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October 31, 2017

The Mercenary


Il Mercenario / A Professional Gun
Sergio Corbucci - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The Mercenary was first released in Italy in December of 1968, just days after the director's acknowledged classic, The Great Silence. In that context, it is even more noteworthy when a prolific genre filmmaker can keep up the quality given the tight schedules and strict budgets required. The Mercenary may not be quite on the level of The Great Silence or Django, but it still has some remarkable moments.

Early on, we see the idiosyncrasies of the two rival mercenaries. The arms dealer, Kowalski, has the habit of striking matches against any available surface, be it the hat worn by a man sitting in front of him, or another man's teeth while in conversation. This match lighting business offers a bit of low humor, but also signals Kowalski's view of people in terms of their perceived usefulness. As he's played by Franco Nero, Kowaski's misbehavior is given a pass by the viewer. The more villainous Curly, played with evident self-amusement by Jack Palance, is provided with a couple of visually inventive scenes given his briefer screen time.

Disappointed by the failure of one of his henchmen to murder Nero, the camera follows Palance riding away from the inept killer. In a single take panning shot, we hear, but don't see, what is happening off-screen. The camera and Palance, complete a full circle, revealing the henchman dead, a pitchfork in his stomach. The camera continues to follow Palance as he makes the sign of the cross while slowly riding away.

The film is one of several of the sub-genre known as Zapata westerns, taking place in the early part of the 20th Century, where the putative hero is a Mexican revolutionary, fighting for social and economic justice. The story was by Franco Solinas, most famous for his hand in writing The Battle of Algiers. Solinas contributed to several westerns that served as parables about the then current issues of American interests in Third World countries, but also may have served as critiques of Hollywood's version of Zapata and Mexico. The other major name of the several writers here is Luciano Vincenzoni, the main writer in collaboration with that most famous Italian Sergio, Leone. Alex Cox's commentary points out what he identifies as those parts of the film that were contributions by Solinas as well as those by Vincenzoni. One of the bits of information of interest is that Battle of Algiers director Gillo Pontecorvo was originally scheduled to direct The Mercenary, but instead went on to make Burn!, starring Marlon Brando, a somewhat fictionalized account with similar themes of First World capitalism versus Third World revolution. Curiously, Cox doesn't mention that he made his own film, Walker almost twenty years later, based on the same events in Burn!.

Like any good Italian western, The Mercenary can be enjoyed for its own surface pleasures. There are several twists and turns with Nero and the peasant leader, played by Tony Musante, scheming with and against each other, plus a spectacular battle with machine guns and a World War I era bi-plane. The music is mostly by Ennio Morricone with some assist from Bruno Nicolai, with Morricone's themes familiar from use by Quentin Tarantino.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:59 AM

October 29, 2017

Coffee Break

David Dencik in Brotherhood (Nicolo Donato - 2009)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:57 AM

October 26, 2017

The Voice of the Moon

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La Voce della Luna
Federico Fellini - 1990
Arrow Academy BD Regions A/B and DVD Regions 1/2 Two-disc set

Twenty-seven years? I can understand why English language film distributors might not have been battling to bring Federico Fellini's last film to theaters. And grazie to the Arrow team for stepping up to the plate. What shred of a narrative exists casually strolls from one incident to the next. Still, it took this long for an English language home video release, which is shameful treatment of one of the all-time great filmmakers. And yes, much of the film looks like a rehash of moments from past films which places Fellini in the company of Howard Hawks and Jerry Lewis, as a couple of filmmakers who come to mind with their career closing entries.

The film takes place in a small, provincial town in Italy, but the sense of otherworldliness suggests that it could well be another planet. Ivo, played by a relatively restrained Roberto Benigni, is convinced he hears voices emanating from a well. Ivo is occasionally joined in his escapades by paranoid prefect, Genello, an older man who sees conspiracies everywhere. What there is of a story is virtually free association from encounters with eccentric characters and absurd events.

A later scene takes place in what looks like the world's biggest disco, with what appear to be hundreds of mostly young adults in tangentially punk style outfits dancing to Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel". The revelry is interrupted by an older couple waltzing to Strauss's "Blue Danube". The scene seems to sum up Fellini's own bemusement with the contemporary world, at odds with an idealized romanticism. If the (then) present looks even stranger and more disorienting than it did at the time of La Dolce Vita, the past has become even more remote.

Most of the film was shot on a set constructed in the shell of an old factory. The artificiality aids in the dreamlike visual qualities, with painterly images from cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. Time hadn't changed Fellini's working methods with much of the film improvised by the huge cast, with dialogue dubbed later. There is also much use of circular shapes with the moon, the round lenses of Ivo's glasses, the well, and even a large tire in the muddy ground.

The blu-ray comes with a documentary on the making of The Voice of the Moon which might have been a bit better had it not tried to be Felliniesque. The framing story of an young American female journalist should have been discarded. Still, we get to see Fellini in action on the set of what turned out to be his last film, with bits of interviews from several of his collaborators, and a glimpse of Jim Jarmusch on the set. I hope that someone has saved parts of that set - some of the wall graffiti was done by the master himself.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:08 AM

October 24, 2017

Rumble - The Indians who Rocked the World

RUMBLE 1.jpg

Catherine Bainbridge - 2017
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

It was definitely the title. How else to explain that an instrumental would be banned in Boston and New York. The music doesn't suggest a street fight as much as an implacable force of nature, deliberately moving forward and claiming its turf. Link Wray doesn't get the kind of recognition as Elvis Presley, though Rumble suggests that Wray's influence may well have been as important in inspiring a number of teenage boys to pick up the guitar in the late Fifties. There is enough testimony claiming that Link Wray invented the power chord, that loud and distorted sound used by many rock bands to announce themselves.

Rock music is only a part of this documentary which may have better served its subject as a longer work. The more interesting sections that need expansion would be on the Native American influence on music originating from the southeastern United States, permeating its way not always visible in popular music, as well as a more in depth look at jazz singer Mildred Bailey. In one segment, a group of Native American women are singing a song that suggests that the vocal music usually attributed to African-Americans, such as gospel, also has Native American roots. The film discusses the relationship of African-Americans with Native Americans from the colonial era through the time of Jim Crow laws. As for Bailey, a popular singer primarily in the 1930s, her way with a song influenced Tony Bennett, who briefly appears here, as well as Frank Sinatra, among others. With her particular legacy, Mildred Bailey probably deserves her own documentary.

RUMBLE 2.jpg

Maybe not a full-length documentary, but I was also intrigued by the transformation of Pat and Lolly Vegas from their time as fixtures as part of the Los Angeles music scene in the early to mid-Sixties, to reinventing themselves as the leaders of the all Native American rock band, Redbone.

While the film is scattershot as a historical narrative, the filmmakers have chosen a loosely geographic sequence working westward from South Carolina through Canada, and finally ending in Los Angeles. Among those discussing their music and identity are Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Taboo, from the Black Eyed Peas.

While I commend the film for illustrating the influence of Charley Patton on the many blues and rock musicians he influenced directly or indirectly, the film temporarily goes off course be devoting several minutes to one of Patton's students, Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf, seen in vintage footage performing for British teens following an introduction by Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. Also, while he wrote many songs devoted to Native American issues, singer-songwriter Peter La Farge was not Native American as is implied here. The flaws are minor compared to the the achieved goal of Rumble which has the viewer rethinking assumptions about American popular culture.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:33 AM

October 22, 2017

Coffee Break

The German Doctor.jpg
The German Doctor (Lucia Puenzo - 2013)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:21 AM

October 17, 2017

Red Christmas


Craig Anderson - 2017
Artsploitation Films BD Region A

When a movie gets sent to me for review, even one not specifically requested, I try to give it a chance. While I understand that some films are intentionally provocative, my problem is not only that I find Red Christmas muddleheaded, but completely dispiriting.

A montage of footage of pro-life and anti-abortion protests culminates in a scene with an abortion clinic bombed. A man surveys the damage and sees a small hand appearing out of a yellow bucket. Twenty years later, someone named Cletus (rhymes with fetus) with a heavily bandaged face, cloaked in black, is in search of his mother. Appearing at home of the matriarch played by Dee Wallace, an attempted Christmas day family reunion goes very much awry.

The opening scene of murder in Deep Red is deeper, redder and more evocative of Christmas than the whole of Red Christmas. Anderson might have been better off had he emphasized the Australian location, with December being the height of Summer, rather than passing off the setting as generic North America. Even as a horror film, Red Christmas is too bland to distinguish itself.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track. More interesting is the interview with Dee Wallace with the actress discussing some of the highlights of her career. Best is the frequently funny interview with Gerard O'Dwyer, an actor with Down's Syndrome, whose role in Red Christmas borders on the autobiographical.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:33 AM

October 15, 2017

Coffee Break

The Breaking Point.jpg
John Garfield in The Breaking Point (Michael Curtiz - 1950)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:44 AM

October 10, 2017

Denver Film Festival - The Line-up


Are film festivals archaic? In the forty years since the first Denver Film Festival, movie going and movie making has changed. Back in 1977, home video was still relatively new, pre-recorded tapes of the handful of films available were expensive, and if you wanted to see film of some importance, it was seen in a theatrical run, or if you lived in a major city, at a film festival. We're now at a point when something called a film or movie is more often than not a series of digital images, rather than celluloid, and there is less reason to leave the house when classics, foreign language films, and mainstream Hollywood product are available through internet connected devices. And yet, there is still the allure of seeing that buzzed about title before everyone else, or making a "discovery" of some work that cherished, while generally ignored by the crowds and the critics. For myself, it's nice to get a note of thanks from an independent filmmaker who wants to give you credit for helping his film make the transition from festival favorite to a DVD sale.

The big titles at this year's Denver Film Festival include all three "People's Choice" films from Toronto, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Molly's Game and I, Tonya. The festival kicks off with Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird.

Several entries for the foreign language film Oscar will be presented, including Fatih Akin's In the Fade and Joachim Trier's Thelma, among the filmmakers I like to keep current with. I'm also hoping to catch new films by Sally Potter (The Party), and Naomi Kawase (Radiance).

Danish Cinema is also to be featured, with films by newer filmmakers who haven't yet moved over to English language productions, unlike what seems like every Dogme 95 member. For reasons unknown to me, the most famous (infamous?) living Danish filmmaker, Lars Von Trier, is included, represented by his English language Breaking the Waves. I would have programmed the Danish language The Five Obstructions because the film features Von Trier and his mentor, Jorgen Leth. This year marks Leth's 80th birthday, as well as the fifties anniversary of Leth's short, "The Perfect Human", which Leth remade with Von Trier's impossible conditions. Plus, The Five Obstructions is deliberately quite funny.

While some films that have been on the film festival circuit aren't included, there are enough films that I want to see as part of the festival, with the knowledge that several others that aren't included here will be likely be seen in their home video versions soon enough. The full list is here. What I cover, as in years past, will just be a select group from the 200 or so titles available.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:47 PM

October 08, 2017

Coffee Break

Diane Lane in Paris can Wait (Eleanor Coppola - 2017)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:29 AM

October 03, 2017


popcorn german poster.jpg

Mark Herrier - 1991
Synapse Film BD Regions ABC

'Tis the season . . . and my first review of the month is one of two blu-ray releases featuring Dee Wallace! Popcorn is a frustrating film to write about because of the gap between what's on the screen and what the filmmakers hoped to achieve. This is a horror comedy that's not scary, and only sporadically amusing. The small group of cinematically illiterate film students decide to raise money for their department by hosting a night of three gimmick filled older horror films in a delict theater. While setting things up, they find an old reel of film depicting a sacrificial killing by a bearded man in a robe with his female victim. The footage resembles the nightmares of one of the students, Maggie. On movie night, a mysterious killer is on the loose, with several of the students as his victims.

If these were the film students I've known, no one would rate a Police Academy movie over the collected works of Ingmar Bergman, even for a cheap laugh. And there would probably be earnest discussions about Jack Arnold's 3D fantasies, or why we love the silly gimmicks of William Castle, while the "horror horn" and "fear flasher" from Hy Averback's Chamber of Horrors were poor imitations. As it stands, it is three of the films within the film that are the most interesting. I'm not sure if this is purely coincidental, but I reviewed Synapse release, Mosquito about two years ago. Did this spoof of those monster insect movies inspire some Michigan based filmmakers a few years later? The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man has a bravura performance by Bruce Glover, trying to channel Lon Chaney, Jr. The expressionistic cinematography recalls the work of talented filmmakers working on the fringes like E. A. Dupont and Edgar G. Ulmer. The nightmare horror movie with the human sacrifice looks like the work of Charles Manson trying his darnedest to be Kenneth Anger. The films within the film were the work of the original director of Popcorn, Alan Ormsby. What is discussed in the commentary track is that Ormsby put in so much time and care with his homages that it meant less time and money for the main narrative. Ormsby was fired, replaced by Mark Harrier, an experienced actor taking on his first, and only, feature.

Uncredited producer Bob Clark is acknowledged as the invisible hand in directing some of Popcorn, leaving Harrier on his own for the conclusion of the shoot as well as editing. The mystery about the killer is not very compelling, and the set-up very much owing to Phantom of the Opera. One of the best moments is a short turn by Ray Walston as the collector of movie memorabilia, with his entertaining soliloquy devoted to movie ballyhoo. The other moment is when the villain, unmasked, but not startlingly out of place among the many disguised horror film buffs in the audience, taunts the audience in deciding whether he should kill Maggie on stage, to the delight of the extremely animated crowd.

The blu-ray comes with a documentary of the troubled production history of Popcorn featuring director Herrier, star Jill Schoelen, as well as others in the cast and crew. Schoelen and Harrier are also among those who participate in the commentary track. Bruce Glover has his own little supplement, discussing his role, and satisfaction in the critical reaction from his performance. For a film that's in part about disguises, the best might be with the filmmakers making Kingston, Jamaica look like southern California.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:23 AM

October 01, 2017

Coffee Break

A Promise.jpg
Rebecca Hall in A Promise (Patrice Leconte - 2013)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:23 AM