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October 31, 2018

Denver Film Festival - The Whiskey Bandit

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A viszkis
Nimrod Antal - 2017
Viszkis Films

There are times when I think the Hungarian-American filmmaker Nimrod Antal was born about sixty years too late. There was a time when Hollywood had a place for directors who made smart action movies with terrific set pieces on modest size budgets. I'm thinking of directors like Joseph H. Lewis with his single take bank robbery in Gun Crazy, and Don Siegel with the car chase through San Francisco in The Line-Up. In contemporary Hollywood, Twenty to Forty-million dollars is not huge amount, and with Predators and especially Armored, Antal has demonstrated a clear ability to make the most within the confines of genre filmmaking. But had Antal been working decades ago, there would not be the seven year gap between Predators, and his new Hungarian produced The Whiskey Bandit.

Antal begins with a breathtaking traveling shot of the title character, Atilla Ambrus, in close-up in a bar, drinking a shot of whiskey. The camera follows him walking down stairs, out to the street, crossing to the other side, stepping into a bank, concluding with Ambrus taking out his pistol and announcing that he has come to rob the bank. Again, this is all done in a single take that takes several minutes.

A fictionalized version based on a real life character, the film is structures as a series of flashbacks with Ambrus telling his life story to a criminal prosector. As a young boy in Romania, Ambrus is dragged out of church, his ear gripped by a priest. That Atilla has eaten communion wafers and drank wine makes no difference to his indulgent grandmother. A childhood being shuttled between uncaring relatives ends with a stint in a grim reformatory. A talent at target practice isn't enough to keep Ambrus in the military, and he goes AWOL, traveling from Romania to Hungary, strapped underneath a freight train.

Lack of skating ability doesn't keep Ambrus from talking his way into joining a pro hockey team, as a practice goaltender and maintenance man. The bank robbery is first out of the desire to buy a fake proof of citizenship, with the enjoyment of the luxuries money can buy eventually taking over, often at the cost of Ambrus' ability as a hockey player. Ambrus became legendary in Hungary for the number of banks he robbed, as well as his escape from an allegedly secure prison. As a professional athlete, Ambrus' reputation has taken a more serious hit, with an article in USA today describing him as the world's worst goaltender.

Nimrod Antal has stated that one of his favorite directors is Stanley Kubrick. The influence is seen with the series of traveling shots and frequent lateral tracking shots. There are two major chase scenes. First Ambrus on motorcycle pursued by a guard, weaving in and out of the streets of Budapest. The second involved a chase with Ambrus in a taxi, the driver played by the real Ambrus, followed by police cars and armed security forces, with collisions and near misses, the kind of action where the bar was set by The French Connection. Antal understands that a good action set piece does not mean chopping the footage up into a million little pieces that are frenetic and visually incomprehensible. Both chases are based on the camera following the action long enough to have a sense of the space of the moment, and the choreography between the characters.

The Whiskey Bandit does not have a U.S. distributor at the time of this writing. Taking advantage of festival viewings is highly encouraged.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:00 AM

October 28, 2018

Coffee Break

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Vincent Price in The Tingler (William Castle - 1959)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:46 AM

October 23, 2018

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

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Marlina si Pembunuh dalam Empat Babak
Mouly Surya - 2017
Icarus Films All Regions DVD

Quite coincidentally and very independently of each other, we have two rape revenge films by female filmmakers that have found inspiration in the geography of European based westerns shot in Almeria, Spain. Coralie Fargeat's aptly titled Revenge was filmed in a remote part of Morocco, arid, surrounded by mountains. Marlina was filmed on the Indonesian island of Sumba, in a lightly populated area of brush and hills. The exteriors for both films are a similar sun baked yellow-brown. There is also the soundtrack for Marlina, not obviously derivative, but something that would not be out of place in any number of Italian westerns, especially with the part of the score featuring a trumpet and flute.

Marlina is Indonesia's entry for the Foreign Language film Oscar. For some, that might be enough reason to take a look. Asian films, especially from countries with less international presence, usually don't make the short list, much less the final five in competition. More importantly might be the timeliness of Marlina in the discussion of male entitlement and female agency. The basic story was inspired by a true incident in Sumba.

Marlina, a widow, is at home with the body of her recently deceased husband. She lives in a small, wooden house, with an equally small farm. An older man, Markus, arrives, insisting on being treated like a respected guest, announcing that a group of men will be joining him, expecting to be fed by Marlina, as well as have sex with her and rob her of her livestock. The uninvited men are poisoned by Marlina's chicken soup. Markus gets decapitated by Marlina while raping her. Not quite Sam Peckinpah, but Marlina travels to the nearest police station carrying the head of Markus, while one of the gang members is in pursuit of Marlina and the missing head.

In Marlina, women find ways of helping each other, primarily Novi, a neighbor and traveling companion on the bus to town. Aside from the Markus' gang, the police prove useless, lacking even a car to investigate the carnage at Marlina's house. The husband of the very pregnant Novi is more ready to believe hearsay about his wife to the point of beating her on the road, rather than help when she is about to give birth.

Surya has stated that she the rural area of Sumba inspired her to shape her narrative to resemble a western. In an interview, " . . . people will call it feminist western. It's western and anti-western at the same time, so it's something familiar but it's not. The Western genre itself is very masculine and misogynist. So Marlina is trying to reverse the convention."

The DVD comes with an interview with Mouly Surya discussing the origins of the film as well as thoughts on the #metoo movement as it applies to Indonesian women. There is a brief interview with cinematographer Yunas Pasalong that covers the choice to use a static camera, as well as the use of light. A longer interview is with the crew members who created the sound effects and music for the film.

Marlina is currently available on iTunes, with the DVD available on November 6.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:25 AM

October 21, 2018

Coffee Break

Blake Lively in The Age of Adeline (Lee Toland Krieger - 2015)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:41 AM

October 18, 2018

You Never Know Women


William Wellman - 1926
Kino Classics BD Region A

One of those bits of coincidence that makes film history fun - one of the two leading men in You Never Know Women is Lowell Sherman. Six years later, Sherman starred in What Price Hollywood?, the film generally acknowledged to be unofficially remade in 1937 by William Wellman as A Star is Born.

You Never Know Women is one of those films that is appreciated best when viewed as part of the era when it was produced as well as how it fits as part of of Wellman's career. The story takes place when wealthy guys rode around in chauffeured limousines, wearing top hats and sporting canes. A woman, Vera, is walking near a construction site when she is about to be beaned by an errant beam. An observant member of the construction crew rescues Vera in the nick of time, only to be shoved aside by Eugene, who tells the worker he knows how to handle the now unconscious Vera. Waking up in Eugene's arms, Vera mistakenly thanks Eugene for getting her out of harm's way, but is independent enough to turn down his offer of a ride. In his limo, Eugene follows Vera long enough to discover that she works in a theater.

What is billed as a dance company is actually a circus act starring Vera and her performing partner, Ivan. The performers are introduced in a lateral traveling shot of each performer removing a mask, only to reveal clown make-up underneath. The performances include some very frenetic leaping, twirling and contortions. Eugene joins the audience, audibly commenting on the ridiculousness of Ivan's knife throwing act, with Vera on the receiving end of those flying blades. Eugene tries to convince Vera that his wealth and class will rescue her from the itinerant life of show biz, much to the distress of Ivan, whose feelings towards Vera have not be expressed to her.

Here's where William Wellman, Jr.'s commentary proves invaluable. With much of his silent work lost, what is known about William Wellman's early filmmaking career is anecdotal. After making several westerns, and reportedly manhandling William Fox, Wellman's career showed scant promise. Paramount's B. P. Schulberg assigned You Never Know Women to Wellman after seeing the 1925 Columbia production, When Husbands Flirt, written by Dorothy Arzner. It was the critical and commercial success of You Never Know Women that allowed Wellman to direct Wings.

The blu-ray is taken from the 4K restoration of the film, including tinted scenes. Wellman, Jr. quotes from several reviews from 1926 with several writers noting the influence of German films on the visual style. What is particularly noticeable are several point of view shots, especially two with the moving camera - one from the point of view of a clown on top of some tall, inflatable contraption wobbling on the stage, and the second, with Vera flying above the audience as a human butterfly. There is also a very nice visual moment where we see two men entering the theater at night, seen only as shadows against a wall.

Donald Sosin's music track works quite well here, with the occasional balalaika for that Russian flavoring, and clarinet solos that are almost synchronized to accompany the playing by the clown, Toberchik, portrayed by El Brendel. The blu-ray also includes a booklet with an essay by Gina Telaroli. If the last name seems familiar, star Florence Vidor was the ex-wife of director King Vidor. Judging from the posters for the film, she was a big star in the latter part of the silent era, her career ending soon after the sound era began.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:00 AM

October 14, 2018

Coffee Break

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Marine Vacth in Double Lover (Francois Ozon - 2017)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:40 AM

October 11, 2018

Denver Film Festival: The Line-up


What a perilous time to be a film festival programmer. Closer examination is made regarding the proportion of female filmmakers, especially in the major festivals. There is also question of whether or not a filmmaker should be included based on past actions or statements. While no less than Guillermo del Toro has declared that next year's Venice Film Festival will feature an equal number of films from female directors, this year proved a bit awkward with only one film in the major competition, The Nightingale by Jennifer Kent, and the inclusion of a documentary celebrating female directors, from male filmmaker Mark Cousins. Film festivals will always reflect programmers' biases so the question of inclusion by female or minority filmmakers will constantly be debated, especially if the filmmaker has not been legitimized by film industry or festival award already.

At this point, Amazon Pictures has kept Woody Allen's newest film on the shelf, with re-hashed arguments about what he may or may not have done given new life with the #metoo movement. Roman Polanski's Based on a True Story has had no festival screenings in North America, much less distribution, due to the current climate. As he is not an English language filmmaker, less attention is paid to Korean Kim Ki-duk. I would have to question the remorse for past actions Kim displayed in his autobiographical documentary, Arirang. Based on last minute re-editing of The Predator prior to the Toronto International Film Festival screening, and Bradley Cooper's belated discovery of the history of Jon Peters, one of the producers of A Star is Born, it seems like more thorough vetting may be required of filmmakers and programmers.

It is also a perilous time to be a white male writing about film. I want to qualify my whiteness by pointing out that I am culturally Jewish, which for certain people is a disqualification. My photo is on this blog's masthead, so that aspect of my identity is no secret. And anybody who's read my stuff knows that I am an unapologetic auteurist, although I will note on occasion that the director is not always the dominant person on a given film. I have written about female filmmakers, including some who should be known better. That said, I'm not sure what to make of Dan Fogelman, who blames white male critics for the negative response to his newest film, Life Itself. I haven't seen it, but I did see Fogelman's previous film, the mawkish Danny Collins, so I'm not encouraged. Nor am I expecting filmmakers to make their film for "me" as some well-intended people will put it. Admittedly certain aspects of my life will inform how I may process and judge the film I've seen. In terms of film festival coverage, it's based on what films I've been able to see in screenings and screener links out of the films being presented. What I'll write will consist on a balancing act between those films I feel most enthusiastic about, and giving a fair representation of a fraction of the films shown at the Denver Film Festival.

One of this year's special Red Carpet presentations, The Front Runner is certain to be of local interest as Gary Hart was one of Colorado's senators at the time he made his ill-fated run to be president. In the interest of full disclosure, I've voted for the guy. And my heart sank when I saw that photo of Hart with Donna Rice. You would think that someone like Preston Sturges would make up a story about a married candidate seen with a pretty blonde who was not his wife on a boat called "Monkey Business". Director Jason Reitman is set to appear for what I expect will be a lively Q & A with the audience.

The other Red Carpet presentations will be Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite, Brady Corbet's Vox Lux, and Neil Burger's The Upside. That last film is the English language remake of the French film, The Intouchables from 2011.

Also scheduled among the films that will be jumping from the festival circuit to theatrical runs are Roma, The Green Book, Burning, Shoplifters, just to name a few.

The annual tribute to an "experimental" filmmaker will be to a personal favorite, Barbara Hammer. I was able to see several films and meet Ms. Hammer at the Miami Beach Cinematheque about ten years ago.

The featured country this year is Hungary. Among the titles is The Whiskey Bandit by Nimrod Antal, the Hungarian-American director following two good Hollywood action films, Predators and Armored. Also a new film by Marta Meszaros, Aurora Borealis, as well as Jupiter's Moon by Kornel Mundruczo, his follow-up to White God. Surprisingly missing is the newest film by Laslo Nemes, Sunset, Hungary's Oscar entry.

Of local interest are two documentaries. We are Columbine is a documentary looking back at the school shooting that took place in 1999 by Laura Farber, herself a freshman at the high school at the time, with interviews with four other former students. More personal for myself would be Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records as one who spent many hours and dollars at Denver's Wax Trax! record store when I was younger.

The full schedule can be reviewed with this link.

One bit of advice: I have been able to see the documentary about the real life Japanese cannibal, Caniba. It is admittedly a very unusual film both in its subject matter, and in the visual choices made by the filmmakers. But I would strongly advise not eating before seeing this film.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:01 AM

October 07, 2018

Coffee Break

Myrna Loy and William Powell in After the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke - 1936)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:23 AM

October 02, 2018

The Spiral Staircase

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Robert Siodmak - 1946
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

It might be pushing it to describe The Spiral Staircase as photo-giallo. The first view we have of the serial killer is from behind, on a dark rainy night. He is wearing a long, dark coat and a hat with the brim down to cover as much of his face as possible. We also see his black gloves. Not too different in appearance from the killer in Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace. The point of view shot is a favorite trope in giallo, and here we have the distorted view of the victims, all young women, seen misshapen prior to their deaths. There is also the trope of a psychological motivation, a product of the writer's imagination, in this case a misdirected hatred of imperfection. The source novel by Ethel Lina White, Some Must Watch anticipates the suggestions of voyeurism in the titles of several gialli. Just before we share the killer's point of view, there are extreme close-ups of one of the eyes of the killer, followed by a reflection in that eye.

That eye actually belongs to Robert Siodmak and its appearance in this context indirectly anticipates giallo maestro Dario Argento's gloved hands dispatching various victims. Candle lit basements are almost always creepy, as are open windows on the proverbial dark and stormy night. The story of a mute servant girl and an unknown serial killer in a small New England town, trapped in a mansion with the possibility of the killer somewhere near, still holds up after seventy years. I had seen The Spiral Staircase once before, about forty years ago in a 16mm print. There was so much I had forgotten, but where the blu-ray really shines is in revealing the detailed set, the interior of the mansion where most of the film takes place.

The opening shot of the film is deliberately misleading. A tracking shot of a small New England town, the film takes place around 1915 or so. There is a makeshift movie theater inside a hotel, with the hand-cranked projector, and a pianist near the screen, audience in rapt attention. There are a couple of telephones, all requiring hand cranking and the services of an unseen operator to connect calls. Once inside the Warren family mansion, where most of the film takes place, a typewriter is briefly seen. Yet everyone travels by horse drawn buggy, and illumination is by gaslight or candles. If there weren't those few intrusions of the 20th Century, it would be easy to assume that The Spiral Staircase takes place about twenty-five years earlier. The first murder takes place in the hotel room above the movie theater. And perhaps I am taking a leap in making a connection here, but the time that the film takes place was also when the concept of eugenics was popularized and given academic validation.

Siodmak and gifted RKO cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca provide several memorable shots. Dorothy McGuire walking along an iron fence, twig in hand, hitting the bars to accompany her steps. The camera weaving in and out of rooms of the mansion, each holding its own secrets amidst intricate patterns on the walls and furnishings.

None of this would matter if Dorothy McGuire wasn't able to carry most of the film with the expressive use of her eyes and lips. The real movie is in ignoring the narrative elements and just watching McGuire's facial expressions as she gets emotionally involved viewing the silent film, or is actively listening to the nattering of the too friendly doctor played by Kent Smith. Competing with McGuire is Ethel Barrymore as the bedridden family matriarch, her performance pared down to her eyes and commanding voice.

This blu-ray comes with a generally well prepared commentary track by film historian Imogen Sara Smith. Right off the bat, she clarifies that the silent film within the film, erroneously titled, The Kiss, is excerpts from D. W. Griffith's The Sands of Dee (1912). An overview of the main cast, Siodmak, and screenwriter Mel Dinelli. The one error is in stating that McGuire won the Oscar for Gentleman's Agreement - she lost to Loretta Young. Ethel Barrymore, however, was an Oscar nominee for her performance as Mrs. Warren.

The blu-ray also comes with the radio version of The Spiral Staircase. Radio play versions of popular movies were common, especially in the 1940s. However, here, Dorothy McGuire providing the spoken interior thoughts to her characters is no substitute for a performance that depends on what is not being said.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:12 AM