October 04, 2022

Sex and Lucia

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Lucia y el sexo
Julio Medem - 2001
Music Box Films BD Region A

I am certain that I saw Sex and Lucia at the time of its U.S. release, almost twenty years ago. At the same time, it turned out that while watching the new blu-ray, I remembered nothing of the film at all, no scenes, not even vague images. I have also seen several other films by Julio Medem, his Red Squirrel was reportedly admired by Stanley Kubrick. While the some of the narrative and stylistic aspects may be idiosyncratic for each film, there is a continual interest in the volatility of intimate relationships.

The film defies an easy synopsis. There are several strands of stories intertwined, all connected, bouncing between a past and a present. The characters are all connected in some way with a novelist, Lorenzo, struggling to write his second novel. Some concentration is required to keep sense of the events and the various relationships. Medem drops a few hints along the way that suggest that what we see may be the enactment of Lorenzo's novel while it is being written rather than events in his life. What might be considered self-referential is the off-screen narration in praise of incomplete story telling. Ambiguity is the point here.

The film is less about Lucia, who is not part of some of the narrative threads, while sex is what ties and unties the various couplings. It seems not coincidental that part of the film takes place on an island where at one end of the beach there is the unsubtle symbolism with a partially hidden hole and an out of service lighthouse. Most of the sex is between Lucia and Lorenzo, actors Paz Vega and Tristan Ulluo, with some assistance of body doubles. This is the complete version of Medem's film, shorn of two minutes at the time of its initial U.S. release. I would not be able to say for certain what has been restored, but my guess would be mostly the male frontal nudity.

The blu-ray comes with a video supplement by critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who presents the argument that the depiction of sex is gender neutral, neither the frequently criticized "male gaze", nor what could be described as privileging a female view. That one of the characters is a retired porn actress is referred to primarily in a positive light. The film begins with an anonymous coupling on the island, in the water and under the stars. For Medem, sex is part of the natural order of life. The blu-ray also includes two older supplements, a "Making of . . . " and brief interviews with the main cast and crew members. While these supplements will not answer the ambiguous aspects of Sex and Lucia, they are helpful in explaining Medem's process as a filmmaker.

September 20, 2022

The Turning Point

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William Holden and Eugene White on location in Los Angeles.

William Dieterle - 1952
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The Turning Point is an example of how a director can take otherwise routine material and distinguish it by some artistic choices. Inspired by the televised U.S. Senate inquiries into organized crime, Dieterle's film presents a university law professor assigned to bust crime in an unidentified Midwestern city. The professor, John Conway is assisted by society dame and girlfriend, Amanda Waycross, and by his cynical journalist friend, Jerry McKibbon. The story was by Horace McCoy, famed for writing The Shoot Horses, Don't They?, so there is some fatalism at work here.

Visually, there are two major influences at work. The first I would attribute to Orson Welles. Much of the film is made up of conversations filmed at two-shots, often with the characters moving and the camera moving with them. There are a few long traveling shots, moving down corridors or between rooms. In one shot near the end, Edmond O'Brien as John leaves Alexis Smith (Amanda) to check on William Holden (Jerry), whose body is in another room. The camera follows O'Brien as he walks to the medical room in the basement of an arena, meeting Smith as she exits the room. The camera stops outside the door with O'Brien seen in shadow through the opaque glass of the medical room, camera moving again following O'Brien as he rejoins Smith with the two walking away from the camera down a hallway. There are also a large number of depth of field shots keeping two characters within the frame. The second visual influence would be neorealism which was incorporated more frequently in crime movies. Although O'Brien mentions that that he is fighting crime in a Midwestern city, several scenes were shot in what is recognizably Los Angeles. The biggest giveaway is one scene with Holden and Smith on the Bunker Hill Angel's Flight railway. Aside from filming on the streets of Los Angeles, the film is given the appearance of a documentary with the lack of a music soundtrack. Aside from music accompanying the opening and closing credits, the only other music, briefly used, is diegetic.

More interesting than the topline stars are the various peripheral characters including Jerry's streetwise snitch (Eugene Smith), also the smalltime hood who finds himself over his head (Anthony Barr, resembling a nervous weasel), a Detroit hitman played by Neville Brand, and Carolyn Jones in her film debut as the flashy ex-girlfriend of a gangster. Ed Begley plays the town's crime boss, confident of his ability to cover up his illegal activities until O'Brien gets too close. Most of these actors are uncredited, but they bring dashes of color against the blandness of the roles handed to the stars. Holden and O'Brien have been known for distinguished work in other films, notably reuniting in The Wild Bunch, but their characters here are only of interest as working on behalf of the narrative.

Film noir historian Alan K. Rode provides a deep dive into the production of The Turning Point beginning with the history of a screenplay that went through several hands. While the location shooting of Angel's Flight is recognizable for many viewers, Rode is able to point out the Los Angeles locations, including scenes filmed in Paramount's offices. That there were some cost-cutting measures, I am reminded of Frank Capra's time at Paramount in his autobiography where there was reportedly an edict limiting budgets to a two million dollar ceiling. Rode is also helpful in naming several of the uncredited supporting players. In all, this is a commentary track that goes well beyond repeating information that can be found in Wikipedia. The blu-ray is sourced from a 4K restoration. The status of The Turning Point as a film noir classic may be subject to debate, but there is no debating Rode's well prepared and thoughtful commentary.

September 13, 2022

Death Game

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Peter Traynor - 1977
Grindhouse Releasing BD Regions ABC two-disc set

As a young man in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Peter Traynor would watch European art films in Boston theaters. Following a failed attempt to break into the film business in Los Angeles, Traynor bluffed his way into selling insurance in San Francisco, managing to set historical sales records. In his early Thirties, Traynor finally found his way becoming a producer, financing several low budget films, usually with a group of small investors. This was a time when tax shelter laws were favorable for even the most humble of independent producers. The tax shelter laws were in place between 1971 and 1976, made to encourage domestic film production, and were partially responsible for allowing the emergence of the first generation of film school graduates making their feature debuts.

Traynor grew up admiring Bicycle Thieves, but as a producer, formed a partnership with Mark Lester which resulted in Steel Arena and Truck Stop Women. Both films were low budget productions designed for play at drive-ins, urban grind houses, and as product filler in neighborhood theaters. And whether intended or not, once Traynor got his chance to direct a film, the result was tension between past artistic aspirations and the then current need for commercial viability. Death Game is not the horror film embraced by the arthouse crowd that was Roman Polanski's Repulsion. At the same time, it is too tasteful most of the time to really be considered an exploitation film. The subject of mixed reviews at the time of release, what ever is written about Death Game, including this piece, will say as much about the writer as about the film.

An upper middle class man, George, is alone for the weekend while his wife is away due to a family emergency. Two young women show up at night at the front door, apparently lost looking for a friend's house in the neighborhood. The two women, or maybe girls is the correct term, make a phone call to be picked up by a friend who never shows up. The girls, who identify themselves as Jackson and Donna, are able to wear down George's protests of being married, because what guy will refuse the invitations of two cute blondes, naked in a hot tub? Jackson and Donna refuse to leave, threatening blackmail with the claim that they are both under 18 years old and rape charges would only be the beginning of a nightmare for George. The next two days are of Jackson and Donna destroying the house and George's sense of self.

The film makes easy points presenting Jackson and Donna as victims of emotional and sexual abuse by men in power, fathers unreliable in their absence, and a society that in general devalues women. This premise is undermined by punishing George for the actions of others, by conflating him with all men when he is introduced as a genuinely nice guy. In the opening scene, George amiably is beaten by his wife in a friendly game of croquet. A telephone call indicates delight in talking to his son. George is a straight white guy, the proxy for the intended audience, but he not markedly misogynistic. Donna may possibly have attraction to George as a father figure.

On the other hand, Jackson and Donna reveal their strongest relationship is with each other. What is arguably the most exploitive scene is the menage-a-trois in the hot tub, because what is hotter than two attractive and naked blondes is two attractive and naked blondes making out with each other. The dynamics of the relationship are made more clear as the film progresses, fully spelled out and underlined by the end with Jackson in a tuxedo and Donna in a gown.

Cinematographer David Worth was able to make Death Game look more polished than one would ever expect for a film made with a final cost of $200,000 after post-production is included. Even though the film barely received a theatrical release, it was helpful in reviving Sondra Locke's then flagging acting career. This was also the first substantial role for Colleen Camp, an actress with great comic chops who should have gone beyond scene stealing supporting roles. Seymour Cassel's performance is harder to judge as his voice was dubbed by David Worth following a dispute with the director.

The blu-ray comes with many extras, most notably two commentary tracks by Colleen Camp with Eli Roth, and producer Larry Spiegel and cinematographer/editor David Worth. There are also interviews with Traynor and screenwriter Michael Ronald Ross, and a telephone interview with Sondra Locke. The interviews are of interest in discussing the convoluted history of Death Game from script to screen as well as conflicting thoughts on Peter Traynor's talents as a film director. And if that was not enough, there is the bonus feature of the soft-core erotic, Little Miss Innocence which took the elements of the basic story when Death Game was still an unproduced screenplay that had changed several hands.

September 09, 2022

The Story of Film: A New Generation

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Mark Cousins

Mark Cousins - 2021
Music Box Films

Not really a sequel to Cousins' fifteen part documentary but a rambling review mostly of cinema of the previous decade. Unlike the organized chapters in The Story of Film which could be seen as a series of lectures, this new film is like a one-sided conversation that bounces from tangent to tangent before loosely tying things up at the end. Depending on one's expectations this is a feature rather than a bug.

What Cousins sees as worth noting about film in the past decade includes how various technical innovations have been used in narrative cinema, how genre conventions have been upended, and how the documentary film has been reshaped and given greater importance. So much has been packed into the 166 minutes that it may have been better to have assembled everything into smaller bite sized chunks instead of one huge meal. Certainly some of Cousins' assertions, such as stating that Aleksei German's Hard to be a God is somehow the end of cinema, will be subject of debate. I would like to think that Cousins does not consider himself the final authority or gatekeeper of film history, and is instead provoking discussion and curiosity about film in all its forms.

There is admitted fascination in seeing how actor Andy Serkis' face is transformed to that of the gorilla leader of the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy. Revealed is the complicated process involved in de-aging Robert De Niro in The Irishman. Even Fabrice Aragno's 3D cinematography for Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language is deconstructed. On the lower end of technology, Sean Baker's Tangerine is presented both for being filmed with a smart phone and for centering on marginalized characters. Among other films cited for challenging older narrative tropes are Under the Skin and Us. Cousins also refers to a handful of Bollywood films that have he finds innovative. One hilarious clip is from some DIY African filmmakers making fun of copyright infringement of Hollywood films in Africa.

Cousins is hardly the first person to have made the connection between Shoplifters and Parasite. And certainly Cousins should be commended for including films that may be unfamiliar to even the more adventurous cinephiles. The one point that may be most debatable is the resilience of the theatrical experience of film watching, even after the mandatory closures due to Covid-19. The audience that would most likely gain the most from A New Generation would be those who already have more than a superficial knowledge of film history and could respond to Cousins with connections and examples of their own, as well as the interest of investigating those lesser known films and filmmakers.

September 06, 2022

So Proudly We Hail!

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Veronica Lake, Mark Sandrich, Paulette Goddard and Claudette Colbert

Mark Sandrich - 1943
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

One of the most interesting bits of information I found on director Mark Sandrich was in Ben Sidran's book about Jews and American popular music, There was a Fire. Sidran notes that Sandrich was the creator of the playback system which totally changed the way musical numbers in films were produced. Prior to that time, filming was done completely live with an orchestra off stage while the camera was focused on keeping the singers and dancers within the frame. Sidran does not provide any attribution though an internet search indicates that dance critic Arlene Croce was his probable source. How accurate is this anecdote? I can only guess that Croce got her information as part of her research on her book on the films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Mark Sandrich directed five of the ten Astaire/Rogers films, plus Holiday Inn, yet has so little written about him. it is as if his being the director of these film was incidental.

After more than a decade of musicals and comedies, So Proudly We Hail! revealed a more serious side to Sandrich. While there was the dramatic Katherine Hepburn vehicle, A Woman Rebels, Sandrich minimizes the jingoism that is suggested by the title. With the exception of a couple of dramatic turns, the first hour mostly plays like a romantic comedy. The screenplay was by Allan Scott, a frequent Sandrich collaborator which explains why some of the humor is not dissimilar to some of the lines heard the Astaire/Rogers films. The film begins in December, 1941, prior to Pearl Harbor. A group of military nurses are on their way to Honolulu via a ship that is redirected to the Philippines. So Proudly We Hail was released in June, 1943, just over a year after the Battle of Bataan and the subsequent Bataan Death March took place. Between production code restrictions of the depiction of on screen violence, and military restrictions aiming to simultaneously present a reasonably accurate presentation of a major U.S. military setback while bolstering support for the war for the stateside audience, the film is probably best appreciated within the context of when it was produced.

The nurses are introduced as an ethnic cross section with characters named Sadie Schwarz, Elsie Bollenbacher and Toni Cacolli as part of the team. Claudette Colbert is their supervisor, Janet Davidson, mostly known as Davy. We are Paulette Goddard as Joan O'Doul and eventually Veronica Lake as Olivia D'Arcy. All the nurses have the rank of lieutenant. What ever idealism they have about nursing is challenged by too many wounded soldiers, and not enough sleep or medicine. The romances between Colbert and George Reeves, and Goddard and Sonny Tufts seem no less absurd that their overall situation of being virtually abandoned by the Douglas MacArthur and subject to the whims of the Japanese military. Between the narrative setup and the studio demands that allow the actors to grow stubbles while the lead actresses manage to have enough lipstick even when there is a shortage of morphone and quinine, do not expect an entirely realistic film.

What is also noticeable about Mark Sandrich is that he has a visual signature. There is a preference for traveling shots, shots that inform the viewer of the the location of a scene as well as the people within the scene. While Sandrich was required to showcase his stars, including building up Goddard's role at her request, the narrative and visual emphasis is on the group within the scene. This is made clear in the opening scene of the nurses being introduced after being rescued from Corregidor. There is no sense of hierarchy, and they express concern for the nurses who have not yet made it to safety. The title is fitting for an emphasis on the nurses as a team of equals. The "We" is inclusive of the nurses, the military, and by extension, the audience.

Film historian Julie Kirgo, formerly an integral part of the defunct Twilight Time label, provides the commentary track. Both informal and informative, Kirgo reviews the making of the film, providing the expected overview on the careers of the the three stars, but also digging into the collaboration between Sandrich and screenwriter Allan Scott, linking it their previous efforts. Time is also spent on the Oscar nominated cinematography of Charles Lang, Jr. and his dramatic use of lighting. Kirgo also points out the gender reversals in the two romantic sub-plots. A potential romance between a nurse played by Barbara Britton and a Filipino doctor played by Ted Hecht elided the Production Code. The one point I would find disputable is a reference in the film to what is now known as "The Rape of Nanjing". There is enough documentary evidence that to claim uncertainty about what happened to the Chinese female victims seems irresponsible. Otherwise, Julie Kirgo's film scholarship and passion are much appreciated. And on a personal note, I would love to see KL Studio Classics re-issue Red Line 7000 with Ms. Kirgo taking a more in-depth look at her father, the film's writer, George Kirgo.

September 02, 2022

Honk for Jesus. Save your Soul

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Adamma Ebo - 2022
Focus Features

Honk for Jesus switches from being footage of a documentary in progress about an evangelical pastor efforts to restore his reputation after a scandal, and off-camera "reality". The view can identity when filming is taking place by the switch between to different screens, with the screen taking on the almost square aspect ratio for the documentary.

In an early scene, the pastor gives a sermon to the five congregants that still follow him. A young girl gives testimony and is baptized as it were, by the pastor. A couple moments later, the girl states to the camera that she loves theater.

To some extent, Honk for Jesus follows several films that highlight the theatrical nature of evangelical preaching, with films like The Miracle Woman, Elmer Gantry and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The documentary Marjoe gave the game away with former child preacher turned adult actor, Marjoe Gortner, pulling away the curtain. Both recent films and news about megachurch leaders has shown that no much has changed since Marjoe was released fifty years ago.

Adamma Ebo could have just made a film with the easy target of satirizing the fire and brimstone of the sermons, and the conspicuous consumption of mansions and luxury cars. At its heart, Honk for Jeaus is really about a marriage in trouble. Sterling K. Brown plays the megachurch pastor, Lee-Curtis Childs, whose personal demons caused a scandal big enough to have caused almost his entire congregation to leave. Regina Hall portrays his wife, Trinitie, known as the church's First Lady. The status and perks of being the First Lady are enough for Trinitie to do everything she can to stay with and support her husband. There is the suggestion of a back story of a girl who may have grown up within a closed, religious community with that evocative first name and her sense of wonder that she and Lee-Curtis overcame their differences with his being a Baptist, and she Apostolic.

The way Brown and Hall play off each other, they should be in a good, smart romantic comedy. The film is well cast with the scene stealing young Selah Kimbro Jones as someone to watch. Composer Marcus Norris has his first film score, where sometimes elegiac music underlines the seemingly comic events with a sense of sadness underneath. What makes Honk for Jesus different from the previously mentioned films is that it defies easy classification. Certainly both the mockumentary and off camera scenes show the characters acting and speaking foolishly. That final shot, a wordless close-up of Regina Hall, that says everything about Trinitie and her cloistered world.

August 30, 2022

Symphony for a Massacre

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Symphonie pour un Massacre
Jacques Deray - 1963
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

The basic set-up of Symphony for a Massacre is very familiar after more than sixty years of similar crime films. A group of five gangsters, all with legitimate business, pool their money to purchase a large amount of drugs for eventual sale. One of the five betrays the others by stealing the loot, and then tries to cover up his actions by murdering his partners. It is no surprise that everything ends badly for everyone involved.

Most of the film takes place in Paris. The youngest of the gangsters is forty years old. As one who has kept up where I can with French crime films, it struck me how the genre has shifted with the criminals often part of France's growing ethnic minorities, and the locations moved to the outer suburbs of islands of dingy, ill-repaired apartment towers. Some of violence that may have been shocking in 1963 will seem muted for contemporary viewers.

The lurid title, created shortly before the film's release, belies a relatively low-key tale. What we see is as methodical as the executions of the various crimes. The third film by Jacques Deray was also the first to gain enough attention to set a career primarily with crime thrillers. Deray's commercial peak was shortly before and after the 1970s, especially as Alain Delon's go-to guy with nine collaborations. The screenplay, adapted freely from a novel, was done by Deray with Claude Sautet and Jose Giovanni. In addition to writing the dialogue, Giovanni, a name associated with many classic French crime films, appears as the film as one of the gang members. Over the next two decades, Deray made films where the pace was quicker and the violence more explicit, but Symphony establishes his much of his style and themes.

While several cast members such as Charles Vanel and Michelle Mercier are familiar to cineastes, Symphony has been noted as being the film that boosted Jean Rochefort to being a major presence in French cinema. Rochefort's hang dog face is missing his usual mustache here. One person writing about the film thought that Rochefort was miscast because he does not look enough like someone who with evil intentions. That may well be why Deray had cast Rochefort, because of his ordinary looks which serve as a distraction from what may be going on in his mind. Rochefort's seemingly unlikely role as a hardened criminal here is in retrospect complimentary to his role almost forty years later as the retired teacher who dreams of changing places with a bank robber in Man on a Train.

In his New York Times review, A. H. Weiler connects Symphony with Rififi. Jules Dassin's film set a new standard for heist films, both in France and internationally. The word rififi is French slang for a violent show of force. Weiler was probably unaware that Deray's previous film was Rififi in Tokyo, like Dassin's film, based on a novel by Auguste Le Breton. Dassin was famous for his extended, wordless enactment of the burglary of a safe. Deray likewise as dialogue free scene with Rochefort committing his planned crime while on the night train from Paris to Lyon.

The blu-ray is sourced from the 2016 2K restoration. The supplement is composed of alternating interviews with French film journalists Francois Guerif and Jean Philippe Guerand, primarily covering the importance of Symphony for Deray and Rochefort, the artistic influence of Jose Giovanni, and the initial critical and commercial reception of the film in France.