November 24, 2023

The Carpetbaggers

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Edward Dmytryk - 1964
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There is an inspired moment in The Carpetbaggers where the camera rests on the entry to a bathroom in a mansion. George Peppard is seen walking into the bathroom where Carroll Baker has been taking a bath. We do not see them but we hear the dialogue. I do not know who came up with this idea, director Dmytryk or screenwriter John Michael Hayes, but there are a couple more scenes that have similar moments. In any case, there is a soup├žon of visual wit in a film that is otherwise not known for being subtle.

The Carpetbaggers already was pre-sold, based on an enormously popular novel loosely based on the life of Howard Hughes. The pre-release publicity was centered on Carroll Baker's nude scene, part of the European theatrical version, unseen stateside. Producer Joseph Levine may have seemed high-minded with the arthouse releases under his name, but he understood that the audience for Contempt was there for Brigitte Bardot's backside and not Jean-Luc Godard's philosophy. The Carpetbaggers was made in part to challenge the U.S. production code that would be in place for another five years.

The Carpetbaggers is every bit as garish and vulgar as the red velvet wall paper on the walls of the Cord mansion. To call the acting melodramatic is an understatement. The story is almost a parody of Greek tragedy with Peppard worried that he will suffer the madness that took his twin brother, takes on the coldness and cruelty of the father he hated, and has a volatile relationship with Carroll Baker, the girlfriend who became is step-mother. While Peppard and Baker represent the last vestiges of the studio system, the majority of the cast also features older Hollywood stars Alan Ladd, Lew Ayres and Audrey Totter. Only the former boxer, Archie Moore as Peppard's chauffeur, keeps his dignity intact. While Joe Levine was unable to have onscreen nudity in a Paramount film, he does have a scene with the young widow Baker in black diaphanous lingerie, and Martha Hyer in nothing but a white fur stole.

This new blu-ray edition comes with two commentary tracks. The more serious of these is by film historian Julie Kirgo. The first forty minutes are spent discussing The Carpetbaggers, both the novel and film, within the context of the cultural changes in the early 1960s. There is also the expected coverage of the main stars and the filmmaking team. Note to Ms. Kirgo that Edward Dmytryk's The Juggler might still be available on Tubi. Historian David del Valle and filmmaker David DeCoteau provide a casual conversation mostly discussing the cast members. Agreed by all concerned is that in spite of his ill-health, Alan Ladd's performance could have initiated a career resurgence had he not died prior to release of the film.

Edward Dmytryk made a second adaptation of a Harold Robbins novel, Where Love is Gone. Based on the murder of of Lana Turner's gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stopanato, that film is almost as entertaining. The ending of The Carpetbaggers is abrupt, although it is from the novel. Even as a work for hire, the film's conclusion does fit in with several other Dmytryk films such as The Juggler and Christ in Concrete in which a questionable man finds redemption in the end.

October 17, 2023

Piccadilly

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E.A. Dupont - 1929
Milestone Film & Video BD Region A

I had seen Piccadilly once before, as a British DVD, roughly twenty years ago. The first thing that struck me, that I had totally forgotten, was that actress Gilda Gray had top billing, her name larger than anybody else in the cast. Gray was originally known as a dancer, credited with inventing "The Shimmy", and had starred in about half a dozen films prior to Piccaadilly. The evaporation of her screen career coincided with the transition to talking pictures. By what appears to be a cruel coincidence, Piccadilly has also been the artistic peak for director E.A. Dupont, and the actress more notably remembered with the film, Anna May Wong.

Gray and Cyril Ritchard play a dance team that is the featured entertainment at the oversized Piccadilly nightclub, run by Jameson Thomas. Ritchard is in love with Gray who is in love with Thomas. After firing Wong for distracting the other scullery workers with her own dancing, Thomas re-hires her to be a novelty performer. Wong is to perform a Chinese dance in an authentic costume. The dance and the costume are both as authentic as chop suey. All eyes are on Anna May Wong with her large helmet, exposed midriff and bare legs. Between that costume and a dance that is mostly arm waving, Wong does not have to do much to make Gilda Gray yesterday's news. While Thomas falls in love with Wong, who knows just how to get what she wants, there is Jim, a Chinese man whose relationship with Wong is the subject of speculation. Two different but connected love triangles made more complicated by race and class.

Director E.A. Dupont was known at the time for his creative camerawork, especially for his 1925 film, Variety, with its unmoored camera mimicking the point of view of being on a trapeze. That film brought Dupont to Hollywood for one production, followed by working in England for a few years. Notable are several traveling shots, one of the hands of bartenders and the hands of the customers, culminating with the camera resting on the hands of Wong and Thomas taking their drinks. Also a shot taken on a bus moving past the various theaters in Piccadilly Circus. Shadows across faces are used for artistic effect. For all the stylistic flourishes, my favorite shot is a tight close-up of Gilda Gray's face as she nibbles on a cookie, satisfied that she has put would-be lover Cyril Ritchard in his place.

The blu-ray is taken from the British Film Institute restored print. Most of the film is in sepia tone with some night scenes tinted blue. While commentary tracks are usually expected to cover information on the stars, the director and other top crew members, Farran Smith Nehme shows exceptional research in her information on the virtually forgotten Gilda Gray and Jameson Thomas. There is also discussion on Arnold Bennett's standing as a novelist by his contemporary, Virginia Woolf. Of interest is that Piccadilly was Bennett's only filmed screenplay. A possible collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock in 1930 collapsed reportedly because Bennett wrote specifically for a silent film at a time when that was no longer commercially viable. Composer Neil Brand has a supplement explaining his musical choices for creating a score that in part was influenced by jazz and popular dance music of the time. The excerpts of a 2004 panel discussing Wong's life and career, featuring actress Nancy Kwan, is marred by the echoey audio. Of more interest is the sound prologue that was added after the initial release, with Jameson Thomas as a bartender of a small, rural pub about to tell about his time as the owner of a nightclub in London. Although his scene does serve a narrative purpose, the prominently billed Charles Laughton appears briefly as the most belligerent gourmand at the Piccadilly Club.

October 10, 2023

7 Days in Heaven

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Fu hou qi ri
Essay Liu & Wang Yu-Lin - 2010
Cheng Cheng Films

In 7 Days in Heaven, the weeklong preparations for a funeral get in the way of the closest remaining family having time to remember the deceased. The film takes place in a rural village in Taiwan, where there are traditions as part of the period of mourning, although some have idiosyncratic twists under the auspices of a ceremonial priest, Yi, with a flexiblilty to lead ceremonies that are recognizably Buddhist as well as more folk practices and a professional funeral arranger, Chin. The film is adapted from Essay Liu's writing, "Seven Days after Father", available online, about the absurdities she noted in her own experience.

The film opens with the delirious scene of Yi wearing his priest's robes in front of a family altar, dancing to Harry Belafonte singing, "Hava Negila". Chin is a woman whose main profession is that of professional mourner, flinging herself in front of coffins, wailing loudly. The character of Mei is Liu's stand-in in the film as the source writing was done in the first person. Chin has Mei and the others follow a script every day determining when and how they should be expressive of their mourning. Part of the ceremonies includes a memorial service at a tent with two very tall stacks of canned drinks arranged to resemble the Eiffel Tower, and a brief musical interlude from a high school marching band. Prior to being sent off to the crematorium, the father's favorite cigarettes and girlie magazine with be with him in his passage to the afterworld.

The narrative breaks for flashbacks, memories of the father. It is not until the various ceremonies are over that the family members experience their own sense of grief. Mei tries to effect an escape not only from rural Taiwan, but also Taipei, by taking a job involving international travel throughout Asia.

A curious change from Liu's original piece in its conversion to film is that her original story references only Buddhism, while in the film there is a hodgepodge of religious expression. Since there is virtually no available information on Liu, my guess is that she has chosen to express a sense of skepticism towards religious and folk beliefs in general. Curiously, Liu's previous film work was co-writing the film Mailie (2005), also about the Chinese tradition of of the seven day period between death and cremation. While Liu's career has been in writing screenplays, co-director Wang Yu-Lin has directed three more films.

7 Days in Heaven is available on DVD and on several VOD platforms.

October 04, 2023

The Storms of Jeremy Thomas

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Mark Cousins - 2021
Cohen Media Group DVD Region 1

It was probably a given that Jeremy Thomas would work in the film industry. His father was Ralph Thomas, best known for making Dirk Bogarde a star in the Doctor series and a handful of more serious efforts. Uncle Gerald Thomas made a career of directing the Carry On series. There was also the more distant connection of grand-uncle Victor Saville, remembered mostly as the producer of Kiss Me Deadly. What was not a given were the films that Jeremy Thomas chose to produce. Nothing could be described as mainstream British cinema. Thomas managed to make a career out of producing films that garnered attention based as the work of very individualistic directors that were more likely to earn awards and critical praise than make a dent in the box office. The one major exception was early in his career with The Last Emperor, the first of five collaborations with Bernardo Bertolucci. It is perhaps not insignificant that while Thomas has produced several films by British directors, he has done more work with filmmakers from outside the United Kingdom.

Film historian Mark Cousins' film is part biography, filmography and road trip. With Thomas at the wheel, the two drove to Cannes for the 2019 festival where Takashi Miike's First Love was to premiere. The title was inspired by Thomas' reaction to a sudden rain storm at Cannes that caused others to flee for shelter while Thomas marveled at the change of weather. The storms would also be the reactions to some of the films such as the controversy over Crash (David Cronenberg - 1996) with its depiction of sex. While Thomas is a producer who gets the money and support but generally sees his job as supporting his directors, Cousins does find some thematic connections with several of the films, particularly with sex and violence.

Cousins does make the odd choice of having two actresses, Tilda Swinton and Debra Winger, discuss working with Thomas, both remarking on his intelligence. I would have wanted this insights of the directors he has worked with more than once like Matteo Garrone, Takashi Miike or Jerzy Skolimowski. The road trip depicts someone who likes to drive fast when he can, sing along with the Grateful Dead, and is also thoughtful to have stopped at the Drancy Memorial outside Paris, infamous as the site where French Jews were rounded up prior to being placed in cattle cars bound for Auschwitz. Cousins does appear to like some of his actors praising Theresa Russell, Jack Nicholson, and Marlon Brando, while offering a little anecdote about Tony Curtis.

Even with the brief exploration of thematic concerns that connect the films, only the surface of Thomas' life and career has been touched. Perhaps a film with a longer running time than an hour and a half would have been better. For myself, I would have liked to have known more about the making of that first production, Mad Dog Morgan when the Australian government was helping prop up the local film industry for an international market, with novice filmmakers shooting a film starring a perpetually inebriated Dennis Hopper. There is also the three years that it took to make The Last Emperor and the logistics of shooting Little Buddha in Nepal. What is understood is Mark Cousins' interest in Jeremy Thomas as a kind of unicorn among film producers, truly independent, going against the grain with films marked in varying degrees by their artistic aspirations.

October 02, 2023

Creepy Crawly

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Chalit Krileadmongkon & Pakphum Wongjinda
WellGo USA BD Region A

I admittedly have not been keeping up with Thai cinema as I had in the past. It has been a while since I last wrote about any films and even longer since I have seen any Thai horror films. I would think the most ideal way to watch Creepy Crawly would be in a full Thai theater with an audience there to scream and laugh, usually in that order. I should note that the film's original English language title in The One Hundred, which is how the film is known outside the U.S.

There may be a bit of eyeball rolling at the initial set-up. The story takes place soon after the Covid-19 lockdowns begin in Bangkok, March 2020. A group of travelers are required to quarantine in a second rate hotel for two weeks. When cleaning a room, a staff member discovers an infestation of centipedes. We are talking about bugs the size of small mammals, not the insects found in somebody's garden. Dead bodies appear in odd places have met gruesome fates. The hotel manager has everyone locked in. When you are stuck in a crummy hotel with people killed by someone or something, somehow a pandemic hardly seems terrifying.

While none of this is to be taken seriously, there are more than enough glaring plot holes that were either overlooked in constructing the screenplay or were edited out. Much of the potential suspense is dissapated by a major reveal that comes too early. Some of the publicity also mentions that the story was inspired by Battambang, a city in Cambodia. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any online information about this source of inspiration. Does any of this matter? As a creature feature, Creepy Crawly probably comes closest to resembling John Carpenter's version of The Thing, but lacks the older film's attention to detail.

While this may sound condescending, Creepy Crawly is a Thai movie made for the mainstream Thai audience, meaning not to expect more than a diverting hour and a half of entertainment. One of the nicer performances is by Chanidapa Pongsilpipat as one of the hotel maids. At one point, her face is in close-up. There is no cutting to what she is looking at but Chanidapa conveys the sense of horror with her eyes slowly widening. The Thai television star with the anglicized name of Mike Angelo provides a few martial arts moves. The most information I could find on the cast and crew was under the title, The One Hundred at themoviedb.org.

September 26, 2023

L'immensita

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Emanuele Crialese - 2022
Music Box Films BD Region A

The title literally translates as "the immensity". That is easy enough to figure out. Inspired by the director's own life, especially his relationship with his mother, the immensity is the difficult work of living one's own life. Penelope Cruz plays the mother, Clara, an upper middle class housewife who finds ways of making life with her three children fun, and whose generosity of spirit allows room for her children to express themselves freely. The infrequently seen father, Felice, is a traditionalist, clamping down where he can on the idiosyncrasies of the family. The eldest child, in the early years of adolescence, lives as much of his life as a boy, although within the family he is still address with his female birth name. The film takes place in Rome in the early 1970s, roughly a decade after the economic boom years, which still left parts of the population untouched and in generational poverty.

The son is the proxy for the filmmaker who identified himself as a transgender last year. A side note about the name of the character - birth name is Adriana or Adri, but he names himself Andrea. Due to Andrea, a common first name for Italian men, being occasionally misgendered by those who only associate the name with women, the subtitles have the son's name rendered as Andrew. I choose to refer to the character as Andrea.

At a time when there was less understanding or language for gender dysphoria, Andrea is allowed to present himself as a boy in his appearance, save for one unhappy moment when he is forced to wear a dress for a family portrait. A glimpse indicates he is already wearing some kind of chest binder. Andrea is attracted to Sara, a girl of similar age, about 13, but is in a brief panic when it appears that Sara is about to initiate some kind of sexual relationship. Sara lives with the kind of community of working poor that were romanticized by Vittorio De Sica in the 1950s, living in shacks in field separated from Andrea's apartment by thick field of reeds. Clara forbids Andrea from going across the field, revealing a sense of class prejudice. A final shot of the shantytown cleared for a new apartment building is a reminder of the past being erased for what is suppose to be a promising future.

What Crialese means by immensity is also indicated in an interview - "To look within is to try to change individually, instead of wanting to change others. Breaking free from the addiction of wanting to dominate the other, resisting the compulsion of having, of appearing and perhaps trying to focus a little more on being. Abandoning classifications of gender, race and sexual orientation, because they do not define us, they actually limit us and create divisive barriers; we are what we are in perpetual change. Human nature is inherently unpredictable and immense."

Crialese likes to work with non-professional actors. Andrea is played by Luana Giuliani, chosen by Crialese who was scouting girls who played traditionally male sports. Giuliani races motorcycles in real life, making her life somewhat similar to that of the biker girls in the recent French film, Rodeo. Giuliani holds her own sharing the screen with the established powerhouse Penelope Cruz. Uncertain if she is a human or an alien from another planet, the shot that introduces Andrea almost convinces the viewer that she does have the ability to fly.

September 19, 2023

Piaffe

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Ann Oren - 2022
Oscilloscope

The title is an equestrian term, basically having a horse trot in place. Eva, who becomes so horse identified, is unable to stay in place, compulsively in motion. Ann Oren's film is made up of ellipses in the beginning. The various seemingly unrelated pieces do come together to create a narrative that at certain points share some of the themes of David Cronenberg. Eva's body mutates, but Oren dispenses with any kind of direct pseudo-scientific explanations.

Eva is working as a foley artist, attempting to create the sounds of a horse to be used in a television commercial. She is substituting for her transgender sister, Zara, currently a patient in a mental hospital. The commercial is for a psychotropic drug called Equali. Even the name of the drug is a kind of pun with horseback riding compared to mood enhancement. Eva tries various methods of creating realistic sounds of both the horse and its trot. The itch on her lower back is the horse tail that she grows. Rather than be horrified by this mutation, Eva lets the tail grow long enough to be seen under her dresses.

The botanist, Novak, seen in the the film's beginning sequence is introduced studying slides of various plants. When he explains some of his work to Eva, Novak discusses a fern that has both male and female spores, concluding that the concept of gender in plants can not be understood in human terms. While not stated as such, this scene raises questions as to whether there could be a genetic component to gender dysphoria as with Zara, or if Eva's horse tail is the physical manifestation of psychological imbalance. Novak caresses Eva's tail and the two make love. Eva's identity as a female is called to question with a close-up of her shaved tail, like that of many mammals with a shape resembling that of a penis.

Piaffe is the German based Ann Oren's first narrative feature. The film grew from her short film, Passage which was about a foley artist creating the sound for a film about a dressage horse. That film starred Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau, who appears as Zara in Piaffe. It seems too coincidental that Eva is played by another Simone, the Mexican actress Simone Bucio. That sense of coincidence repeats itself knowing that Bucio appeared in the film The Untamed, in which women are seduced into sex with an unearthly creature. Shots of legs, those of Eva and horses, get repeated. Multiple viewings might be needed to understand the use of dressing the main cast in clothing of solid colors. While Piaffe has been released in NYC and Los Angeles, it is getting a very slow rollout nationwide in select theaters.