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November 29, 2009

Coffee Break

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Marie Wilson in Satan Met a Lady (William Dieterle - 1936)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:30 AM

November 26, 2009


Once again, it's quiz time, as found over at "Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule". Here are my answers with some illustrations.

1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie. The Big Lebowski has grown on me, though I didn't like it that much when I first saw it. First for me is O Brother, Where art Thou?.

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2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus) John Woo's full five hour Red Cliff. Not only have I already seen it on imported region free DVD, but I expect the rest of you will hop on the bandwagon when the Region 1 DVD and Blue-ray are released this Spring.

3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal) As much as I like both, I'm more partial to Japanese cuisine and cinema.

4) Favorite moment/line from a western. "That'll be the day." If it's good enough for Buddy Holly, it's good enough for me.

5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most? Painting and photography, use of composition. There is more to filmmaking than having the camera in focus.

6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?). Tears of the Black Tiger. Most western critics are unaware of the tradition of Thai filmmaking that Wisit Sasanatieng had drawn from in making this film.

7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem. Pat Boone. He was considered something of a local hero when I lived in Teaneck, New Jersey about forty years ago.

8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee? Or both in Asylum and And Now the Screaming Starts. I give Lom the edge for El Cid and Spartacus, Phantom of the Opera and a fistful of Jesus Franco films.

9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub) Dune.

10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom) Willis has been more consistently good and sometimes great.

11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie. The Killers, because of Clu Gulager's scene stealing, and Lee Marvin beating up Ronald Reagan. Top film, The Beguiled.

12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters? On DVD, Female by Michael Curtiz, from 1933. In a theater, Yang Yang, a Taiwanese film, part of the Starz Denver Film Festival.

13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom) Back to question 1: Red Cliff.

14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse? Default to Deezen, who was hilarious in 1941.

15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything. Maggie Cheung. See The Iceman Cometh to understand.

16) Fight Club -- yes or no? Yes.

17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland? No contest, De Havilland.

18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir. The long take of the holdup in Gun Crazy.

19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration. What appears to be a "Ken" doll substituting for Michael Gough in the gloriously stupid Konga.

20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly) I don't remember how much, but it couldn't have been more than two dollars to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a beloved film that I don't much care for.

21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin? Heflin.

22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film. Choose Me

23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see. More people, not just cinephiles, should see Alain Resnais' Night and Fog.

24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded. Roger Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters starring, yes, Russell Johnson.

25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share. I was shamed for not having seen any Ingmar Bergman films in an early film studies class. I saw virtually everything available at a retrospective at the now defunct Elgin Theater in NYC during my sophomore year.

26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette) Ann Sheridan. I loved her in City for Conquest.

27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who? Several people noted my father's resemblance to Maximillian Schell at the time that Judgment at Nuremberg was out.

28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why? I could have seen Precious in advance, but because of the hype, and because I hated Lee Daniel's previous film, Shadowboxer, I'm in no rush.

29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience. I liked the scene in Yubari, Japan, in Millenium Mambo, with the walk in the deep snow.

30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones? Graham, for his early films with Brian De Palma.

31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever). John Wayne and Clint Eastwood starring in films with screenplays by formerly blacklisted writers.

32) Second favorite John Wayne movie. The Searchers. This may sound like heresy to some, but my favorite is Hondo.

33) Favorite movie car chase. Bullitt.

34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins) Freebie and the Bean.

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35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon? Barbara Steele.

36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie. Play Dirty

37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen) Brett Ratner. Just because his films make boatloads of money will never make them good.

38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it. It took me a while to really appreciate Love with the Proper Stranger.

39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen) I've seen several of Marcel Ophul's films, but still I have to give it to Max.

40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality? To quote Groucho Marx, I wouldn't join a club that would have me as a member.

41) Your favorite movie cliché. The young woman who leaves the window open in a vampire movie.

42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal) Minnelli has made more films I like or love.

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43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence. Paco Plaza's Cuento de navidad.

44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie. We're talking about virtually every movie starring Setsuko Hara.

45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal) I would force those kids who've been flocking to the Twilight films to see Let the Right One In.

46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson? No contest here. Munro.

47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio) Raoul Walsh.

48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous submission---“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”-- by Jim Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.) Jacob's Ladder, because it annoyed so many people I knew at the time.

49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for? Terrific films by John Woo and Marco Bellocchio. Also, AnimEigo put me on their screeners list.

50) George Kennedy or Alan North? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom) Kennedy. I've seen films with North but I had to look up his name on IMDb.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:09 AM | Comments (3)

November 25, 2009

SDFF 2009 - Three more films


Martin Zandvliet - 2009
Nordisk Film 35mm film

Applause is primarily a showcase for actress Paprika Steen. The story of an actress names Thea, the film alternates between her life on stage and off. An alcoholic divorcee, Thea is struggling with sobriety, and proving herself worthy of being with her two elementary school aged sons. The boys live with their father, now married to a psychologist. Thea is currently performing in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfas Martha, the alcoholic wife in a volatile relationship with her husband. There is an overlap between art and life that occasionally confuses Thea.

Even with her pre-show drinking, Thea remains in control on stage. Off stage, Thea finds herself constantly frustrated, if not angry, with other people who do not play the roles she imagines they should, including store clerk with no idea of what toys are appropriate for young boys, or a visiting stranger who imagines himself to be the lover that Thea is looking for. The film is somewhat roughly made, call it "Dogme Lite", with Thea finally emerging with a greater sense of self-realization.

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'Hick" Tow
George Hickenlooper - 2009
Actual Reality Pictures

'Hick" Town is actually designed to be seen as a series of television episodes. What was presented as a work in progress, according to director George Hickenlooper. Aside from some obvious sound synchronization issues, I hope someone reverses the superimposed titles that mislabel Graham Nash and David Crosby (Are there actually people on this production who did not notice this goof or forget that Crosby is the chunky guy with the long hair?).

I was hoping for a documentary as entertaining as Hickenlooper's portrait of legendary disc jockey, Rodney Bingenheimer, The Mayor of Sunset Strip. In his own way, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, George's cousin, is almost as endearing. Not only does the mayor love his city, but he has a genuine love and concern for the citizens, even when their interests may not be his own. The six episodes comprising this film have frequent repetitions in the formatting, and by the third time John Hickenlooper compares running a city to running a restaurant, the television format gets tiresome.

Filmed during the days preceding and during the Democratic convention of 2008, George Hickenlooper's film offers some of the same events as A.J. Schnack's Convention from a different perspective. Perhaps George Hickenlooper's film plays better in segments on a small screen, but I could not imagine this film generating much more than local interest.


Yang Yang
Cheng Yu-chieh - 2009

I don't know the full extent of Ang Lee's involvement with Yang Yang, but I wish he told Cheng Yu-chieh and cinematographer Jake Pollock to get a tripod, or if they just had to shoot an entire feature with a hand held camera, use one with some kind of image stabilizing device. This Taiwanese coming of age story probably should not have been seen on the same day as Applause. In Cheng's film, a young woman of French and Taiwanese heritage, apparently abandoned by her father many years ago, is an actress in a film playing a young woman also half French and half Taiwanese, in search of her father. It's almost as if there a difficulty in imagining a story about women confronting their particular inner demons unless they happen to be artists. Instead of making the slender story more immediate or more "real", the shaky cam distracts from Yang Yang's virtues.

Yang yang is the intimate name of the high school girl who feels out of place. Her mother has married the man who is also her track coach. Her step sister is also a rival runner. Yang yang has a one night stand with Shawn, her step sister's boyfriend. Being Eurasian proves to be both a curse and an advantage. A talent scout convinces Yang yang that she can be a model. After perhaps deliberately sabotaging herself by taking steroids before a track meet, which causes her to be disqualified from running, Yang yang leaves home and puts herself in the hands of Ming-ren, the talent scout. As it turns out, Ming-ren actually is able to develop Yang yang as a model and actress, even though she still does things to undermine herself, such as refuse to learn French for a part. Ming-ren also acts as her protector at times. Sandrine Pinna won a Best Actress award at the Taipei Film Festival last June. I am sure that she will be heard from in the future, but I would hope to see her in a film where the filmmakers are confident enough in their story without resorting to distracting technique.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:15 AM

November 23, 2009

"Tora-San" Collector's Set Volume 1

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Tora-San, Our Lovable Tramp/Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo
Yoji Yamada - 1969

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Tora-San's Cherished Mother/Zoku Otoku Wa Tsurai Yo
Yoji Yamada - 1969

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Tora-San, His Tender Love/Otoku Wa Tsurai Yo: Futen No Tora
Azuma Morisaki - 1970

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Tora-San's Grand Scheme/Shin Otoku Wa Tsurai Yo
Shunichi Kobayashi - 1970
all AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

In Stuart Galbraith's commentary that goes with the first "Tora-San" movie, he discusses Yoji Yamada's time as an Assistant Director. On the surface, it appeared that he wasn't working as hard as other A.D.s. Because of his ability to organize himself and others, Yamada was able to accomplish what he had to with seemingly less effort. This ability to be inconspicuous seems to have been a key to Yamada's career. Unlike his peers at Shochiku, such as Masahiro Shinoda and Nagisa Oshima, Yamada was primarily working on the "Tora-San" films, while Shinoda made the highly stylized Double Suicide and Boy had helped win Oshima international attention. Yamada's strategy seems to have been to establish himself as commercially viable filmmaker so that studio support of his more personal projects would be less of a gamble. Yamada was for many western viewers, definitely myself, an unknown director prior to the release of Twilight Samurai, released when Yamada was seventy-one years old. It is with the "Tora-San" films that one can identify Yamada honing his craft.

The series is about an itinerant salesman who usually sells cheap merchandise on the street. Returning to his old neighborhood near the Edo River in Tokyo, Tora temporarily lives with his beleaguered aunt and uncle who run a sweets shop, best described as a kind of fast food restaurant that specializes in dumplings. Tora's much younger sister, Sakura, helps out at the restaurant. As the formula usually goes, Tora gets into some kind of trouble, embarrasses himself and others, and often gets two lovers reconciled. Tora also meets an attractive woman who enjoys Tora's company and his good hearted efforts. The woman happens to have a boyfriend or fiance that Tora learns of at an inopportune time. Wiping away a couple of tears, Tora packs his bags and hits the road for a place to try his luck at sales, if not love.

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If one is going to watch the series, I would recommend watching the films in chronological order. Also, I would recommend watching the first film twice, once with the complete subtitles, and the second time with the commentary. As in other AnimEigo DVDs, there is both subtitling that translates what the characters are saying, but also a second set up titles on the upper part of the screen that explains idiomatic expressions or historical references mentioned by those characters. This is especially important in the "Tora-San" films because of Tora's penchant to speak in nonsense verse, or use humor based on both written and spoken Japanese. Galbraith's commentary is worth listening to as a means of understanding why the "Tora-San" series was so popular, with 48 films made between 1969 and 1996, and how the films are rooted in the everyday life of the Japanese during the time the films were made. Even if one decides that they can't embrace Tora over the course of the series, the first DVD is recommended for those interested in the career of Yoji Yamada and/or Japanese film history in general.

Kiyoshi Atsumi portrayed Torajiro in every film until he died in 1996 at the age of 68. The closest American equivalent I can think of to Tora, in actions and attitude, would be the characters John Candy played for John Hughes, especially the titular Uncle Buck, and the traveling salesman in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Tora likes to present himself as a yakuza, sometimes introducing himself with the open handed pose, although no one ever confuses him with a gangster or professional gambler. In addition to the nonsense verbiage are the malapropisms. Part of the comedy is based on Tora's inappropriate behavior and lack of sophistication. Having dinner at a small yakitori restaurant with one young lady, Tora jokes about their dinner being made from cat intestines. The humor is often broad, and Tora can be boorish. The attraction, at least for a Japanese audience, is that unlike most Japanese, Tora speech and actions were usually never subject to circumspection.

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The films are usually described as comedies. While there are comic moments, with the wordplay, and some slapstick, some of the domestic arguments get serious. The altercations between Tora and Sakura, or Tora and his uncle, are as physical and as hurtful as would be seen in most dramas. Yamada might have been inspired by East of Eden when Tora discovers that the long unseen mother he idealized turns out to be the proprietress of a "love hotel". In addition to family discord, death of a young woman's father takes place in two of the films. In his notes for the set booklet, Alexander Jacoby is more accurate in calling the series bittersweet.

The booklet, which comes with notes by Keven Thomas, Donald Richie and Yamada, that comes with the set, reminded me that Atsumi was a good enough actor that among his earlier films is Bwana Toshi, by Susumi Hani, a filmmaker of the same generation as Yamada, in dire need of rediscovery. The series provided lifetime work not only for the star, but the supporting cast, including Chieko Baisho, who continued to act in Yamada's films outside of the "Tora-San" series, most recently in The Hidden Blade. Ozu mainstay, Chishu Ryu, appeared in forty-five of the films as the neighborhood Buddhist priest. One of many major names to appear in the course of the series, Akira Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, shows up briefly in the first film as the professor father of a determinedly blue collar son.

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While Yamada wrote or cowrote the four films, he directed the first two in the series. Azuma Morisaki, cowriter of the first film, directed the third film. Shunichi Kobayashi, one of Yamada's other cowriters, directed the fourth film. Yamada returned to direct the rest of the series. One can identify certain visual consistencies with Yamada, especially several full shots of the street where much of the exterior action takes place. The discrepancies in the lives of the working poor with the middle class is something that would be part of the samurai trilogy made almost thirty years later. One can also see elements of the "Tora-San" films in Yamada's most recent film, Kabei, which chronicles the difficulties of a family's everyday existence during World War II, while the father is imprisoned by the Japanese military authorities. Whether one takes to the series is a matter of personal preference. For the serious film scholar, the first Tora-San film is worth studying because of the questions it raises regarding the universality of certain kinds of film narratives, and the limits of translation of written and verbal language. In terms of understanding the work of the still active Yoji Yamada, while the he did direct a handful of films prior to his creation of Tora-San, this is the film that marks the significant beginning of a long career.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:01 AM

November 22, 2009

Coffee Break

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Myrna Loy and Una Merkel in Evelyn Prentice (William K. Howard - 1934)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:01 AM

November 21, 2009

SDFF 2009 - Visionaries: Jonas Mekas And The (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema

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The Charles Theater, 193 Avenue B, NYC.

Chuck Workman - 2009
Calliope Films

For some viewers, Visionaries might serve as an introduction to the film that has been labeled underground, avant-garde, and briefly, New American Cinema. For myself, the film was a kind of trip down memory lane. I had seen several films in the Anthology Film Archives "invisible cinema" designed by Peter Kubelka, where the audience watched movies in chairs, partitioned in such a way that was designed to minimize distraction of other people and force one's attention to the theater screen. The films shown at that time were primarily part of a rotating selection of films ranging from Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, to Joseph Cornell, Stan Brakhage, and Andy Warhol. I think some would have found it heretical that almost thirty-five years later, Anthology Film Archives would program a retrospective of films directed by Jerry Lewis. The relationship between experimental filmmakers and Hollywood has been wildly conflicting, dependent mostly on the filmmaker's own point of view, but without Hollywood, we would never have had Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart made from excerpts from the film,East of Borneo, or Bruce Connor's hilarious A Movie, a movie mostly made up of numbers counted backwards for synchronization purposes. For myself, the Anthology Film Archives and Jonas Mekas are tied up with film studies with Anthology co-founder P. Adams Sitney, discussing films and exchanging letters with Stan Brakhage, and in general, my time in New York City in the early and mid 1970s.

The film is very loosely constructed as partial biography of Jonas Mekas and history of the American underground film movement. Mekas tells his own story of Lithuanian immigrant, filmmaker and film journalist, through footage shot by Chuck Workman as well as excerpts from his own film and video diaries. Mekas is primarily known for his constant campaign for recognition of other filmmakers, be they his contemporaries, or the older generation such as Carl Dreyer, Hans Richter, or Man Ray. Mekas talks about creating the magazine "Film Culture" in order to fulfill a need to discuss these films and bring the films of people like Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren to the attention of others. Mekas also talks about his own filmmaking habits and his shift from film to video as technology changed and the way filmmaking as it has been defined and shared has changed.

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P. Adams Sitney, Jonas Mekas and Peter Kubelka in the 'invisible cinema".

Other filmmakers speak about Mekas and the filmmaking scene at the time, including Anger, Ken Jacobs and Robert Downey, Sr. (a prince). Also excepted is footage of Stan Brakhage taken at various times, and an audio interview with Maya Deren played against part of her Meshes in the Afternoon. Michael Snow's Wavelength, a film consisting of a forty-five minute zoom shot, is condensed here. One of the excerpts included is a student film by David Lynch that quickly announces predilections that would be noticed from Eraserhead on. Critics Amy Taubin and Fred Camper are among the writers and teachers who voice their opinions on the influence of Mekas as well as thoughts on some of the films.

Workman even allows for some humor at the expense of the avant-garde with an excerpt from the Ernest Pintoff and Mel Brooks cartoon, The Critic, where the off screen voice of Brooks expresses the opinions of a viewer thoughts on film aspiring to be art. In the same of year, 1969, Brooks also had a small role in Robert Downey, Sr.'s Putney Swope, one of three films by Downey excepted. There is a very brief excerpt from one of Mekas's few narrative films, The Brig, as well as documentary footage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Adolfas Mekas, the younger brother of Jonas, is quickly glimpsed and sometimes mentioned, though I was surprised that his celebrated, at the time, Hallelujah the Hills, from 1963, was not among the film clips.

As the version I saw was a work print, I don't know how much different the final version of Visionaries might be. One small problem is that many of the excerpts are shown without mention of what films they are from, which may not be concern those who may have seen and studied many of the films in question, but may prove frustrating for those with little or no familiarity with the various works. Workman, in one of his own overtitles, expresses thanks to the filmmakers for allowing him to use the excerpts, encouraging the viewer to see the films, if possible, on a movie screen. A possible telling moment is when a group of young people gathered to participate in the 48 Hour Film Project, inform Workman that they are unfamiliar with the name of Jonas Mekas, with one young man describing Stan Brakhage as a "video artist". Film schools in general are more about learning the tools of the trade than history and theory, so I'd cut the kids some slack here. But Visionaries is worth watching not only for its lessons in film history but as an introduction for some to some films that help redefine what it means to make a movie.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:32 AM

November 20, 2009

SDFF 2009 - St. Nick

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David Lowery - 2009
Road Dog Productions

Disclosure alert: While I have not personally met David Lowery, his blog, "Drifting" is on my blogroll. We have exchanged a couple of online notes in the past.

Thinking back on St. Nick, I have to reflect on how talented this Texas based filmmaker is based on what could have gone wrong had this film be made by someone of lesser abilities or imagination. Substantially dialogue free, Lowery is able to make his story absorbing from the opening shot. Lowery also understands better than too many contemporary filmmakers, how to compose his shots so that one doesn't get the sense that the camera has been arbitrarily placed. One could say that St. Nick is based on trust, Lowery's faith in his own sense of story telling, and trust that his audience will follow is story based on observing his two children on the run.

We don't know the names of the children, or even if they are running from something or someone, or if they have any destination in mind. The film begins with the boy opening a window into a small frame house that has either been unfinished or abandoned. The boy is resourceful enough to figure out how to get a small wood burning stove working for heat and cooking, and get some very basic plumbing in order. Unlike a Hollywood film, the boy isn't impossibly clever. He and his sister make the house, essentially a wood shell, more livable simply by furnishing it with the abandoned furniture and houseware of others. And unlike a Hollywood film, there is no expository dialogue explaining the children's situation.

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Filmed in and around Fort Worth, Lowery pauses from his story to include shots of the bare trees, a spider, and waves of grass. The children find some bones which may been that of a dog. The boy assembles the bones to an approximation of the animal, which the girl "adopts", putting the bones in a cradle. Death, as such, is understood in terms of the mortality of pets.

This sense of nature is extended to a scene where the girl comes across a birthday party in a park. She makes friends with an even younger boy and follows him to the party. The girl encounters some other girls her age who question who she is, and if she attends a certain school. While the girl is able to get some cake, one of the parents questions the girl and asks her to leave the party. St. Nick is about the sense of belonging as determined by both nature and society, as well as one's personal sense of where one should be. This concept of belonging can be found in the ambiguous ending where the girl seems to have a sense of home, while the boy is last seen observing some slow moving freight trains.

Call me on my bias, but I would hope that St. Nick finds life beyond the festival circuit. The virtues of the film recall the best in classic narrative filmmaking. In whatever format St. Nick might be available to you, seek this film out.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:24 AM

November 19, 2009

SDFF 2009 - Vincere

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Marco Bellocchio - 2009
IFC Films 35mm film

Vincere is chock full of breathtaking images. We see Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) climb the iron bars inside the asylum where she is confined, high above the floor, looking ahead at the large flakes of snow falling outside. Much of Marco Bellocchio's imagery is informed by films of, and about, the era in which the film primarily takes place, from 1914 to 1936. The images may not recall specific films as much as the memory of both classic epics and the avant-garde films of that time. The story is a partially fictionalized account about Benito Mussolini's first wife, Ida Dalser, and their son, both of whom Mussolini attempted to hide both physically and with the removal of documented evidence of his relationship, during his rise to power.

Even before the scene takes place with Mussolini attending a Futurist art exhibit, Bellocchio incorporates old black and white footage, futurism expressed in film, of an industrial Italy. The futurist poet, Marinetti, is indirectly quoted when one of Mussolini's supporters compares war to hygiene, and Mussolini describes the "rat-tat-tat" of a machine gun to poetry. Several scenes in the film revolve around watching movies, with excerpts from the Italian silent movie Christus and Chaplin's The Kid used in addition to both silent and sound news reels. Newspaper headlines are also displayed in close ups, a deliberate throwback invoking older movies. Vincere is in part a film about the rise of mass communication in the early 20th Century, and its use not only to distribute information, but to shape opinion.

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The creation of a newspaper is moment that changes everything for Dalser and Mussolini. In love with the young firebrand, Ida Dalser sells her dress shop and other belongings in order to finance her lover's dream of a newspaper. The idealistic man, under protest, accepts the money as a loan. A short time later, Dalser discovers that her lover is married. Wounded in battle in World War I, the rebel who voiced his rage against church and state, has begun the process of consolidating his power with the approval of his former enemies. Ida Dalser is shuttered from sight, first at her sister's house in the northern countryside, and finally in a series of mental institutions. Neither the financial debt that helped establish the political foundation, nor the son born out of wedlock bearing his father's name, are acknowledged by Mussolini.

As grim as the story is, Bellocchio leavens the film with humor. The audience watching footage of Italy in a debatable war, voices their opposing opinions, escalating to a fist fight within the theater. The scuffling men are seen in silhouette against the black and white footage of battle, while the theater's pianist continues to play. Mussolini's theatrical speeches, the glower, the pursed lips, seen in documentary footage, is parodied by the son, portrayed by Filippo Timi, who also plays the onscreen version of Mussolini in his younger days.

Mothers and sons has been a continuing topic for Bellocchio since Fist in his Pockets in 1965. Watching some of his films in chronological order, the films suggest an evolution from the time of his debut feature to the older man who made The Nanny and My Mother's Smile, from a rebelling against the family, to having the family as central to one's life. Historians might quibble with certain liberties taken in Vincere, the Italian word for "win". What can not be disputed is Marco Bellocchio has made a film as energetic as those he made when his film career had just begun.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:00 AM | Comments (6)

November 18, 2009

SDFF 2009 - Fish Eyes

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Yu Yan
Zhang Wei - 2009
Benten Films 35mm film

There is a scene in Fish Eyes when most of the action is seen as the reflection on a mirror. The mirror, the full-length kind usually found in bathrooms, is precariously propped outside a building. A trio of motorbike riders, each with a buddy hanging on the back, circle the courtyard, closing in on the mirror. The mirror is shaking from the vibrations created by the bikes. Suspense is created in wondering when or if the mirror will shatter. The shot is composed so that the riders and bikes are only partially visible, with a more full view of the riders fleetingly visible on the mirror.

The scene could be a key to understanding Fish Eyes. The story, as such, is not one of direct exposition, but of partially seen and sometimes unseen events. The main characters are a man, his son, and a young woman. The man, called an "old geezer" by one of the bike riding thugs, might be in his late Forties or Fifties. His son and the mute young woman are possibly in their early Twenties. The son has apparently angered the leader of a small gang of thugs for sleeping with the leader's girlfriend. It is also later revealed that the woman has escaped from a mental institution. The story elements should suggest a film more melodramatic than Fish Eyes. Zhang Wei strips away the more obvious devices for a more indirect form of story telling.


Fish Eyes was shot in Mongolia, on High Definition video, the debut film by Zhang Wei. Some reviews of the film refer to Jia Zhang-Ke, but what links Zhang with Jia, and young Chinese filmmakers like Nelson Yu Lik-wai or Zhao Dayong, is the choice to make more personal films on video. Part of this is simply economics, because it is significantly less expensive than film, and there is a smaller support team needed for production. Also, with less money involved, the filmmaker can be allowed greater autonomy. The films can be made with little, if any, government interference. But any attempt to link Zhang Wei with any kind of "wave" of filmmakers is both facile, and misleading.

While Fish Eyes does not look like the films by other Chinese filmmakers, its subject matter can be argued to be archetypically Chinese based on theories presented by Rey Chow. In her book, Sentimental Fabulations: Contemporary Chinese Films, Chow lists the elements to be found in most Chinese language films, and states, ". . . the heart-wrenching situations that many many films dramatize include poverty, interpersonal and intergenerational conflicts, separation, exile, illness, death and loneliness - situations in which quotidian living itself can take on the weight of imprisonment or assault . . .". Other filmmakers have created stories about people removed from the economic and cultural changes in contemporary China. For Zhang Wei, the truth about a situation is not always to be found by what is clearly in front of us.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:56 AM

SDFF 2009- Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

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Damien Chazelle - 2009

If John Cassavetes directed an MGM musical produced by Arthur Freed, it might look something like Guy and Madeline. I am referring to the earlier Cassavetes, of Shadows and Faces, with the hand held 16mm camera that restlessly follow the characters in the street and in their cramped apartments. Also adding to the comparison with Cassavetes is the impression of improvisation in the dialogue. The songs, with music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics primarily by Chazelle, sound almost like they could have belonged to an MGM musical from their waning days.

In spite of the title, Guy and Madeline are hardly together. We see them break up for an unstated reason, followed by Guy hooking up with Elena after they notice each other while riding the subway. Guy is a jazz musician who is getting by with gigs at Boston area clubs. Madeline, shows up at an employment office, stating that her past work experience consisted of fund raising for unnamed organizations. We next see her working as a dishwasher and waitress at a seafood restaurant. In this case, the narrative ellipses undermine the film so that there seems to be no reason why the past and current lovers are attracted to each other.

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More energy has been devoted to the creation of the set pieces, especially those for Madeline, with a big dance number in the restaurant, and a solo song performed on the streets. There is a song and dance number at a party which should have been staged better. The panning between the singing and dancing hipster and Guy, playing his trumpet on the other side of the room, becomes annoying. It's the kind of scene that would have been better served by cutting between two performers after establishing their physical distance from each other. I don't want to seem entirely dismissive of what was a labor of love filmed over a two year period, but I found Guy and Madeline to consist of a couple of nice sequences with Madeline (Desiree Garcia), and beautifully filmed moments, as when Guy (Jason Palmer) and Elena (Sanha Khin) clasp each other's hands on the subway pole. In musical terms, it's like the record album bought for only a handful of really great songs.

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One additional note here (pun intended): John Cassavetes actually made a movie about jazz musicians titled Too Late Blues. With the DVD release of almost all of the films Cassavetes directed, one would hope Paramount, the original studio, or someone, would get this forgotten film out of the vault.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:12 AM

November 17, 2009

SDFF 2009 - Irene


Alain Cavalier - 2009
Pyramide International 35mm film

Alain Cavalier remains a relatively unknown filmmaker for many of us following French cinema stateside. Reviewing his filmography, I realized that I had only seen two of his previous films. Le combat dans l'ile recently played at several select locations, including the Starz theater here in Denver. I had also seen La Chamade, from the novel by Francoise Sagan, on DVD. Therese is a film I recall seeing on Bravo almost twenty years ago when that cable station was devoted to programming shows on the arts, as well as foreign language films. Irene is not a film that I expect will make Cavalier better known, and will probably only be available, if at all, as a film to be seen at festivals or at career retrospectives.

Cavalier's wife, Irene Tunc is probably best known to the serious followers of French cinema, generally in supporting roles. Cavalier's film is a first person meditation on Tunc's death in a car accident, and a reflection on their relationship, shot with a small video camera. The camera roams around their house, examining a few artifacts. There are shots of Cavalier's diaries from the last three years they were together, with Cavalier reading excerpts. Cavalier films while riding a subway station escalator to the street where they had met, only to fall down the escalator, injuring himself. A clip from La Chamade includes a bit of dialogue included from Cavalier and Tunc's own conversations.

This is not a film that I feel I can write easily about. Reviewing Cavalier's filmography and what little is available in English and online, Irene might be better understood as part of a series of autobiographical works done previously, such as Le Filmeur, in which Cavalier reflects on part of his own career as filmmaker. Even if one is not familiar with Cavalier, one can still appreciate the conflicting feelings one might have about someone who was both a significant part of one's life, and also no longer part of that life.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:24 PM | Comments (1)

SDFF 2009 - Two videos by Ernie Gehr


Ernie Gehr - 2001

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Waterfront Follies
Ernie Gehr - 2008

This was my first time attending the part of the the Starz Denver Film Festival that was devoted to awarding the "Stan Brakhage Vision Award". A little history here - Brakhage was a periodic part of the festival, showing some of his own work, as well as introducing films by others. My own memory was of his speaking prior to the screening of Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev. That the SDFF devotes even a small part of its programming to experimental film is commendable.

Brakhage was also on my mind watching Waterfront Follies. The work is made up of three shots of sunset, from three different points at the Brooklyn, New York, waterfront. The camera does not move, and the focal point is the same for a three shots. What is different is the angle of seeing the sun, the difference in the clouds, the movement of the boats, and the offscreen voices. On a more literal level, yes, one is watching the sun go down over the shore of New Jersey, but what one is also looking at are the fields of blue and gray, and the descent of an orange-red orb. Watching this video made me recall some writing I had done on some films by Stan Brakhage in the mid-Seventies, and my teacher, P. Adams Sitney encouraging me to study the paintings by J.M.W.Turner, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. I don't really have the language of describing visual art, but the similarities are the three artists exist for me when you take Turner and Gehr's images and just think of the shapes and colors, and not objects as the subjects of the work.

Waterfront Follies was a challenge for some members of the audience in attendance. It's been more than thirty year since my own formal study of experimental films, so I understand that to see something that demands attention from the audience can be difficult. It does bring to mind whether some films or video works should be viewed in the same way that one views a traditional narrative film, or if certain works should be viewed in part, to be returned to several minutes later, as part of an installation rather than in a theatrical setting. Also, one might be able to watch a real sunset, alone or with someone, and be comfortable with the real time experience, while watching a video of a sunset might bring about a certain discomfort or anxiety based on the conditioning we have of expecting "something" to happen in front of us.

But things do happen in Waterfront Follies. A large boat temporarily blocks the view of one sunset. We overhear a Spanish man speak about the beauty of sunsets in Barcelona. A woman asks Gehr if he has found what he is looking for. The sun peaks in and out of the clouds. We hear distant bells, and the sound of the water.

Glider presents a challenge simply by being silent. The video was shot though a camera obscura that moves constantly. The ocean and the beach outside of San Francisco are recognizable for what they are. The images become abstracted by the change of angles and distortion, so that they dissolve into a series of shapes and patterns, in constant motion. Again, this is video that might be better compared to abstract expressionism.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:24 AM

November 16, 2009

SDFF 2009 - Convention

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A.J. Schnack - 2009
Bonfire Films of America

At the time of the Democratic Convention last year, I lived about a mile from the Pepsi Center where most of the activity took place. The convention did not affect my life too much as my job was south of Denver. There was one night when I saw Santa Fe Drive, a main thoroughfare two blocks from my then current home, closed off. Also, someone decided that, in an area with virtually no mail boxes, to remove the mail boxes in front of the grocery store were I shopped, across the street from where downtown Denver begins. Also, more police seemed to be stationed at that grocery store. In short, there seemed to be enough people with memories of Chicago in 1968 that I can personally attest to a certain amount of caution.

A.J. Schnack allowed for several videographers to follow several people involved with the convention. The main rule was that these would have to be Denver based people. Among the "stars" were from Denver Mayor Hickenlooper's office, Chantal Unfug (seen above) and Bill Vidal, and novice political writer from the Denver Post, Allison Sherry (seen below). Also appearing are Mark and Barbara Cohen from "Recreate 68", one of the protest groups that appeared during the course of the convention. The several stories are edited to create a picture of what was happening before and during the convention, sometimes at the same time. It's a documentary that often plays like a narrative film, that at certain moments recalls the work of Robert Altman, if not the cinema verite approach of D.A. Pennebaker.

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Even though the title is Convention, what Schnack and his team have documented is outside of the Pepsi Center. What is eye opening is to learn about some of the logistics involved in planning for street security, and the coordination of different groups with their particular needs and agendas. As previously stated, the memory of the Chicago convention of 1968 haunted everyone who had watched the protesters and the police on television. Among the moments in this film to remember: Chantal Unfug learning to ride the Mayor's motorbike, and a scene where she is traveling around the inaccessible Pepsi Center in attempt to secure some needed credentials for the convention. Also, Allison Sherry's temporary meltdown after several failed attempts to connect online with the Denver Post from the convention center, and make her story deadline. Most moving may be when a group of uniformed soldiers, veterans who have been to Iraq, march to the Pepsi Center, with a confrontation of mutual respect with the police ending with one of the veterans meeting with former Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, enabling the veterans to convey their reasons for protest to the Democratic Party.

At this point, Convention is seen on the festival circuit. Hopefully the film will be more widely available. As for the actual convention that was happening inside the Pepsi Center, more reading this already know what happened. Convention is another example of the documentary that proves more entertaining and surprising than what comes out of Hollywood.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:58 AM

SDFF 2009- My Dear Enemy


Meotjin haru
Lee Yoon-ki - 2008
Cine-Asie 35mm Film

The beginning of My Dear Enemy is an extended traveling shot, what appeared to be one continuous take. The camera follows a couple discussing possibly investing in real estate, only to be diverted by a group of men debating where to catch lunch, before finally settling on a woman who is entering what is revealed to be the betting area of a race track. It is the one display display of technical bravura before Lee concentrates on his story. The opening shot, which deliberately misleads the audience fits in with the rest of the film in which the filmmaker subverts assumptions the audience might have about his two main characters.

The story is simple: Hee-su finds former boyfriend Byong-woon in the race track betting area. She insists that he return $3500 that day that he borrowed under questionable circumstances a year earlier. Hee-su is adamant that she will not leave Byong-woon until he makes good on his IOU. The remainder of the film is a sort of road movie, a more localized one, with a journey through various part of Seoul.

Byong-woon's idea of repaying Hee-su consists mostly of borrowing money or calling in debts from various friends and relatives. To Hee-su's chagrin, she discovers that Byong-woon might not have a girl in every proverbial port, but seems to have female friends in every neighborhood where they stop. What Hee-su learns about Byong-woon is that in spite of his failings in business, he is loved for his generosity of spirit.

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One of the film's running jokes is of Byong-woon's inability to say the name of Astrud Gilberto, Hee-su's favorite singer. My Dear Enemy takes its cues from the relaxed flow of many of Gilberto's signature songs. A discussion of the music, by the film's music director, Kim Jung Bum, as well as Lee's thoughts on his film, includes a clip from My Dear Enemy. I am hoping to see more of Lee's films as they become available on DVD. Based on what I have read about his previous work, his own self-assessment is worth noting: "I would say my films deals with a lot of humanism. . . . That every day, nonchalant life that people always overlook is what I wanted to display onto film."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:36 AM | Comments (1)

November 15, 2009

SDFF 2009- Black Box

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Caja Negra
Ariel Gordon - 2009
Cinema Maquina

One indication that Ariel Gordon got things right in Black Box is when people walk out due to the intensity of a scene. In this case, the main character, a professional assassin, is holding a gun near the head of a potential victim, a man blackmailed into doing a hit on behalf of the assassin, and more importantly, for the people the assassin works for, a secret organization of Mexico's real movers and shakers.

Black Box is part satire, part thriller, about corruption in Mexico, and about a character named Emiliano. The film begins with low tech animation, cut up images mostly, establishing Emiliano's history, and how he rose from poverty to be groomed as a politician on behalf of the cabal, his fall when an indiscretion with a faculty wife ended his academic life, and his rise as a person who officially did not exist. Not only does Emiliano perform killings on behalf of his benefactors, but he found ways of having other people do his dirty work.

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A good chunk of the film is made up of purported surveillance videos, of Emiliano and one of his victims, Juan. What works against that premise is that there is way too much cutting, and far too many angles to be believable as footage shot from multiple cameras. Compare this with Bong Joon-ho's darkly funny Influenza, with scenes composed to be played out with a single, fixed camera, showing a both a better understanding of what real surveillance footage looks like as well as who to use those limitations in the service of the narrative.

Black Box is Gordon's first feature after making a handful of shorts, one which played at Cannes. In an interview mostly centered around one of his short films, Gordon states, "Cinema makes it possible for people to live a human experience that would be inaccessible to them in reality." Black Box has some intriguing ideas that might have been, ahem, executed better. Considering Gordon's propensity for ruffling feathers, it could well be interesting to see what he can do next.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:58 AM

November 14, 2009

SDFF 2009- Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl


Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura
Manoel de Oliveira - 2009
Pyramide International

It is amazing to realize that Manoel de Oliveira is 100 years old and is still making movies. His newest is a short feature, barely more than an hour in length, adapted from a short story by the Portuguese author, Eca de Queiros. Essentially, the story is about a man, Macario, who falls in love with the young woman, Luisa, who lives across the street. As it turns out, Luisa steals more than Macario's heart.

The story is revealed in flashback with Macario recounting his story to the woman sitting next to him on a train. Macario works as an accountant for his uncle's fabric store. While a mutual friend is able to arrange for Macario to meet Luisa, Macario finds that his prospects for marriage and financial stability are hobbled by the whims of his uncle. What de Oliveira has done is told a 19th Century story in 21st Century dress. The characters conduct themselves as the did in the original short story, and all cultural references are from that time as well.


Part of the film takes place in a literary club that not only features a sculpture of de Queiros head, but also a display of doll sized models of his characters. Jonathan Rosenbaum has an entertaining assessment of de Oliveira, describing the filmmaker as a "19th Century modernist". To pursue a deeper analysis of Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl to me would be a disservice to this film. The film ends when Macario completes his story about misplaced affection. De Oliveira has probably said most of what he really wants to express in film previously. This short, sweet film was most likely made for the filmmaker's own amusement, and only incidentally for the audience.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:27 AM | Comments (1)

November 13, 2009

SDFF 2009- Son of the Sunshine

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Ryan Ward - 2009
Heart Shaped Movies

There is one scene in Son of the Sunshine that works for me. Sonny, recently out following surgery to cure his Tourette's Syndrome, goes out on an impromptu date with Arielle. We see the couple exiting the theater, with Arielle yelling about how phony the movie is, and how real love is not as it is portrayed in the movie the couple has just walked out on. Sonny weakly admits that he kind of liked the film in question, but is quickly shouted down by Arielle, who then demands her money back. The guy in the box office responds to Arielle with a casual, "Uh . . . eat me", before going back to ignoring the world outside his booth. It's a scene that rings true for me after being with someone who would more often than not, choose the movies we would see together, and then frequently burst into anger at the end during the end credits about what a lousy movie we had just seen.

There is also some humor when we first see Sonny riding in a Toronto subway, shouting "Fuck you" followed by a more circumspect "Sorry" to everyone he sees. And it's too bad that Ryan Ward, as co-writer, director and star, could not or would not leaven his tale with a few more laughs. The story about a young man struggling with Tourette's Syndrome, attempting to find his way in the world without the one thing that made him both vulnerable but also served as a sort of shield against the world, seems caught up in showing characters who are trapped in their own misery. Sonny's mother is a drug addict, Arielle is an alcoholic, and the rest of the characters live hopeless or limited lives. It's not that a film about people living in the margins can't be interesting, but that Ward gives little reason why anyone should really care about these people who exist in the outskirts of Toronto.

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I am not sure if a reference to Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie was intentional, but Arielle has a collection of glass unicorns and such. The collection was inherited from her mother, whom we are informed had lived a hard life, and was waiting for her own "knight" to come rescue her. Arielle's mother was never rescued, and Arielle attempts to face life with a hard shell, or at least the appearance of hardness. Unlike Williams' Amanda, Arielle is not physically crippled, although the amateur psychologist will have more to say about Arielle's drinking as a form of crutch. Ryan Ward has attempted to make a film involving a certain amount of symbolism in regards to Sonny as a sort of saint. It is Arielle, emotionally confused, too attractive to be plain but not quite pretty, with the streak of blue in her blonde hair, that is more rooted in the grimy reality that Ward has filmed.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:51 AM

November 12, 2009

SDFF 2009- Film is a Girl & a Gun

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Film Ist. A girl & a Gun
Gustav Deutsch - 2009
Six Pack Films

For the next week and a half, I will be covering some of the films at the Starz Denver Film Festival, also known as the SDFF. My coverage will not always correspond with when the films are shown but based on when I've seen the films. Some films will be seen at the festival, while others have been viewed as DVD screeners.

The truth is that I am not sure what Gustav Deutsch is really trying to say with his series of montages created from clips primarily from silent films. And I'm not sure if it even matters if I understand what what is being said, unsaid, or merely suggested. The footage is combined from various European archives of nature films, nudie cuties, pornography, excerpts from such disparate pioneers as Melies, William Dickson, G.W. Pabst, and Gustav Machaty. The contemporary music, from several composers, makes me think of the repackaging of silent films for a hipster audience, much like the DVD compilation, 'Music for Experimental Films", with Tom Verlaine noodling on the guitar against the visual fantasies of Man Ray.

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Where's P. Adams Sitney when I really need him to explain to me about the myths, about the quotes from Plato, Hesiod and Sappho, about what it is I'm looking at? The images are fascinating, even if I'm groping for some kind of cohesive meaning here. One thing is certain is that when it came to sex, the motion picture camera was there from pretty close to the beginning. One could even say that film was exploiting sex and violence as soon as someone figured out how to take the camera from the train station to the bedroom. I guess if I really wanted to understand what I was looking at, I could check out an essay by my former NYU pal and teacher, Tom Gunning, who contributed an essay on Deutsch in a recently published monograph.

The first image used is of Annie Oakley demonstrating her trick shooting skills. The last image is from one of the first westerns, with the outlaw shooting his gun, facing the camera. In between are images of women in various states of undress, volcanos, flowers, and wounded World War I veterans, mostly in monochrome tints, but also with some hand painted frames that may or may not reproduce reality. In part of the footage, two men who resemble the Smith Brothers of cough drop fame, play gynecologists to a nude woman on a table. Lovers are almost caught in the act by the woman's husband. Had Arthur Schnitzler's writings been made into film at the time of publication, these might have been some of the images that would have been seen, were it allowed for mass audiences. And maybe Deutsch film should be viewed as a dream, where there are some connections between the images, but the meaning, if there is one, is determined by the dreamer.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:28 AM

November 11, 2009

Battle of the Bulge

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Ken Annakin - 1965
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

While Battle of the Bulge is the type of film that may be obvious for a Veteran's Day posting, it might not be the first choice for remembering Robert Ryan on what would have been his 100th birthday. Ryan, third billed, after Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw, has more of a glorified supporting role in this film. On could even say that Ryan cut a certain niche for himself as the Sixties progressed, playing the part of a no-nonsense officer in several war films, including The Dirty Dozen and Anzio. In Battle of the Bulge, Ryan's general is courted for approval by the unconventional, intuitive Henry Fonda and the traditional, by the book, Dana Andrews. It's nowhere near as entertaining as watching Fonda and Andrews vying for Joan Crawford's attention in Daisy Kenyon, although Ryan is almost as snappily dressed in his uniform.

My first time seeing Robert Ryan on screen was inThe Longest Day, where he was one of a hundred or so stars in Darryl Zanuck's pet project. Ken Annakin was one of several credited directors and briefly benefitted from his association with that film. I don't remember Ryan in The Longest Day, but he made a greater impression with a major role in a smaller film. Billy Budd, where he tormented innocent, angelic Terence Stamp, is one example of Ryan's ability to a truly nasty character. Looking back at the films I've seen starring Ryan, his good guys weren't always very good, while some of his bad guys relished making life miserable for others. In The Naked Spur, Ryan's sole motivation is to find ways to annoy James Stewart and chortle "do me" to Janet Leigh. It may have taken a committed liberal, as Ryan was off screen, to play a racist crook in Odds Against Tomorrow. A tribute to Robert Ryan might center on The Set-Up or On Dangerous Ground, both very worthy star turns. Ryan's appearance in Battle of the Bulge could best be cited as an example of how his authoritative presence was used as a kind of cinematic shorthand, a decision maker questioned neither by the other characters or the audience.

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The real star of Battle of the Bulge isn't Fonda, Ryan or even Robert Shaw, but Cinerama. The film was shot using using a Panavision process that replaced the original synchronized three 35mm cameras, with the film playing first run in theaters that were set up for 70mm road show screenings. Too many shots seem to have been made with the memory of the earliest Cinerama movies in mind, with point of view shots from a speeding car, a train, and a small, diving airplane, all with the intention of making the theater audience feel like they are participants in the action. Ken Annakin's autobiography indicates that some of the footage was created at the behest of Cinerama, one of the production partners. Maybe those sequences attempting to visually overwhelm the viewer worked better on a large screen in a mammoth theater where audiences gazed up at the images of giant Panzer tanks and Robert Shaw's cold blue eyes.

Ken Annakin came to the film as an almost last minute replacement for Richard Fleischer. Due to a financial shortfall, Annakin also was dismissed from the film during the post-production phase, having little to do with the final edit. Even so, Battle of the Bulge fits in thematically with Annakin's other films, with Henry Fonda's officer who operates on intuition, hunches and observation, literally diving into adventure, even when he can't really explain what he's doing or why, similar to some of Annakin's other protagonists. Fonda's opposite, the German tank commander played by Robert Shaw, knows exactly what he is doing and why, and is chilling when he reveals his love of war, not in the pursuit of a military or political goal, but as a continuous venture. Charles Bronson does well as an infantry officer who stands his ground against Shaw. I'm not sure how much better Battle of the Bulge might have been had Annakin had greater input in the film's final edit. An old fashioned war epic at the time of release, some of more intimate scenes remain more impressive than the attempts at visual bombast and gimmickry.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:09 AM

November 08, 2009

Coffee Break


Nuri Bilge Ceylan in Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan - 2006)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:51 AM

November 05, 2009

5 Against the House

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A conventional reading of the title would be of "the house" being the casino that the five are attempting to rob. After watching the film, my feeling is that the house could well be the world at large, or at least the social conventions or expectations that cause the five to feel a sense of discomfort. Disregarding that the actors were too old for their roles, and that the planned heist is actually a small part of the narrative, 5 Against the House is really about an unarticulated sense of alienation in mid 1950s America.

In introducing the four friends, Al and Brick are veterans of the Korean conflict. Brick has saved Al's life at the expense of his own, causing Brick to have suffered what the screenplay suggests is a brain injury that has left Brick with a sometimes volatile temper. Ronnie comes from a wealthy family, and seems almost consumed with control both in action and theory. Roy is the joker who seems to mostly be part of the group for comic relief, the get along, go along kind of guy. The four attend "Mid-Western College", a campus so pastoral that it is almost no surprise that the guys are attracted to the dark, noisy allure of Reno and all that it seems to offer. When the four are introduced, Ronnie attempts to keep the others to a set schedule for their first night in Reno, and attempts to beat "the house" with his own calculated plan for gambling. That's Ronnie's scheme at beating the odds fails does nothing to deter himself or Roy and Brick from thinking that they can't rob the casino.

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Even the seemingly most level headed of the four friends, Al, goes against the grain in his pursuit of Kay. A lounge singer, and a self-described "B girl" who is expected to socialize with the patrons of the club where she performs, there is enough to indicate that Kay might not be the wholesome girl next door. The age difference between Guy Madison and Kim Novak works against what is stated in the screenplay, but Kay lets it be known that Al is hardly the first college boy she's been involved with. Again, what is emphasized is the outsider status of the main characters.

The real star of 5 Against the House is Brian Keith as the shell shocked Brick. It is impossible not to also think of Tennessee Williams' character of the same name, with the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also premiering in 1955. This may be purely coincidental as Phil Karlson's film was released in June while the play opened just four months previously, in March. That Keith would play a character named Brick would probably be due to his solid build and red hair. This Brick, though, while physically imposing is revealed to be the most psychologically fragile, the one who causes the greatest damage, and elicits the greatest sympathy.

5 Against the House was one of four films directed by Phil Karlson that was released in 1955. Along with the titles of two of the other films, Hell's Island and Tight Spot, there is a continued suggestion of entrapment and desperation. The characters in 5 Against the House are in a situation of their own making, but it is one based on an intuitive feeling that there is something missing in lives of complacency and resignation to the implied conformity of the times. Brian Keith's Brick is the proxy for America's psychological wounds that will not be healed simply by being ignored or locked out of sight.

5 Against the House was the second billed Kim Novak's last B film, before Picnic firmly established her as one of Columbia Pictures top stars. There are a couple of shots in the film that indicate that even before Novak was truly a star, steps were taken to turn her into an icon. In the scene that introduces Kay, Novak is scene in silhouette in the nightclub where she sings. There is also a shot of Al, played by Guy Madison, entering Kay's dressing room, framed by one of Novak's extended legs. One of the best lines from the film could well be about Kim Novak as about Kay. When Kay informs Al that she is going to get out of her singing dress, smart alec Roy (Alvy Moore) comments that, "she makes that dress sing".

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:51 AM | Comments (1)

November 04, 2009

Are you trying to seduce me, Miss Novak?

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Kim Novak and Guy Madison in 5 Against the House (Phil Karlson - 1955)

Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (Mike Nichols - 1967)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:05 AM

November 03, 2009

Main aurr Mrs Khanna

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Prem Soni - 2009
UTV Motion Pictures 35mm film

The AMC Highlands Ranch 24 is a multiplex with stadium seating that serves three suburban cities directly south of Denver. The theater is in the southernmost of these suburbs, surrounded by office parks and mid priced restaurants that serve variations of "American" food. Most of the time, the films playing are the usual mainstream releases that play in thousands of screens, with the occasional "indie" that has received wider acceptance. Not only was I surprised to see that a new Bollywood film was scheduled at this most unlikely venue, but actually two films were screened. The other film playing was All the Best, but judging from the preview, I chose the better film.

Even though Prem Soni's film has apparently flopped in India, it's not a bad film. There are times when it seems that Soni never met a pan or tracking shot he didn't like, but on the plus side is the location shooting in the streets and airport of Melbourne, Australia. A young woman, Raina, graduates from an orphanage to marrying the first man she meets, a businessman named Samir Khan. Samir is held responsible for the bankruptcy of a Melbourne brokerage, and finds his only work opportunity is in Singapore. While Samir decides to send Raina back to the parents who disapproved of marriage to a poor orphan, Raina chooses to stay in Melbourne. Working at a shop at the airport, Raina is wooed by Akash, a waiter at an airport restaurant she had literally bumped into when she discovered Samir was leaving without her. Raina maintains her fidelity to Samir in spite of Akash's attempts to win her, and in spite of Samir's own suspicions when he returns to Melbourne.

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But as anyone who has seen at least a couple of Bollywood film will tell you, the story is besides the point. The first musical number, with Samir courting Raina, features Salman Khan briefly singing and dancing with six men with pumpkin heads out in a field. One of the other numbers is performed in English, on the streets of Melbourne, a nod to the younger Indian audience that is more fluent in English, that has grown up with MTV. There is a musical act taking place in a nightclub, with Preity Zinta as a Pakistani temptress. Critical assessment takes a quick exit when the screen is filled with a close up of Ms. Zinta's belly button. Song is also used to express the thoughts of Kareena Kapoor in the title role.

The soundtrack seems to take a queue from Max Steiner who was criticized for his "Mickey Mouse" music which seems to follow the exact movements of the actors, just as in a cartoon. Composer Ali Sajid not only uses the music as a dramatic component but as a sort of comic commentary, with frog croaks, horse neighs, and various yelping underlining some of the more humorous moments. The creativity of his approach to film scoring offsets the heavy hand of the comedy.

Maybe for myself, it was just the experience of seeing a Bollywood film in a theater that usually shows Hollywood productions, and I was seduced by the pleasure of a decent sized screen, a comfortable seat, and a wall of sound that blocked out all outside activity, all the things I miss in whole or in part at Denver's "art and indie" theaters. Anyways, I considered it my duty to put my money where my mouth is, and show some support while AMC brings Indian cinema to a theater relatively near me. Of course, with the money that the United States owes China, I keep on hoping that the big theater chains will show upcoming films from Tsui Hark and Feng Xiaogang.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:50 AM | Comments (1)

November 01, 2009

Coffee Break

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John Banner, James Garner and Eva Marie Saint in 36 Hours (George Seaton - 1965)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:23 AM