most consistently entertaining, films with Towers, Venus in Furs. Towers also produced The Girl from Rio, one of the many films based on characters by pulp author Sax Rohmer. This film was intended to be a sequel to a film titled The Million Eyes of Sumuru. However, as that particular film was laughed out of theaters in the U.S., the character of Sumuru was either renamed Sumitra or Elektra, depending on which dubbed version you saw. In any event, former Goldfinger girl Shirley Eaton portrays the villainess with her all woman army, planning to take over the world from her island fortress, Femina.

Sumuru and her army have been kidnapping rich people to finance her plans for world domination. Richard Wyler, an obscure leading man is several obsure movies, comes to Rio to rescue the kidnapped daughter and in general, save the world. Getting in the way is George Sanders, lamely camping it up as well connected shnook who attempts to steal Wyler's ten million dollar ransom. The film begins with a breathy female singer performing the title song with lyrics and melody informing the audience that Towers and Franco probably saw Goldfinger many, many times. Sumuru's army is dressed in uniform, if you were getting your uniform from Frederick's of Hollywood. Most of the women are seen wearing capes with a collar that barely covers their breasts, black tights and go-go boots. One of the torture devices looks like a dentist's x-ray machine. It may be telling that both Eaton and Wyler retired from acting after making this film. More surprising for me was to find out that co-star Maria Rohm, an actress who worked on several Franco films, has gone from acting to producing. One may consider the career change part of Ms. Rohm's real life role as wife to Harry Alan Towers. Along with Towers, who seems to have made a career of producing new versions of films he has previously done, Rohm is credited for producing a film from a couple of years ago simply titled Sumuru.

Blue Rita is one of approximately fifteen films that Franco make with producer Erwin Dietrich. The story is almost a variation of the Sumuru films, with Rita being a stripper who is actually a secret agent, leading her band of lesbians to kidnap men for their money one behalf of some secret government agency. Unlike Sumuru's army, Rita's gang just wear thigh high boots in their secret lair. Outdoor wear means wearing a blue cape and boots (and nothing else). Men are seduced in an apartment filled with clear plastic furniture. It's surreal, soft-core nonsense. While the film benefits visually from looking more polished than many Franco films, it's ultimately less interesting than the grindhouse dada Franco made in the Sixties and early Seventies.

Sadomania is one of Franco's women-in-prison films. Made with a tiny budget, the film is mostly distinguished by starring the post-op transexual porno star, Ajita Wilson. The prisoners and guards both wear very tight cut-offs, shorts so short that Daisy Duke is a model of decorum. The guards also have boots. The plot involves Wilson as the evil prison warden who has her way with the gorgeous prisoners who are also abused by the Governor and his wife. Some of the prisoners are sold to a brothel run by a short gay man, Lucas. This is the kind of film that sounds more interesting to read about than to actually see with the scenes involving rubber alligators and a very friendly German shepard. More comic in its implications is a scene with Lucas caught in bed topped by another man. In an effort to keep within the meager budget, Lucas is played by Franco. He is topped by Wilson, impersonating a man. Without the wig, and with a mustache, Wilson looks kind of like Richard Pryor.
Sadomania falls, down, down, down, into the category that can only be called, "did I actually watch that?"

Those who have bothered to take Franco seriously , such as Pete Tombs in his book Immoral Tales, have commented on his seemingly unlimited imagination. It's not that I disagree, but there are times when the films of Jesus Franco present arguments on behalf of self-censorship.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:46 PM

September 01, 2005


John Frankenheimer - 1966
Paramount Region 1 DVD

Although John Frankenheimer doesn't say as much in his commentary on the DVD, the title Seconds is appropriate for several members of the supporting cast. The title refers to a group of people who have been contacted by a secret organization, physically transformed, and given a "second chance" at life. The narrative follows drab, anonymous businessman John Randolph who undergoes the opportunity to be mildly bohemian artist Rock Hudson. What I found interesting is that the film represented new opportunities primarily for several actors.

Frankenheimer points out that in addition to Randolph, Will Geer and Jeff Corey who both play key roles were blacklisted. While Geer and Corey had been back onscreen a couple of years prior to Seconds, the film was the catalyst that reactivated Randolph's career. In a small role at a cocktail party, there is an appearance by writer and actor Ned Young, also blacklisted. Frankenheimer's comments make it sound coincidental, which it probably was. Still, it gives the film's title a unitended meaning.

Seconds was intended as a sort of second chance for Rock Hudson. Forty years old, his lengthy contract with Universal at an end, and following a career characterized by light romanctic comedies in the early Sixties, Seconds was to be Hudson's transition to more substantial roles. As it turned out, in spite of some critical acclaim, the film was a major box office failure that ended up hurting Hudson in some ways more than Frankenheimer. Grand Prix, Frankenheimer's next film, was a major success, with Frankenheimer's career hurt more by an exclusive contract with MGM which soon afterwards was going through ownership changes. Hudson was still considered a major star through 1970, but made no other films with the artistic aspirations of Seconds. As Frankenheimer explained, the audience for a film like Seconds was almost mutually exclusive to the kind of audience that usually went to films starring Rock Hudson.

If there is a complaint to be made, one can argue that Frankenheimer's style may seem excessively European. Frankenheimer was the same age as many of the directors of the French Nouvelle Vague and probably was itching to have the same kind of artistic freedom seen in those films. Much praise is directed towards cinematographer James Wong Howe, a sixty-six year old Hollywood veteran. Rightly nominated for an Academy Award, much of the film is shot with hand held cameras. Many of the shots were done with the camera mounted on the actors, or with Howe in a grocery cart.

While I had seen the film once before on cable, I strongly recommend viewing Seconds on DVD. As Frankenheimer points out, the DVD version is his preferred version of the film. The cable version, which is the American release version has a several edited scene of revelers at a grape harvest. The DVD contains nudity which was unacceptable for a commercial American film in 1966. Seconds is a creepy, effective film which still looks good viewed more than once.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:01 PM