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December 15, 2020

Puzzle of a Downfall Child

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Jerry Schatzberg - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Especially for those who were not around at the time, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a perfect example of the "New Hollywood" film. Shortly after the unexpectedly massive success of Easy Rider, Universal, usually the most conservative of the major studios, scrambled to sign up a number of younger or more independent filmmakers, including Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Monte Hellman and Milos Forman. The filmmakers general were given free reign on modest budgets. What connected these films was a kind of eclecticism the borrowed from the French Nouvelle Vague, experimental films of Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger, among others, and cinema verite. The films, some of which have attained cult or classic status over the years, never brought in the audience that the studio suits were banking on. Universal was financially saved with the release of the squarest film of 1970, Airport.

The film is not really a puzzle, but it is extremely fragmented. Bookended as a photographer recording the memories of a former top model in her Long Island beachside home, the film not only weaves out between past and present, but also with images that may be disconnected with the model's narration of of her life at a given moment. The photographer, Aaron, and the model, Lou Andreas, were loosely inspired by the real life friendship of Schatzberg with 1950s model Anne St. Marie. Lou Andreas is the self-chosen professional name, possibly inspired by Lou Andreas-Salome and her sense of independence. A couple of Vogue magazine covers indicate Lou's appearances in 1954 and 1955, while a scene taking place in a bar that includes a televised boxing match seems to be from the early Sixties. Belying the appearance of a free-wheeling approach to time and reality, Schatzberg, in his feature directorial debut, wrote the screenplay with Carole Eastman, credit with her pseudonym of Adrien Joyce. Again, circling back to the "New Hollywood", Eastman was the screenwriter of the moment with the critical and commercial success of Five East Pieces that same year.

The film is also a showcase for Faye Dunaway as Lou. Some strands of autobiography are here as Schatzberg and Dunaway had a very public relationship a few years earlier. At age 28, Dunaway still looked passable as the younger, naive Lou navigating her way through her first professional shoot where she is upstaged by a falcon. Where Schatzberg misjudged was having Dunaway also appear as the fifteen year old Lou in flashbacks. Serving as a verbal counterpoint to the seeming freeform structure of the film is how Dunaway speaks her lines with measured, deliberate cadences during the interview. It is as if Lou, following a life that spirals into a descent of near self-destruction, has control of her life by parsing a few words that slowly emerge as a completed sentence. Even at that, with the film told from her point of view, Lou is the unreliable narrator.

Character actor Barry Primus was officially introduced here in the role of Aaron. Roy Scheider, just a year away from his star making turn in The French Connection appears as Mark, Lou's jilted fiance. Viveca Lindfors plays an older fashion photographer who may have been partially inspired by Inge Morath. While Schatzberg had his own ideas of how his film should look, he collaborated with cinematographer Adam Holender on three more New York City based films. Following this first film, Schatzberg subsequent work has been more conventional in story telling. His best decade critically was the Seventies with Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow, both with Al Pacino, with The Seduction of Joe Tynan closing that decade with one of his few commercial successes.

The commentary track by Daniel Kramer and Bill Ackerman primarily covers the pre-production history of the film and the collaboration of Schatzberg with Holender and editor Evan Lottman. Puzzle was Lottman's second credit as editor, working again with Schatzberg up through Honeysuckle Rose, and impressing uncredited producer Paul Newman enough to be tasked with editing Newman's film of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. There is also discussion of Faye Dunaway's film career and how Puzzle anticipates her own being aged out of starring roles. A brief interview with Schatzberg, done remotely by video, has its high point in featuring several of the fashion photos Schatzberg had shot between 1957 and 1960. A brief "Trailers from Hell" segment with screenwriter Larry Karasweski is also included. There is also the studio imposed opening credit sequence which attempts to make Lou appear as a victim rather than allowing the viewers to draw their own conclusions. The blu-ray comes almost to the day that Puzzle was originally given its theatrical release fifty years ago. I had initially seen the film theatrically when it was already six years old and was curious as to if it was as good as I had remembered. Puzzle was a critical and financial failure at the time of release in the U.S., finding its audience in France as well as a handful of cinephiles here. Hopefully, this new blu-ray will help broaden the film's critical reputation.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:19 AM

December 11, 2020

To the Ends of the Earth

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Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari
Kyoshi Kurosawa - 2019

For those who have been following Kiyoshi Kurosawa's career, The the Ends of the Earth is in many ways an anomaly. While there are some brief moments of dread, this is not a horror film. The closest the film comes to anything considered apocalyptic is with a scene of a large industrial fire in far away Tokyo, seen on television news. The narrative, such as it is, is episodic, with no mysteries to unravel or dramatic resolution. The conditions for making the film are unusual in that Kurosawa took on the task of making a film that was to commemorate twenty-five years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan, and the seventieth anniversary of the Navoi Theater in Tashkent, partially built by Japanese prisoners of war.

A small Japanese film crew has gone to Uzbekistan to provide something like a tourist's view of the country. An attempt to film a legendary two meter long fish comes up empty, with an Uzbek fisherman complaining that the presence of the young female reporter has kept the fish away. The reporter, Yoko, has her own misadventures, traveling on her own in Samarkand and Tashkent. Both times, she gets lost walking through what appear to be maze-like streets, the proverbial stranger in a strange land. As it turns out, Yoko's fears are entirely her own. There are some semi-comic moments as with Yoko gamely allowing herself to be filmed three times on a small amusement park ride that seems more fit for astronaut or test pilot training. The crew becomes desperate to find the kind of subjects of interest for an audience that most likely never ventures far from their own neighborhood.

Kurosawa breaks from reality first when Yoko imagines herself singing Edith Piaf's "Hymn de l'amour" at the Navoi Theater, reprising the song at the end, in an ending that recalls classic musicals. In it's roundabout way, the film is about Yoko coming to terms with herself regarding her own aspirations, as well as learning how to navigate through cultural and language barriers.

I am not sure how close Google's translation of the title is, but I got "The End of the Trip, the Beginning of the Trip". The concept of a physical journey in some way mirroring an internal journey is in itself not original, but that seems to be what is conveyed by the Japanese title. The English language title comes from the Edith Piaf song, written after the death of her lover, French boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash. Uzbekistan is still a relatively remote and unknown country as well. Kurosawa has commented on how he changed his screenplay as the country he was filming in was different than the country he imagined.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:22 AM

December 08, 2020

The Return of the Musketeers

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Richard Lester - 1989
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There are two set pieces in The Return of the Musketeers that are as good as anything from Richard Lester's previous films. The opening scene takes place at an inn. Roy Kinnear, as a down on his luck Planchet, is inching on top of a beam, with a fork attached to a sword, hoping to swipe food from the diners below him. His bungled attempts and pratfalls result in a food fight among the inn's patrons. Later, three of the reunited musketeers plus Raoul, son of Athos, get into a sword fight that involves trap doors, a disappearing staircase and a variety of mechanical booby traps, suggesting a Buster Keaton room in mid-17th Century France.

I am not sure how well this film would work for those who have not seen Lester's Three Musketeers (1974) and Four Musketeers (1975). Based on Alexandre Dumas' Twenty Years On, the film brings back most of the original stars plus George MacDonald Fraser writing the screenplay. One change from the novel was that of villainess Milady de Winter's son instead be a sword wielding daughter. In this case there was canny casting of a still youthful Kim Cattrall as the offspring of Faye Dunaway from the earlier films. Even Charlton Heston has a cameo appearance of sorts with a glance at the portrait of him as Cardinal Richilieu. Even with limited commercial prospects, there is enough here to suggest that Return had the potential to be better had it not been for the tragic death of Roy Kinnear in mid-production.

Like the best of Lester's comic films, there is the humorous asides uttered by characters in the margins in addition to the sight gags. One other inspired moment involves the musketeers taking over a hot air balloon manned by Cyrano de Bergerac, unceremoniously dumping him into a stream while flying to a castle. That the main narrative involves intrigue within the monarchy, with a sub-plot involving Oliver Cromwell is mostly besides the point. While it is nice to see Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain and Michael York reunited onscreen, they are almost completely upstaged by the eyepatch wearing Christopher Lee, Philippe Noiret and especially the arch Geraldine Chaplin. As in the earlier Musketeer films, Lester takes the realities of life in 17th Century France and explores the comic possibilities. The combination of inventive staging of sword fights and verbal jousting are what is of interest and amusement.

I would agree with a couple key points in film critic Peter Tonguette's commentary track. First, the years passed since the production of the film have lessened what ever pall was cast by Roy Kinnear's untimely death. Second, The Return of the Musketeers should probably be considered Richard Lester's last film. Lester documented Paul McCartney in concert in Get Back (1991) but seems even by his own estimation to have gone through the motions of being the director of record. Even in comparison to for-hire works like Mouse on the Moon or Finders Keepers, Get Back seems more like an afterthought to a filmography. Lester's career is discussed in conjunction with several of his onscreen and production collaborators. There are production secrets revealed other than a somewhat detailed history of how the film was produced with truncated budget and Universal's shelving of the planned U.S. theatrical release following two disappointing previews. I was glad to see The Return of the Musketeers better than its reputation had suggested. Lester completists should be happy with this release which nicely includes the original montage of Universal logos commemorating the studio's 75th anniversary.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:31 AM

December 01, 2020

Beasts Clawing at Straws

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Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul
Kim Yong-hoon - 2020
Artsploitation Films

For me, the big mystery regarding Beasts Clawing at Straws was the absence of substantial information on writer-director Kim. An English language article from South Korea answers some of those questions. There is a certain amount of familiarity in the film that suggests influences beyond those that Kim admits to with the depiction of violence, the narrative structure, and the use of traveling shots. While I do not share the enthusiasm of some critics, it is safe to say this is a promising feature debut.

The first shot is of a designer travel bag, carried by an unknown person seen only from below the shoulders. The bag is shoved into a locker of a bath house. Checking locker prior to opening, an attendant finds the bag, and gives in to his curiosity. The bag is almost full of bank wrapped money. The film is divided into chapters, although within each chapter are what first appear to be three unrelated stories. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of what at first appear to be disconnected events. Nothing is as random as it appears. What follows is a pursuit of the bag, where avarice causes several people to make bad situations even worse.

Kim has the film take place in Pyeongtaek, a port city along the northwestern side of South Korea. Far from the glitz and glamour of Seoul, the location, as seen here, suggest a dead-end environment, a place of limited ambitions and opportunities. The locker attendant, who appears to bicycle a good distance to and from work, lives with his sister and incontinent grandmother in a run down house in a desolate area. Several of the characters who live in the city live in cramped apartments that echo the urban reality of being most likely over-priced while under-sized. Even the exteriors seem claustrophobic.

I have not been alone in finding comparisons also to films by Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. Kim does not indulge in any pop culture references. What he shares is making most of his characters even more fatally foolish in their respective choices, with his two most villainous characters done in by their grandiose delusions. The more easily squeamish may relax in knowing that Kim keeps the most grotesque moments offscreen, suggested by brief sprays of blood.

Of the cast, the best known would be Jeon Do-yeon as the manager of a bar where men pay to drink with attractive young women. Jeon starred in Secret Sunshine, part of the first wave of films from South Korea to get serious international attention. I would also advise viewers to stick around for the nicely animated end credits.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:52 AM