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March 30, 2021



Bernard L. Kowalski - 1969
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

This is essentially a pulp movie from a pulp novel. I do not think anyone ever has read a novel by Harold Robbins or seen a film adaptation from his novels expecting anything more than escapist entertainment. If a Robbins novel is something to be read while lounging by the beach on a summer day, Stiletto, the movie, might ideally be seen at home while sipping martinis.

For me, the real star of Stiletto is composer Sid Ramin. His score, a mix of lounge music, Herb Alpert style trumpet and a smattering of imitation Jimmy Smith doodling on the Hammond organ heard during the opening credit sequence informs the rest of the film. Ramin is most famous for his hit instrumental, "Music to Watch Girls By", back in 1967. No, I will not apologize for the attitudes of a past era. Sure, there are many "what were they thinking?" moments, but the film has be enjoyed on its own terms.

Cesare Cardinali is a mafia hit man from Italy who uses a stiletto knife to murder his victims. His front is his New York City import auto store plus racing customized cars. Cardinali also maintains relationships simultaneously with two women. Cardinali's victims are all mobsters under federal investigation. Wanting to retire from "the society" as it is euphemistically called here proves impossible.

Alex Cord never quite achieved the stardom some expected in the late Sixties, but he is well cast here. Born Alexander Viespi, Jr., Cord is able to slip in and out of speaking Italian in a few scenes. Patrick O'Neal appears as the federal prosecutor who has his eye on Cardinali as well as Cardinali's boss, played by Joseph Wiseman. Barbara McNair and Britt Ekland share Cord's affections. The still relatively unknown Roy Scheider appears as a mob attorney. Also making uncredited appearances are Olympia Dukakis, Charles Durning and M. Emmet Walsh. There is also some celebrity spotting when Cardinali shows up at a movie premiere, integrating footage of Cord with that of Peter O'Toole, Henry Fonda and William Buckley (!), presumably for The Lion in Winter, like Stiletto an Avco Embassy production.

A flashback scene at the beginning that is meant to establish Cardinali's character is a bit unclear. Processed using a sepia tone, the lack of a period appropriate haircut for Cardinali and his victim, a similarly aged man he has cuckolded, makes a time period difficult to ascertain. Also, making the scene dialogue free does not help. There are several moments of ill-advised artistic touches which might be attributed to editor Frank Mazzola, who has previously edited the montage-filled Performance ( filmed in 1968 but shelved until 1970), a frequent collaborator of director Donald Cammell.

The commentary track is from historian David Del Valle and director David DeCoteau. This is mostly casual banter between two friends that touches upon the life and career of Harold Robbins, as well as the careers of the main actors. The two note that due to the pandemic, access to research material has been limited. Still, much like Stiletto, the commentary track is reasonably entertaining.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:59 AM

March 23, 2021

The Projectionist

the projectionist abel.jpg

Abel Ferrara - 2019
Kino Lorber BD Region A

I am not sure why Abel Ferrara chose to title his film The Projectionist. His subject, Nicolas Nicolaou is not noted as having served in that capacity. In a career spanning roughly forty-five years, Nicolaou, in immigrant from Cyprus, has risen from teenage usher, to management, eventually owning a small chain of theaters, and owning real estate in New York City. Ferrara's film ends with a high note, showing Nicolaou's high tech operation, allowing him to remotely run his New York City theaters from his luxurious home in Cypress. It almost goes without saying that this documentary of a man who totally loves film and the film-going experience needs a postscript, if not a full sequel.

I do not know the status of all of Nicoloau's theaters, but the one featured prominently, located in Brooklyn, is closed due to Covid-19. As the expression goes, it is not just business, but personal. There is a new story to be told about how Nicoloau navigates his way through forced closures, retrofitting theaters air conditioning, seating restrictions, even thinner profit margins, and uncertain availability of films with some given quick availablilty on streaming platforms.

Where the film held the most interest for me was Nicoloau and Ferrara taking a tour around Manhattan where the theaters use to stand, intercut with old documentary footage and photographs from the 1970s. I visited many of the theaters seen or mentioned from my time living in New York City between 1969 and 1977. This was when most theaters were single screen, with a handful of exceptions. As a film student, I could easily watch nothing but vintage classics in 35mm prints at several theaters dedicated to cinema's past. I understood Nicoloau and Ferrara's nostalgia for the corner of 59th Street and Third Avenue where on one block stood the Coronet and the smaller Baronet theaters, and nearby, Cinema I and Cinema II. These were theaters that showed films like Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver and other films from the "new" Hollywood as well as the so-called "art" films from Europe.

It is also fun to hear the stories of Nicoloau's former employers, how he got his first theater, and tales of a long gone New York City. Part of Nicoloau's chain, both as an employee and eventual theater owner, were several porno theaters, both straight and gay. Nicoloau has a live and let live attitude towards both what was happening on screen as well among the audiences.

More time is spent in an actual projection booth in Matt Barry's short, Cinevangelist: A Life in Revival Film. This bonus extra is a recording of George Figgs, telling about how movies took over his life as a young boy in Baltimore, some of the history of the exhibition of art and revival films, and his own operation of a small revival theater, The Orpheum. A second short could probably be made simply of Figgs recounting his association with Baltimore legend John Waters.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:50 AM

March 19, 2021

Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker


Chris McKim - 2021
Produced by WOW Docs/World of Wonder's Randy Barbato & Fenton Bailey
Kino Lorber

In case anyone is wondering, the film title does not have asterisks, and I take full responsibility should there actually be someone reading this who gets offended.

My own awareness of artist David Wojnarowicz comes from reading about him in the performance art magazine, High Performance. This was in the late 1980s when congressional Republicans, looking for a new enemy following the apparent end of the Cold War, turned to attacking artists. In particular, artists and artists that received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, using tax dollars for art that was deemed objectionable, usually for reasons of sexuality. David Wojnarowicz was one of the artists cited for his artwork infomed by being gay and living in what was then considered a rougher part of the Lower East Side in New York City, between 1979 and 1992.

The documentary is cobbled together from Wojnarowicz's collection of cassette tapes of his own speaking, recorded phone calls, and city sounds, combined with his own Super 8 movies. Added to that are the voiceover recollections of friends and relatives, as well as photos by friend and former lover, the photographer Peter Hujar. Wojnarowicz's life is the story of a difficult childhood, with a street hustler turned self-taught artist and writer, who achieves greater notoriety than commercial success. While there had always been a political edge to much of Wojnarowicz's work, it became more pronounced and urgent when he was diagnosed with AIDS.

Chris McKim also incorporates other documentary footage and photos from more recent sources that try to give some contemporary resonance to his material. The various forms of bigotry and homophobia of the past have not gone away. Our own still fresh memories of how Covid-19 has been handled or mishandled show are another example of government indifference to an epidemic. But I also feel that even the briefest inclusion of Donald Trump, while well intended, is also a too easy target of anger.

As it is, the Trump connection is not entirely unwarranted. One of the stories is of Wojnarowicz getting a commission to create a piece in the basement of the brownstone of Robert and Adriana Mnuchin. The Mnuchins are high end art dealers and collectors. Their son, Steven, was Donald Trump's Secretary of the Treasury. Wojnarowicz gladly accepts the money and does the work, but part of his assemblage includes detritus from the New York City streets, and to Adriana Mnuchin's horror, live cockroaches.

Wojnarowicz is available for streaming on the Kino Marquee app.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:25 AM

March 09, 2021

The Don is Dead

the don is dead.jpg

Richard Fleischer - 1973
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Time may be an advantage to more clearly assessing The Don is Dead. At the time of release, the film was one of many mafia themed stories that followed after the massive success of Francis Ford Coppola's film of The Godfather. It is certainly no coincidence that the top billed star, Anthony Quinn was one of the several names considered for the role of Vito Corleone. Fleischer's film is neither epic in scope or ambition. The literary source is the 1972 novel by the prolific genre author, Marvin Albert, written under the pseudonym of Nick Quarry. Albert also gets the main credit for the screenplay with assistance from Christopher Trumbo and Michael Butler. Stripped of the criminal aspects, the two main narratives are from classic archtypes.

The film begins with Frank, the son of one of the crime chiefs, finding out his father has just died. The father was one of three men in control of organized crime in an unnamed city. At a national meeting of the various heads of the families, a two way split is agreed upon between Angelo DiMorra and the consigliere representing the imprisoned Jimmy Bernardo, with Frank named as Angelo's son. The consigliere, Luigi Orlando has his own ambitions to take over all the operations with the assistance of Bernardo's wife. Setting up Angelo with a young would-be singer, Ruby, who was in a relationship with Frank, Orlando initiates a rivalry between "father" and "son" that escalates to a multi-sided gang war.

The Don is Dead was produced by Hal Wallis, his penultimate production. While there was probably the desire to cash in on the then current popularity of movies about organized crime, in the case of Wallis, the theme of generational conflicts can be seen in such films as The Roaring Twenties and I Walk Alone. With Robert Forster and Frederic Forrest taking over from Anthony Quinn, there are the faint echoes of Humphrey Bogart pushing aside James Cagney, and Kirk Douglas edging out Burt Lancaster in the older films. As for Richard Fleischer, this is another work for hire during his most productive period. Several Fleischer films, primarily his crime stories, feature women with flexible senses of loyalty towards the men in their lives. That said, Fleischer has had a tendency to be attracted to violent subjects and the brutality here is not that big a leap from his film noir work that first attracted attention. Unlike his Armored Car Robbery (1950) which pushed the envelope regarding on-screen violence, Fleischer is relatively restrained in the depicting of the various shooting, bombings and beatings, neither indulging in graphic close-ups nor letting the camera linger longer than necessary. If not especially visually stylish, Fleischer's hand is in his use of upward tilting shots of his actors in some scenes.

What adds to the fun is spotting there various actors in supporting roles including Victor Argo, Sid Haig, Abe Vigoda and Vic Tayback. Most of the film was shot on studio sets, most glaringly with a medieval castle wall standing in for a prison exterior. Robert Forster's wardrobe is a reminder of some the more dubious men's fashions of the early Seventies. There is also one unfortunate young actress whose dress seems inspired by a pre-coronation Disney princess.

I have to admit frustration with the commentary track by Sergio Mims, considering his credentials as a film critic and programmer. With several critics and historians who have set the bar in their presentations, for me, Mims' commentary is not as well organized as it could be, nor as informative as it should be. Setting aside a few gaffes, my biggest complaint is that Mims' arguments for Richard Fleischer's status as an auteur is weak. Simply repeating that Fleischer was always professional regardless of working in different genres is not enough. And in the case of someone who primarily worked as a director for hire, not every film may share similarities in theme or style, but if one looks close enough, patterns emerge. While there is no extensive study on the films directed by Richard Fleischer, there is writing that can serve as a springboard. A reminder that over fifty years ago, Andrew Sarris wrote, "Responsible critics have advanced Fleischer as a candidate for (Raoul) Walsh's laurels in the adventure category." That was written prior to Fleischer's most productive period. Fleischer's work has been reassessed since his death in 2006. At the time of a 2008 retrospective of Fleischer's films, Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times that the director was " . . . less interested in the aberrations of a single personality than in the unhealthy interactions of an entire society." While that line was in reference to Violent Saturday, it could well apply to several other films. Kehr goes on to mention another critical evaluation - "For the French critic Jacques Lourcelles, one of Fleischer's most articulate admirers, the recurring theme of his work is society slipping into decadence." While writing about Barabbas for Film Comment, Nick Pinkerton points to another recurring theme, " . . . the struggle for self-determination." in The Don is Dead, this is personified by Robert Forster's presumptive heir and Frederick Forrest's independent operator who initially is looking to go straight. That Forrest's fate may be sealed is suggested by the final two shots, a dissolve from a close-up of Anthony Quinn to that of Forrest, the newly appointed successor to the throne.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:24 AM

March 04, 2021



Nurith Aviv - 2020
Icarus Films Home Video R1 DVD

As the expression goes for personal relationships, "it's complicated". Yiddish is a documentary about the language, about several poets in the periods between the world wars who wrote in Yiddish, and the several scholars who recite the poems.

My own limited knowledge comes from having maternal grandparents who spoke Yiddish to each other, and my picking up a few words from them. There was also reading Leo Rosten's hilarious book, The Joys of Yiddish with its vernacular usage for English language readers. And of course, the writings by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Aviv's documentary follows a formula of establishing a city - Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, among others. We see someone entering their office from the street. The camera then settles on that person telling a bit about themselves and their relationship to Yiddish. The scholars are generally on the young side, mostly having come to Yiddish through language or literary studies. Aviv then films each person on one half of the frame while the other half has the English translation of the poem being recited.

We briefly see portraits of the various poets cited: Anna Margolin, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Devorah Vogel, and others. Some of these poets were part of the Jewish community in New York City. What I would have liked to have seen, where available, would have been more archival photos of the poets and where they lived at the time.

What is of interest, and this is something I. B. Singer discusses, is that status of Yiddish. For some Jews, Yiddish was considered a déclassé language, a poor relation to Hebrew and German. The scholars who appear here mostly come from families where Yiddish was only spoken by older generations, and where use of Yiddish carried negative connotations. Aviv gives more time to her scholars first person narratives, while the poets get short shrift. Where Yiddish is of interest seems more academic than cinematic.

The DVD comes with a short, Egg Cream. Made by Nora Miller in part with older video footage by father Peter Miller, this is simultaneously the history of the fountain drink as well as the search for the perfect egg cream. For those unfamiliar with this particular beverage, it was an inexpensive warm weather concoction with neither egg nor cream, but a frothy mix of chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer water. The drink has been associated with the time when drug stores had soda fountains, with a Jewish immigrant clientele. I admit to never having had an egg cream. There was a bit of nostalgia for me in briefly seeing a shot of Gem Spa, another victim of Covid-19 and rising rents in New York City, conveniently just around the corner from my Lower East Side apartment many years ago.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:22 AM

March 01, 2021

The Stylist


Jill Gevargizian - 2020
Arrow Films

Jill Gevargizian made The Stylist because she had not seen a horror film about a hair stylist. In some ways her film has a few similarities with Roman Polanski's Repulsion. While the older film is about a manicurist, both occupations are jobs that are usually done by women on behalf of other women in the name of beauty. The two films share moments where the presence of a male is psychologically disruptive. Polanski's Carol and Gevargizian's Claire progressively become more deranged, though both filmmakers have chosen not to provide more than the barest of hints as to the source of their respective traumas.

What Gevargizian brings to her film is both her own professional experience as a stylist as well as a perspective that would be more likely absent from a male director. Claire is a youngish woman whose victims are primarily her after hours clients, women whose lives appear more exciting than her own. Claire takes on the personality of her victims by donning their scalps, all neatly removed with surgical precision. What Gevargizian does is devote part of her film to the actual job of being a hair stylist, giving it the kind of attention some horror filmmakers would only use a kind of gimmick. A montage of Claire at work almost becomes fetishistic, but what is conveyed is the sense of intimacy involved. The contradictions of the job are given their visual correlative where the requirements are both a degree of physical intimacy simultaneous to a professional relationship. Especially where small talk sometimes reveals personal information, the line between work and friendship become blurred for Claire.

The last chapter of the anthology, Women Make Horror is devoted to women who started out as "fangirls" prior to making horror films. It may be a few years before there are more films, filmmakers, and a deeper examination into this phenomenon with genre filmmakers who do not necessarily have formal filmmaking backgrounds. In Gevargizian's case, she has a history of presenting horror films in her home of Kansas City, Missouri, as well as making several short films, available to be seen on Vimeo. The film was shot entirely in Kansas City with local actors. For myself, it was unnerving to see that lead actor Najarra Townsend looks very much like the writer/director.

In any case there is no question that Jill Gevargizian is ready for the big leagues, this is an especially polished debut feature. This is especially made clear in the use of the split screens with Claire texting with client turned victim, Olivia. There is also one nice use of dividing the camera frame with Claire on the left side of the screen, hidden by a shower curtain, while another woman enters and leaves on the right hand side of the frame. I will be curious to see where Ms. Gevargizian goes from here.

The Stylist is currently available to stream through the Arrow app in the U.S. and Canada, and Amazon Prime/Arrow in the U.K.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:27 AM