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Last Build Date: Wed, 30 Aug 2017 12:30:00 +0000


Will David Lynch Ever Make Ronnie Rocket?

Wed, 30 Aug 2017 12:30:00 +0000

David Lynch first made a name for himself on the midnight movie circuit with 1977’s surrealist nightmare Eraserhead , which he wrote and directed while studying at the American Film Institute (AFI). The filmmaker then chose 1980’s The Elephant Man as the follow-up to his first feature-length film. This, however, wasn’t his original intention. Shortly after the success of Eraserhead , Lynch wrote the screenplay for Ronnie Rocket, which he has described as “an absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence. It’s about electricity.” He’s also said it’s “about a three-foot tall guy with red hair and physical problems, and about 60-cycle alternating current electricity.” Lynch planned to direct the film, but due to concerns about securing financial backing, he decided to shelve the project. After the release of 1984’s Dune , a disappointing adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction masterpiece, and 1986’s neo-noir classic Blue Velvet , Lynch tried to get the ball rolling again, but to no avail. Possible cast members included Brad Dourif, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nance, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton, and Dean Stockwell, all of whom appeared in his previous films. The titular role would also have gone to Michael J. Anderson, who was later cast in 2001’s Mulholland Drive . Ronnie Rocket’s reputation has since been compared to Sergei Eisenstein’s An American Tragedy and Michel Powell’s The Tempest , both famously un-produced films. Lynch fans have even made their own fan videos and posters for the long-fabled movie, which contains classic Lynchian motifs such as industrial art design, 1950s facades, and physical deformities. Lynch’s groundbreaking television series Twin Peaks premiered on ABC in 1989. The show, however, was cancelled after the second season, and later followed by 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me . While not critically acclaimed at the time of its release, the Criterion Collection has decided to reissue the prequel film this October. Eleven years after his last feature film, 2006’s Island Empire , Lynch returned to Twin Peaks . The revival series, which features many of the original cast members, along with countless new ones, premiered on Showtime this May, and is scheduled to run until 3 September. Perhaps, Agent Dale Cooper will now find some kind of peace. Being that it took Lynch 25 years to revisit a story that fans thought would go unfinished, maybe its time for him to revisit Ronnie Rocket. Filmmaker Jonathan Caoutte has expressed interest in directing the film, but believes Lynch will eventually make the movie. “It’s his baby,” the Walk Away Renee director said. Nevertheless, Lynch has expressed concerns about the script needing more work. He explained that Ronnie Rocket is set in the world of the smokestack industry, and unfortunately for a lot of industrial workers, that world doesn’t exist anymore. “It was still really alive in the ’50s and ’60s, but this industry is going away,” Lynch told BOMB in 2013. “And then a thing happened. This thing called graffiti. Graffiti to me is one of the worst things that has happened to the world. It completely ruined the mood of places. Graffiti kills the possibility to go back in time and have the buildings be as they were. Cheap storm windows and graffiti have ruined the world for ‘Ronnie Rocket’.” Two drafts of the script can be read on David Lynch Unproduced Films, along with another unproduced screenplay, One Saliva Bubble, written by Lynch and Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost. Ronnie Rocket feels more like Eraserhead than any other Lynch film. And like Eraserhead , it's difficult to see a film like this being made today. The art house theaters are dying, and its unlikely Lynch would ever release his film, one that has surely been keep[...]

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'Hopscotch' is Anchored in Walter Matthau's Playful, Irascible Personality

Tue, 22 Aug 2017 10:30:00 +0000

After their popular romantic comedy House Calls (1978), Walther Matthau and Glenda Jackson reteamed for 1980's Hopscotch , thus proving it was possible to make a film of Julio Cortazar's milestone of mischievous modernism. Just kidding. The film was actually based on a serious novel by Brian Garfield, best known as the author of Death Wish . The author strongly objected to the violent vigilante drama made from that novel, as he felt the film sent the opposite message of what he'd written, and he insisted on being involved in adapting his Edgar-winning Best Novel Hopscotch for the screen. He wrote the first screenplay with Bryan Forbes for the latter to direct with star Warren Beatty, and as projects will, that plan dissolved and reconfigured until he was revising it considerably for director Ronald Neame and star Walter Matthau. With his novel, Hopscotch , Garfield challenged himself to write a suspenseful spy tale in which nobody gets killed. That docket is preserved in the film, which comes across as a handsome lark very much anchored in Matthau's playful, irascible personality. It was even Matthau, according to Neame, who wrote the cafe scene introducing Jackson's character. Matthau, as a hardcore Mozart buff, was responsible for having the score be adapted from Mozart, plus the famous aria from Puccini's Madama Butterfly . Matthau even got parts for his son David Matthau and stepdaughter Lucy Saroyan, the latter in a non-traditional role as a no-nonsense pilot, in return for which Matthau relinquished his personal prejudice against shooting during Munich's Oktoberfest. As a Jew who'd lost family in the Holocaust, he had serious emotions about working in Germany. So what's the story? It's really nothing, and that's largely the point. When veteran CIA field agent Miles Kendig (Matthau) is reassigned to desk work by an angry foul-mouthed bureaucratic boss (Ned Beatty) who doesn't appreciate his experience, Miles goes AWOL and abruptly begins writing his tell-all memoirs of scandalous blunders and secret operations. He sends copies to several international agencies to stir up a hornet's nest or open a can of worms or some similarly appropriate invertebrate metaphor. The parallel between authorship and "spyship" is underlined by Kendig's manipulation of his puppet-like characters, and even further by the use of names borrowed from other spy novelists: Ludlum, Follett and, in the case of Parker Westlake, both an author and his famous character. The female pilot's name, Carla, could be a nod to John Le Carré's male Karla. Two set pieces feature a lot of firepower, yet the joke in both cases is that these routines are wasteful and literally hollow, directed at objects with nobody inside. Jackson's acerbic, stylish presence as a wealthy widow and ex-lover living in Austria helped sell the movie to a receptive public, even though hers is an undersized supporting role of a woman in the wings. Absent from the book, her character was shoehorned into the screenplay. She has less screen time than Beatty or than Sam Waterston as Kendig's sympathetic replacement, although not less than Herbert Lom as the old-school Russian spymaster who's practically an old friend. Jackson and Saroyan function as signs of intelligent, in-control women surrounded by men behaving foolishly. Neame is a happy example of an Award-winning cinematographer who was also a successful producer and director. As such, he was a veteran of spy larks and everything else. His Gambit (1966) is one I'd love to see on Blu-ray, while his fondly remembered A Man Could Get Killed from the same year is one I'd love to see on disc in any format -- where the heck is it? He and photographer Arthur Ibbetson made Hopscotch in widescreen in several locations, from Salzburg to Savannah, Georgia. The movie could be better, the dialogue more scintillating, the pace quicker. It's a modest diversio[...]

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How It Slips Away: 'The Breaking Point' Crosses Hemingway With Noir

Mon, 21 Aug 2017 10:29:00 +0000

Given that many people know American novels, to the extent that they know them, from the film versions (if any) more than from reading them, most people know Ernest Hemingway's 1937 novel To Have and Have Not from Howard Hawks' 1944 film, which introduced Lauren Bacall to a dazzled world and an equally bewitched Humphrey Bogart. At 19, she slinked across the screen, all hair and elbows, and delivered come-hither lines like "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." Less well known, unfortunately, is the 1950 remake, which happens to be a much more faithful adaption and therefore more pleasing to Hemingway and his readers. It's ironic, then, that it uses a different title, The Breaking Point , probably in an effort to avoid unfair comparisons to the previous hit. Criterion has now issued that remake on Blu-ray for the delectation of fans of Hemingway, of excellent noir films, and of intense star John Garfield who, as always, is basically playing John Garfield. While sticking more closely to Hemingway's story, Ranald McDougall's script updates it to a postwar 1950 context. Garfield's Harry Morgan is a Florida fishing boat captain failing to make ends meet while trying to support a wife (Phyllis Thaxter) and two girls, and the economic pressure drives him to flirting with shady activities. A blonde, brazen Patricia Neal plays a femme who's not really that fatale. She walks into Harry's life with a big job that might pay a few bills and prevent Morgan from feeling desperate and emasculated. Whether we've seen or read the story before, we sense things won't go well, and we ache for these sympathetic, floundering people presented to us gravely and without cynicism, even when cynical themselves. One of Hollywood's great under-used actors, Juano Hernandez, plays Morgan's partner and friend. His character occasions what Leonard Maltin correctly calls the haunting final image, by which point he's stolen the film's emotional core from Garfield and Neal. It's always a special pleasure to see Hernandez. His policy of refusing roles that he considered demeaning or stereotypical to African-Americans meant that he didn't work as often as he should have. On the other hand, when he does show up in the credits, you know it's an above average role. His most astonishing appearance is in the previous year's Intruder in the Dust , Clarence Brown's adaptation of a William Faulkner novel that was one of the rare movies that pleased Faulkner. The year 1950 was a banner one for Hernandez. Aside from The Breaking Point , director Michael Curtiz and producer Jerry Wald also used him in the excellent Young Man with a Horn and he also made Jacques Tourneur's Stars in My Crown , one of my favorite Americana movies. He'd appear in another Hemingway film, Martin Ritt's Adventures of a Young Man , being among the brighter points in that minor effort. That was another Wald production; he was an ambitious and socially conscious producer responsible for adapting many books to the screen with varying degrees of success. The great Curtiz directs with surprising flexibility even for him, on some real locations (in California, not Florida), though of course, this Casablanca director manages to get in some shady bar scenes with the shadows of fans turning over the characters. Curtiz would be lost without his shadows. His black and white photographer is the equally protean Ted McCord, whose work ranges from John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) to the color and Cinemascope of Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955) and Robert Wise's The Sound of Music (1965). This excellent film has previously been available on disc as an on-demand DVD-R from Warner Archive. Feel free to favor this 2K digitial restoration, which includes an interview with Garfield's daughter, appreciative critic[...]

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Jerry Lewis - GENIUS!

Mon, 21 Aug 2017 09:36:00 +0000

Editor's Note : Originally published 7 September 2009. Jerry Lewis remains an elusive cinematic figure. For most, he's a joke, the punchline to a slam on the foolish French, or the kooky caricature of a nerd screeching “HEY LAAAAADY!” at the top of their nasal voice. Others have a more proper perspective, recognizing both his work with former partner Dean Martin (they remain the biggest phenomenon and unquantifiable gold standard in the now dead art of night club entertainment) and his tireless efforts on behalf of muscular dystrophy (summed up by this weekend's telethon). But when it comes to film, especially those he's personally written and directed, he stays a fool, a jester as jerk de-evovling the artform into nothing more than senseless silly slapstick. It doesn't matter that Lewis authored one of the standard textbooks on the craft ( The Total Film-Maker , 1971), or conceived technical innovations that revolutionized the production process. Few see that he's actually a bridge between the old fashioned chuckles of Hollywood's Golden Era and the more experimental, existential humor of the post-modern period. Instead, he seems forever fated to be the dopey dude who takes the pratfall and pulls his face like putty -- that's all. Sadly, such a sentiment diminishes a great deal of very good work. While it's true that Lewis lacks contextual sophistication -- especially when it comes to subject matter and storyline -- he is a procedural and visionary marvel. Thanks to a famous collaboration with Warner Brothers animator turned director Frank Tashlin (who's really the aesthetic lynchpin for the look of most Lewis films) and his own turns in the creator's chair, we can witness the rise, fall, and unjust dismissal of an amazing artist. We begin by ignoring his first two solo efforts -- the oddly dark The Delicate Delinquent (nothing more than a Martin and Lewis project gone sour) and the military farce The Sad Sack (good, but not quite there). After that, we can trace his talent, his tenacity, and his tendency toward self-indulgence. Hopefully, this will paint a better, more believable portrait of Jerry Lewis, an image beyond the frog-mouthed braying and the pantomime typewriter routines. For all his flaws, his hubris and his ego, the man could really make movies. The proof lies in the following list of legitimate cinematic statements, starting with: Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin) For many this stands as the first 'legitimate' Jerry Lewis film. It's not a leftover from his partnership with Martin, and marks the moment when Tashlin's cartoon conceit steps in. It becomes the standard for most of the comedian's work for the next two decades. While sappy and saccharine, it's also the start of greater things to come. The Geisha Boy (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin) While far from politically correct (watch out for lots of slant eyed Asian awkwardness) and hitting, again, on the “Lewis with a foundling” formula that would guide his initial output, this otherwise ordinary film represents something miserable, not memorable. The Bellboy (1960) After the routine returns of Don't Give Up the Ship and Visit to a Small Planet , Lewis was looking for a way to express himself without the interference of studio stooges who didn't understand his style. In the meantime, Paramount wanted to save his upcoming Cinderfella for the Fall. So during a nightclub appearance in Miami, he made an agreement with the studio to create this on the fly homage to silent slapstick comedy. It became Lewis's breakthrough. It also marks the introduction of 'video assist' -- the use of video playback to allow a director to test how a scene plays and how the compositions work. Yes, Lewis is credited for creating the now-obligatory tool. C[...]

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Gremlins and the Housewife in 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark'

Thu, 17 Aug 2017 11:30:00 +0000


This cheap, creepy, simple TV movie was never forgotten by those who caught it because it effectively pares its fears into one compact little bone in the throat. The movie's live wire, or raw nerve, or whatever you call the thing that makes it rise above its limits, is the feminist element of the disbelieved "hysterical woman", someone poised between restless wifery and women's lib.

In Nigel McKeand's script, the fears and ills of the common housewife isn't a subtext; it's the text of most conversations. Sally Farnum (Kim Darby) opines that Alex (Jim Hutton) only married her "to be the perfect hostess" and that he concentrates all his energy on his career (translation: no sex). He's patronizing, dismissive, or angry at the problems she's supposedly causing with her irrational behavior.

In defense, she counter-patronizes. "I'm a perfect woman, stubborn and curious," she says to the crotchety handyman (William Demarest), and instead of telling an irate husband she's just seen monsters in the bathroom, she makes herself apologetic: "Alex, I think you're right about this house. I think we should sell it." He's happy at her capitulation and comforts his little girl. She has to handle the men in their language.

The first person to take her seriously is best friend Joan (Barbara Anderson), who goes from reassuring Sally that she imagines everything and that all women are in the same bind to crisply refuting Alex's hysteria. Too bad she's useless in an emergency, but horror films of this period are structured on the inevitable resolution instead of the last-minute cop-out.

Like all haunted-house films, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is more or less conscious of what Stephen King called "real estate horror", as the cost of renovations becomes an issue. In a real sense, it's the house itself that wants to pull the neurotic woman into its maw, like Hill House in The Haunting of Hill House , and absorb her whole as a literal housewife; it's the pay-off of her desire to claim this property and make a space for herself in the basement, while her husband would rather live in a city apartment.

Director John Newland was familiar with the trope of the disbelieved woman, as it was an element often featured in his classic anthology series One Step Beyond . He has no trouble handling it here, and although the movie shows its budget or lack thereof, he pulls it nimbly through its 75 minutes.

This TV movie arrived at last as a made-on-demand disc to cash in on its glossy 2011 remake. It even sports a bonus in the form of a jokey commentary by fans Steve Barton, Jeffrey Riddick and Sean Abley.

The remake, scripted by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Troy Nixey, bypasses the woman treated like a child and goes directly to having a child who feels unloved. It efficiently hits many of the same beats: gremlins under the house, handyman who knows too much, woman down the rabbit hole. Infected by Newland’s version as a boy, Del Toro had been trying to remake it for years and elements of it crop up in The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006).

I feel that the original film looks cheap and flat, yet it's socially relevant with an air of sick dread, while the remake looks rich and stylish and has sympathy for a child's fear, yet feels flat dramatically.

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'The Story of 90 Coins' Tackles Imperfect Romance

Wed, 16 Aug 2017 08:30:00 +0000


Cinema is not interested in perfect love stories. Cinema is interested in the wreckage, in the torment, in the heartbreak. Whether it's delivered via illness, accident, infidelity or mere circumstance, cinema thrives in the tragic wreckage of a failed relationship.

From Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945), through Ryan O’Neal and Ali Macgraw in Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970), right up to Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016), time and time again audiences have been rapt by stories of imperfect romances, of loves and, ultimately, losses.

We can add two more names to this list; those of Han Dongjun and Zhuang Zhiqi, the talented pair at the heart of Michael Wong’s debut short, The Story of 90 Coins (2015). Zhuang portrays Chen Wen; a young fashion designer who has hit a crossroads in her life. On one side: boyfriend Wang Yuyang (Han). On the other: adventure, a blossoming career, a move to Europe, and a good-looking French colleague named Andre.

Therein lies the emotional impact of Wong’s film. Chen Wen’s position is a familiar one; devoted partner, a sense of ‘the grass could be greener’, the urgency of youth and career pushing her forward. At the same time, YuYang’s position is also recognisable; a relationship whose fire has burned out, a loved one who is slipping away.

There can be few amongst us who do not recognise ourselves in either Chen Wen, YuYang, or both. This is what makes the film interesting; that pang of ‘what might have been?’ or ‘what if I’d done something differently?’

It seems those who have been struck by these questions are not alone. The film has achieved significant critical success since its original release in 2015, and has been shortlisted at many international film festivals, scooping major awards at the Whatashort India International Film Festival and at the Canada International Film Festival.

This is not Wong's his first foray behind the camera. The Malaysian-born director spent 16 years as an art and creative director in the advertisement business, working with several of the world’s leading ad agencies.

Fans of an objective, philosophical examination of love and life and loss may be left a little cold by the ending, however, in which Wong opts for a somewhat heavy-handed bit of moralisation. The film’s coda of “Don’t let a promise just be a beautiful memory” is sweet and succinct, but perhaps the judgment it passes on one of the characters is too harsh. What had been, up until this point, a ruminative and dreamlike film punctuated with some stunning Beijing cityscape cinematography and a minimalist piano soundtrack, suddenly becomes a parable; a fable aimed at ensuring that young people make the right life choices. Young people, as many of us know from experience, very rarely make the right life choices.

The Story of 90 Coins is gorgeously shot, well directed, and carries promising performances from the leading actors. Han Dongjun is already something of a star in his home nation of China, thanks to a turn in the lead role of TV series Wuxin: Monster Killer . A similarly high profile role for Zhuang Zhiqi might not be far behind.

Michael Wong’s debut is available here on Vimeo .

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'The Prowler' Reveals the Horror of Getting What You Want

Tue, 15 Aug 2017 10:30:00 +0000


Looking over our PopMatters articles of films directed by Joseph Losey , we seek to correct our unfortunate oversight of The Prowler , even if only in a hasty and perfunctory manner for the record. Restored by the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & TV Archive to almost shockingly crisp state, this Los Angeles noir proved a major rediscovery when issued on DVD in 2011.

Van Heflin gives a great performance as a moral vacuum in a police uniform, griping about his "lousy breaks". With sinister efficiency he spies upon, stalks, and manipulates lonely trophy wife (Evelyn Keyes) until he gets everything he wants. But what of the hell he carries inside? He carries the seeds of his own desperate, grasping, clammy doom as forthrightly as any of the narrators of Jim Thompson's contemporaneous pulp novels, some of which also feature corrupt lawmen. The less you know before going into this gripping story, the better.

John Maxwell, Katharine Warren, Emerson Treacy and Madge Blake are in the picture as contrastingly happy couples of middle age, though all except Warren's character are blind to the anti-hero's faults.

Joseph Losey, the most architectural of directors, frames everyone in windows, doorways, and elongated corridors down which Arthur Miller's camera glides and pivots lovingly. In an extra, Bertrand Tavernier compares Losey's psychic use of landscape -- especially the final wasteland, which foreshadows Losey's 1970 film Figures in a Landscape -- to Antonioni, and by gum it's true. Antonioni was already making films, yet we can easily imagine him being drawn to this picture and having its shards stick in his cranium.

While Losey applies his landscape to tension and thrills, Antonioni makes feints in these directions while really exploring lassitude and ennui. Someone might study, if they haven't already, the increasing Antonioni-ism of Losey projects like Boom (1968) and The Assassination of Trotsky . Say, it would help if those came out on disc so we could all share. But we digress.

Returning to The Prowler , Dalton Trumbo wrote a script credited to "beard" Hugo Butler. As victims of the blacklist, Trumbo and Losey both felt mistrust of the official forces of authority, an attitude that lends force to this depiction of corruption in power. John Huston (Keyes' husband at the time) and Sam Spiegel produced. Robert Aldrich was assistant director. It can be amazing how many talented people were involved in what were considered minor films.

The DVD extras are useful: commentary by "czar of noir" Eddie Muller, a making-of with James Ellroy and Trumbo's son, the aforementioned appreciation by Tavernier, a feature on the restoration, and the original trailer, which advertises it as a strange love story. You can say that again.

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'Stalker' Warns of a World Where Escape Can Lead to New Forms of Imprisonment

Tue, 15 Aug 2017 02:00:00 +0000

Before there was Pedro Costa, Bela Tarr, Jia Zhanke, Cristi Puiu, or Corneiiu Proumboiu, there was Andrei Tarkovsky. Some scholars have attempted to corral this diversity of styles under the banner of “slow cinema”, which serves a limited purpose in comparative analysis among films that stretch along a wide geographical scope and lengthy historical terrain. In many ways, however, each director’s style results from his distinct cultural moment. Furthermore, each film takes on different resonances with the changing present. Tarkovksy’s cinema holds a unique position that dialogues with the current chaos that accompanies the rise of authoritarian regimes in the West and the brink of nuclear devastation as the saber rattling continues between the United State and North Korea. Tarkovsky was well positioned to speak to the present zeitgeist by making cinema within the dying authoritarian regime of the Soviet Union. Having to nimbly evade the censor’s scissors by omitting any direct reference to his homeland, Tarkovsky resulted in creating an allegorical cinema that can speak to the fear and desires of all those who live under the miasma of despotism. Early on in the film, Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovsky) states matter of factly: “I’m imprisoned everywhere” -- a statement that encapsulates all the characters’ overall attitude as well as many present-day viewers. The Zone, the mystical place that might or might not allow one’s deepest desire to come true, serves as both promise land and forbidden object. In many respects, Stalker is a science fiction update of the Western where Writer (Anatoliy Solonisyn) and Professor (Nikolay Grinko) are ushered from civilization and all their troubles into the wilderness of the Zone where the land itself proves sentient. As film scholar Geoff Dyer notes during one of the Blu-Ray’s extras, this sentience gets translated visually throughout the film, leading to such moments as when we think we are inhabiting a point-of-view shot of the professor who is looking through the open window of a rusting jeep. But as the shot gradually tracks forward, we suddenly see all three characters appear before the jeep, dislocating us visually. What we thought of as a character’s unique perspective has now transformed into the inquisitive eye of the Zone itself, surveilling the three men who invade its territory. Viewers are constantly kept at a disequilibrium as shots become unmoored and the space being traversed remains undefined with an absence of any establishing shots. On a more straight forward level, Stalker serves as an allegory of the desire to escape the physical and mental gulags of the Soviet Union. The film’s first 40-minutes are haunted by a Cold War, Soviet-type minimalist architecture of concrete bunkers and dilapidated factories where military jeeps and tanks roam the landscape on the hunt for wayward inhabitants. The sequence’s sepia tone, chiaroscuro lighting further expresses an oppressive setting where human figures bleed into the landscape, a cement hell that takes into little or no account of its occupants other than to imprison them in a maze of confusion and fear. Not surprisingly, the film suddenly switches to color once they enter the Zone, suggesting both its hope and sheer strangeness to ordinary life. But the film makes efforts to broaden its storytelling to become a universal tale. At one moment, Writer compares Stalker to Leatherstocking, the famous protagonist of James Fenimore Cooper’s Western series from the 19th century. By linking the film’s Western theme with that belonging to an older tale from the United States, Writer suggests how a desire for freedom into the wilderness transcends any particular historical moment. Therefore, the film resonates not only with the past but also the present and f[...]

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Different Lies for Ourselves and Others 'In the Shadow of Women'

Wed, 09 Aug 2017 08:30:00 +0000


In under 75 minutes, Philippe Garrel presents with clarity pretty much all that needs to be said about adultery, and he does so compassionately and without overdramatizing an emotionally complex and contradictory set of circumstances.

Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) is making a documentary about an old man who was a member of the French Resistance during WWII. While the man speaks, his wife fetches cookies. She has a different perspective on her husband and doesn't seem to accord the moment the respect it should merit.

Pierre is abetted by his wife Manon (Clotilde Courau), who happens to have the name of a famous flighty, sexually voracious heroine of French literature. Pierre begins an affair, comme ca , with an archivist named Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), telling himself he's being honest with her that he's married.

He's the classic, almost parodically disengaged, "emotionally unavailable" male, who stands or flops about impassively, as if continually drained. In the manner of one of Francois Truffaut's magisterial narrators, a voice (Louis Garrel, the director's son) calmly informs us of Pierre's ambiguous and illogical thought processes. Pierre accepts his culture's classic double standard on male infidelity while recognizing the problem, which confronts him when he learns something disturbing.

Elisabeth is hung up on Pierre, in accordance with Carson McCullers' observation in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe that there is always an imbalance, that one is always the lover and one the beloved. She's secondary in his life and the film, but hers is a piercing characterization. Although adopting and examining the male point of view, the film emotions and sympathies are reserved for the women, and some scenes show them relating to each other. A dialogue between mother and daughter balances honest tensions with obvious love and regard. In another scene, Pierre jealously regards three women chatting, as he realizes that his wife has aspects and angles that don't belong to him.

Very few movies examine the simple mechanics of adultery, and one that did is Truffaut's The Soft Skin (1964). Garrel's debt to Truffaut is confessed and obvious. Renato Berta shoots this film in widescreen, in richly shaded black and white, deliberately to evoke the French New Wave as much as to distill this calmly suspenseful story to its essence. One richly conceived image presents Pierre eating alone on his bed, his shadow cast on the wall as his only evanescent company, as though he has become his shadow or else been divorced from it.

Here is Garrel, equally capable of a sprawling three-hour emotional epic like Regular Lovers (2004) or of this compact, swiftly sketched yet dense and deep chamber drama of an ordinary couple. He's been plugging away at this since the 1960s, quietly becoming one of the world's greatest filmmakers.

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Guilt and Exculpation in Roberto Rossellini’s 'War Trilogy'

Mon, 31 Jul 2017 02:00:00 +0000

There would be no Rossellini and perhaps no neorealism without fascism and not simply because we often think of neorealism as a rejection of fascism; neo-realism was born in the midst of fascism and originally served its propagandistic purposes. Classic Italian cinema has its roots in fascism. In 1937 Benito Mussolini and his son Vittorio founded Cinecittà, the renowned Italian film studio later dubbed “Hollywood on the Tiber". Believing cinema to be “the most powerful weapon", Mussolini set in motion a newly invigorated film industry in Italy, watched over but not directly controlled by his head of cinema Luigi Freddi, that provided not only open propaganda (although it provided plenty of that) but also impressive technical achievements (like the mass scenes in Scipio Africanus of 1937), the romantic opulence of the “white telephone films" (comedies and melodramas that openly celebrate conspicuous consumption), and more daring and remarkable films (even if these were often made in spite of the regime) such as Luchino Visconti's Ossessione of 1943 (a film widely regarded as the progenitor of the neorealism movement). Roberto Rossellini -- one of the brightest luminaries of postwar Italian cinema, revered by directors and critics alike, and generally lauded as the true father of neorealism -- began his career in this fascist context. He was close friends with Vittorio Mussolini and it was through the latter's influence that Rossellini was able to direct his first three notable films: The White Ship (1941), A Pilot Returns (1942), and The Man with a Cross (1943). Often dubbed the “Fascist Trilogy", these are propaganda films. The first was funded by the Minister of the Navy, the second was sponsored by the Air Force, and the third rewrites then-recent history to depict an Italian defeat at the hands of the Russians as a victory. Moreover, if we are to ground the rise of neorealism in Rossellini's output, then it is to these films that we must turn -- despite the fact that neorealism is often explicitly defined as the postwar response to fascism and the consequent economic and social ruin. The films of the “Fascist Trilogy" bear many of the hallmarks of this much-debated style of filmmaking: the use of non-actors, location filming, a documentary approach even in fictionalized narratives, contemporary protagonists and situations, the inclusion of the quotidian detail often left out of film, and a concern with the rigors and demands of everyday life (in this case, of course, the everyday lives of enlisted men). The White Ship , along with Rossellini's ties to Mussolini, made the director the darling of the fascist regime; the film won the Cup of the National Fascist Party, the most prestigious award for film in fascist Italy. Critics and Rossellini enthusiasts, of course, ostentatiously exert themselves in an effort to absolve Rossellini of any complicity with the fascist political landscape within which he worked and thrived. Many writers emphasize the notion that Rossellini was forced to deal with a greater level of censorship and authoritarian control than is conducive to a director known for his insistence upon independence. But this is a backward projection of an older Rossellini who feared being tied to the fascist past: of course, an authoritarian regime would impose authoritarian control; the fact is Rossellini greatly benefited from his connections to Mussolini -- there would be no Rossellini and perhaps no neorealism without fascism and not simply because we often think of neorealism as a rejection of fascism; neo-realism was born in the midst of fascism and originally served its propagandistic purposes. The project of absolution of both Rossellin[...]

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The Proximity of the Spectral in Mizoguchi's 'Ugetsu'

Wed, 26 Jul 2017 02:00:00 +0000

Even the most incorrigible dreamers and idealists (in both the philosophical and quotidian senses of the word) among us believe that they are realists in at least the pragmatic sense. That is to say, most of us most of the time act upon our world as though the objects in it had a reality independent of our own minds. We have projects and goals, of course; that is, we “project” onto reality the things we wish to make manifest within it, but we insist that we recognize the distinction between such hopeful projection and the world as it now stands. Our dreams are not fulfilled until such time that they cross over from being mere projections into a materialized real presence. Our awareness of the difference between fantasy and reality is meant to be the mark of sanity. And yet, one of the key psychological insights into human existence (known long before Freud and modern psychoanalysis) is that we are quite mistaken in our belief that we occupy a mind-independent reality. The world stands for me not as it “really is” but rather as it appears to me within the framework of my aspirations, my fears, my loves, and my hatreds. Martin Heidegger employs the term “Mood” ( Stimmung ) to account for this disposition toward having the world “show up” for us in a certain way. The word Stimmung also means “tuning” -- a compelling and revealing etymological connection. Insofar as I have a mood, I am tuned in such a way that the world resonates with me in a characteristic manner. Think of sympathetic vibration in an instrument. If I have a string tuned to A110 on a guitar and I loudly hit the piano key of A110, that guitar string will vibrate without having been directly struck. But if that string is out of tune (I suppose, to be accurate, I should write that it is “differently tuned”), then it will not sympathetically vibrate with the piano. Returning to the issue of mood, we can see how this notion connects with ideas about emotional sympathy. To be sympathetic here is to have something “resonate” with you -- not to experience it directly but to be open to being moved (vibrated, if you will) indirectly. When I feel sympathy toward a homeless woman, it is not that I believe I can know exactly what deprivations that woman has suffered, but that I am able to be moved by her plight. Being open to the world through mood is what Heidegger calls Befindlichkeit , sometimes translated as “attunement” (in line with the etymology of Stimmung ). “Attunement” is emphatically not a state of mind, it is pre-cognitive and even pre-subjective. That is to say, my cognitions and sense of subjecthood depend upon mood, not the other way around. As an example, if I say I am in a foul mood owing to something you have done, something that I take amiss, I am not using the term “mood” in the Heideggerian sense. In this example, I am using mood for something that is cognitive and subjective -- it’s a response to something that has occurred in my life, an entanglement with what is . Heideggerian Stimmung , on the other hand, addresses the condition of the possibility of my having any reactions at all. Mood, in this sense, involves not what is but rather a set of possibilities; it sets out the space for what can be . So, for Heidegger, Stimmung isn’t my current surface mood that colors how I see the world today, it is a deeper, more protracted manner of my being that allows for the world to “show up” to me in the manner that it does. Mood, for Heidegger, is inextricably bound up with two other existential conditions of human existence: Understanding ( Verstehen ) and Discourse ( [...]

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Yes, It's ‘Déjà Vu‘ All Over Again

Tue, 25 Jul 2017 10:30:00 +0000

It's possible that you've seen a film called Déjà Vu before. Tony Scott directed an excellent thriller by that title starring Denzel Washington in 2006, and Henry Jaglom made a good romance of that name in 1997. The movie under discussion today, however, is a 1985 Cannon Production shot in London and Paris, and it's a romantic reincarnation thriller whose plot twists and chronology perch it between J. Lee Thompson's The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975) and Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again (1991). Fourth-billed Nigel Terry plays the central character, a writer named Gregory living happily with actress Maggie (Jaclyn Smith). She drags him to a classic black and white ballet film from the '30s (because there are so many!) starring one Brooke Ashley, and he becomes fascinated by Maggie's uncanny resemblance to Brooke, although Maggie doesn't seem to notice it. Maybe it's because they both have such different hair. Gregory begins writing a screenplay in which he imagines himself as a choreographer named Michael Richardson who falls in love with Brooke Ashley, only to discover that a real choreographer by that name existed (who didn't resemble him, although he'll continue to picture himself in the role), and that he died in a mysterious fire along with Brooke and her mother (Claire Bloom). In his research, Gregory instantly connects with a medium, Olga Nabakova (Shelley Winters), who supposedly knew the victims "intimately" 50 years ago, not that her character ever appears in the flashbacks. She uses hypnosis to regress Greg into memories of that other life while odd and sinister things happen in the present. Madame Olga is given the heavy lifting of shifting the plot around with her explanations and insights, and the cards of credibility are stacked against her; no wonder it doesn't matter when Greg knocks over her tarot table. The 1930s flashbacks are, of course, the meat of the story, since finding out what happened back then becomes the whole McGuffin. One major problem with the screenplay's structure is getting to those parts. In between, the narrative waffles and wobbles with either too much exposition or not enough, interrupting the proceedings unconvincingly. One especially peculiar scene, after much setting up, cuts away after a freeze frame and skips over what must have come after. The wrap-up includes one surprising revelation that viewers might predict, not as radical as that in Dead Again but whose motivation must finally be left up to the ubiquitous explanation of madness. The multiple names connected with the screenplay, based on a novel by Trevor Meldal-Johnsen, signal a vexed writing process. This is the only film directed by Anthony Richmond, who was married to Smith at the time and for whom it must seemed a strong vehicle. Too bad the story's whole point of view belongs to Nigel Terry's role. Primarily a cinematographer, Richmond won a BAFTA early in his career for shooting Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973), a "psychic thriller" you should watch. Pino Donaggio scored both films, by the way, and his lushness on this one has correspondingly less energy. We should also mention production designer Tony Woollard, whose long career includes work for John Boorman and who had recently done Jerzy Skolimowski's brilliant Moonlighting (1982). His wife Joanne Woollard decorated this film's sets, and the movie always looks handsome. The credited photographer is David Holmes, who worked on the final season of The Avengers , and this final bit of output occurs a full 13 years after his previous work, leading me to speculate on the degree to which Richmond might have shot the film[...]

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'The Female Animal' Is Better Than She Seems

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 02:30:00 +0000

Independent producer Albert Zugsmith specialized in what were regarded as trashy exploitation pictures during the '50s and '60s, yet he managed to pull off a handful of classics during his association with Universal: Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956) and still widely underseen The Tarnished Angels (1958), and Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958), controversially taken away from Welles and re-edited. According to Wikipedia, the Welles film was initially released as the B picture to another Zugsmith production, The Female Animal , which he produced between The Tarnished Angels and Touch of Evil . What a run. Now that we can see The Female Animal on demand from Universal Vault, it's clearly not in the same league. Still, it's not a waste of time for film buffs, especially those interested in Hollywood's stealthy attempts to be more frankly sexual. This is the "trashy" element lambasted by contemporary critics. A Cinemascope item shot in very high contrast black and white by Russell Metty, this backstage Hollywood tale centers on fourth-billed George Nader as the shirtless sex object with the now unfortunate name of Chris Farley. He becomes the bristling gigolo of movie star Vanessa Windsor (Hedy Lamarr), who flashbacks the whole story after plunging drunk into a waterfall while shooting a picture. It's just about okay for the moody angle-jawed Chris to be "caretaker" of Miss Windsor's snazzy beach pad, but he snits that he'd be a "tramp" if he accepted free evening clothes. He doesn't love her but he's dazzled and flattered, while she's got it bad and that ain't good. Jane Powell and George Nader in The Female Animal (1958) Third-billed Jan Sterling only has two brief scenes and the filthiest lines as a rival faded sugar mama: "I was the first child star ever to be chased around a desk" and "My dear boy, one does need a little talent in this business but not necessarily for acting" and "I adore the clean limbed American type too but somehow I always end up with veal scallopini and sideburns" and "Never let them have a career. That's the one thing I've really learned about men in Hollywood. Success goes to their little heads... Keep 'em sharecropping, dear, it's the only way. Tote that barge, lift that bale." And at the end of that little diatribe: "If he's not taking care of your cottage as you like, send him over to me. I have a little property too." Credit for such dialogue goes to Robert Hill. He wrote several Zugsmith productions, from the not dissimilar Female on the Beach (1955) with Joan Crawford and Jeff Chandler, and which was based on his own play, to the excruciating Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) with Mamie Van Doren, a chimp and a robot. At that point, Zugsmith became a director and went off to his own world of softcore skinflicks. Lamarr was only in her mid-40s, and this was her swan song. Second-billed Jane Powell, pushing 30, provides ludicrous complication as Hedy's adopted daughter, especially problematic in drunk scenes. You also get James Gleason as a tough wizened bartender, Mabel Albertson as a frowzy landlady, and Ann Doran as a nurse who opines that Hedy, or rather Vanessa, was always a much better actress than the roles they gave her. That's when we realize that Lamarr has been better all through this than she seemed. Director Harry Keller mostly did westerns before moving into other Universal films and eventually producing. About this project, we'll just observe that he's no Sirk. This movie cries out to have been much bette[...]

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Brush Up on Your Film Studies With 'Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project No. 2'

Tue, 18 Jul 2017 03:00:00 +0000

Martin Scorsese has cobbled together something like his own distinct film school throughout the years. Aside from occasionally teaching classes at New York University and online as well as providing illuminating commentaries that accompany DVDs of his films, Scorsese has steadily rolled out a stream of quirky multi-volume film history sets. In 2002 he released My Voyage to Italy , a historically-informed personal reminiscence of the Italian films he encountered in the cinema while growing up. He emphasizes Italian Neorealism’s impact upon him with its use of non-actors, on-location settings, and mundane content that concerns the struggles of everyday people with particular emphasis upon the most marginalized like children, the elderly, and the mentally disabled. In 2012, Scorsese released A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies . Once again, Scorsese chronicles mostly the films that influenced him throughout his childhood -- stopping by the mid-'60s since the production of his own films supposedly make him more biased in his account. It must be noted that Scorsese’s concept of film history often comes across as dated and hackneyed, as if gleaned from the dusty pages of Terry Ramsaye’s 1926 classic, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Movies , an entertaining but largely inaccurate account of movie history. He tends to repeat clichés such as sound only arrived by the mid-'20s in the United States and often marches out a hagiography of great male directors at the expense of more nuanced history, like pointing out women’s strong influence within early silent cinema as well as how experimentation occurring at the margins of commercial cinema influenced more mainstream fare. Despite such historical shortcomings, Scorsese remains one of the most adept analysts of the moving image. When in action, he unpacks the multiple layers of a film sequence like an archaeologist excavates a site, layer by layer uncovering its hidden meanings and secret gems. I still recall -- though do not remember where -- seeing Scorsese once unpacking the famous “Here’s Johnny” sequence in The Shining where Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) batters apart the bathroom door with an axe while his wife (Shelley Duval) screams in terror. Scorsese speaks about Kubrick being one of the first directors to use the Steadicam, a stabilizing system rigged to the cameraman’s body to allow smooth camera movement over unsteady terrain. Within this sequence, Scorsese stresses, Kubrick adds to the horror by having the Steadicam move smoothly back with each axe stroke before chopping into the door, thus subtly drawing viewers into the sequence and complicity. Suddenly, with this brief observation, a new element of the film opens up, making visible that which had remained shrouded during all earlier screenings. In 2007 Scorsese helped initiate the World Cinema Project. Its task is to restore both known and unknown cinematic works of art. Scorsese succinctly states the goal of the project in one of his introductions for the recent series: “to give new life to pictures from around the world that seemed to be lost to history.” A select few of these films are ultimately transferred to DVD and Blu-ray as high end boxsets for Criterion. The first volume emerged in 2013 and had such rare gems like Redes (1936), which I had only been able to see a few years earlier on 16 mm by visiting the Museum of Modern Art, and Touki Bouki (1973), which had been available commercially but only on a very low resolution VHS copy. Also, it introduced viewers to relatively unknown films like t[...]

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Truth and Clarity: Antonioni’s 'Blow-Up' and the Melancholy of Discovery

Wed, 12 Jul 2017 01:59:00 +0000

John Searle famously declared: “If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself." This is a dictum to be taken very much to heart, for clarity is of the utmost importance in communication, particularly the communication of difficult ideas. Truly understanding something requires that you are able to see it from various angles, to illuminate it from various points of view. When something is stated clearly, it emerges from obscurity and seems to set the speaker aside, to reveal itself in all its lucidity and transparency. The person articulating truth with clarity seems almost incidental. That is the trick of clarity: the more clearly you state something, the less integral to that statement you appear to be. The clarity seems to speak for itself. No wonder that the term “clarity" in Middle English is connected to “divine splendor" -- something stated simply and precisely falls upon us as though it were divine revelation. And when we hear something we perceive as particularly perspicuous, we respond “I see", as though the truth of the matter had materialized before our eyes, readily apparent for all to behold. From the fact that understanding requires clarity, many thinkers have extrapolated the notion that the things to be understood must also be marked by clarity; that is to say, clarity is not only the mark of understanding but also the mark of truth. That which is clear (relatively simple) is true. The most celebrated version of this argument is perhaps the “cogito" argument set forth by René Descartes. Descartes believed that the defining characteristic of truth was that it appeared to us as “clear and distinct"; that is, we could perspicaciously discern what the “true" thing was and it appeared as sufficiently set apart from the remainder of the world. Clarity, in this sense, pertains not simply to our understanding; rather, it is the intrinsic characteristic of truth that allows it to be understood. Historically, this ideal of truth has borne significant fruit. For one famous example, consider the case of Ptolemy's brilliantly flawed Almagest , in which the ancient Greek scientist has two fundamental cosmological assumptions: 1. the basic motion of celestial bodies is spherical (largely true); and 2. the Earth is at the center of the cosmos (which we now know to be false). Ptolemy devised an ingeniously clever system of celestial motion that justified mathematically the notion that certain planets were momentarily in retrograde. It is an utterly convincing account until one throws out the second assumption, as Copernicus did. Then we are left with one basic assumption: celestial motion is spherical (without retrograde motion) and the celestial bodies now can be understood to move in the proper elliptical motions once the sun is placed in the middle. The truth seems to accord with the simpler model. But there is another view of truth, one that assumes it is a false extrapolation to say that the clarity required by understanding necessitates clarity as an essential feature of truth itself. In this view, truth is inherently complex, mysterious, and evasive. It doesn't reveal itself all at once, striking the mind in a clear and distinct Cartesian manner, but rather demands our groping painstakingly toward it, running down blind alleys only to reverse direction and try again. Truth, in this sense, remains entirely beyond our grasp. That is not to say that we cannot come to an understanding of things that are true but rather that truth in its fullness, Truth in the large sense, always recedes before us, drawing us on to deeper inquiry, [...]

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The Ineluctability of Time in Coppola Drama, 'Rumble Fish'

Wed, 21 Jun 2017 02:00:00 +0000

Our relationship to temporality is deeply ingrained in what it means to be human. We are creatures for whom time matters. Other animals, of course, live through time and experience its vicissitudes. They experience youth, maturation, and senescence. They engage in the lifecycle, seem to be aware of their own mortality (or at the very least, aware that their lives can be threatened), and seek to preserve themselves in the face of adversity. But insofar as human beings are characterized by the capacity for reflection, and insofar as reflection requires a lived experience of temporality, we find ourselves involved in time as an integral part of our humanity. We build our lives upon the foundation of the past and in the sway of our hopes for the future. On the one hand, we can say that both past and future impinge upon our present. Our current actions, our worldviews, our sense of identity are all grounded in our experiences from the past registered in memory, inscribed within our corporeality. In this sense, we are palimpsests of past experiences, texts scrawled upon the surfaces of our bodies, the recesses of our affective dispositions, the depths of our conscious and unconscious minds. But even while we are such palimpsests, we are also projections into the unforeseen, the untold, the yet-to-come. Even in our most hopeless moments, we live today in the anticipation of tomorrow, of its blandishments and its depredations, its giddy promises and its terrifying threats. To echo Jimi Hendrix in declaring “I don’t live today”, therefore, has the alarming ring of truth. I am the sedimentation of my yesterdays projecting into the unknowable future of my tomorrows. On the other hand, while the past and future impinge upon the present, our reflective nature leads us to cast our minds back toward the past or forward into the future from the delimited space of our present. We are the sedimentation of our past, but we also strive to make sense of that past, to force it into the discursive, to implore it to speak the truth of ourselves, of what we are and why we are what we are. Equally, we look to the future for similar assurances but instead of seeking an answer to what we are, we ask of the future what possibilities remain to us, what we might become. We want a guarantee that present endeavor will reap future reward. We want reassurance that our narrative ends well. Our sense of self, bound up in a past we cannot understand and a future that we will never truly see, is an undiscovered country, a mysterious land of self-contemplation mired in misapprehension. In this sense, we become the cartographies of our own misperceptions. The I that I am is always lost to me, always under construction and yet (paradoxically and painfully) always-already foreclosed. I try to read the palimpsest that I am, overwritten by past and future, but the language is obscure and I am at a loss to interpret it; and yet I must try. Francis Ford Coppola suffuses his 1983 adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s young-adult novel Rumble Fish with images and themes that demonstrate our ineluctable entwinement with time and the ways in which time shapes us while we endeavor to give meaning to it. Rumble Fish follows immediately on the heels of Coppola’s The Outsiders (also 1983) based on the first novel by Hinton and indeed Rumble Fish can be viewed as the dark companion to that earlier film -- even employing some of the same actors but placing them in a starkly different filmic environment imbued with a level of existentialist angst not only removed from The Ou[...]

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'Caltiki': The Creeping Blob!

Tue, 13 Jun 2017 03:30:00 +0000

Fans of sci-fi and horror will be very pleased by the lavish, loving attention bestowed upon this 1959 Italian production, pustules and all. Inspired largely by The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) without being as smart, this is a movie that probably nobody will place among its decade's top 10 sci-fi horrors. Nevertheless, it's well worth a look and historically important for reasons we'll mention. The film opens with oodles of atmosphere conjured out of glass matte paintings, roiling volcano effects (actually, ink in water) and sheer shadowplay. We're allegedly in Mexico, investigating the ruins of a Mayan civilization, when a member of the Ulmer expedition (named slyly for Edgar Ulmer, a master of cheap but effective atmosphere) staggers back to camp gibbering and fainting. The other members quickly discover the cave of Caltiki, a Mayan goddess, where some kind of radioactive blob emerges from the water to melt the flesh from impertinent explorers, especially those greedy for gold and nookie. When the dullest and most square-jawed of these boffins (John Merivale) brings a sample home to Mexico City along with his slime-wounded and delirious colleague (skull-faced Gerard Haerter), all hell eventually breaks loose. The uniting of cthonic primordial slime with cosmic terror from space (a comet that reacts with the local radiation) leads to a scenario where the demented bad guy expresses his oozy lust for the hero's beautiful wife (Didi Perego, billed as Didi Sullivan), leading to the climactic destruction of the latter's well-appointed home and much business with army flamethrowers, and all in 75 minutes. If that sounds bad to you, you're probably not the audience for this picture. I can't stress enough the difference made by a crystal-clear restored print when evaluating even a nominally trivial movie. It allows us literally to see how well-done the film is from a photographic point of view. Mario Bava, the cinematographer and effects man, works wonders with careful chiaroscuro, miniature models, and handfuls of tripe. His sense of composition and staging renders beautiful and sinister what, to the unsympathetic viewer, may seem merely campy or risible. Caltiki as him/herself The credited director is Riccardo Freda (using his "English" pseudonym Robert Hamton), but Freda stated that the film was really Bava's for all intents and purposes. That makes this an important item in the filmography of two pioneers of Italian horror, both of whom would soon be making beautiful Gothic thrillers with Barbara Steele. Bava devoted his directing career to a variety of horror and sci-fi items with occasional diversions into other genres, and you can detect his style and impulses here. The level of attention offered on this Blu-ray/DVD combo is jaw-dropping. Not only do we have options for the original Italian track and the English track, there are two critical commentaries by authors who have written books about Bava. Tim Lucas' track is as worthily informed as is typical for him, discussing how various effects were achieved with simplicity and ingenuity and observing possible influences from H.P. Lovecraft as well as giving background information on most of the participants. Troy Howarth's track goes over much of the same material and points out Bava's cameo. A bonus interview with Kim Newman offers insights on historical context and connections with other films, and there are two archival Italian interviews produced by NoShame Films. Perhaps the most remarkable extra is the presentation of a full-aperture version expo[...]

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Spotlight on a Murderer: A Little-seen Mystery Thriller From Three Masters of the Form

Thu, 08 Jun 2017 12:30:00 +0000

Georges Franju is an important French filmmaker who made fewer than ten features and is known to Region 1 audiences, and indeed elsewhere, largely for the quietly intense and ghastly horror film Eyes Without a Face (1959). Several years ago, Criterion finally brought out another of his items, Judex (1963), a celebration of the spirit of silent serials, and since then we've remained parched for more output. Perhaps the dam is breaking, for Arrow Films has bestowed upon us the movie Franju made right after Eyes Without a Face . Spotlight on a Murderer (1961), is scripted by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the famous team of novelists whose work inspired the films Diabolique (1955) and Vertigo (1958), and we'll add the vastly underrated Body Parts (1991). In other words, they're famous for plot twists and a labyrinthine air of mystery in its purest, most uncanny form. The film opens with top-billed Pierre Brasseur making a cameo as the lord of his castle, dressed in a robe of the Knights of Malta and doddering about and muttering to himself before he hides in a secret room behind a large two-way mirror in the main hall. From here, his dying eyes will observe his despised heirs, a pack of nieces and nephews for whom he has no use. The absence of his corpse will prove a legal problem, and they decide to raise revenue by turning the place into a kind of tourist theatre. The family stages an open-air "sound and light" show that re-enacts a 13th century tragedy of adultery, murder, and suicide. Meanwhile, various heirs keep dropping like flies due to random misadventures. Is the old man still alive? Is a ghost afoot? Is one of the heirs a murderer? Stay tuned. Pierre Brasseur as Comte Hervé de Kerloguen Shot at the beautiful Chateau de la Bretesche in Brittany, which seems to be perched in the middle of a lake, with interiors at the Chateau Goulaine, this is a very "old dark castle" affair, shot in a clean modern style with plenty of fresh air. It won't be mistaken for an essential masterpiece of cinema, nor need it be. Although it's an essentially mechanical story with interchangeable and expendable characters, Franju and his co-writers create a nice balance of tones and a general air of puzzlement with some clever misdirection for an entertaining light mystery. The cast is required mainly to be attractive. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the nominal hero because he's the youngest and most handsome and has a beautiful down-to-earth girlfriend (Dany Saval). Pascale Audret and Marianne Koch provide more eye candy, while Jean Babilee's character spends most of his time drunk. George Rollin, Gerard Buhr, Serge Marquand and Maryse Martin also sidle or skulk about as suspicious relatives or servants. The films fits Franju's penchant for a hybrid tone of realism with undercurrents of the surreal, or at least the potential for uncanny events. For example, an owl makes a startling appearance, along with several crows, and these possibly numinous or spiritual manifestations look backward to the spectral use of doves in Eyes Without a Face and forward to the large surreal bird-heads in Judex . The possibility of the resurrection of a presumed dead character has obvious reverberations with Diabolique . It's likely that a connoisseur of these films would find this example relatively minor, yet that connoisseur will wish to be immersed in it anyway and will find it rewarding as a 90-minute snack[...]

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On Seeking the Works of Douglas Sirk and Finding Jerry Hopper's 'Never Say Goodbye'

Tue, 06 Jun 2017 09:30:00 +0000

My determination to watch all the films of ace melodramatist Douglas Sirk leads me to track down films he didn't make but almost did. According to Wikipedia, Sirk worked on the pre-production of Never Say Goodbye (1956), and was responsible for casting the Ingrid Bergman-esque German actress Cornell Borchers, who's pretty good. And here it is from Universal Vault's on-demand series: a lush '50s Technicolor melodrama starring Rock Hudson and George Sanders, scored by Frank Skinner and directed by... Jerry Hopper? He's no Sirk, and the producer isn't Sirk's regular collaborator Ross Hunter, so the enervating mix of the far-fetched and ill-advised that constitutes a story doesn't soar as it might. Still, it's not entirely without interest. Supposedly based on a Pirandello play, it's a remake of an earlier Universal item called This Love of Ours (1945) from William Dieterle, which means now I've gotta track that down. Rock plays Dr. Michael Parker, a prominent specialist living in a wonderful two-story house in a golden suburbia on Universal's backlot. He's being raised by his pert little daughter Suzy (Shelley Fabares), whom a family friend and fellow doctor declares has "an advanced Electra complex". She runs his life as efficiently as a majordomo, making sure he keeps his appointments, packs his suitcases, and wears his rubbers in the rain. Okay, she never says that, but it's only an accidental oversight that she doesn't. The "special relationship" between them, in which the girl identifies herself effectively as his wife, isn't meant to be creepy so much as to suggest that perhaps he's more comfortable in a sexually undemanding "marriage". In an early scene, she says "Last one to the car is a sissy!" Parker goes to Chicago for a conference and we're introduced to a tavern sketch artist (Sanders) and the latter's weary pianist (Borchers). She's called Dorian in what may be a reference to Dorian Gray, but she's really Lisa from Vienna and is Parker's dead wife who promptly gets car-struck and must be operated on by him much like in Sirk's Magnificent Obsession , which most of the audience would have watched two years earlier. Then there's a long explanatory flashback full of foolish behavior, and then the present day triangle asks the burning question of whether the girl will ever believe or respect her idiotic parents again. Dr. Michael Parker (Rock Hudson) and Lisa Gosting (Cornell Borchers ) Even though he removed himself from the project, it's got Sirk's theme of the tyranny of children who dominate their parents, so it would naturally have attracted his interest for one of his many Hudson vehicles. He supposedly reshot some scenes with Sanders, not that you'd notice. Unbilled Clint Eastwood wears a white coat and squints at X-rays like he's seen them somewhere before. John Banner, considerably slimmer than we know him from Hogan's Heroes , tries to be as adorable as possible with his funny strudel accent. David Janssen, later TV's The Fugitive , is a virtually unrecognizable army buddy, while one of the doctors is Ray Collins from TV's Perry Mason . Hopper would direct episodes of The Fugitive and Perry Mason , among many other shows, and his direction is efficient without being transcendent. The DVD image looks and sounds good but comes with zero extras. class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="CKO4ZQ1523360317" frameborder="0" height="480" scrolling=[...]

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The Hollywood Star as Fetish Object: Joan Crawford in 'Mildred Pierce'

Mon, 05 Jun 2017 02:30:00 +0000

This performance, like so many by Crawford, doesn’t inspire admiration so much as a sort of ghastly awe. There’s something rather repellent about Joan Crawford. This has nothing (at least directly) to do with the abusive manner in which she allegedly raised her children, but rather something deeply engrained in her screen persona. Perhaps that's part of her power as an actress -- this ability to push back against the viewer. While many actors attempt to draw audiences in, to bring them close, Crawford keeps them at arm’s length or further away. An idol maintains its sway over us by never allowing us to approach, by never granting proximity -- for proximity, after all, reveals imperfections that an idol cannot acknowledge. In this sense, there was never a more perfect actress than Crawford. I recognize that there are those celebrated moments (deriving exclusively from her youth) when the camera comes in close, and the light falls upon her face with a gentle lambency. Crawford had a preternatural, intuitive ability to sense the position of the camera and to play to it without overtly acknowledging its presence. These are the moments that Crawford fans adore, that they commemorate, that they extol with the blandishments of admiration, the images before which they genuflect in reverie. By 1945 those moments are largely gone. After she left her MGM contract and signed on with Warner Bros., Crawford was a different figure altogether, although I suppose glimpses of that figure, that idol, were already inherent in her earlier incarnations, her appearances prior to Mildred Pierce . With Mildred Pierce , Crawford moved into what we might term the stern period of her career, a phase that would last until her final films. Her face set against hardship, her eyes seething with defiance, her lips frozen in a grimace that dared the world to confront her, to defy her: this is the image of Crawford from 1945 until the end of her career. Whatever charm she might’ve had in The Women (Dir. George Cukor, 1939) and it was a sinister and dubious charm even then, had vanished by 1945. I will never truly understand why Crawford won the Academy award for Mildred Pierce . She is far superior in other films. I honestly think she won for all the wrong reasons. Clearly, we are supposed to believe that Crawford somehow perfectly embodied the long-suffering mother, the driven workaholic, bent only on success in order to placate her inexplicably malevolent daughter Veda (Anne Bligh). But I don’t buy it and I have a hard time believing that anyone ever did. There’s a cool calculation forever imprinted on that face with those unnaturally broadened eyebrows raised superciliously in a perpetually confrontational glare. Even at her most beguiling, Crawford never approximates the image of a caring mother. But perhaps there’s another way in which Crawford’s alienating persona, her utter lack of nurturing motherhood, works for the film. Her imperious attitude, her Gorgon stare, and her lack of redeeming qualities lend her a certain hardness that makes Mildred more believable than she might otherwise be. In this sense, Crawford’s lack of human warmth, and thus her resistance to seamlessly move into the maternal world of the film, works rather well with the oddball nature of the film itself. Mildred Pierce is a mixture of cinematic genres that don’t properly go together at all. It’s framed as a film noir and yet in the middle, it’s some c[...]

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Pilot X Puts a Crimp on the Business in 'The Mysterious Airman'

Tue, 23 May 2017 11:30:00 +0000

Arriving out of the wild blue yonder for silent film buffs is this serial from the tail end of the silent era, running just over three hours in ten chapters. The setting is a flying company owned by an elderly gentleman (C.H. Allen) who has invented a few handy devices like a radio-controlled Flying Torpedo and something called an aerometer for flying through fog. Alas, a masked Pilot X (the actor continually identified as "?" in the title cards) keeps raiding the joint and causing all their planes to crash, which at a certain point puts a crimp in the business. Ace pilot Jack Baker (Walter Miller) and the owner's daughter Shirley (Eugenia Gilbert), a crack pilot herself, investigate while carrying on their implicit romance. As the title implies, the story belongs to that common narrative device in serials whereby a masked villain plagues the heroes throughout the chapters with a variety of nefarious shenanigans, including shooting a Gatling gun through his own propellers without mishap, and we're supposed to figure out which of the several other characters is behind the mask. It's apparently as hard for these folks to figure out as the idea that Superman is Clark Kent without glasses, although the audience may have less trouble. One character you can rule out immediately is "world-famous aviatrix" Fawn Nesbitt (Dorothy Talcott), who "hopes to become the first female pilot to fly around the world", although frankly, she does very little flying in this effort. The suspects / friends / hangers-on are played (and introduced afresh in every chapter) by Robert Walker, Eugene Burr and James A. Fitzgerald, with Arthur Morrison as the skulking butler. As with the vast majority of serials, the story ain't much for such a protracted running time, and the promised flying footage and stunts are severely hampered by a budget that was apparently limited to extremely distant shots of a few flying planes interspersed with obvious on-set close-ups against backdrops. The "crashes" are presented abstractly, to put it kindly. All of that said, this print is in astonishingly clear shape for an independent silent serial. There are even scenes with some of the original tinting. Relatively few blemishes materialize, although the first half of Chapter 9 has vanished thanks to nitrate decomposition, and it's in the nature of the story that you hardly notice. Yet another crash is walked away from. frameborder="0" height="auto" scrolling="no" src="" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;" width="100%"> An inevitable part of these chapter-plays is what Kathy Bates' character in Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990) called cheating, whereby much more information is shown in the continuation than was presented in the cliffhanger. "He didn't get out of the cock-a-doody car!" Film historian Richard Roberts offers a commentary in which he primarily offers background on the careers of everyone involved and makes comments on the biplanes and monoplanes for aviation buffs, plus a little time wasted being defensive about "the product". This serial is one of the Weiss Brothers Productions, a long-lived "Poverty Row" company that cranked out many independent films for decades and moved successfully into TV, and Roberts gives much useful information about it. The most important creator involved with this film is prolific mystery writer Arthur B. Reeve, best known f[...]

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Smudge and Jury: The Punk-Noir Pulp of 'I, The Jury'

Thu, 27 Apr 2017 11:00:00 +0000

Silly, pulpy but always exciting, I, The Jury reframes the film noir of the ‘40s through a punk sheen of the flashy ‘80s. The film is based on the 1947 crime novel by Mickey Spillane of the same name, which introduced his character Mike Hammer. The book was just a first in a series that features one of the detective genre’s most popular Private Investigators. The film captures all of the same schlocky debacles that the leading character in these novels usually endures; that is, murders, high-speed chases and run-ins with gangsters (at every end -- a hotel, the streets, and even a secluded camp ground). The good and the bad of I, The Jury is that there are numerable plot twists -- at times, more than one can keep up with. It’s easy to lose track of what's going on, which, in this case, makes the "back" feature on DVD/Blu-Ray systems most useful. Much to be understood in the film is preceded by an important conversation; the dialogue reveals the motives for the ensuing action. Often, the action is circumvented by yet more action. It can get quite confusing. The high-octane drama, however, is consistent throughout and there usually isn’t a dull moment. This is precisely what makes the film such a good, popcorn-filling yarn. It has all the roughneck charm of a grimy ‘40s pulp novel and much style to spare (check out the snazzy, art-punk slapdash of the title sequence). The story opens with a one-armed man named Jack who is murdered in his own apartment. As it turns out, Jack happened to be a good friend of Hammer’s; they have a history together, which may possibly include Jack’s flirtatious and duplicitous wife. Naturally, Hammer decides to investigate the murder, but soon gets tied up in other businesses, like chasing down a rapist as well as encountering a very odd psychiatrist who may be tied to the matters involving Jack. Rounding out the edges of this sordid madcap mystery are a number of espionage touches, including an underworld mafia ring -- just to make things a little more confusing. I, The Jury deals its best hand for the cast of characters. Playing lead is Armand Assante, a handsome regular joe who's often typecast as the calculating rogue in any number of action films. Here, he plays a cool cucumber who has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. He’s mouthy and almost always out of line, yet is thoroughly likeable. He also has a loyal and fast-thinking secretary (Laurene Landon) who joins him on most of his capers. Together, they navigate the crime-invested underworld of New York City. On the margins, Paul Sorvino as Hammer’s superior offers an understated and talky performance. With as many twists and turns in a plot like this, it’s a good thing to have a few compelling characters to keep the action grounded. Kino Lorber offers a fairly cleaned up picture which sharply contrasts the punkishly neon flashes of colour with the smudged greys of the gritty New York streets. The print suffers from some imperfections, but that's to be expected from a 35-year-old movie which used film stock. In fact, the bits of dirt on the print here and there add to the griminess of the pulp action affair; it’s like handling a musty, old vintage ‘40s paperback -- a charming sort of realism. The sound seems to be in mono and comes across a little tinny and flat, but the dialogue is still, for the most part, clear as is the film score. Extras include a fi[...]

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Boston Underground Film Festival 2017: 'Hounds of Love'

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 09:30:00 +0000

There’s no doubt that the subject of captivity is a compelling tool for fictional narratives. As we’ve seen in films like Rob Reiner's Misery (1990), the dynamic established in a captivity narrative is useful in the way it can be used to investigate the psychology of the kidnapper. For example, in Misery , the kidnapping is not the most interesting part of the work, nor are the ways in which the main character, a writer named Paul Sheldon (James Caan), tries to escape. Rather, the most interesting part is watching and studying the actions of Annie (Kathy Bates), the crazed fan that kidnaps Paul. In watching her, we can only understand who she is relative to how she treats Paul and what she desires from him. This understanding of the function of captivity narratives may reveal why the Australian chiller, Hounds of Love , had already amassed a respectable number of positive reviews before its screening at the Boston Underground Film Festival in late March. In Hounds of Love , captivity is not just a vehicle for torturous, gut-wrenching scenes -- though there are a few of those -- but a way to make sense of the relationship between the two kidnappers. The two kidnappers, in this case, are Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry). They are ordinary suburbanites who, at night, cruise the streets of Perth, in Western Australia, looking for young women to abduct. One night, they come upon Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a high school girl heading to a party. Predictably, she never makes it. Once Vicki wakes up from a drug-induced nap, she finds herself tied to a bed in the couple’s compact suburban home. Outside, large dogs roam the backyard like sharks circling their prey. Inside, Evelyn studies the relationship between her captors from her vantage point in the guest bedroom and plots her escape. John and Evelyn are ostensibly based on David and Catherine Birnie, two real-life serial killers from Perth that killed four women in the '80s in what would later be known as the Moorhouse murders. Whether the portrayal is accurate or not is irrelevant. The film may center on the killers, but it's not about them as much as it;s about their relationship and, more broadly, gendered power dynamics. As the film progresses and we learn more about the characters, we begin to understand how their relationship functions and how their own psychological states foster a certain grisly co-dependence. That being said, director Ben Young doesn’t seem to be interested in humanizing them or being sympathetic. Rather, the film seeks to portray their characters honestly and without compromise, letting their actions reveal who they really are with a focus on their psychology. In that regard, Hounds of Love does a good job illustrating how a charismatic leader can influence a person whose own psychological state is fragile and searching. Once the audience gets to know the characters, the events of the film fall into a cold but logical pattern. If we know of how John and Evelyn think, we can’t imagine the film playing out any other way. It’s also worth mentioning that the cast is instrumental in being able to bring the story to life. Watching the film, it’s impossible to conceive of it without the trio of Booth, Curry, and Cummings in the lead roles. Booth especially plays the damaged and fragile Evelyn with skill, oscillating between fury, sad[...]

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Boston Underground Film Festival 2017: 'Fraud'

Thu, 30 Mar 2017 10:30:00 +0000

One lamentable aspect of the current epoch in American society is the dissolution of the so-called “American Dream”. The idea that hard work and perseverance will allow everyone to live a comfortable life with a plot of land, happy children, and ample leisure time has been shown, time and time again, to be nothing more than a marketing strategy. How does one respond to this? What are the psychological effects on the people in a society where such a divide between promises and actions exists? In many ways, Fraud , directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp, doesn’t explicitly tackle this subject, but it’s difficult to watch it without seeing the modern western condition reflected back at us. The documentary follows an unnamed family that, over the course of the film, commit various acts of fraud in order to maintain their way of living. Their lifestyle is not particularly extravagant -- if anything, it's downright middle class -- but their impulses are consumerist to the extreme, and we watch as they accumulate more and more items, from pogo sticks to iPhones. In fact, many of the film’s bonding scenes seem to center around some sort of object, which the family plays with communally. As the title implies, their life is a fraud, a social existence propped up by money that they can’t make without resorting to criminality. But the film’s social critique goes beyond that, and the film’s home-video by way of YouTube vlogging aesthetic is both a necessity production-wise and a smart artistic choice that wields a critique of it’s own. If it's the spirit of America to accrue debt -- whether it be mortgages or student loans -- to conform or pursue some sort of higher social standing, it's similarly our style to be conspicuous about our wealth, and that means broadcasting it on social media. Fraud achieves much in its 52-minute runtime. Viewing the film critically, one sees the ways in which it indicts the material social realities that shape the lives of the characters. One can also admire how the film plays with modern concepts of post-truth in the age of Catfish (2010). Fraud is not merely an economic crime, it's also the mode of being in the modern age. Everything, in some way, seems to be propped up by flimsy scaffolding that's ultimately revealed to be even flimsier than we first thought. For evidence, just look at how the economy responded to the large-scale fraud in the mortgage industry circa 2007. Ultimately, Fraud succeeds as a film because it manages to raise important questions about American culture and class in a way that's uniquely American. It makes sense that an average family would do this, and it makes sense that it would be revealed through blurry web videos. It demystifies crime as the realm of bad people and reveals it to be the impulse of average people who just want what everyone else does. It’s not a perfect film by any means, and at times it's repetitive, but the overall experience and concept save and elevate the film. There's a deeper level to the film as well, which I've largely sidestepped as a preventative measure against spoilers, but I urge those interested to track down Fraud , watch it, and then read an interview with Fleischer-Camp about the making of the film. ("Director Dean Fleischer-Camp on Fraud and Chicanery", by Christine N. Ziemba, Paste, 10 December 20160 [...]

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'The Chamber' Keeps the Drama and Suspense Going

Mon, 27 Mar 2017 09:30:00 +0000

The claustrophobic story of four characters trapped in a submersible vessel is a bold move for a feature directorial debut. While it's a choice that affords writer-director Ben Parker control over his location, it's also one that offers him little flexibility -- trapped on his own claustrophobic stage with his small ensemble cast. A further bold move is the film's gamble on suspense alone, offsetting Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) -- two masterpieces of suspenseful and claustrophobic drama. While Lifeboat confronts the subject of justice and the humane amidst paranoia and fear of the ‘other’ in wartime, Lumet’s jury drama looks to the themes of justice and social responsibility. Meanwhile, Chris Crow’s recent spatially restricted psychological-drama, The Lighthouse , ruminates on how the identity of our world is one shaped through human perspective. If Hitchcock, Lumet and Crow respectively underpin their technical exercises with ideas, Parker positions himself to succeed or fail on the merit of the former alone. The Chamber struggles in its opening scenes, weighed down with expositional dialogue that aims to establish Mats’ (Johannes Kuhnke) reluctant yet dutiful relationship to his vessel. It's a reflection of human sentimentality for the non-human. From Star Trek ’s Scotty to Star Wars ’ Han Solo, Mats’ affection towards his rust bucket has similar shades of good humour that serves the film well. Yet fulfilling the purpose to connect us with Mats while also establishing the ambiguous mission into North Korean waters, the opening is one Parker is forced to recover from rather than to build upon. Throughout there's an uneasy friction between dialogue and performance. The naturalism found in the human moments of the drama lacking in others, particularly Edwards' (Charlotte Salt) authoritarian stances. Here the naturalism is replaced by a heightened theatricality, echoing the rigid dialogue and onscreen presence of John Wayne in his war roles. If Parker is looking for a rawness to emphasise the rigidity of the military identity versus human frailty and emotion, then he's successful. Although whether Parker should have followed Hitchcock's advice to enter the story at the last possible minute and lose the weak opening is a criticism that haunts the film, regardless. If there's an air of predictability that permeates The Chamber , it only adds to the overall enjoyment. Yet there's a subtle skill in Parker’s execution, avoiding the extremes of his characters to create a conflict in his audience. Parks (James McArdle) is not a one-dimensional antagonist because in spite of his volatility, his fear and reactions strike us as reasonable. If Edwards is governed by her military instincts, then Parks is governed by his survival instinct. Unlike a traditional antagonist we understand his point of view and anger, while we silently question how we should feel about Edwards. Parker shows a willingness to conform, yet also shows that he's not afraid to play around with archetypes and audience expectations. The Chamber is the filmic equivalent of a fairground ride, the stimulation of emotion over ideas. Yet in as far as it's a successful technical exercise, it's also a spirited film cap[...]

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'Two O'Clock Courage' Is Only a Quarter to Noir

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 02:45:00 +0000

A man's silhouette walks unsteadily away from the camera, which follows slowly behind him as he approaches the signpost of an intersection at night. The shadowy man leans against the post because he's hurt, bleeding from a head wound. He's nearly struck by a cab, whose spunky little female driver jumps out to give him a tongue-lashing until she realizes he's injured and doesn't remember his name or anything else. "It's am-something," she says, and she'll spend the rest of the night helping him retrace his steps to find out if he's guilty of the murder that's just occurred near that location. This description resembles the set-up of many noir films, especially those inspired by the works of Cornell Woolrich, such as Street of Chance (1942) and Deadline at Dawn (1946). However, Two O'Clock Courage is based on a story by Gelett Burgess, a very different type of author famous for children's books and nonsense verse like "The Purple Cow", and despite its initial noir trappings, this quick B picture turns out to be one of the many light-hearted throwaway mysteries common to the era. The fact that Burgess wrote a 1934 mystery novel with an amnesia element unwittingly makes this humorist an influence on the whole amnesia subgenre of what would be called noir fiction. In fact, Benjamin Stoloff had directed a 1936 film version for RKO called Two in the Dark starring Walter Abel and Margot Grahame. The same Stoloff now produced this 1945 remake at the dawn of the film noir era, and it would be interesting to compare the two films. Tom Conway, famous as George Sanders' younger brother who took over the Falcon series of mostly larkish crime movies, plays the hero who doesn't recall his name. Ann Rutherford overplays the sprightly woman cabbie bit, a type of character not uncommon in movies of the cultural moment when "the boys" were still coming back from overseas. They spend the plot running around and trading wisecracks in an increasingly unlikely investigation with a surprisingly accommodating homicide detective (Emory Parnell) and annoying comic-relief reporter (Richard Lane). The suspects include two high-class dolls played by Jean Brooks, who'd been in several Falcon outings, and Jane Greer, billed as Bettejane Greer in her first credited film two years before her iconic femme fatale in 1947's Out of the Past . To noir fans, the promise of her presence is as exciting as the fact that this picture was directed by Anthony Mann, and that evocative opening shot almost looks as good as some of the visual ideas he later fabricated with photographer John Alton, but the cameraman here is Jack Mackenzie. Outside of that opening shot, the picture doesn't take real advantage of the fact that all the action occurs at night. Just as the rest of the film's style will prove less exciting than we'd hope, so the screenplay by Robert E. Kent, with additional dialogue (probably sprucing up the alleged witticisms) by Gordon Kahn, turns out to be a routine whodunit. That's good enough for Warner Archive to release it on demand under its Film Noir banner, but noir fans should be warned that this entertaining time-passer isn't a lost classic of the genre. It's merely a solid minor crime lark of the good-natured school that tips its fedora in the direction of certain ideas an[...]

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We Destroyed New York Long Ago With 'Deluge'

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 02:45:00 +0000

While most of the titles in Kino Lorber's Studio Classics line of Blu-rays are reasonably well-known titles that have been on DVD before, the company here performs a service in exhuming a pre-Code spectacle lost for decades. It's of special interest to fans of old-school physical effects and early science fiction talkies. Deluge is an early example of what we now call the disaster film, though at the time it was advertised as a spectacle whose closest model was the same year's King Kong . Based on a popular English novel by S. Fowler Wright, it posits an apocalypse convulsing the world with earthquakes and tsunamis, leaving survivors to rebuild. This indie production, picked up for distribution by RKO, blows what budget it had on the big catastrophe sequence, which involves a lot of model work of collapsing New York skyscrapers combined with matte shots of crowds and ruined vistas. It's very obvious to the spoiled modern eye, and this may prevent some of today's viewers from appreciating the effects. Film aficionados, however, may look at it differently. Although not as striking as those in King Kong and some contemporary productions, Deluge displays the exuberance of destruction that seems to feed our atavistic fears and desires to this day. We're struck by the audacity of conception as much as, or more than, the execution, especially when we see the Statue of Liberty overwhelmed by tidal waves. These ideas were restaged digitally in the 2004 The Day After Tomorrow , as someone has helpfully demonstrated on YouTube (see clip below). Most of the post-disaster section is shot at Bronson Canyon, now familiar from a thousand other movies and TV shows. It involves a bland hero (Sidney Blackmer) who rescues a blonde bombshell (Peggy Shannon) from a gang of rapist-murderers and takes her as his common-law wife until he discovers his own wife (Lois Wilson) is still alive. The soap operatics of this long anti-climax can be fairly described as turgid, livened only by the pre-Code sexual elements. The disaster footage was recycled in later productions, such as serials by Republic Pictures. The rest of the feature was lost in the historical shuffle until an Italian-dubbed print was discovered in the '80s, but this print with the English soundtrack was only discovered in 2016 and restored by France's Lobster Films in a print that looks and sounds swell. This history, along with much info about the cast and crew and an endorsement of the Fowler's novel and its differences from the screenplay, is provided in a typically informative commentary from genre maven Richard Harland Smith. A very pleasant bonus is a second movie starring Shannon. Back Page (1934), also restored by Lobster, is an obviously cheap "Poverty Row" indie, yet it's smarter and more consistently entertaining than the main feature. As the title implies, it's a newspaper comedy floating in the backwash of the hit called The Front Page , now as a woman-centered variant. "I'm a good newspaperman, and I know it!" exclaims Jerry Hampton (Shannon), who's not interested in marriage without having a job. When politics blackballs her from a city paper, she runs a small-town rag that exposes local corruption in a wildly coincidental manner. Shannon, who [...]

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'Something for Everyone' Is an Early, Albeit Sinister, Example of Queer Cinema

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 02:45:00 +0000

Belying its ironic title, Harold Prince's 1970 film, Something for Everyone , is hardly well-known, never mind a mainstream hit. It is, however, a cult specialty in that intersects several important careers more famous for Tony-winning Broadway work. With its VHS incarnations out of print for decades, it finally hits the digital era. Riding a bicycle through Austria in his lederhosen, Konrad (Michael York) sets his sights on a castle currently owned by the poverty-stricken Countess von Ornstein (Angela Lansbury). It's the same castle featured in his much-thumbed children's picture book, and he will calmly go about inveigling himself into that fairy-tale ruin by any means necessary. This will involve romancing an heiress (Heidelinde Weis) and getting a job as a footman under the suspicious eye of a butler (Wolfried Lier), who represents the Nazi past. A completely amoral character whom the Countess believes represents "the new man" of the age, Konrad only has to know whom he must kill or screw to achieve his goals. "You'll sleep with anyone, won't you?" says the Countess' simpering son Helmut (Anthony Higgins, then billed as Anthony Corlan). "If I have to," Konrad replies with an arm around his shoulder, "but I have my preferences." This makes the film an early example of queer cinema, albeit a sinister one. Predictably, Lansbury steals the show as she swans about with perfection, waving her arms while darting beady glances. Also in the cast are John Gill and Eva Maria Meineke as the heiress' vulgar parents, and Jane Carr as the Countess' daughter, a dumpy bespectacled dark horse who observes all. She tells Konrad that her dogs "only approve of murderers and parasites. Which are you?" He replies, "Both." A good-looking lark wrapped around a very sour center, this is the type of black comedy that was being made in that newly liberated, post-MPAA era of New American Cinema, along with such examples as M*A*S*H (1970) and Little Murders and The Hospital (both 1971). It's not a specifically American story, however, but a comment on both old Europe and its decline, shot in Austria with a largely local cast and crew. Perhaps this, along with its sexual ambiguity, hampered its box office potential. It was one of the MPAA's earliest X-rated movies, though now it's an R. Inspired by Harry Kressing's novel The Cook , the screenplay is by Hugh Wheeler, who was on his way to winning Tonys for three major musicals -- all directed by Broadway legend Harold Prince, whose first of only two films this is. His second film is the 1977 adaptation of his Broadway hit A Little Night Music . Perhaps if this first feature had been a smash, they would have been derailed into Hollywood careers, but it wasn't to be. Wheeler, by the way, is probably better known as mystery writer Patrick Quentin; his earlier plays were other queer milestones, Big Fish, Little Fish , and a short-lived adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle . A film version of Jackson’s novel, directed by Stacie Passon, is releasing this year. Composer John Kander -- who'd already won a Tony working with Prince on the Nazi-themed Cabaret , soon to be filmed with York -- sc[...]

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Ken Russell's 'The Boy Friend' Razzle-Dazzles 'em

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 02:45:00 +0000

Written, produced and directed by Ken Russell, The Boy Friend isn't merely one of his most exuberant films, which is already saying plenty, but it's his happiest and most joyful. Russell began with a solid structure provided by Sandy Wilson's hit stage musical of the '50s, itself a self-conscious pastiche of '20s musicals. The original West End production became one of England's longest-running shows, while the Broadway version introduced Julie Andrews to America. The year before this film was made, a Broadway revival starred Judy Carne and Sandy Duncan. It was part of a schizophrenic wave of '20s nostalgia that was hitting the culture with such items as the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie (with Andrews) and the 1971 Broadway revival of No No Nanette at the same time that taboo-breaking projects explored contemporary themes. Russell presents the show as a cheap production in a run-down, poorly attended seaside theatre, although even Tony Walton's tattiest set designs look improbably spectacular, not to mention Shirley Russell's costumes, which dress women as dice and lanky Tommy Tune at one point as a skyscraper. The hoary clichés of the understudy (Twiggy) who goes on in place of the broken-legged star (uncredited Glenda Jackson) and the various backstage romantic mix-ups are handled as briskly and winkingly as possible, and indeed everyone gives elaborately theatrical winks to the big Hollywood director (Vladek Sheybal) who comes to see the show as a possible inspiration for one of his Busby Berkeley-esque movies. Thus, Russell injects nods to everything from 42nd Street (1933) to Singin' in the Rain (1952). The latter is mentioned by name, and Russell interpolates two of its recycled songs, "You Are My Lucky Star" and "All I Do Is Dream of You", two actual '20s ditties. As a lover of creativity and fantasy, Russell lavishes details of the production's mistakes and shortcomings, presenting these flaws as lovingly as the increasingly elaborate and surreal numbers that mix what's happening on stage with how various characters imagine them to be, until it's impossible to separate the levels of reality. Numbers even occur backstage where the audience can't see them. The key to Russell's attitude is that even though the whole thing is a send-up, he loves the homely spit-and-bailing-wire reality just as much as the perfectly polished eye-popping fantasy, for one always contains the other. You just have to be willing to see it. Christopher Gable plays the pretty co-star mooned over by our heroine while Murray Melvin plays another actor mooning over her from the sidelines. Max Adrian is the impresario, Antonia Ellis the bitchy rival, and Bryan Pringle and Moyra Fraser the older acting couple with their own problems. This is the second of only three films for stage legend Tune, previously in Hello Dolly (1969); he and Twiggy reunited in the Broadway hit My One and Only (1983). Russell's output has commonly been criticized for excess and unevenness, which he didn't think were flaws. This film is among his most consistent, although MGM cut 25 minutes from its original release. What's now on a Warner Archive Blu-ray, upgrading their old o[...]

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Stuck in the Middle: Relationship Tangles in 'Somewhere in the Middle'

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 08:30:00 +0000

A neatly constructed, though somewhat ineffectual, drama of conflicting love lives, Somewhere in the Middle (2015) marks the second outing of filmmaker and screenwriter Lanre Olabisi. Purely a product of New York filmmaking, Olabisi’s effort feels like a contentious New York minute stretched out and emotionally dissected systematically over its 90-minute running time. Somewhere in the Middle is a romantic narrative told in ellipses. One storyline circles over another and is played back again to reveal how each character’s story is intertwined with another’s. Our first introduction is to Sofia, who has a session with a therapist she's seeing for the first time. In the doctor’s home office, she meets Kofi (who, it so happens, is the brother of Sofia’s therapist). Sofia takes a liking to Kofi and when she meets him again a few days later, she gives him her number. Meanwhile, Kofi’s wife, Billie, is an overworked manager at a marketing firm who's underwhelmed by her (as she sees it) meandering husband. Kofi, who works in a legal office, only wants to spend time with his wife, but she brushes him off every chance she gets for the sake of her work engagements. To complicate matters, Billie is beginning to take a liking to her co-worker Alex, a young, resilient British woman who invites Billie to stay at her apartment when Billie walks out on Kofi. Alex, who playfully indulges in Billie’s flirtations with her, rather fancies her co-worker Elliott, which quietly earns the ire of Billie. Throughout all this, Sofia continues to chase after Kofi, much to the detriment of her psychological well-being. Olabisi’s script is well-mapped out; the storylines of each character is thoroughly engaging and cleverly intersect with a precision that's clean and elegant. His skill comes down to taking a very simple narrative and transforming it into an intricate sequence of events with textured complexity. Despite the fact that there are four different stories going on at once, Olabisi commands a sobering clarity that prevents the narrative from becoming hopelessly muddled and overtaxed. The glaring issues are the characters themselves: they are spoiled, selfish, indulgent brats. There’s not a likable character in the bunch here. It’s rather a shame that, while the narrative hooks you right in, you must endure 90-minutes with the kinds of people you take special care to avoid in your workplace, your neighbourhood, or just about anywhere in your everyday life. To be sure, Olabisi’s film is about the fatal flaws which destroy human relationships, be they jealousy, infidelity or deep-seated obsessions. But we are being delivered the reprehensible tangles of four self-entitled man-children (the sorts often slagged off as “millennial trash”) with the inferred objective that any of these people deserve our sympathies. And rather than being able to just admire Olabisi’s nimble narrative thread weaving, the childish exploits overwhelm the structural design. It’s a good thing Olabisi has a set of skilled actors (some of them relatively new) on hand; each of them provides the right amount of vulnerability and apoplexy, delivered in measured turns. Cassandra Freeman, in partic[...]

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