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June 30, 2011

Joi in the Morning

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I haven't seen the new Transformers movie. And for all I know, Rosie Huntingon-Whitely may be a very nice person. As an actress, the reviews have been less than encouraging. I never even knew what RH-W looked like until I checked out this post by Glenn Kenny. My reaction to RH-W was, "meh". Posted here for your possible pleasure, with a somewhat similar facial expression, is Joi Lansing in Queen of Outer Space, a science fiction film made with a budget equivalent to Michael Bay's lunch money. And this, my friends, is what a science fiction babe, is suppose to look like.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:40 AM | Comments (3)

June 29, 2011

All about Love

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Duk haan chau faan
Ann Hui - 2010
Vicol Entertainment Region 3 DVD

What is evident about All about Love is Ann Hui's love of urban Hong Kong. Unlike the majority of her peers, Hui has not made films in mainland China, nor are her films designed to appeal to the mainland audience. Some of the opening shots have some resemblance to Johnny To's own love letter to Hong Kong, Sparrow, with the series of shots of the narrow streets, often connected by steeps flights of steps, and the piano and violin duo, giving parts of the film something of the casual feel of a free wheeling French film. Hui's Hong Kong is a combination of crowded street markets, small neighborhood bars and restaurants, and glitzy skyscrapers, both ethnic Chinese and international.

Fran Martin's book, Backward Glances: Contemporary Chinese Cultures and the Female Homoerotic Imaginary, discusses love between female school girls as the basis for many narratives, both in film and literature. Most of the relationships in these stories, whether sexual or intensely platonic, are between adolescent girls, with the relationships ending when the girls leave the all female environment of school. Many of the narratives cited by Martin involve one of the characters looking back at the past, at a "lost love" that might have continued if not for demands of family, society, or one's own sense of identity. Hui's film might be considered a response to that genre, presenting new possibilities for women in love with each other. There are several breaks from the film narrative where we see pen and ink drawings of a girls' school, including some images of two girls sharing intimate moments together. While there is nothing in the film by way of an explicit explanation, there is sufficient suggestion that Hui's two main characters, Macy and Anita, may have initially begun their relationship as students in such a school. It is also through these pen and ink drawings that Hui is able to connect the film with the kind of framework more familiar to Chinese language filmgoers.

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Macy and Anita are former lovers who see each other for the first time in about a dozen years at a meeting for pregnant women. Both are still single, and neither cares to define themselves with labels, veering between relationships with both men and women. At a meeting with a small group of lesbian friends, when push comes to shove, Macy states to the women who prefer unambiguous identities, "You're marginalizing bisexuality. How's that different from heterosexual hegemony?". Hui has almost always been a socially committed filmmaker, and occasionally this film gets bogged down in polemics, only to get buoyed back up with the series of street scenes.

Macy, a lawyer, finds herself pregnant by a former client, a married man. Anita discovers that her one night stand was with a young man not even 20 years old. Both women are well into their Thirties, and the ticking of their respective biological clocks is loud. In addition to making sense of their rekindled relationship, Macy and Anita have decisions to make about their respective pregnancies. Complicating matters is that both women are pursued by their male lovers, often oblivious to the idea that the women have eyes for each other.

The film's Chinese title translates as "Leisurely Fried Rice". And in some ways, that is a more accurate description for the film, especially as some of the best moments are of the characters just poking along on the streets without any pressing need to get from one place to another. When Macy and Anita first get together again, the two take a walk to Anita's apartment,guarded by the recording of a barking dog, only to walk together back to Macy's building, deciding to walk back to Anita's a second time. In Hui's Hong Kong, there are few level paths, with the city streets representing the frequent ups and downs of the characters' lives.

I haven't seen other films written by Yee Shan Yeung, but from her brief filmography, she seems to specialize in films about romantic entanglements. Yee's most recent film has the English language title of Hi, Fidelity. Does anyone know if Sandra Ng and Vivian Chow knew each other at St. Stephen's Girls College? It could well be possible as the women are only two years apart in age. All about Love marks Vivian Chow's return to the screen after a fourteen year absence. Among Chow's earlier films is Tom, Dick and Hairy, directed by Peter Chan, Sandra Ng's husband. There is the sense that the two women have been longtime friends in real life based on the ease they have with each other, displaying affection including a shared bubble bath. Hui plays on the more obvious feminine appeal of Chow, who in her older films epitomized the ideal young female. Ng's appearance is could be described as tomboyish, more to serve her role as lawyer who is serious about her work, rather than as a statement about sexual identity. Maybe I'm reading too much in the finale with the two stars dancing the tango as a nod towards another Hong Kong film about two male lovers in Argentina, although it is Ng and Chow who are happy together.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:25 AM

June 27, 2011

The Fish Child

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El Nino Pez
Lucia Puenzo - 2009
Peccadillo Pictures Region 2 DVD

I think it would be difficult for Lucia Puenzo not to make a movie that would not live up to expectations following her debut of XXY. Even without the surrounding family drama, there was tension simply in the premise of the coming to terms of sexual identity for an intersex teenager. Puenzo let the viewer discover the truth about Alex as the film progressed, letting some of the more unexpected scenes speak for themselves.

Unlike the straight forward narrative in XXY, Puenzo opts to reveal her characters through flashbacks, with Lala reflecting on her relationship with the maid, Ailin, while traveling towards the destination that she believes holds her future. The two young women are about the same age, around 20 years old. That they are lovers provides some motivation for their actions, yet is not the focus of the film. Even though Lala says that she only had eyes for Ailin when first seen at age 13, what seems to really bring the two together is not so much erotic attraction as much as the alienation that they feel towards their own families, particularly their respective fathers.

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Puenzo's film is taken from her novel of the same title. I didn't know until recently that Puenzo is the daughter of filmmaker Luis Puenzo, director of the Oscar winning The Official Story. That Puenzo first established herself as a novelist might be interpreted as a way of expressing herself artistically in a way that is understood as being the act of one person, and in a different medium. And while I have seen both feature films by Lucia Puenzo and two by Luis Puenza (the other being the undervalued Old Gringo), what seems to link the two as filmmakers is an interest in questions of identity, whether it's personal, familial, or political.

For Lala, the notions of home and family would seem tenuous. The father, a judge, seems to have been forcefully retired for unstated political reasons. The mother's identity rests on her participating in international running events. The son lives at what is described as a farm, a somewhat remote place where he raises attack dogs on behalf of some of the elite of Buenos Aires. Lala's desire is to jettison her privileged background to runaway with Ailin, who has a house maid from Paraguay of is an outsider based on class and nationality. There is also the racial distinction to by made as Ailin is of Guarini decent, the indigenous people primarily from Paraguay. Ailin has also left her home and family, becoming a maid in part to support herself, but also as an act of rebellion against her own middle class background.

Part of the film plays on the cultural connections of Paraguay and Argentina by having Arnaldo Andre, a Paraguayan by birth, but a major star in Argentina, play a small role as a retired actor, Ailin's father. Also, a scene involving the conflicts between Lala's feelings towards Ailin, and Ailin's more fluid sexuality takes place during a concert of the Paraguayan band Los Potrankos. The title refers to Lake Ypoa in Paraguay, and a legendary being that grants miracles provided with offerings found attached to underwater trees. Certainly, Ines Efron, who played Lala, as well as the lead character in XXY is someone I should see in other films, notably Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman where she has a supporting role, and Daniel Burman's Empty Nest. In her two performances for Puenzo, Efron demonstrates a fearlessness that many of her Hollywood peers could learn from. Puenzo should also be cited for her own fearlessness, as this interview indicates, in making a film that in no way indicates the difficult conditions in which it was made.

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More GLBT Cinema is to be found at Garbo Laughs.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:47 AM | Comments (1)

June 26, 2011

Coffee Break

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Essy Persson and Anna Gaei in Therese and Isabelle (Radley Metzger - 1968)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:47 AM

June 23, 2011

StreetDance 3D

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Max Giwa & Dania Pasquini
Happy Home Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Watching a DVD with the 3D glasses didn't quite work for me. These were the old fashion kind with a green lens and a red lens, and made for someone with a smaller head. There's also sitting in just the right place, and the fact that I need to wear glasses in order to watch any movie in focus. Still, for the price of seeing a 3D movie in a theater, I think I got a pretty good deal with a Thai two disc set and two sets of glasses, with the second disc being the 2D version of this British dance film. (And for those concerned about region coding, keep in mind that my Macbook is set for Region 1, and I had no problem creating the screencaps. The British R2 version is very reasonably priced, with both the 3D and "flat" version, and four sets of red/green glasses.)

I found out about StreetDance by accident. A website I look at had a link to a post by Jasper Sharp. If you never heard of the film, well it was a big international hit, except for the U.S., where it never got released. It should also be noted that with its May 2010 release, StreetDance was actually the first 3D dance movie, preceding Step Up 3D by about four months. Why didn't this film get a U.S. release? I have a couple theories. It's too bad this film wasn't given a chance here because it is a pretty good film.

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What I like about StreetDance was that it is actually about the joy of dancing. Yeah, there's a bit when the lead character, Carly, mentions attitude, but it's nothing like the kind of films where the dance competitions are ready to disintegrate into gang fights. What is also refreshing is an egalitarian spirit as expressed by Charlotte Rampling's character that refuses to make distinctions between the street dance and ballet. Admittedly, there's nothing original in the script, although there's a bit more wit than might be found in an obvious inspiration, Breakin'. Only a small part of the film plays out the snobs versus slobs rivalry, and the filmmakers even had the sense of humor to include a 3D food fight.

Where Step Up 3D bests StreetDance is in the one real street dance, a five minute single take by a couple to the old Jerome Kern song, "I Won't Dance". It was Sheila O'Malley who brought the film to my attention. That one dance scene works for me because you can actually watch the dance in full, with no cuts, no fragmented shots of bodies in motion. The dances in StreetDance are more more heavily edited than I would prefer, but in general, I did get a reasonably good sense of the choreography. There's even a nod to Busby Berkeley with some overhead shots in the final dance performance.

The basic story is about a street dance group needing a place to rehearse. Carly, working as a sandwich delivery girl, seeks assistance from Helena, who runs a ballet school. A dance space is needed for an upcoming national competition of street dance crews. Helena offers studio space in exchange for Carly taking on a group of her students whom she feels have the mechanics, but not the passion, for dance. Unless you're a total stranger to Shabba-Doo and The Boogaloo Shrimp, or even Fred and Ginger, you don't need me to tell you how this story is going to end.

Part of the film has Carly going to her first ballet, Romeo and Juliet, with music by Prokofiev. And there is the love story angle with Carly and Tom, whom she first calls "ballet boy". One might compare what happened to StreetDance to another ballet scored by Prokofiev, Cinderella. The success of the film might be likened to a fairy tale. With a budget that was about a tenth of that for Step Up 3D, the film was a surprise hit, in addition to being the first British 3D movie. Co-director Dania Pasquini stated in an interview, " . . . our aim was to uncover the spirit of dance, poke fun at the preconceptions and celebrate dance - all disciplines of dance!" I think she and Max Giwa mostly succeeded. Mainly though, what StreetDance illustrates is that street dancing doesn't have to necessarily be an expression of anger or frustration, nor do the films need to conflate those feelings with 'attitude". Whatever one might say about how the dances are filmed, or how the dancers are portrayed, there is a real sense of generosity and affection towards all the characters that seems almost forgotten by Hollywood.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:11 AM

June 21, 2011


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Suay . . Samurai
Manop Udomdej - 2009
Magnolia Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The couple of reviews I read should have been warning enough. But I decided to see Vanquisher for myself. How bad can an action film with some reasonably attractive Thai women be? As it turned out, writer-director Manop Udomdej must have spent some time studying the frequently incoherent fight scenes in the Rush Hour movies, and set out to prove he could do worse than Brett Ratner. It's all well and good to have your actors train at using guns, swords and personal combat, but it comes to naught when the basics like a reasonably constructed screenplay and a sense of clear visual presentation are ignored.

Manop Udomdej's desire to make a Thai action film featuring women is fine. According to the DVD supplement, the idea came to him while at Cannes, seven years ago. As it turned out, at least three films beat him to the punch: Bullet Wives, Chai Lai Angels and Chocolate. The last of these is the best not the least of which is because the action sequences were filmed Hong Kong style, with most of the action filmed in full frame. Manop ran behind schedule due to an order to cut out one of the actresses, Chotiros Suriwong, from the original production. By the time the film was first released, in November 2009, George Bush, who is mentioned by one of the characters, was no longer the U.S. President, further hampering any notions Manop had about being topical. There are also several scenes in English, with such wooden delivery, that it occurred to me that Vanquisher might have been a more successful film had it been made with marionettes in the style of Team America: World Police.

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I don't know how good an actress she is, but I'd like to see a Thai filmmaker give the lead to Kessarin (Nui) Ektawatkul. It's already been established that Nui can seriously kick ass as a national Tae Kwon Do champion. Nui was also cute and funny in her bit as a papaya vendor in Somtum. I would also argue that she is more attractive than the woman given the lead role, newcomer Sophita Sribanchean. Maybe it's me being totally superficial, but it didn't help that the close ups of Sophita indicated a hint of mustache. I'd even hope that Jacqueline Apitananon is given some more opportunities to show what she's capable of, as she seems to enjoy being the villain of the piece, as long as speaking English not part of the deal.

Manop's plot has something to do with Muslim terrorism in Thailand. Somehow, both the C.I.A. and ninjas are involved. The title translates as "Beautiful Samurai", but any connection to the code of Bushido is but a very slender, frayed, thread. There's some kind of plan to blow up Bangkok. Except for the part about an African guy who arranged for a small explosion in an open market turning out to be a C.I.A. plant, the various story threads are sometimes challenging to follow. The question is raised as to whether Manop was being deliberately confusing, are was just lazy and hoped that no one would mind that the story, as such, makes no sense. There are some very real problems regarding Muslim's in Thailand, including a faction that wants to make part of southern Thailand a separate country, but the only half-hearted attempt at any seriousness is in a brief scene when a mother asks her son if he thinks what he is doing is truly the will of Allah.

Some of the faults of the film might have been overlooked if Manop didn't find a way to, and pardon my bluntness, fuck up what should have been some spectacular set pieces. Sophita hops on a moving motorcycle, and then is able to ride on to the top of a moving train which catches fire. Or at least that's what I think happened. The problem is that with a series of very short close ups, I wasn't sure if that's what I actually was suppose to think I saw. Even that master of montage, Sergei Eisenstein, understood that there had to be some long shots to give the viewer an overall sense of what was happening on the Odessa Steps. The fight scenes are composed of close ups or medium shots of the individual combatants, mostly in dimly lit environments, further undermining any sense of visceral excitement. Even with titles announcing where some of the scenes take place, Monop provides very little sense of location. Where Monop is more interested in geography is an overhead shot studying the peaks and valleys of Sophita's cleavage.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:46 AM

June 19, 2011

Coffee Break

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Nenette and Boni (Claire Denis - 1996)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:33 AM

June 16, 2011

The Makioka Sisters

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Kon Ichikawa - 1983
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

One of the best things I might have done for myself was to shell out $60.00 for the Japanese DVD of Shunji Iwai's documentary on Kon Ichikawa. It may have also been a disservice to myself as well. My biggest problem with the new DVD release of The Makioka Sisters is knowing how many other, better films by Kon Ichikawa are unavailable, except in some cases, in VHS versions. Yes, it's good to know that another Ichikawa film is available on English subtitled DVD. Sadly, this is not a very good Kon Ichikawa film. To put it another way, I usually like John Ford, too, but I'm not one to speak up for Donavan's Reef. The Kon Ichikawa adaptation of a Junichiro Tanizaki novel that should be available is Kagi, released in the U.S. under the title of Odd Obsession. The brief clip I've seen with Machiko Kyo and Tatsuya Nakadai packs more heat than the entire 140 minutes of The Makioka Sisters.

I've only seen a few Ichikawa films, with two older films on DVD from Masters of Cinema waiting on a shelf. But based on what I have seen, I would have to concur that Ichikawa's best films are the ones he made in collaboration with his wife, screenwriter Natto Wada. The lethargic pacing of The Makioka Sisters might even be explained by the film being made during the same year Wada died of cancer. This seems more like a film made due to obligation, and lacks the snap and style of the films I've seen that Wada and Ichikawa made together. Even Iwai spends significantly more time in his documentary on the film Ichikawa made in the Fifties and early Sixties, even though Ichikawa continued steadily producing films through 2006.

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Tanizaki's epic length novel probably would be better served as a mini-series. Ichikawa's is the third version so far, and with Tanizaki's novels constantly getting new film versions, it probably won't be the last version. Simply based on star power, I would love to see the previous two films. The first film, made in 1950, boasts Hikeko Takamine as the youngest, impulsive sister, Taeko. The second version, made only nine years later, stars Machiko Kyo as the second youngest sister, Sachiko, and Junko Kano as Taeko. Curiously, Kyo and Kano both starred in Kagi that same year. The actress with the most name recognition in Ichikawa's version is Keiko Kishi, as the eldest sister, Tsuruko. Kishi would be best remembered by western viewers as the woman caught between Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura in The Yakuza. Ichikawa's film also provides an opportunity to see Juzo Itami, better remembered as the filmmaker of Tampopo, in the part of Tsuruko's husband.

Ichikawa's film might be described as a distillation of Tanizaki's novel. The drama of the sisters represents the tensions between tradition and the increasing westernization of Japan. That the film takes place in 1938 serves as a reminder that in a very short time, Japan and Japanese identity would change radically. Most of the story is concerned with finding a husband for the third daughter, Yukiko, which in turn is keeping the youngest daughter, Taeko from getting married. Family pride and various family skeletons keep popping up to interfere. Tanizaki's wry observations don't find their cinematic equivalent here except for one scene when Tsuruko, horrified at the thought of moving to Tokyo with her husband, declares that she has never in her life been east of Osaka.

Sayuri Yoshinaga does not resemble who I would have imagined as Yukiko. The least outgoing of the sisters, Yoshinaga charms on those special moments when she smiles. It's enough to make me want to see her early films when she was one of the house starlets at Nikkatsu in the early Sixties. Yoshinaga hooked me in a scene where she's riding the train with Sachiko to meet with another prospective suitor. Sitting across from Yukiko is a soldier. She steals a glance toward the soldier, and smiles, continuing to keep her feelings to herself.

The saddest aspect of The Makioka Sisters is that the best parts of the film are the nature shots, montages of cherry blossoms. Only someone supremely incompetent could screw up photographic images of cherry blossoms. I even shot a photograph that got published in a Japanese newspaper. Also, in keeping with the title, there are shots of snow falling. The chintzy sounding synthesizer score doesn't help. I also find it inexcusable for a period film to allow the male actors to have inappropriately long hair. If you're a Kon Ichikawa completist, then by all means see The Makioka Sisters. If you're less than familiar with Ichikawa, make a beeline to the films Ichikawa made with Wada, and hope that more of these works become available for western cinephiles.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:07 AM | Comments (1)

June 14, 2011

The Image

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L'image/The Punishment of Anne
Radley Metzger - 1975
Synapse Films Region 0 DVD

When I first saw The Image, it was released during a brief time in the 70s when it was believed that barriers would be broken, that mainstream cinema could also be highly erotic. It was a time when Columbia Pictures released Emmanuelle in the U.S., and Allied Artists responded by picking up another French film, The Story of O. Radley Metzger had hoped to tap into that market with his film version of the novel by Catherine Robbe-Grillet, written under the pseudonym of Jean De Berg.

I made an unusual choice in watching The Image for the first time in almost thirty-five years. The DVD offers the option of an isolated music and sounds effect track. What I hadn't anticipated is that The Image works quite well without the clutter of dialogue. It should be noted that the film is separated by chapters, a literary device I assume was taken from the source novel. The title cards even have a fancy white script on a black background, resembling the title cards used in silent movies. Even though certain details may be begging explanation, what emerges first and foremost is the dance, as it were, between the three central characters. Relationships are established simply by watching how the three look at each other and respond to each other at the cocktail party where Jean meets Anne and Claire. Even though in watching the film without dialogue, the viewer would not know the names of the characters, one could still guess that the film is told primarily from the point of view of a man observing two women who have some kind of established relationship. Whatever one might think of Metger's films or subject matter, the guy knew how to tell a story almost completely in visual terms.

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What watching the film without dialogue allowed me to do was also be more conscious of some of the use of color. This is especially vivid in the scene that takes place in the Bagatelle Garden in Paris. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Sigmund Freud will get the symbolism when Anne sticks her finger in the middle of a rose, opening the petals wider. There is the repeated use of red with the shots of rows of roses, the clothing worn by the women, and even the same shade of red on a passing boat. That the scene with the roses takes place in an environment where flowers are expressly not to be touched adds a special pique.

To make sure the audience gets the point, Metzger also indulges in several shots of some of the more obviously phallic monuments in Paris. A shot of the Eiffel tower seems visually redundant after several views of Carl Parker's erect penis. That the male character of Jean dominates the film made me wonder how different it would have been had Catherine Breillat adapted Catherine Robbe-Grillet. At the time the film was made, the assumption was that the author of The Image was a man. The little I've read of the novel, with the first chapter available online at Amazon, is a first person narrative from the point of view of a man named Jean De Berg. What I know about Mme. Robbe-Grillet suggests that there were some autobiographical elements.

As in some of Breillat's films, the sex in The Image is unsimulated. Most of the coupling between Jean and Anne involves fellatio, There is also a threesome in a women's clothing store with a female clerk who takes special interest in Anne's lingerie, and the raison d'etre, whips and chains. The erotic quotient is entirely subjective. Although the scenes of Anne's humiliation and torture are explicit, they are are also relatively mild compared to another film that received an art house run at about the same time, Barbet Schroeder's Maitresse. For myself, let me return to the garden. While the scene is as explicit as anything else in The Image, the close-up of the rose held by Claire against Anne's mons veneris is Metzger's most provocative image and a reminder that often what is most highly erotic is not always what is seen, or even experienced, but what is imagined.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:57 AM

June 12, 2011

Coffee Break

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Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood - 2008)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:05 AM

June 09, 2011

Twenty Plus Two

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Joseph M. Newman - 1961
Warner Archives DVD

Sometimes you just want to watch a movie for its own sake. And part of the attraction about Twenty Plus Two is that it is the kind of movie that might have played, and probably did, on late night television, back in the day days before cable, when late night television meant staying up to watch an old film that had no greater purpose other than to be moderately entertaining, and hopefully make some money for the studio. Maybe what I find charming, if that is the right word, about Twenty Plus Two is that it is a film of modest ambition, with little pretense about art, but a work of clear craftsmanship.

No one is going to mistake this for a film by Preston Sturges, were Sturges to have made a mystery. There is a Sturges connection with the brief appearance by William Demarest, as a former crime reporter turned booze hound. I did enjoy hearing one of the characters, a pretentious con man utter the words "modicum" and "erudite". The film is mostly dialogue, from the novel by Frank Gruber, who produced and wrote the screenplay. Even though I figured out the mystery well before the film ended, at the same time David Janssen starts putting things together, there is still fun to be had watching the various encounters he has with a seemingly disconnected group of people.

The ad proclaims, "Twenty mysterious clues plus two beautiful women". Another tagline reads, "20 Hidden Clues...Plus 2 Violent Murders!". I didn't count the clues. Basically, Janssen plays a L.A. based investigator who makes a living finding missing heirs. The secretary of a movie star has been found murdered. Janssen is aware that among her possessions are newspaper articles about the unsolved disappearance of 16 years old girl, the daughter of a wealthy family. Ultimately, the story hinges on a series of coincidental meetings. The preposterous narrative, which jumps from Los Angeles to New York City, to Chicago to Dumas, North Dakota, with a flashback in Tokyo, doesn't make a lot of sense. What makes the film endearing for me is that its like a journey where the destination is almost besides the point.

The only real misstep is that Jeanne Crain and Dina Merrill were too old for their respective roles. Not to seem ageist, but both play women who whom the dialogue indicates would be the same age or younger than Jannsen's character, even though both look well over 30. The only other flaw might be found in Gerald Fried's score, a bit too brassy and insistent when the film would seem to favor something more low-keyed.

On the plus side, in addition to Demarest, Agnes Moorehead has a single scene as the mother of the missing girl, while Robert Strauss literally phones it in as a detective who never seems to leave his office. The film was the second pairing of director Joseph Newman with David Janssen following King of the Roaring 20s. Newman doesn't really have a visual style as such, but at the time was the top house director at Allied Artists because of the economy of long takes with both characters within the frame. Janssen was the top contracted star at Allied Artists, modestly recognizable name for a studio that was in the shadow of the majors.

Cinematographer Carl Guthrie has quite a few television credits indicating he knew how to work fast. He both worked with Newman on several films, as well as Richard Diamond, Private Detective the short-lived television series that provided David Janssen with his first shot of stardom. There are a few images, not really film noir, but noirish, worth remembering, such as Janssen alone in the shadows of his room smoking, and William Demarest brooding over a drink at the end of the bar closest to the camera. Jacques Aubuchon almost steals the film, channelling a French accented Sidney Greenstreet, but David Janssen is too bland and business-like to play Sam Spade against Aubuchon's low-rent Kasper Gutman. Released during the dog days of August 1961, Twenty Plus Two seems to have been roundly ignored by film critics whom might have at least wanted to take advantage of spending time in an air conditioned movie theater. This might not be the stuff that dreams are made of, but sometimes a well made cinematic trifle can be more satisfying then the movie that begs to be acknowledged as a masterpiece.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:57 AM

June 07, 2011

What Have They Done to Your Daughters?

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La Polizia Chiede Aiuto
Massimo Dallamano - 1974
Shameless Films Region 0 DVD

The original Italian title translates as "The Police Ask For Help" according to Jasper Sharp's notes at IMDb. This is a more accurate title, reflecting the emphasis on the narrative spending more time following the detectives and the district attorney in their investigation of the death of a teenage girl. There are the giallo elements, primarily an unknown killer clad in black leather, wearing a full helmet, and carrying a meat cleaver. There's also just enough blood and nudity to satisfy genre expectations, mostly in very quick shots. While the premise regarding a ring of teenage prostitutes is salacious, Massimo Dallamano is more interested in the adults, especially his two lead characters.

There is a flashback of teen victim, Sylvia, nonchalantly explaining to her alarmed mother that the birth control pills were bought at a pharmacy. Dallamano unintentionally anticipates Taxi Driver with Jodie Foster's teenage prostitute, Iris, justifying her life by telling a bewildered Robert DeNiro if he has ever heard about "women's lib". Neither Iris nor Sylvia are adult women, and any concepts they may have of liberation are subject to question. Both girls can be said to simultaneously exploit themselves and allow others to exploit them. The difference between the two films is that Scorsese has greater interest in Iris, while in Dallamano's hands, Sylvia is an under developed character who serves as a plot

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What little Dallamano might have to say about feminism is with the character of the female district attorney, Vittoria Stori. As played by Giovanna Ralli, Stori is just a few days into her job, and determined to prove she's as capable as any of the guys, especially when some gory murders are involved. Ralli is a classic Roman dark eyed, dark haired beauty, who in this film is nothing but business. At one point, Stori is pursued by the unknown killer, gripped in fear, the damsel in distress. The effect is contradictory, as if Dallamano wanted to be contemporary, progressive even, with a female lead, yet was pulled back by more traditional instincts.

When Farley Granger dies a couple of months ago, this was one film not mentioned, and for good reason. Granger's appearance is limited to a couple of scenes as the concerned father of Sylvia. Most of the dramatic heavy lifting is done by Claudio Cassinelli as the main detective, and Mario Adorf, who discovers the investigation hitting himself personally.

There is a blackly humorous scene involving the identification of a victim, a private detective, in the autopsy room by an angry ex-wife who wants to know exactly what happened to her former husband. Most of the film is devoted to following a trail of photographs and an audio tape in piecing together the mystery. One of the other high points is a chase, with several police cars, lead by Cassinelli, attempting to follow the mystery killer on his motorcycle, through some empty streets and alleys, eventually onto a highway and into a train tunnel. Had Dallamano spent as much time tying up the loose ends of the script as he had on the logistics of his intriguing chase, this might have been a better movie.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:51 AM

June 05, 2011

Coffee Break

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Johanna ter Steege and Brigitte Sy in I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (Philippe Garrel - 1991)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:31 AM

June 03, 2011

Sons and Lovers

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Jack Cardiff - 1960
Netflix Instant

Sometimes the limitations of availability dictate both seeing a film, and how it is seen. I had been curious about Jack Cardiff's film, especially after reading D. H. Lawrence's novel. It's been quite a while since I read Lawrence and I feel I'm not one to discuss the translation from novel to film, except to say that the themes seem to still be there, brushed in broad strokes. I'm probably not alone in thinking how, almost a century later, what I am watching is not only the drama of the tug of the past against the hopes of the future, but also the various shifts marking the closure of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century.

The film received several Oscar nominations. Certainly as a director, Jack Cardiff has no better film. Likewise, cinematographer Freddie Francis, who like Cardiff moved for a time to the director's chair, has not done better with the possible exception of his work for David Lynch's film of The Elephant Man. The film was rightly filmed in black and white. Some of the most striking shots are of the mine tower, almost another character, overlooking the rows of houses and people. The film was shot on location in Nottingham, where Lawrence's novel takes place.

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In the instant streaming format, someone made a decision that may have seemed like a good compromise. The film was, like all 20th Century Fox films at the time, shot in CinemaScope, generally with a ratio of 2.35:1, width to height. The streaming version, while fortunately not pan and scan, lops off a bit of the sides at 1:85:1. Maybe the concern was that a true wide screen film would lose much watched on a computer screen. Most of the time, this change of aspect ratio is not noticeable, but on some shots the loss is obvious. The opening titles and the last three minutes are shown correctly, with the the last screen cap as an example. In this regard, viewing films on the streaming video format is inconsistent, with some studio fairly consistent about showing their films in the appropriate wide screen format, and others hoping you don't mind watching pan and scan versions. It's something of a step up from the days when the only option for watching older films was on network TV, when everything was in Academy ratio, interrupted by commercials, and in the case in my house, broadcast in black and white.

Carping about aspect ratios aside, Cardiff's film is reminder of the time when big studios had no problem producing films based on "literature". The cast and crew is noteworthy with Trevor Howard, Wendy Hiller, Mary Ure, and briefly, Donald Pleasance, and delightfully, Ernest Thesiger. Dean Stockwell, cast as a recognizable Hollywood name, maintains a consistent British accent, and capably holds his own in the lead role. Screenwriters T.E.B. Clarke and Gavin Lambert have other notable films on their respective resumes. Assistant Director Peter Yates went on to bigger, and sometimes better, films as a director as the decade progressed. I have included more screen caps than usual because, if nothing else, this is a visually gorgeous film.

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Dean Stockwell and Heather Sears in a shot from the last three minutes, in the correct aspect ratio.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:55 AM

June 01, 2011

Oasis of Fear

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Dirty Pictures/Un Posto Ideale per Uccidere
Umberto Lenzi - 1971
Shameless Films Region 0 DVD

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Umberto Lenzi's 1971 film is that it is simultaneously one of his better films, as well as one of his least known works. This is a more traditional thriller with a greater emphasis on the play between the three main characters, but the film works as a kind of period piece, a summing up of the end of the hippie era of the late Sixties. As it turned out, in doing some research, I found that this was a troubled production, with a major cast change needed right before filming began, and that it is a film that Lenzi made with many compromises from his original vision.

One of the key parts of the film is the MG convertible driven around Europe by the toothy and attractive couple played by Ray Lovelock and Ornella Muti. The car is sunshine yellow, decorated by some big cartoony flowers. Near the end of the film, the car is painted black, and yes, that made me think of the old Rolling Stones song. The painting of the car has dramatic motivation, but it also serves as a visual compliment to a story about the end of any sense of optimism these lovers have, however false it might be.

Lovelock and Muti portray two itinerant hippies who get by financially by smuggling pornography. Maybe this was something unique to Europe, but apparently there was a market for recordings of people engaged in sex, kind of like the song "Je t'aime . . . mon non plus", only without the music, or Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's attempts at singing. Without any money, or anything to sell, Lovelock takes to shooting photos of Muti to scrape up a few lira when the two are adrift near Rome. Out of gas, the two take refuge at a very large house, described as an oasis by Muti. The sole resident of this house is a high strung woman who at first attempts to get rid of these two drifters, but then decides to make them her house guests.

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The woman of the house is nervous for some very good reasons that are eventually revealed. But what may actually be one of the bigger twists in this film is that she is played by Irene Pappas in the same year as she starred in a film more typically associated with the Greek actress, The Trojan Women. Even the most acclaimed Greek thespian needs a break from Eurpides, Pappas had the opportunity to play the kind of role that in a Hollywood film might have been taken by Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck. Like those actresses, Pappas is attractive not based on conventional notions of beauty but more by the sheer force of her presence. If the casting of Pappas seems unusual, I was surprised to read that she was the last minute replacement for Anna Moffo. Definitely a subject for further research is that Moffo, known primarily as a star of opera and one of the great voices of her time, appeared in some Italian genre films in the beginning of the Seventies, working with directors Tonino Valerii and Michele Lupo. If for no other reason, Oasis of Fear is worth seeing Irene Pappas in a marked departure from her usual film roles.

The eye candy is provided by Ornella Muti, only 16 years old at the time, and in her second movie. Most of the time Muti is seen wearing some highly cut hot pants, providing the viewers with some titillation when she bends forward. Lenzi provides a bit of an in-joke by having one man taking an eyeful of Muti played by Tinto Brass, director of films that often focus on women's rears, one film appropriately titled Cheeky.

Lenzi plays with then current idea of almost anything British being conflated with a notion of being hip, both Ray Lovelock's character being part British, the use of the MG, and Lovelock wearing a Union Jack shirt. Lovelock and Muti present themselves to Pappas as murderous desperadoes, and Muti even writes the word "pigs" in very large letters on a mirror, with catsup, as if to assure Pappas that she and Lovelock are only pretending to be dangerous hippies like those of the Manson family.

With the film now forty years old, some elements might actually seem less dated now then they might have at the time of release. The best parts of Bruno Lauzi score are the jazz inflected passages with the scat singing. Alfio Contini, the cinematographer who coincidentally also filmed Irene Pappas in The Trojan Women, has fun using special lenses to create multiple images as well as some creative frames within frames. Lenzi has expressed his feelings about the film in this interview. The DVD that Shameless Films put together from various elements also provides some evidence of how this film was neglected and nearly lost. Oasis of Fear is hardly the first film that is appreciated more by fans and critics than by its filmmaker.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:40 AM