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October 31, 2019

Denver Film Festival - The Torture Report


Scott Z. Burns - 2019
Amazon Studios

Scott Burns' film, The Report will be receiving a brief theatrical release before getting its Amazon Prime release near the end of November. For the most part, with the emphasis on the true story elements, the film may play better on a home screen. What might be lost, unless one is watching on a good sized wide screen television, are the televisions in several of the offices, seen in the background with glimpses of the twin towers burning, Dick Cheney bloviating, and a teaser for Zero Dark Thirty, both pinpointing the time of certain events and also providing some side commentary.

Burns is primarily known for his screenplays for Steven Soderbergh, including the The Informant! and The Laundromat, also based on real life events. Unlike those films, which take some lighthearted jabs at their subjects, this is played straight. The film follows Daniel J. Jones, tasked with investigating what the C.I.A. euphemistically called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques on behalf of the Senate Select Committee. Burns alternates between Jones' research with his small team, and the story of the psychologists and members of the George W. Bush administration and their rationale and development of what several people had identified as torture, used to get information from suspected Middle Eastern terrorists. What is dramatized is Jones' concern about that torture, the ways the C.I.A. attempted to cover up their activities, and the desire to make the extent of these activities public.

The reenactments of waterboarding and other activity is difficult to watch, some of it done in the form of low grade video documentation. While most of the film is carried by Adam Driver as Jones, there is also Annette Bening as Senator Dianne Feinstein, maneuvering between her own sense of justice and trying to create some consensus within the Senate through two presidential administrations.

What makes The Report timely is that it offers some perspective on the Mueller Report and the current arguments about Executive authority. Essentially, who is presenting the narrative, and what information is to be shared and with whom? Burns shows this when Jones' report is reviewed by the C.I.A. which demands redactions on information that has already been made public, blocking out major sections of a 500 page report. Perhaps what is most disturbing is the knowledge of the C.I.A.'s history in using torture, which documented past failures including their condemnation of similar techniques used by the Japanese and Germans during World War II. As that old adage goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:27 AM

October 30, 2019

Denver Film Festival - Honey Boy


Alma Har'el - 2019
Amazon Films

Honey Boy was created out of the therapy sessions actor Shai LaBoeuf had for treatment of drug and alcohol abuse. The film title comes from his father's nickname when LaBoeuf was a child. The screenplay is largely autobiographical, although I would not count on it being entirely factual. The bigger question for me is whether the audience should care about the story of a child actor growing up in the care of a volatile and abusive father, living in a run down long-term residential motel, if this was not about a well known movie star? What also is of concern is that the celebrity in question is perhaps more famous for various attention grabbing activity beyond starring in a very popular franchise.

What also gets in the way for me is having Lucas Hedges play the part of Otis, LaBoeuf's twenty-two year old proxy. Not that Hedges is a bad actor, but after Ben is Back and Boy Erased, I feel like there is type-casting at work here, with Hedges as the first choice for any films about a young man with a tortured soul, sort of like our current moment's James Dean, but in lesser films.

Where Honey Boy is most successful is in the opening sequence. With mostly quick cuts of Otis between performing on film sets and out of control in his car or dressing room, there is the suggestion that Otis is not totally able to distinguish life in or out of the studio, an existence of constant disorientation. The way it is filmed and edited, when Otis totals his car, crawling out of the flipped over wreckage, I had first assumed from his overly dramatic reaction to being arrested that this was a recreation of a movie scene. The film continues this point more clearly several times with people in Otis' life trying to distinguish when the actor is expressing himself genuinely and not acting.

LaBoeuf plays the part of his own father, renamed in the film as Jeff Lort. Somewhat similar to stage mother, using the child to fulfill his own thwarted dreams, Jeff acts as manager and chauffeur, with young Otis riding on the back of Jeff's motorcycle between studios and their remote home. Four years sober, Jeff not only has to fight his stated demons of addiction, but his unstated humiliation at knowing that as a convicted felon, his best opportunity for employment is working for his eleven year old son. This is essential a story of a son's attempt at unconditional love answered frequently by a father's betrayal. My only hope is that in making this film, Shia LaBoeuf has successfully broken the darker aspects of his family's history.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:37 AM

October 25, 2019



Bong Joon-ho - 2019

Bong's newest film has caused me to think about the time I first was aware of him. This was in 2007 when his third film, The Host became an unexpected international hit, a monster movie playing the art house circuit in the U.S. I was living in Thailand at the time and saw that film on DVD. I also bought Bong's debut film, Barking Dogs Never Bite on DVD, sensing that this was the work of a director whose importance was just beginning to be recognized. As one who was paying closer attention to Asian cinema at that time, Thailand and South Korea were both just beginning to make impact internationally. Due in part to how the respective countries understood how to be viable in the international marketplace, I saw how a generation of South Korean filmmakers could be counted on to have films in the festival and art house circuits, while Thai cinema as faded due to the provincialism of those in control of the film industry in that country.

At this point, I think a standard review of Parasite is redundant. What I do find of interest is that Bong has turned from two crowd pleasers made for the international market, to a very specifically Korean film that has also become a sizable hit. Making this more surprising is that the narrative zigs and zags in unexpected directions, and defies any kind of simple description. I also think that it's best to watch Parasite with as little information regarding the plot twists as possible.

The three little dogs owned by Parasite's wealthy Park family caused me also to recall Barking Dogs Never Bite, but I think that was deliberate. Bong is revisiting themes, and in some instances situations, from his directorial debut. All of Bong films can be generalized to be about the class divide, with his main characters being the marginalized, usually poor, but sometimes social outcasts. In Barking Dogs, the disparate characters are connected by being part of an apartment building, a setting for misunderstandings and small scale disasters. Bong uses a bigger tableau in Parasite by presenting two families in different parts of Seoul, the Kims who live in a cramped apartment that ads describe as "garden level" at the dead end of a run down neighborhood, and the Parks, living in a palatial, modern mansion surrounded by greenery. I see this as a revisiting of the earlier film but instead of having several individual characters in varying conflicts, united by a single location, Bong changes the focus, not only in the stark differences in the ways that the Parks and the Kims live, but in a couple of scenes that suggest the geographic distance between the two homes.

Bong has listed five films he considers as influences on Parasite. I've seen all five films, and it was the reference to Claude Chabrol that was initially unexpected. Several of Chabrol's films also are explorations of class differences, sometimes between family members. There is a scene in Parasite that made me think of an older Chabrol film that Bong may not have seen. The Third Lover from 1962, is about a down on his luck journalist who befriends a successful author and his wife, attempting to be part of their circle of friends. Somewhat similar is the moment in Parasite when "Kevin" Kim, the college age English tutor is observing a birthday party with pupil and secret girlfriend Da-hye Park, and asks if he fits in with the materially comfortable party guests.

There is also the question of who exactly is the parasite. The Kim family ingratiates themselves on the Park family, fraudulently taking on roles in support of the Park family. Simultaneously, the Parks present themselves as being dependent on others. Bong is also interested in personal space as found in housing, rooms, cars and even a child's "Indian" tipi. As in Bong's previous two films, Okja and Snowpiercer, order is disrupted by forces of nature and anarchy. Parasite is a satirical comedy that turns into a tragedy, where everything goes wrong for everyone, yet optimism is not defeated.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:19 AM

October 22, 2019

Man of a Thousand Faces

man of 1000 faces.jpg

Joseph Pevney - 1957
Arrow Films BD Region A

I first was aware of Lon Chaney several years before I saw any of his films. I was ten or eleven years old when I discovered a magazine, "Famous Monsters of Filmland" in the early 1960s. There was always something about Lon Chaney in what seemed like every issue, usually stills from his films, made in that long ago silent film era. My memory may be off, but it seems like the first time I actually saw a film starring Lon Chaney, and not some brief excerpt, was sometime in the later half of the 60s, when The Hunchback of Notre Dame appeared on the educational TV channel. Not too long after that, I saw the biographical film starring James Cagney as Chaney, on late night broadcast TV.

Disregarding the fictionalization of events, revisiting the film was a pleasant surprise. Pevney may at best be regarded by film critics as a journeyman, but seeing Man of a Thousand Faces in its intended CinemaScope presentation displays interesting, if not consistent, use of the wide screen. There are several shots of two characters where Pevney will have one actor in the foreground with the other actor on the opposite half of the screen seen further back. Most of the time, the actors are filmed in medium or full shots. The one tight close-up is that of Dorothy Malone as Chaney's first wife, Cleva, crying about the possibility that her yet to be born child may be speech and hearing impaired. There is also the use of shadows. A stage act with Chaney as a comic tramp shows him dancing with a giant shadow in the background, a shadow that sometimes has its own dance moves until it is unceremoniously yanked off stage. But there are also several moments that visually recall film noir. In one shot of Lon and Cleva Chaney in their home, the shadow of intricate lattice woodwork makes it appear that Dorothy Malone has been caught in a web.

Taking the narrative on its own terms, two of the major dramatic moments are tied to family secrets withheld by Chaney. There is also the instant karma where Chaney has decided to leave Cleva after discovering her infidelity. Cleva walks in to see Lon showing friendly, though not sexual, affection towards Hazel, the chorus girl who later becomes his second wife. Soon after, Lon knocks down a tall man who is threatening Hazel. That particular scene packs a punch, as the man who grew up sensitive to his parents teased by other for being differently abled, finds himself on the wrong side.

At age 57, James Cagney was ten years older than Lon Chaney at the time of the actor's death. In spite of being too old to be convincing as a younger man, Cagney's casting plays on some similarities of both man. Cagney also began his career on stage as a dancer and comic. While Cagney's comic timing found its way on film, his skill on his feet were never properly exploited with the obvious exception being Yankee Doodle Dandy and a remarkable moment of the still fresh actor skipping across a dance floor in Other Men's Women from 1930. There is a joy in watching Cagney showing off his hoofing abilities several times as the comic tramp, letting the audience know that he's not diminished by age.

For the facts about Lon Chaney's life, as well as notes about the production of Man of a Thousand Faces, there is the commentary by Tim Lucas. This is a deep dive into the ways in which the film takes artistic license with the facts, with various anecdotes along the way, such as how a young business executive, Robert J. Evans, was cast due to his resemblance to studio executive Irving Thalberg, with life following art almost a decade later when the former actor was in charge of production at Paramount. A more factual film might have been even more dramatic as indicated by such incidents as the premature birth of son Creighton Chaney. Lucas also points out how the film came just prior to Universal selling its older horror films to television to renewed popularity, as well as producing several horror tinged science fiction films.

Film historian discusses Lon Chaney's career in a short supplement. He makes an interesting point about the perception of time regarding film history. While Man of a Thousand Faces was released about thirty years after the end of the silent era, the films and actors of that time were perceived of as older than the way many of us think of actors and films from the 1980s or 90s. Taken on its own terms, Man of a Thousand Faces is fairly solid entertainment. Better are the still available films starring Lon Chaney.

Of additional note is that the SDH captions are useful in providing captions for the sign language used in the scenes with Lon Chaney's parents.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:53 AM

October 15, 2019



John Huston - 1980
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I'll let the reader decide if this just coincidence, so bear with me here: Phobia star Paul Michael Glaser was known for the television series, Starsky and Hutch, as Detective David Starksy. Goofing off of the similar sounding name, Saturday Night Live had a spoof, "Sartresky and Hutch", with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as the crime buster. Sartre was hired by John Huston to write a screenplay that eventually was not used, when Huston was planning to make his film about psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The actor who portrayed Starsky is seen here as a psychiatrist who uses questionable methods to cure his patients.

Phobia has the dubious distinction of being considered the worst film in John Huston's lengthy filmography. The film's greatest interest is the idiosyncratic ways in which it fits in thematically with Huston's other work. That Huston signed on to direct Phobia was possibly due to grabbing a fully financed studio film after the uncertainties in getting Wise Blood produced. In addition, Huston had explored psychoanalysis both in his documentary, Let There be Light as well as Freud. There are also Huston's films which can generally be grouped together as "thrillers", with The List of Adrian Messenger being somewhat similar with the killer murdering a specific group of victims who knew each other.

Just as Sigmund Freud doggedly tries to discover the roots of Cecily's hysteria, alarming his peers with what are seen as unorthodox methods, Dr. Peter Ross tries to cure the phobias of his five patients, all convicted criminals. The five patients and their respective phobias are introduced, each up against a pair of large screens with filmed images of their fears. A man with a fear of heights is shown footage of a young child who appears ready to fall from a very high apartment building balcony, is part of the treatment. There are a series of deaths that directly or indirectly are connected to each patient's phobia. Looking for the killer is Lieutenant Barnes, a cop who suspects everybody. There is a scene of Barnes interrogating a patient that is so sadistic that it made me think of an amplified version of Humphrey Bogart slapping Elisha Cook, Jr., Hollywood's least threatening hit man, in The Maltese Falcon.

One of the other mysteries of Phobia is in regards to the the multiple credited and uncredited writers of the screenplay. The original version was written by Gary Sherman in 1971, prior to his directorial debut, Raw Meat. The two originators of Alien, Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon also had a hand as did Jimmy Sangster, screenplay writer of several classic Hammer horror films. The commentary track by film historians Paul Corupe and Jason Pichonsky suggests that Phobia was intended to be more of a horror film. There are quotes from John Huston that he was making a murder mystery, and that his frequent collaborator, Gladys Hill, also contributed re-writes. The murder set pieces are pointedly never graphic, although they could have been with a different filmmaker. Taken as part of Huston's filmography, the psychological aspects of Phobia play as a distorted revisiting of Freud through the wrong end of a telescope, where symbolic guilt and criminality are manifested literally. One mystery not explained is director Jonathan Kaplan's credit as Associate Producer. Phobia was produced at a time when Kaplan had a short detour making a couple films for broadcast television after the box office failure of Over the Edge. One correction that should be made regarding the commentary track is that Phobia did play in the U.S., but only very briefly, with teaser ads on television.

While several of John Huston's films have gained stature over the years after being dismissed at the time of release, Phobia is never going to be one of those films. To its credit, this is a made in Canada film that doesn't disguise that it was made in Canada - a Yonge Street sign is a reminder of the Toronto location. Aside from some truly terrible hair styles, such as Paul Michael Glaser's full blown Jewfro, the only nod to being culturally relevant is to have a rebellious young man wear a Sex Pistols button. As these things go, it's far less anachronistic than Billy Wilder's Buddy, Buddy from 1981 with the hippie couple and a baby named Elvis, Jr. On the plus side, one of the better set-pieces involves a victim trapped in an elevator. One of my favorite actresses, Alexandra Stewart, is only onscreen briefly in a vivid performance as the patient with Agoraphobia.

Two additional blu-ray supplement are interviews with actresses Susan Hogan and Lisa Langois. Hogan talks about her surprise at being cast as the girlfriend of Dr. Ross, and getting star billing, her career primarily having been in Canadian television. Langlois has a very brief nude scene in Phobia, a point of contention between her and Huston at the time of filming that eventually changed the rules requiring actors to be made aware of scenes requiring nudity prior to filming. The interview is no "metoo" statement as Langlois discusses this with warmth and humor regarding Huston, with Langlois asking Huston if Katherine Hepburn would be willing to do a nude scene. The director's reply, "She would for me."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:32 AM

October 11, 2019

The Denver Film Festival: The Line-up

denver film fest poster.jpg

The most unexpectedly dramatic story at this year's Denver Film Festival, the 42nd, has taken place off-screen. Some small change was expected with festival co-founder Ron Henderson completely retiring in 2018. What no one could have anticipated was the death of the festival's artistic director, Brit Withey, in a one-car accident in New Mexico on March 31. This was followed by the departure on April 23 of Denver Film's executive director, Andrew Rodgers. At this time, festival director Britta Erickson has been serving as the interim film society's executive director in addition to continuing as festival director. Programmer Matthew Campbell is currently serving as the festival artistic director.

April also saw the passing of filmmaker and teacher, Phil Solomon. One of the highlights of the Denver Film Festival has been the awarding of the Stan Brakhage Vision Award, given usually to an "experimental" filmmaker such as Larry Jordan or Barbara Hammer. Solomon was usually on hand to present the award, and was a recipient himself in 2007. Melinda Barlow, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has stepped in and will present a tribute to include work by Carolee Schneemann and Barbara Hammer, as well as Phil Solomon. The recipient of the award this year will by Vincent Grenier.

Unlike previous years, there is no overlap with the newer AFI Film Festival, which occasionally beat Denver in getting some films as well as getting more press attention. What may have been a challenge in programming some of the bigger titles is that more films that premiered at Cannes, Toronto and Telluride, are now getting earlier theatrical releases, so that the festival will be competing with Parasite and Jojo Rabbit at Denver's arthouses. The "Red Carpet" titles include Knives Out, Marriage Story, Waves and The Two Popes, and with the exception of Rian Johnson's new film, a shift from some of the more obvious crowdpleasers screened in the past.

In terms of what I cover, that will depend primarily on what films are available either as part of critics' screenings or available online screening links. Due to health reasons, this will most likely be my last time covering the Denver Film Festival, or any film festival for that matter. That said, I'm planning to write mostly about the films that most interest me. That includes several of the Brazilian films, including Oscar hopeful The Invisible Life and Marighella - a film currently prohibited from screening in its home country. It should be noted that the Brazilian film industry, including the archival work, is being hobbled by the Bolsanaro government making support of these films more urgent.

On the lighter side is the documentary about Paul Verhoeven's cult classic, Showgirls, titled You Don't Nomi. I'll have to find out when filmmaker Jeffrey McHale decided that this oft-derided film was worth additional exploration, but back when this blog was still a small cup of java, several online film critics and scholars simultaneously had postings on Showgirls, waaaay back in January 2006. But don't take my word for it, no less than Jacques Rivette as written highly of this wonderfully misconceived film as well.

Reviews of films seen will appear concurrently with the festival. The full festival schedule is now live at the Denver Film website.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:44 AM

October 08, 2019

Our Hospitality

our hospitality.jpg

Buster Keaton and Jack Blystone - 1923
Kino Classics BD Region A

Of the feature films made by great silent film comedians, Our Hospitality may be one of the gentlest films ever made. One solid belly laugh is when Keaton finds out that the mansion he imagines he's to inherit is in reality a ramshackle cabin so rotten that the front door falls off. There is a cut to the shot of the imagined mansion blown to bits, reality dynamiting the dream. The story is inspired by the long-running feud of Hatfields and McCoys, here renamed the Canfields and McKays. The film primarily takes place in 1831, with Keaton and his writing team poking fun at family honor, and also the technology of the time.

What is also unusual is the prologue, taking place in 1810. The scene provides the back story for Keaton's role as Willie McKay, first introduced as a baby played by Keaton's own one year old son. Taking place during a dark, rainy night, an attempted truce between the two families fails as we see two flashes of gun shots, Willie's father and his rival, Canfield, simultaneously shooting each other to death. The entire sequence is filmed as a straight drama, not dissimilar to something from D. W. Griffith. Death is never too far away in Our Hospitality, both in the narrative with Willie pursued by the Canfield heirs, and some of Keaton's own stunts.

One of the benefits of having a home video version of Our Hospitality is to study how Keaton is able to build upon his visual gags. An example is when Willie decides to go fishing by a stream, unaware that behind him, a dam has been demolished. Willie puts up an umbrella, assuming the water coming down is rain. A full blown waterfall drenches Willie, his umbrella offering no cover. At the same time the waterfall acts as a curtain, hiding Willie from the two Canfield brothers who are in pursuit.

The booklet, by Keaton historian Joseph Vance, and the commentary track by film historians Farran Smith Nehme and Imogen Sara Smith, all provide information on the making of the film as well as discussion of several of the cast and crew members. Keaton has never clarified how the directorial duties were performed, only being on record as praising Jack Blystone. My own familiarity with Blystone is limited to his last two films, Laurel and Hardy vehicles, Swiss Miss and Block-Heads, and a James Cagney programmer, Great Guy. It could well be that Blystone was on hand as "insurance" for his experience, with a career directing comic shorts beginning in 1914, segueing into feature films in 1923 with A Friendly Husband starring Lupino Lane.

The blu-ray also includes a short comedy Keaton made in France, Duel to the Death that recycles a couple of the gags from Our Hospitality. That film was directed by Pierre Blondy, one of three shorts he directed. There is a discrepancy regarding the release date, but the film is more of historical interest with a visibly aged Keaton. Blondy's career is better remembered for his serving as an assistant to Marcel Carne and Jean-Pierre Melville.

Another short, The Iron Mule (1925) is mentioned in the commentary track. The short, as included here, is missing credits other than that of star Al St. John. Keaton allowed the train he had built for Our Hospitality to be used again, a favor to director Fatty Arbuckle, working at this time under the pseudonym of William Goodrich. There is one interesting sight gag of the train using logs to float across a river. Other than St. John, I have no idea who the other actors are, but in a one reel short that is heavy on pratfalls, there are a couple of gifted players who play an older married couple, continually stumbling over each other as they chase after the runaway train. According to the questionably reliable IMDb, Keaton was on hand as one of the marauding indians Native Americans, though it is hard to determine as most of the film was filmed using long shots.

A short documentary is devoted to how Robert Israel developed his score for Our Hospitality, paying attention to music and folk songs that were known in 1831 America. The film itself is a 2K restoration originally made for Serge Bromberg's Lobster Films. There is a history also of the restoration process which shows great care in the presentation.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:14 AM

October 01, 2019

The Spoilers


Ray Enright - 1942
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

This version of The Spoilers is fourth of five film versions, and the best known. Rex Beach's novel was published in 1906, when the Klondike Gold Rush was still fairly recent history. The first film version was made in 1914. Beach himself was a failed prospector who found in gold mine in writing adventure stories that took place in Alaska. His popularity as a writer approximately a century ago might be said to be similar to that of Stephen King today. Beach's last novel, A World in his Arms was nicely filmed by Raoul Walsh. The Spoilers was inspired by true events involving a scheme by a politician and a judge to defraud a group of miners.

Ray Enright was one of the journeymen directors over at Warner Brothers in the 1930s who kept the assembly line going. As such, his version of The Spoiler is strongest with the smart-alec repartee between some of the characters. Marlene Dietrich stars as Cherry, the owner of the bigger bar in Nome. We have a quick shot of one of the world famous legs, and generous opportunities for double-entendre dialogue with Randolph Scott, John Wayne and also Marietta Canty, who appears as Cherry's maid. Scott appears as McNamara, the Gold Commissioner who comes to Nome to supervise legal claims. Wayne is the prospector, Roy Glennister, owner of Nome's biggest mine. There are fights over gold mines, and the inevitable fight over Cherry.

Some of the more dated aspects of The Spoilers may make contemporary viewers wince. There is some obvious action that's been sped up. Some of the scenes with Ms. Canty are problematic, although not with malicious intent given the context of when the film was produced. Without providing spoilers myself, I laughed at one scene between Ms. Canty and John Wayne that may raise a few eyebrows. There is also a throwaway gag done at the expense of one of the film's producers.

The literary heritage of The Spoilers also extends to a cameo appearance by that other Gold Rush chronicler, the poet Robert W. Service. The cast also includes several silent stars including Gibson Gowland, and in larger supporting roles, Richard Barthelmess and Harry Carey. William Farnum, who starred as Roy Glennister in the 1914 film, is seen here as Wheaton, a lawyer who aids Glennister. The Spoilers was also the second of two films starring Dietrich, Scott and Wayne. Dietrich's role could also be seen as non-singing reprisal of her comeback appearance in Destry Rides Again.

Film historian and westerns specialist Toby Roan provides the commentary track for the blu-ray. Most helpful is pointing out many of the film's lesser known supporting cast members as well as their career highlights. Roan discusses the history of the making of this version of The Spoilers, identifying location work, giving credit where it may otherwise be overlooked. Of particular interest is the breakdown of how the extended fist fight between Scott and Wayne was filmed by the uncredited action director, B. Reeves Eason, whose speciality was filming action sequences with multiple cameras. The other extras are a several trailers from other Kino Lorber releases with the three stars, notably with a German trailer for The Blue Angel.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:15 AM