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November 30, 2010

Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia

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Jonathan Rosenbaum - 2010
The University of Chicago Press

It may sound silly, but with Jonathan Rosenbaum discussing new ways of watching movies, I was feeling a bit old fashioned, reading a book in its traditional bound and printed form. I have never even entertained the idea of buying a Kindle. I find find the idea of doing sustained, lengthy reading from an electronic device problematic because I find it difficult to look at a computer screen for the same kind of length that I can read several pages of a book. How this connects with Rosenbaum's book is that to a limited extent, considering the book has been out for just a couple of months, it is already out of date. Unless I missed it, there was no mention of film viewing done in the form of streaming or video on demand, as well as the ability to see films through various bit torrent programs. While what is made available is still limited by a variety of factors, these more recent ways of film viewing are gaining on not only the traditional theatrical mode of viewing films, but also watching films on DVD or television broadcast.

More many readers, Jonathan Rosenbaum may be preaching to the choir. My own viewing of films has changed drastically since my first purchase of a DVD player back in 2001. That purchase, plus a subscription to Netflix had made it possible to start seeing films I had often read about, and expanded my ability to see films that would never have gotten theatrical release. And yes, as nice as it is to see a film in a theater, I don't miss the out of focus projector, the sound that is too loud or not even turned on, or the other various snafus that occur in the projectionist's booth, not to mention the audience members who forget to turn of their cell phones, or worse, think nothing of having a conversation in the theater, as happened to me when I first tried to watch Chunking Express.

I don't think there is an argument regarding what is called film, cinema or movies being in constant change with the physical properties of a movie not always being of celluloid in the production or in the format used for presentation. Likewise, film criticism shifting from print to the internet, with what is written and how it is written being more flexible. It's not an easy change, as one film blogger felt that she was not given the same kind of respect in covering a recent film festival as those still with printed publications. There is a former print film critic, who took a severance package shortly before the newspaper he was with folded, whose blog only covers films receiving theatrical release, never particularly provocative, as if he was still writing for the same general audience. As for that audience, there is a greater choice of films to be seen in one format or another, but encouraging people to look beyond the familiar choices is another matter.

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Samuel Fuller and Francoise Vatel in Brigitte and Brigitte (Luc Moullet - 1966)

Where Rosenbaum is most valuable, at least for me, is in discussing filmmakers I don't know about, like Pere Portabella, or filmmakers I have read about but haven't seen yet, like Luc Moullet. Possibly the best argument for film critics not writing about other film critics is a piece on Raymond Durgnat, with Rosenbaum's essay interrupted in part by Durgnat's responses, clarifying himself in some instances. What is best would be the pieces on films, filmmakers and even actors. The book acts in much the same way that I like communicating with others online about film, or reading their posts, in either looking at a film or an actor with a different set of eyes, or discussing a film that I might not have known about previously.

Best tidbit was reading that Carl Dreyer was given a movie theater in Copenhagen to run from 1952 by the Danish government. Among the movies that played at this top theater were Carmen Jones and East of Eden, as well as a revival of Gone with the Wind. According to Rosenbaum, Dreyer was able to live in relative security because of the movie theater. I'm not sure how well known this aspect of Dreyer's life was known outside of Denmark, or how or when Rosenbaum received this information. I have to regard this news with a sense of irony, based on how seemingly every other month, Herman G. Weinberg would wail about how philistine Hollywood would have the money to produce, for example, The Poseidon Adventure but wouldn't fork over anything for Carl Dreyer. Maybe Carl Dreyer proved to be pragmatic, and found a way to get support from Hollywood after all.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:48 AM

November 28, 2010

Coffee Break

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Marisa Berenson and Tilda Swinton in I am Love (Luca Guadagnino - 2009)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:08 AM

November 25, 2010

By the Light of the Silvery Moon

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David Butler - 1953
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

While most of the story in By the Light of the Silvery Moon does not revolve around Thanksgiving, the best part of the film, the first third makes this Doris Day musical holiday appropriate. A turkey named Gregory, not to be confused with any other turkeys named Gregory, has become the pet of Day's young brother, Wesley, played by Billy Gray. Wesley is so attached to Gregory that instead of taking the turkey to the butcher to be prepared for the Thanksgiving Day dinner, Gregory is freed, and an already prepared, but yet to be cooked, turkey is stolen. Wesley and the rest of the family are in for a surprise on Thanksgiving Day.

By the Light of the Silvery Moon is the sequel to a movie Doris Day and Gordon MacRae did two years earlier, On Moonlight Bay. Both films were adapted from the "Penrod" stories by Booth Tarkington, the guy virtually no cinephile ever talks about when they talk about The Magnificent Ambersons. It's been several decades since I've read any of the "Penrod" books, the misadventures of a teenage boy in small town Indiana, in the early part of the 20th Century. On Moonlight Bay is the better of the two movies because there is a tension between the nostalgia for small town America prior to World War I, and the acknowledgment by MacRae's character of the events beyond Indiana. There's a scene when MacRae jokes about the song, "By the Light of the Silvery Moon", saying that the writer had a glass of beer in one hand and a rhyming dictionary in the other hand. The first film treads the thin difference of feelings towards the past, where one might say they like something "because of" easily replacing "in spite of", where certain aspects of the past are acknowledged as corny, and perhaps more than a bit trite, but are still regarded with affection and humor.

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By the Light of the Silvery Moon displaces the few vestiges of Tarkington's observations in favor of whether or not Doris Day and Gordon MacRae will finally get together. MacRae returns soon after the Armistice, in time for Thanksgiving. His war experience consisted of arriving in Paris when combat has ceased. As much as he wants to marry Day, MacRae has made up his mind to be responsible and get himself established professionally and set aside a "nest egg" first. Day's offer to also go to work to get the couple on solid financial footing is rebuffed, much to Day's chagrin.

A more interesting film would have explored the conflict between tradition and more independent thinking. Day's character is first seen underneath the family car, getting dirty, doing repairs. Later Day repairs MacRae's car when it stalls on the road, coming home from a date. Even though Day does the actual work, MacRae makes a comment giving himself credit. These scenes are among those that contributed to the rediscovery of Doris Day in the mid Seventies as a proto-feminist. The film we have is more concerned about misunderstandings regarding a stolen letter, interpreted as a love letter between two unnamed people.

Aside from the episodes involving Gregory the turkey, the most inspired part of By the Light of the Silvery Moon again centers on Billy Gray as Wesley. A self styled detective inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Wesley writers his own story about his creation, Fearless Flanagan. Outwitting a grown up femme fatale and her three henchmen, Gray appears in his fantasy, a cute parody of detective stories. Gray was fourteen or fifteen at the time the film was made and not very tall. His character of Wesley in this film and On Moonlight Bay could be seen as establishing some of the template used for his best known role on TV's Father Knows Best.

There are probably some better Thanksgiving related movies than By the Light of the Silvery Moon. Without Billy Gray or Gregory, the film is lacks the sparkle of On Moonlight Bay. The only other bright moment is a pause from the story, allowing Doris Day one solo, performed alone. Whatever weaknesses there are in the narrative evaporate at the sound of Doris Day singing, something I dismissed when I was younger and thought of myself as being hip. It only took me the better part of my life and some knowledge of the life of Doris Day to give me something else to be thankful for.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:11 AM

November 23, 2010

Baba Yaga

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Corrado Farina - 1973
Shameless Region 0 DVD

A review of the the Strangers on a Train inspired Italian film, Designated Victim, got me interested in checking out the Shameless DVD label. The films might be of varying artistic aspirations and achievements, but the existence of such a small niche company is a reminder that film restoration and preservation isn't exclusive to the Criterion Collection. Not that the guys at Shameless are totally academic in their love of film. While there are no commentary tracks, there is a special subtitle track which periodically calls attention to points of interest regarding the making of the film. Effort is made to present the films in as complete a state as possible, even if means inserting excerpts obviously from other sources.

Shameless worked with Corrado Farina on this version of Baba Yaga, billed as Farina's final cut. It's been several years since I have seen any other versions so I can not do any comparison. What makes this version of interest is that it includes two shorts by Farina that are comic book related, Freud and Fumetti and Fumettophobia. Fumetti is the Italian word for comics, derived from the small clouds that held the characters' speech. The first short discusses the expression of sexuality in the comics created for an adult audience, specifically in regards to comic artist Guido Crepax. The second short is an impassioned argument that comic book reading is healthy for children and helps the develop imagination, as well as interest in other reading. There is also an interview with Farina, discussing the making of the film, from the casting, with Carroll Baker coming in at the last minute when Anne Heywood dropped out, to the clashes with the producers who re-edited the film, destroying the original negative in the process.

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Farina's film was inspired by the comics by Guido Crepax and his character, Valentina. The basic outline is that a legendary Russian witch, Baba Yaga, pursues photographer and girl about town, Valentina. But the story is not the movie. Anyone looking for logic will be frustrated. The reason to watch the film is for the images. Even when the images are not meant to invoke dreams, they are often dream like simply due to the canted angles or strangeness, be it the use of color, be it a pastel blue suit or Valentina's orange Mini, or even lack of color. When Baba Yaga's huge black sedan shows up at Valentina's door, and Baba Yaga explains that it's fate that brought her there, that's really all the explanation that's needed.

The opening sequence of a movie surreptitiously shot in a graveyard accomplishes in a few minutes what Marco Ferreri took an entire feature to do in Don't Touch the White Woman. Not only did Farina restage Little Big Horn a couple of years earlier, with a scantily clad Indian maiden as the first person we see, but the protest against American presence in Viet-Nam is unmistakable when one of the Indians burn an American flag. Farina incorporates several moments on politically commentary, such as a scene with some protesters that Valentina photographs, and another scene where a black male and a white female pose together for a modeling shoot. In retrospect, Farina's clear political sentiments within the framework of a genre film probably contributed to his being unable to film another feature.

Why most people would watch Baba Yaga still is primarily to watch Carroll Baker attempt to seduce Isabelle De Funes. Farina's original choice, Elsa Martinelli, would have physically been more perfect as Valentina. De Funes comes close with her oversized eyes and full lips, and Louise Brooks hair style. If De Funes name seems familiar, she is the niece of French star Louis de Funes. There is also the considerable presence of Ely Galleani as Annette, the literal living doll in bondage gear to provide an overdose of eye candy. Even as an inanimate doll, albeit one that has exposed breasts between the leather straps, Annette might well be the sexiest character in the film. Among the reasons for the heavy editing of this original film were due to the suggestions of lesbianism as well as two shots of full frontal nudity. There seems to have been no problem with the sado-masochist content. And in his interview, Farina is right, the women in Baba Yaga would cause teenage boys (of all ages) sleepless nights. (Personal aside, Farina knows what he's talking about. Even clothed, Carroll Baker played on my adolescent imagination just watching the tailer for Station Six-Sahara as well as the suggestive poster that featured in very large letters, the word "hot".)

What raises the film above the more exploitive fare it could have been is the care Farina took to duplicate Crepax's imagery. Several times, Farina cuts to high contrast black and white photography, stills that virtually duplicate what Crepax created with his drawings. Sometimes these images are extreme close-ups of Isabelle De Funes' eyes or mouth, the most cartoonlike parts of her face. Some of the color sequences appear to have been informed by the pop art of the time. While not always clearly visible, its worth taking in some of the surrounding artwork, such as posters for classic horror films outside of a movie theater showing The Golem. Unfortunately, Corrado Farina's sometimes surreal visions did not translate into box office success, which explains why this was only his second of two commercial movies. At a time when Hollywood is plundering almost every comic book, er, graphic novel, for inspiration, Baba Yaga should be studied for its use of color and composition, and a reminder that there is more than dark nights and Dark Knights.

* * *
And on a somewhat related note regarding film preservation, those who have neither a DVD label to call their own, or happen to be an A-list Hollywood director, can get in the game of saving a movie, or at least part of a movie. Shifting from a fantastic shade of yellow here to a more somber black, check out Marilyn Ferdinand and Farran Smith Nehme for the first details on rescuing a film noir classic.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:14 AM

November 21, 2010

Coffee Break

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Ricardo Darin in The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella - 2009)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:45 AM

November 18, 2010


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Fuk Sau
Johnny To - 2009
IFC Region 1 DVD

Until I had read this posting by Kimberly Lindbergs, I had no idea that Alain Delon was Johnny To's first choice to star in Vengeance. That To is a fan of Delon, particularly the films he did with Jean-Pierre Melville, will be no surprise to the who have read To's list of favorite films from the Criterion Collection. The character that Johnny Hallyday plays in Vengeance is named Francois Costello. Delon portrayed a hit man named Jef Costello. Did To hope for Delon to play a continuation of the same character? There is the possible suggestion that the two fictional characters are related, not only because of the shared family name, but also because To's Costello runs a restaurant in Paris called "Les Freres" (The Brothers).

Vengeance is still very much a Johnny To film, even with a French star shooting it up in Macau and Hong Kong. If you want to see a film much closer in spirit to Melville, let me suggest Donnie Yen's Ballistic Kiss with its brooding hit man. Aside from Hallyday, and Sylvie Testud as his daughter, the rest of the cast includes To's usual crew including Simon Yam, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, and the incomparable Lam Suet. The basic story is not too much of a variation on To's explorations of male camaraderie and loyalty.

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Costello comes from Paris to Macau after his daughter and her family have been shot by unknown gun men. The daughter, Irene, is the only survivor. From her hospital bed, she asks her father to take revenge on her behalf. Costello enlists three Chinese hit men, encountering them the kind of coincidence that could only happen in the movies. Ignoring some of the contrived situations that bring the characters together is made easier by some of the visual pleasures of Vengeance. Demonstrating his ability with a gun, Costello and the gang shoot at a bicycle seemingly propelled by the blaze of bullets nudging it forward. There is also a big gun battle outside a garbage dump, with both sides protecting themselves with huge bales of newspaper, push forward like giant blocks, appearing almost like large, crude mechanical devices from a distance, the flying paper debris adding an other worldly touch.

Costello is on the verge of losing his memory. He takes photos of his team to remember who they are, with their names on each Polaroid. Some of the implications of Costello's memory loss are not explored as deeply as they could have been. Johnny To's visual bravura usually succeeds even when Wai Ka-Fai's screenplay elides all manner of questions and plot holes. To seems to be borrowing from himself in a scene where Hallyday gets lost in a rainy night in Hong Kong, surrounded by scores of people with black umbrellas, a scene similar to one in To's far better Sparrow. Several scenes also revolve around eating, with Costello cooking a meal for his new Chinese friends, and a confrontation between rivals taking place at a barbecue. In a Johnny To film, you can almost count on the gang, if they are not going to shoot each, getting together around the dining table.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:55 AM | Comments (2)

November 16, 2010

Coffee Break

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Dana Wynter and Rock Hudson in Something of Value (Richard Brooks - 1957)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:57 AM

November 14, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

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Loong Boonmee raleuk chat
Apichatpong Weerasethakul - 2010
Strand Releasing 35mm film

I had made a point of seeing Uncle Boonmee theatrically while I had the opportunity. I would recommend the same to others. There are too many shots in the film that need to be seen on the big screen, the bigger, the better, to be understood.

One of the first shots is of a water buffalo, barely visible in the distance. A later shot in this first sequence of the loose water buffalo is of the animal barely visible, walking through the foliage. Throughout the film, Apichatpong uses extreme long shots so that the characters are in a sense, lost within nature. The themes of man, nature and animism are continuations explored in Tropical Malady, although it is more explicit in this film.

There is also a fantastic scene that takes place in a cave. Boonmee and two others go exploring in a cave for reasons only understood by Boonmee. They go at night, carrying a lantern for illumination. At one point, the lantern is lowered enough so that the walls of the cave a lit up just enough to resemble an extremely starry sky. This is a magical moment that no amount of computer generated special effects could ever match.

This is a contemplative film as has been stated before. What isn't discussed much is Apichatpong's sense of humor. The ape like creatures that appear with laser red eyes resemble variations of Chewbacca from Star Wars. One of the creatures is the reincarnation of Boonmee's late son. Introduced by Boonmee, while sitting at the family's outdoor dinner table, a worker protests, stating, "But that's a monkey". No matter. Family is family, whether it's a humanoid creature or a ghost.

I can't pretend to fully understand of of what Apichatpong was trying to relay in Uncle Boonmee. What I know and understand about Thailand and Thai culture fits into a thimble. There are political references that got by me. I have only the most general idea about some of the general culture of Northeastern Thailand, a culture that is rooted more deeply in geographic terms rather than any artificially set borders. When the film was introduced at the Starz Denver Film Festival, the person doing the introduction couched Uncle Boonmee in terms of a horror movie because of the presence of ghosts. I think I understand what he was trying to say, although it might have been expressed more accurately. My own lesson from briefly living in Thailand is that ghosts are not necessarily to be feared, you just have to learn how to live with them.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:27 PM | Comments (1)

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone


Lev Anderson & Chris Metzler - 2010
Pale Griot Films

I've been thinking about Everyday Sunshine since I saw it yesterday. For myself, the film raises more questions. Yes, the film is a documentary that rushes through the twenty plus years of the history of the band, Fishbone. But I think the real story is that the band is emblematic of bigger and broader ideas regarding popular music and black culture and identity in the United States. The person I would love to see analyzing this film and all of its possible meanings would be Nick Tosches as the writer who would be able to put it all together.

The documentary is an assemblage of concert footage, interviews with past and current members, and others with varying connections to the band. Most of the films is devoted to the sometimes rancorous relationship of founding members John Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore. The original founding of the group is played in cartoons of the band members when they met in high school, Fisher being the too cool kid, and Moore coming off as the smiling nerd from the suburbs. That part of the film provides a brief history of public school students bussed from South Central Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley. It may also be key in establishing that Fishbone, whether intended or not, was always a group of black musicians who functioned in primarily white milieus.

At the beginning of the film, narrator Laurence Fishburne (was he chosen for the Fish in his name?), mentions that one of the strengths and weaknesses of Fishbone was that the tried to operate as a democracy. This brought to mind something I had read about Buffalo Springfield, possibly on the liner notes of their first album, which if recall was, "Steve (Stills) is the leader, but we all are". It could well be that the nature of a rock band is to be combustible, or to be capable of setting the ego aside for long term benefits. The history of rock music is a history of variations of this particular story.

The music that Fishbone plays can't be called rock music in the traditional sense, but the combination of ska, free jazz, and a stage show that might be described as the punk rock equivalent to Spike Jones, couldn't fit any where else in a musical landscape that demands categorization. There were a couple other bands that briefly appeared, The Bus Boys and Living Color come to mind. Interestingly, Kevin O'Neal of The Bus Boys, and Vernon Reid, of Living Colour, both are members of the Black Rock Coalition. Reid also is one of the people discussing the influence of Fishbone on his music. Why this is important is because the film fleetingly discusses what might not be racism per se within the music business, but the difficulty of dealing with music that doesn't belong to easy to explain categories. Also, quite tellingly, the musicians that were inspired by Fishbone, that achieved the greatest financial success, are white.

There is a brief excerpt of Fishbone performing with Annette Funicello in Back to the Beach. I haven't seen the film since the year it came out, in 1987, but it provides some idea of Fishbone's manic energy in concert. Angelo Moore is the one with the mohawk, while John Fisher is the guy wearing lederhosen. That scene was the high point of that film, and always made me wonder about the reaction of those people who came in simply to see the onscreen reunion of Frankie Avalon with Annette. I suspect that Fishbone getting dropped by Sony had something to do with the music industry moving in a direction similar to the film industry, of being only interested in formula product that would result in big sales. Everyday Sunshine is primarily worth seeing as documentary about musical artists who doggedly maintain their sense of artistic integrity without regards to the more obvious rewards of fame and fortune.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:44 PM

November 13, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Made in Dagenham


Nigel Cole - 2010
Sony Pictures Classics 35mm film

There's a scene in Made in Dagenham where Sally Hawkins gets up in front of her co-workers to call for a strike. Maybe it's a fuzzy memory at work here, but a couple of the shots seemed to invoke another actress named Sally who led a strike of female workers, Sally Fields in Norma Rae. Any similarities are probably intentional. The film is based on a strike by 187 women who worked at the British Ford plant in 1968, a strike which effectively helped create a law regarding equal pay for women.

This is more feel-good movie than dialectic cinema, more entertainment than art, especially as there is no drama regarding the outcome. A sharper film might have been written by Peter Morgan, or directed by Ken Loach. What the film is primarily interested in exploring is the entrenchment of sexism in the workplace, both by the managerial team at Ford, both in Britain and in the U.S., and the initial lack of support given by the union that claimed to speak on behalf of all workers. As factual as the story may be, it seems to exist in a vacuum where the feminist movement is nowhere to be seen, nor is there any connection made with any of the other political activity of the day. There is a reference to the fashion revolution of the time, when Carnaby Street seemed to dictate fashion trends, with one of the younger workers, Sandra, proudly showing up wearing Mary Quant hot pants.

Where Made in Dagenham shines is in the acting. Most of the weight is carried by Sally Hawkins as Rita O'Grady, the initially reluctant strike leader, who tries to balance her commitment to her friends and co-workers, with maintaining a household with a husband, also a Ford worker, and two school age children. Bob Hoskins plays the mischievous union leader who truly supports the women, always averting his gaze when entering the factory during the hot days when the women work without shirts. It is Miranda Richardson as Barbara Castle, a member of Harold Wilson's cabinet, who steals the film, with her caustic remarks. Whether dealing with dimwitted underlings or negotiating with a Ford manager who threatens to shut down the factories rather than acknowledge the strikers' demands, Richardson is so eminently entertaining, one might hope to see her in a film about the real Barbara Castle.

One might also put a contemporary reading on the film for what it does present in the ways that management views labor, and how multinational companies exert their power. The political aspects to Made in Dagenham take a back seat to easy to recognize heroines and villains. The film begins on a small wave of nostalgia with vintage television ads for British Ford cars, and concludes with some documentary footage, some of it from the actual strike, as well as filmed interviews with some of the women who participated in the strike, older, but no less spirited. The film ends with almost obligatory, end credit title song, the kind that's placed in order to get a Best Song nomination for the Oscars. What makes this song of more interest is that the lyrics are by activist singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, a former resident of Dagenham, while the song is performed by Sixties pop star Sandie Shaw, herself a former employer, as a key punch operator, at the Degenham Ford plant.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:11 AM | Comments (1)

November 12, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Cold Weather

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Aaron Katz - 2010
IFC Films

Recently at Glenn Kenny's blog, "Some Came Running", Glenn ran a series of screen caps under the heading of "Mumblecore or Murder, She Wrote?". I didn't pay attention to the comment about Cold Weather at the time. Sometime later, when starting to sift through the films I wanted to cover at the SDFF, I was reminded that this is the newest film by Aaron Katz, a filmmaker given the mumblecore label. I liked Katz's earlier features, Quiet City and especially Dance Party, U.S.A. enough to take a look at his new film.

Genre labels short change this film. The initial premise is one that on the face of it seems generic, with a young man, dropping out of college where he studied forensics, working at an ice factory in Portland, Oregon. The young man, Doug, lives with his sister, Gail, hangs out with his co-worker, Carlos, and starts seeing his former girlfriend, Rachel. Nothing much happens between going to work, meeting at coffee houses, or going to a night club where Carlos has an occasional DJ gig. Carlos starts getting together with Rachel, until one night when Rachel seems to have mysteriously disappeared.

The fictional detective invoked here is Sherlock Holmes. In one of the film's lighter moments, Doug goes pipe shopping, hoping that smoking like the famed literary character will assist in his own powers of deduction. Of course it doesn't work that way. Later Doug pursues a shady character with a briefcase full of money. Or at least that's what is assumed to be in the briefcase. There is some mystery, and scenes of Doug and Gail unraveling a secret code. Still, the mystery aspect to Cold Weather is not entirely resolved as it would be in a more traditional narrative.

While the film is ultimately about Doug's relationship with Gail, it is also Aaron Katz's love letter to Portland. Only a person who really loves a city would take a cinematic journey all over town, not only in the more industrial and more out of the way places, but also into The Dalles and Cannon Beach. There are some picturesque moments, a scene of Doug and Gail gazing onto the Pacific Ocean, whale watching although no whales appear, and a shot of of neon illuminated Bagdad Theater at night. One striking shot is a slow zoom of Doug and Gail at a bridge by a waterfall.

It should be noted that this is a very handsome looking film, shot with the video RED camera. Katz works again with Chris Lankenau as Doug, but I suspect that it will be Trieste Kelly Dunn, the actress who plays Gail, who will be gaining more professional attention. The film score, by Keegan DeWitt, mostly guitar and a couple of other instruments which to my ears seems to incorporate Indonesian gamelan instruments, is quite inventive. For brief moments, there is just a touch of Bernard Herrmann during the more suspenseful moments. That the film has been picked up by IFC indicates the potential for wider exposure of this film. Where Aaron Katz will go from here is unknown, although this interview may offer some suggestions.

(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:57 AM

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - God's Land

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Preston Miller -2010
Vindaloo Philm-Wallah

The basic facts would seem ripe for condescending treatment of the people involved here. And some of the confusing and contradictory statements made by the group leader, Teacher Chen, in God's Land will no doubt raise eyebrows. And while the film does have its comic moments, it is a tribute to Preston Miller that he essentially respects all of his characters, no matter how wrong headed they may seem.

Even before it is brought up in conversation, the events in Waco with David Koresh are not too far from anyone's thoughts. The Hou family comes from Taipei to Garland, Texas to join Chen's group. Chen predicts that God will make his presence known on a certain cable television station, and that his followers will be leaving Earth for another dimension on a special space craft. Part of the drama is the waiting for what is suggested to be an apocalyptic event. But there is also the concern about what if Chen is wrong. Tension arises within the Hou family regarding the father, Ming-Tien, who believes that he has been called to be with Chen, his wife, Xiu, who expresses skepticism about the enterprise, and young son, Ollie, who is trying to find a place where he belongs. Throughout the film, those observing Chen's group from the outside seek reassurance that there are no plans for group suicide.

Chen's group does look odd, with their uniforms of white sweatshirts, white pants and white cowboy hats. They are certainly strangers in a strange land. Some of the shots of Dallas make the city appear as alien as Antonioni's Rome in L'Eclisse or Godard's Paris in Alphaville.

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It should also be noted that Miller has created the film almost totally with carefully composed shots, the camera moving perhaps a couple of times. A recurring visual motif is of extreme close-ups, the faces of the actors filling the frame, looking straight into the camera. At a time when too many filmmakers feel the need to move the camera, or explain everything with expository dialogue, Miller allows the camera to stay still, letting the camera roll while Jodi Lin, as the wife Xiu, looks in the mirror of her former home before leaving.

It is also this ability to just observe the action within the frame that creates two of the funniest moments within God's Land. First, the Hou family is sent to stay in a somewhat shabby motel. As soon as they enter, the young son, Ollie, takes to the bed, treating it as a trampoline, jumping merrily up and down, while the parents consider their current living situation. Also, quite funny, is a scene when Xiu's cousin, Maggie, comes home to find a news report about Chen's group on television. She calls for her off-screen husband to find a tape to record the news, rummaging for blank tapes, and getting into panic mode, popping in and out of the camera frame as the television broadcast continues. In Maggie's living room are a couple of pillows with American flag patterns. While in the scene at home, Maggie speaks Chinese, in a later scene when she meets Xiu, she speaks English with a decided Texan accent.

Chen's expression of faith, which incorporates elements of New Age and other religions, goes as far as having two of his children named Jesus and Buddha. Forming what might be considered a traditional counterpoint is the soundtrack, with songs by country singers Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams and Frankie Laine.

Prospective, and even some active filmmakers might want to take a look at the production diary by Preston Miller and producer Jeremiah Kipp. In spite of all the possible obstacles, this is both a good, and good looking, film.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Also thanks to the ever erudite Sheila O'Malley for alerting me to the links.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:24 AM | Comments (1)

November 11, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Fanny, Annie & Danny

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Chris Brown - 2010
CB Films

Will Fanny, Annie & Danny be a Christmas perennial like It's a Wonderful Life? Probably not. Even The Ref and Bad Santa offer more holiday cheer. But the truth is that the holiday season isn't the most wonderful time of the year. More often than not, I've observed it to be the most anxious time of the year, with a day that frequently ends with the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations.

Beyond the title, which might seem too cute, is a story of a dysfunctional family gathering together for Christmas dinner. Except that it's not Christmas Day or even Christmas Eve, but the week before Christmas, because the mother, Edie, can't handle celebrating Christmas on its calendar day. In introducing his characters, Chris Brown lets us know that each of them has some form of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Edie over decorates her house with not only the tree and presents, but a variety of nutcracker dolls throughout the house, and even holiday themed wash cloths in the bathroom. Fanny is first observed playing a recorder, erroneously called a flute in the group home she lives in, disturbing others by her insisting on practicing her songs at Six in the morning. As a dental assistant, Annie places the instruments just so, and constantly talks about her upcoming wedding to unemployed pothead Todd. Danny, sees nothing wrong with taking extra money, budgeted for the band he represents. This is about a family dynamic that is constantly combustible.

This is a comedy, by the way. And a frequently amusing one at that. Part of it is caustic and corrosive, with some of the insults that these family members fling at each other, but part of it is due to the recognition that this is sometimes how family members actually act. The name calling and incidents are part of the catalogue of human foibles that are never too quirky to have only been created a Hollywood screenwriter. There's the awful looking tuna casserole that accidentally gets dropped, the mean spirited dumping of the father's few remaining possessions from his time in Viet-Nam, the attention given to the favored child at the expense of the other siblings, among the series of hurts and injuries. Todd, the only non-family member with significant screen time, at first seems like a cliche, calling everyone "Dude", more concerned about staying high than looking for a job. Todd also manages to be one of the more endearing characters, probably because he's not a family member. When Annie smells what remains of what is claimed to be a very small morning toke, she tells Todd that he "smells like Cheech and Chong", a line that is simultaneously mean, true and laugh out loud funny.

Hopefully Fanny, Annie & Danny will have a life outside of film festival screenings. Chris Brown goes into some dark places most filmmakers and filmgoers would rather not bother with, but conversely think of all the so-called comedies that can barely elicit a smirk or a sneer, much less a chuckle or two. Brown works with local actors, including wife Jill Pixley, in the San Francisco area, and the film is shot in less recognizable locations in Tracy and Hayward. Especially at a time when the label "independent filmmaker" has almost lost its meaning, this is a film worth going out of the way to see should the opportunity arise.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:56 AM

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - A Family

a family.jpg

En Familie
Pernille Fischer Christensen - 2010
Zentropa Entertainment 35mm film

No dogme or dogma here. Pernille Christensen's film is about the combustible nature of a family, but also about the problems created when the circumstances change that informed certain life decisions. The family history is introduced in the beginning of the film, a family of bakers. These are Danes of Germanic heritage, family name of Rheinwald, so the men always have German names. The current head of the family, Richard, also has created a unique connection to Denmark, always proudly remarking that he is the purveyor to the royal family.

The film primarily centers around Richard, ill from cancer, and possibly dying, and his eldest daughter, Ditte. Considering an offer to work for a New York City based art gallery, Ditte is hesitant to leave her father when his health is uncertain. At the same time, Richard has to make some decisions regarding what happens to his bakery after his death, as there is no one in the family capable or interested in being in charge, or able to maintain certain traditions of quality. Complicating matters for Ditte is her relationship with her boyfriend, Peter.

The narrative covers the length of Richard's last days. During that time, the film also covers the shift in the various relationships between the six family members, as well as Ditte's relationship with Peter. There are also the changes in self-perception, as when the young son, known as Vimmer by the other family members, decides that he wants to be known by his proper name, Werner. What makes the film of interest are those aspects that might be considered universal, such as Ditte's attempt to decide what she wants to do in life, while trying to confront her father's expectations. As the father, Richard, Jesper Christensen gives a remarkable performance, seeming to gain health, and then deteriorate, right before our eyes.

This is the first film I've seen by Pernille Christensen. Her debut film, Soap is available on DVD in the U.S. Of interest is this interview from IndieWire.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:16 AM

November 10, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - The Smell of Lemon

smell of lemon 1.jpg

Profumo di Lumia
Joel Stangle - 2010

At the very least, I have to give young Joel Stangle credit for his sense of adventure. Basically showing up in Sicily with a video camera, some rudimentary knowledge of Italian, a script that was the basis for improvisation, and a cast of non-professional actors, Stangle has made a feature that indicates promise. Just the idea of a young American making a film in another country where he doesn't really speak the language seems like a recipe for disaster. That The Smell of Lemon played in a film festival in Naples should be an indication of how well Stangle succeeded.

Taking place during one summer in the small town of Scillichenti, thirteen year old Gioele hangs out with two friends, swimming, goofing off, and talking about girls. Gioele also dreams about finding a legendary stone that his young mother tell him will cause women to say yes to the man who finds that stone. By chance Gioele meets the girl of his own imagination, the somewhat older Ale, only to have her disappear when they part. Taking matters into his own hands, Gioele goes on a journey beyond his small town in search of the stone that he hopes will cause the two to be reunited.

smell of lemon 2.jpg

The strength of this film is primarily visual. Stangle has close-ups of flowers, a turtle, a small lizard, a drop of water slowly dripping down the leg of a girl. There are dream images, such as four girls, wrapped together in green cloth, posing as a kind of fruit tree. There is also the wonderful shot of a turtle nipping away at a rose. Several times, Stangle gives way to the soundtrack, Sicilian folk songs performed by Matilde Politi.

The basic story made me think of the films by Giuseppe Tornatore, primarily the worst aspects of such films as Cinema Paradiso and Malena. Between the coming-of-age story, and the excessive hand gestures of the actors, I sometimes felt like I was watching a second-hand version of a cliched concept of an Italian movie. Still, should Joel Stangle make another feature, I will be interested in seeing what he does next. What makes The Smell of Lemon memorable is when the images speak for themselves.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 04:03 PM | Comments (1)

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Carancho


Pablo Trapero - 2010
Strand Releasing

Maybe someone thought that lightning would strike twice for Argentina's entry for the foreign language film Oscar by having another film starring Ricardo Darin. It almost seems axiomatic Argentina's Oscar nominees star Darin. Carancho isn't a bad film. But among films I have seen with this estimable actor, it falls short of the more engrossing work such as Nine Queens, Son of the Bride, XXY, and winning Secret in Their Eyes.

Looking older and puffier than in previous films, Darin portrays a "carancho", a derogatory term that translates as "vulture". A more polite term might be "ambulance chaser", but these guys make their American legal brethren look like gentlemen in comparison. Taking advantage of the staggering number of accidents, primarily in the urban sections of Buenos Aires, these lawyers act on behalf of generally poorer and uninsured victims, negotiating claims that earn the firms roughly seventy-five percent, or more, of the payout. Keeping the money rolling in for themselves, these caranchos will go as far as staging accidents as way of getting some quick cash for those willing to play victim.

Darin's character of Sosa, is a lawyer who has been working for a so-called foundation for about ten years, dreaming of leaving that racket for a more respectable law practice. His reasons for working the seamier side of the law are never made clear. Sosa eventually gets involved with Lujan, a youngish doctor who works as the equivalent of an ambulance paramedic. In spite of her medical credentials, and what appears to be a perpetual shortage of doctors in Buenos Aires, Lujan is stuck taking care of emergency cases. Sosa is immediately attracted to Lujan, but their relationship takes unexpected turns when they become more professionally involved following an accident staged by Sosa.

Trapero's film is shot in a loose manner, with a hand held camera and what appears to be available light. Sometimes what is visible are extreme close ups of eyes, hands, parts of a face, with the surrounding areas out of focus. At times the actors are only partially visible on the side of the frame. One might read these kinds of visual compositions as Trapero's literally letting the viewer know how marginalized his characters are in their existence. The effect may be to say that the film is as much about Buenos Aires as it is about the lawyers, doctors, and accident victims, but that the city is the most elusive character, dominating the action, but impossible to fully grasp.

Most of the film presents a bleak view of humanity, with a conclusion that seems like the most obvious conception of karmic retribution. There is one scene that is darkly funny, with Lujan examining two men in an emergency ward. Both men are bloody and beaten, barely breathing. Hearing the voice of the second man, the first man kicks the portable stretcher, and the two men resume a brawl that apparently brought them into the emergency room in the first place. Carancho premiered at Cannes, where it has garnered some enthusiastic reviews. Also of interest is an interview done by blogging pal Michael Guillen.

(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:34 AM

November 09, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Little Rose


Jan Kidawa-Blonski - 2010
Monolith Films 35mm film

Beyond the historical interest of Little Rose are the questions raised about how identities are assumed or conferred, by oneself or by others. Just as the main characters have duel identities, so the film can be read in more than one way.

The film takes place in Poland following the aftermath of the Six Day War in which Israel fought against the surrounding Arab countries, winning decisively. The communist party has decided that use that event as a reason to purge Poland of Jews within any positions of authority, whether in the government or education. Kamila, a pretty young woman, is involved with the volatile, Roman, a member of the secret police. Knowing that Kamila is acquainted with a professor, Adam, suspected of being Jewish, and therefore a Zionist enemy, Roman recruits Kamila to spy on Adam. Kamila and the much older Adam renew their friendship, which eventually evolves into a deeper relationship.

Simply as a genre film, Little Rose can be thought of perversely as a twist on Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, one in which it turns out the Claude Rains is the genuine good guy, and Cary Grant is the one who can't be trusted. Not that Grant is thoroughly trustworthy in Notorious, but the basic setup is the same. The various unexpected twists and turns make this study of a romantic triangle as suspenseful as the best Hollywood classics.

But more than that are questions regarding national and personal identity. Is Adam in love with Kamila as she truly is, or how he imagines her? Why does Kamila continue to report on Adam's activities even when their relationship changes? The title refers to the nickname given Kamila, which also serves as her official nickname on behalf of the secret police.

From a strictly historical perspective, the film sheds some light on an aspect of Poland that was not fully known in the west during that time. At several points in the film, writer-director Jan Kidawa-Blonski cuts between historical reenactment and documentary footage, even finding actors who look like their real life counterparts. The original posters of the film feature star Magdalena Boczarska in almost all of her glory. And anyone who sees Little Rose simply for this star will not be disappointed by how much they see of this gorgeous blonde actress. At this time, Little Rose is only available for U.S. viewers if they can catch it on the festival circuit. For myself, this is one of those times when seeing a film with no knowledge beforehand certainly paid off.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:12 PM

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - A Somewhat Gentle Man


En ganske snill mann
Hans Petter Moland - 2010
Strand Releasing

I'm telling you right now that not only do I recommend this movie, but I additionally recommend that you watch the final credit scroll. Not that there's anything to look at, but the soundtrack has this deliciously daffy riff based on Tchaikovksy's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" that gets more abstract and jazzier as it progresses. The film has the kind of soundtrack that someone might think belonged to a Coen Brothers film beginning with Patsy Cline's "I Go to Pieces", a snippet of "Angel of the Morning", and most hilariously in the story of a former convict, Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law (and the Law Won". The only Norwegian music comes from a band, Jupiter with songs of unhappy love - sample lyrics, "You use to be thin as a willow/Now you are plump as a pillow".

Not that A Somewhat Gentle Man is entirely a comedy, but it is full of some very funny moments. What seems to interest Hans Petter Moland is creating films about people in absurd situations or in alien environments. When I first heard Patsy Cline on the soundtrack, it not only reminded me that Moland has worked quite well with English language films, Aberdeen and The Beautiful Country, but from the get go, this film could just as easily have been made in English, and with the same star, Moland's frequent collaborator, Stellan Skarsgard.

Released from prison for shooting the his wife's lover, Ulrik finds going straight a challenge. The small-time gangster he works for, Jensen, wants Ulrik to kill the man who identified Ulrik to the police. Jensen sets Ulrik up with a small apartment and a job as a mechanic, with Ulrik discovering gradually, and to his increasing discomfort, how the people in his small circle of acquaintances are related to each other. Ulrik also tries to reconcile with his now grown son.

Some of the humor comes in the form of some of the other characters - Ulrik's car mechanic boss who spouts out long winded homilies in a rapid monotone, and his landlady, a woman past a certain age, who shows up initially to deliver a cooked dinner for Ulrik, and in the least subtle or seductive manner pulls down her panties and lets Ulrik know what's expected of him. There's also a scene involving a tough guy, who is also a dwarf, with the normal sized men looking foolish. Moland even has, not truly Polish jokes, but some humorous references to Poland.

I hesitate to use the word quirky here because it's something of cliche, and because too many filmmakers create characters that are more annoying than endearing. The difference is that Moland seems to actually enjoy all of his characters in spite of their foibles or weaknesses. What happens in several of Moland's films is that the characters are forced by circumstances to discover aspects about each other that changes the relationship for the better. There have only been a couple of English language interviews with Moland, both several years old. A more recent interview has Moland neatly summing up the subject of A Somewhat Gentle Man by stating, "It’s pretty hard being a human being surrounded by nasty shits!".

(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 11:24 AM

November 08, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - An Evening with P. Adam Sitney

p adams sitney.jpg

About the above photo, that's P. Adams Sitney, as I knew him in the Seventies, when Anthology Film Archives first opened.

This year, the Denver Film Society honored P. Adams Sitney. Usually a filmmaker is the person to get the "Stan Brakhage Vision Award". Lest anyone reading think that someone is exploiting Brakhage's name, let me go on record as having seen Stan Brakhage and several of his films at previous Denver Film Festivals. I even remember the time that Stan Brakhage introduced Andrey Tarkovskiy's Andrei Rublev one year. In his introductory remarks, Sitney mentioned both Tarkovskiy and Brakhage, the first in a quote about how the artist shares of himself, the second because Sitney discussed his own relationship with Brakhage that lasted over several decades.

I have to acknowledge my own personal interest. P. Adams Sitney was one of my teachers at NYU, where he taught a class on what was then called "New American Cinema". What I also remember is that a favorite word of his was "hermeneutics". To try and put as simply, or perhaps as simple minded, as possible, this was understanding non-narrative films as a form of text, visual poetry. What I have kept from that time was being introduced to the paintings of Turner, Rothko and Still, comparing them with the films Brakhage was doing at the time that attempted to resemble what is seen in hypnagogic vision. I also took advantage of my access to films at the Museum of Modern Art to study Curtis Harrington's short film, On the Edge, writing a shot by shot analysis. Also, I still have my copy of Sitney's book, "Visionary Film".

The program presented by Sitney was of four films that created a sort of chronology of films and filmmakers that created a kind of chain of inspiration. First were films by Marie Menken, Glimpse of the Garden, a film that caused Stan Brakhage to change his own way of making films, and Arabesque for Kenneth Anger. Brakhage was represent by Hymn to Her, one of several films Brakhage made about his then-wife, Jane. The next two films were by Sitney's late wife, Marjorie Keller, The Answering Furrow and Herein. Sitney discussed how Keller made some of her films as responses to Brakhage's films, and how she had also worked as an assistant to Brakhage during the time he taught at the University of Chicago.

I can't really discuss the films because I really don't have the ability to clearly write about non-narrative cinema. Or more precisely, what ability I may have had in the past has been allowed to lapse. For myself, I do appreciate that the Starz Denver Film Festival still makes room for films that are neither commercial, nor exist for any other reason than visual expression.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:21 PM | Comments (2)

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Blue Valentine

Blue valentine.jpg

Derek Cianfrance - 2010
The Weinstein Company 35mm film

I could have probably waited for the inevitable unrated DVD version of Blue Valentine. At the time of this writing, The Weinstein Brothers are fighting the NC-17 rating given this film. By the end of December, when the film gets its theatrical release, we will know if the outcome, whether the film gets a limited release with the more restrictive rating, release as is with the "R" rating, or if scenes are trimmed to satisfy the MPAA. I don't think the problem is with the "NC-17" rating per se, but with the perception of that rating, conflating it with pornography. There are a host of other films that aren't intended for children and shouldn't be seen by children. Jack Valenti had his heart in the right place when the rating system was created. What he didn't count on was the assumption by an audience of dunderheads that just because a film is rated "R" and one could take the kids to said film, you should be taking them, no matter how young. Yes, there are several scenes of sex in Blue Valentine, but they are not erotic nor are they meant to be erotic.

Blue Valentine did make me think of French films, with the subject of "l'amour fou" as well as Jacques Rivette's epic length film with that title. Also, it may be impossible to think of the fractured chronology, perhaps designed to mirror the fractured relationship chronicled, with Alain Resnais. But this story, about a working class couple, takes place primarily in Brooklyn, rather than Paris. I don't want to be dismissive of work that was clearly of labor of love about the labor of love, that is, the work in maintaining a relationship, but Blue Valentine is not a successful film for me. I do appreciate that Cianfrance and company have made the effort to make a film doesn't conform to the usual formulas, either.

I might have to see the film again, simply because the venue for the film was not a movie theater, but an auditorium fitted with a screen. Maybe it was where I sat, but some of the dialogue was unclear, which did not help. What also got in the way for me was that I never felt convinced about the relationship between Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, the young couple that get together at Gosling's insistence, and finally fall apart. On the other hand, little Faith Wladyka, the five year old who plays the daughter of Williams and Gosling, acts up a storm. Not only does she look somewhat like Williams' daughter with her round face, with brown hair suggesting that Gosling might be her biological father, but her relationship with her screen parents is more palpable than what the two stars share with each other.

One scene where Cianfrance got it exactly right is when Williiams and Gosling are on the Brooklyn Bridge. Gosling climbs the fence, threatening to jump over, while Williams talks him back down. Words of reconciliation are followed by more anger and misunderstandings. In a well framed two shot, the camera tracks back with Williams in the foreground, walking towards the camera, while maintaining Gosling standing in the background, banging his hands against the fence. Blue Valentine has a few visually inspired moments, just enough to hope that given the opportunity, Derek Cianfrance can create a film that is the equal of his ambitions.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:27 PM

November 07, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Poetry


Lee Chang-dong - 2010
Kino International 35mm film

It seems in keeping with Poetry being a film that is in part about words would win for best screenplay at Cannes. Poetry is about words, and Poetry is often about words, and sometimes the lack of words, verbal and written language. With that title for this film, this is probably a given. What is interesting for me is that Lee has chosen to focus on Mija's pursuit of expressing herself through words when most filmmakers would center on her relationship with grandson.

At this points I have only seen three of Lee's films, Green Fish and Oasis being the other two. What is interesting for me are some of the thematic elements, of characters who would probably be considered peripheral in most films, who usually live marginal existences, in out of the way places. Even Green Fish, somewhat the most conventional of Lee's films, about a young man out of the army who seeks to climb the ranks of a crime family, alternates with the main characters real family, living outside of the city, with the brother who has cerebral palsy. The brother is treated lovingly, with warm humor. Oasis goes further in having one of the main characters be a young woman with cerebral palsy, played so convincingly by Moon So-ri. In Poetry, Mija is an older woman who gets by with government checks and a part time job as a maid, primarily cleaning after an infirmed older man who may have suffered a stroke. One of the other elements consistent with Lee's films is his portrayal of women, often subject to emotional, if not physical, abuse.

The span of the film covers the month from when Mija decides to take a class on writing poetry, until the end of that month, when her poem is due. She is seen forgetting words on occasion, stumbling around to describe a bus station for a cabbie. A visit to a doctor confirms early stages of Alzheimer's. Mija constantly asks various poets she encounters about where poetic inspiration comes from and how to recognize it, unable to see the poetry she does write in describing the discovery of fallen apricots found on a farm, or the chirping of birds.

Mija's relationship with her grandson, Wook, might be considered symbolic of the way men, or at least these group of men, view women. Indolent, sullen and indifferent just seem to scratch the surface for Wook, the high school age grandson, looked after by Mija, while his mother lives in Busan. Sleeping, eating and hanging out with his friends are all that matters for Wook. That he participated in the rape of a classmate who killed herself makes no difference. One of Wook's friends reportedly dismissed the activity that drove the young woman to suicide by stating she was short and plain. While one of the fathers of the other boys (and we never see the mothers) seems more enlightened when he asks if the boys' actions would have been any less justified had the girl been tall or pretty, he proves insensitive to Mija's predicament. To avoid scandal for the other parents and the school, the mother of the victim agrees to a financial settlement. The amount for each of the six parents is about $4,500, more money than Mija could easily afford or have access. As woman, Mija is expected by the men to be the one to apologize for the acts of the boys. As in his other films, Lee criticizes notions of class and gender in Korea.

The film ends with Mija's poem, first read by her teacher, with Mija's voice taking over, concluding with the voice of the young woman who killer herself, the source of inspiration for Mija's "Song of Agnes". It is an emotionally overwhelming ending for the film. Much of the film's success is due to Yoon Jeong-hee, brought out of professional retirement by Lee specifically to play the part of Mija. Mija is the actor's real given name. How much of the screen character was influenced by the woman who plays her may be the subject for further exploration. Where Mija and Yoon Jeong-hee intersect is in this statement from an interview, "Who doesn't like flowers? And for me, my heart doesn't pound, I scream in joy."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:17 AM | Comments (1)

November 06, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - The Black Panther


La Pantera Negra
Iyari Wertta - 2009
Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica 35mm film

Watching The Black Panther made me think about a quote by Martin Scorsese about Mario Bava, essentially that there is no story but lots of atmosphere. The Black Panther is that kind of film, that begins with a story, but goes off in various crazy tangents, until at the end of the film. The premise for the story, the search by cut-rate gumshoe Nico Beamonte for something or someone call The Black Panther turns out to be what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin of the first order. As soon as The Black Panther is revealed, it's virtually ignored or forgotten by everyone. Iyari Wertta's debut feature might be understood better as a dream about movies. There is a wisp of a story, but what is remembered are series of sensational images.

The images primarily recall Mexican films from the Fifties and Sixties. Possibly specific films are recalled, but my knowledge of Mexican films is admittedly slight. Still, I did some "homework" by seeing one film starring Pedro Infante. In The Black Panther, it turns out that Infante has not died in an airplane crash, but has been cryogenically preserved. Unfrozen, Infante stumbles out of the lab, but soon enough is found singing in some small cantina, again charming the ladies with his songs celebrating his sexual conquests.

Nico Beamonte discovers the newly revived Infante by following the daughter of a mysterious character, The Gringo. The gringo's blonde daughter is the lover of a sultry brunette whose body is now possessed by the spirit of a creature from outer space. Pedro Infante is such a charmer that lesbians can't resist him either. The three go off to a graveyard where the gates open by themselves. The three walk into Infante's tomb, and down candle lit stairs where music is pounding. We never see where those stairs lead to, so it could be a disco, or hell, or both. And that creature from outer space that Beamonte shoots dead? The monster is slimy, ugly, and has multiple eyes, exactly what might be expected from the dubbed Mexican creature features that found their way north of the border courtesy of K. Gordon Murray. About the only thing not found in Wertta's genre mash-up is El Santo, the masked wrestler.

Forget the story, though. The film should be viewed on the most visceral level, as a series of beautifully composed black and white images. The chicly dressed woman with the two dogs, one black, one white, driving around in the imposing black car. The empty streets at night, the shot of the hands of two children with fingers entwined, the women dressed in form fitting black outfits make up some of the images that are remembered. Wertta also uses some of the visual style of his predecessors, framing the actors with close ups to disguise the minimum sets. Wertta may have summed up this film best by stating "my film is about imagination and beautiful and crazy things."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:58 PM

November 05, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Come Undone


Cosavogliodipiu/What More do I Want
Silvio Soldini - 2010
Film Movement

Several times in Come Undone, characters refer to the recession. While no one is in poverty, there are reminders of how expensive day-to-day living can sometimes be, and that finances can be easily upset by things like a child's ballet lessons, or replacing the boss's bottle of champagne. Near the end of Come Undone, one of the pair of lovers tells the other that money decides everything. It is money, or more precisely, those parts of life that are more secure and certain that determine the lives of virtually everyone in Soldini's film.

The film takes place primarily in Milan, yet it could take place almost anywhere. Soldini establishes a universe of people who live in anonymous apartments. Anna works for an insurance company, while her husband, Allesio, runs a small leather goods shop and does repairs on the side. They have what appears to be a settled life of meeting with friends and relatives, quiet nights of watching television. There is some talk of having a child, inspired by the birth of a baby nephew. A fling with a caterer who made a delivery to Anna's office becomes an obsessive relationship between Anna and the married Domenico. The film alternates between Anna and Domenico, both trying to keep up appearances for their respective spouses and families, and find time for each other.

While Soldini makes a solid argument for how money, or the lack of it, can influence some of the bigger choices in our lives, where Come Undone does not work is in convincing us why any of the characters might be in love with each other. On a superficial level, there is a degree of excitement that Domenico may offer Anna, being more conventionally attractive, and of Arabian descent, as opposed to the reliable Allesio, a large teddy bear of a man. This lack of conviction stands in sharp relief when one compares the performance by Alba Rohrwacher as Anna to her role as Tilda Swinton's lesbian daughter in I am Love, where she more effectively conveys her passion simply with her voice, such as when a letter is read in voiceover.

A more youthful appearing Rohrwacher can be seen in Soldini's previous film, Days and Clouds. Chronicling the relationship of a seemingly successful couple that, yes, comes undone, when the husband is unemployed, the earlier film is more convincing in conveying the love that keeps Margherita Buy and Antonio Albanese together, as well as the anxiety that tears them apart. Rohrwacher plays the rebellious daughter of Buy and Albanese, who like the character she would play later in I am Love, finds happiness following her own path. There is nothing wrong with filmmakers revisiting themes. But also choose the guarded optimism of Days and Clouds over the resignation that concludes Come Undone.

(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:05 AM

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Erratum


Marek Lechki - 2010
Harmony Films/Polish Film Institute

I wasn't to certain if I understand what the word "erratum" means, but I came upon this record label, which sort of fits in with the film. The main character, Michal, has been identified as a former musician. Until he walk into this large, cavernous building, there is no indication of what kind of music he played. It turns out that the band he founded, and left, plays some kind of music that can't rightfully be called jazz, and to call it experimental might belie the obvious structure and formal qualities that feature several atonal instruments. Erratum is kind of like the music in that scene, in that the narrative loosely follows a structure, even when nothing markedly dramatic happens.

For the flimsiest of reasons, Michal, an accountant, is asked by his boss to pick up a specially ordered car and drive it back. The car is in the town where Michal grew up. Whatever feelings Michal may have about the town do not include nostalgia. Michal is urged by his wife to see his father. The idea of tenuous family bonds family bonds are already indicated by Michal's relationship with his own family. There is already a sense that Michal's going to his old home town is not a good idea. Michal's plan to simply take the train to town, pick up the car, and drive overnight to deliver the car, are tossed aside by a road accident.

What follow are a series of events where Michal is forced to reconnect with his father, his former best friend, and a friend of the family. Parallel to this is Michal's taking on for himself to discover the identity of the derelict he has hit by accident, connecting a man whom no one can clearly identify, discovering that man's family, and his past. There are no revelations, or tearful reconciliations to be found here. Erratum might be said to be more about simply making peace with one's past, including all mistakes.

There isn't much at this time to be found on Marek Lechki at this time. That will probably change soon. Erratum has been racking up awards not only in native Poland, but also more recently in film festivals in Chicago and Pusan. This is Lechki's first feature. In a film where several of the characters are, or were, musicians, I did find out that Lechki has also had a history of playing what has been described in Polish Wikipedia as alternative music. Perhaps approaching Erratum as a somewhat abstract musical work may be best for this film. In this way, the viewer is like Michal, surrendering expectations and allowing things to reveal themselves at their own pace.

(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:42 AM

November 04, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Audrey the Trainwreck


Frank V. Ross - 2010
Zero Trans Fat Productions

I jumped into this film blind. I didn't even read the festival synopses. All I knew was David Lowery, who made last year's terrific St. Nick, served as cinematographer here. How little did I know? Well, there's no one in the film named Audrey, so don't try looking for her. For a while I also was thinking that the film was kinda, sorta, vaguely like what was, and might still be called, mumblecore. Then, at the end, I saw Joe Swanberg's name in the credit and thought to myself that I some weird way I might be psychic.

Would it be laziness on my part to think that there was the influence of Robert Altman. Frank Ross has several scenes with two or more conversations going on, sometimes with the main characters in the background. The camera sometimes darts in and out catching details - a lone egg in a refrigerator, a banana peel on the floor, the back of a young woman's head. The beginning of the film almost feels like barging in on someone else's party - you happen to be there, there's nothing else to do, so you observe the action and come to your own conclusions about what's going on.

The film is about the routines that comprise our lives, or at least those of us who do jobs that are essentially based on routines. Not just the hours of showing up for work, but also picking up coffee at a certain convenience store, lunch with coworkers, meeting friends at a certain bar, or an internet arranged meeting at a certain coffee house. The main character, is a youngish man named Ron, whose routine is briefly disrupted by an errant dart that gets caught in his back. It is the accidents - the dart, a blown tire, a bloody nose - that are the high drama of the lives of the characters in this film, not unlike our own lives at times.

This is the first film I've seen by Frank V. Ross. Of interest is this interview done with Goatdog about seven years ago. With Anthony Baker as his chief muse, Ross has made a handful of features, either extremely low budget or even no budget. This is the kind of film that defies easy classification not simply because it doesn't hew to any genres, but is instead, an observation of daily life. Maybe not everyone's daily life, but still recognizable. In one scene, Ron gets into an argument with a building contractor who feels that what he does is more meaningful than Ron's office work. What Frank V. Ross understands is that while we may feel personally ambivalent about the jobs we have, what we don't want is someone else making value judgments about what me do to get through the day.

(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:26 AM

November 03, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - When We Leave

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Die Fremde
Feo Aladag - 2010
Olive Films

There are so many films playing at the Starz International Film Festival. My own coverage reflects a combination of films available as DVD screeners, screenings, entreaties by filmmakers, persuasions by the writers who describe the films on behalf of the festival catalogue, and my own interests and biases. By the time I'm done, some might ask, as I sometimes ask myself, why I saw one film when there were others that might have been other worthy (or worthier) choices. It's a chance everyone takes with a film festival this big. In any event, I feel it necessary to publicly thank my BFF (Best Festival Friend), PR maestra Tammy Brister, for all she has done to make it possible for me to cover the film festival this year.

* * *

One of the films to put in the "must see" category of this years Starz Denver Film Festival is Germany's entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Not because the film is a possible nominee, as if that was ever a reliable gauge of quality. When We Leave is for the most part both a quiet film and quietly effective film, with an ending managed to catch me by surprise. Even when the film's concept may read like a set of cliches, I was not prepared for a conclusion that packs an emotional punch.

Feo Aladag's film follows Umay, a young mother who takes her five year old son with her from Istanbul to Berlin, leaving behind a physically abusive husband. Umay hopes to live with her parents and family, only to find that cultural traditions regarding the role of the husband are as cemented in Germany as they are in Turkey. Umay's parents seek to return the son, Cem, back to his father. Umay's refusal to abide by cultural traditions makes her an outcast to her family, bringing dishonor in the eyes of other members of Berlin's Turkish community. Umay's employer at the restaurant where she works even says as much, that for all of Umay's hope and wishes for reconciliation, community will be chosen over family.

Throughout much of the film was for me a sense of space, of a kind of emptiness, both a physical and emotional distance between people. Part of this is achieved with the scenes taking place in rooms that are barely furnished, or on deserted streets and roads. The English language title refers to a discussion Umay has with Cem, about leaving something as a form of remembrance at the homes where they have stayed. The original German title translates as "The Strangers" which has greater reverberations. Umay is a stranger in Turkey, speaking German, and concepts that would be considered more European, but as one of Turkish descent is considered an outsider in Germany. Add to that her alienation from a family that can only accept her within limited terms because of her gender. When Umay asks her father about an uncle who is admired for his independence, her father is unable or unwilling to explain why this is not allowed of Umay. Umay's family can also be said to be strangers, responding in ways not expected either by Umay or the film viewer.

There may also be allusion to Albert Camus at work here. Camus's famous novel is titled "Der Fremde. That could be a case of literally reading too much here. What I see are various inversions based on the cultural dynamics, the gender of the main character, and how that main character responds in the role of the stranger. The obvious difference is that while Camus' character of Meursault is seemingly passive in response to various outside influences, Umay is constantly in conflict with only intermittent respite.

Feo Aladag discussed We We Leave in this interview, worth noting in part not only because the filmmaker explains what motivated her to make the film, but also how the film has been received in Turkey and remarkably, Pakistan, the country noted for the high number of "honor killings". Mention should also be made of Sibel Kekilli, the actress who plays Umay. Kekilli is probably best known for also staring in Turkish-German filmmaker, Fatih Akin's, Head-On, playing a young women of similar independent bent, if much more hedonistic. When We Leave is scheduled for theatrical release early next year, and will hopefully get the kind of exposure it deserves, with or without the blessing of an Oscar nomination.

(Viewed as DVD screener)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 01:22 AM

November 01, 2010

Shinsengumi Chronicles

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Shinsengumi Chronicles: I Want to Die a Samurai
Shinsengumi shimatsuki
Kenji Misumi - 1963
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Between this film, Samurai Vendetta last month, and more from the Sleepy Eyes of Death series coming soon, AnimEigo is showing lot of love for Raizo Ichikawa. For myself, I would hope to see a subtitled DVD release of an earlier film starring Ichikawa, Conflagration by Kon Ichikawa (no relation), from the novel by Yukio Mishima. As for films the actor Ichikawa made with director Kenji Misumi, an aspect ratio correct DVD of Buddha, the first Japanese film shot in 70mm, could be of interest. Of the many films starring Raizo Ichikawa, possibly the hardest working actor at Daiei Studios, Shinsengumi Chronicles lingers in the mind for its portrait of a way of life about to collapse.

There is an irony to the title as the characters are not samurai, but members of a paramilitary group that was open to men who not of the samurai class. Taking place beginning in 1863, a somewhat fictionalized account of a part of Japanese history, the film has some contemporary reverberations. At a time when the Tokugawa shogunate was at war with factions seeking more direct rule by the royal family, the Shinsengumi acted on behalf of the shogunate, periodically stepping over civil authority. The film raises the question about what is meant by patriotism, as both sides would claim to be acting on behalf of Japan, while causing hardships for the civilians caught in the middle. The Shinsengumi also proclaimed themselves to be followers of the rules of Bushido, yet several members would break those rules, a reminder of Lord Acton's principle regarding the corrupting influence of power.

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Ichikawa plays the part of Susumu Yamazaki, presented here as a young man seeking meaning in his life. Convincing the leadership that he has the will and necessary fighting skills to be part of the Shinsengumi, Yamazaki gradually sees the widening gap between the professed ideals of the organization, and the actions of the leaders who act out of self interest, contradicting the rules, and covering up for each other. Isami Kondo, the swordsman who inspires Yamazaki to join the group is shown as easily pliable and manipulative, organizing the deaths of two of the founders of the Shinsengumi for their infractions, and ready to make Yamazaki the fall guy for the actions of others. Yamazaki's friend, and would be lover, Shima, provides bookends to the action. A doctor, she witnesses the crucifixion of a declared traitor by the Shinsengumi at the film's first scene, while the final scene is of her watching Yamazaki march away with the Shinsengumi, his heart hardened by the hypocrisy of the leadership, yet desperately holding on to that vestige of self-identity in spite of that knowledge. Shima is helpless in either healing her country or the man she loves.

Without the introductory titles or knowledge of the history of Japan, one might be hard pressed to identify when the action of Shinsengumi Chronicles takes place. I might be reading more than intended, but one scene encapsulates the impending end of an era. Kondo is seen being photographed. Within one shot we see several men, in traditional Japanese dress of kimonos, with classical artwork in the background. Within this scene is a camera, a new invention from the west, that provided a new means of creating and preserving images. It would only be a few short years before more western technology would appear in Japan, followed by even greater changes in the wake of the Meiji Restoration.

The DVD supplements include the extremely helpful notes regarding the historical background for the film's story, plus additional notes explaining part of the dialogue. Among the several trailers for other AnimEigo DVDs is one for the 1969 film, Shinsengumi. Between that film and Shinsengumi Chronicles, one could debate one the differences between the two actors playing Isami Kondo, Toshiro Mifune and Tomisaburo Wakayama. Even if Shinsengumi Chronicles is not one of Kenji Misumi's top films, it still is indicative of the director's consistent craftsmanship. As Robin Gatto for Midnight Eye, perceptively wrote: "Misumi's true nature is to be found in a clear contrast between poetry and nihilism."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:27 AM