January 12, 2021

Up Country

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Lucas McNelly - 2021
DPress Productions

Before discussing the film, I need to mention that Lucas McNelly and I are acquainted with each other from our blogging activities over the past decade and a half.

In McNelly's film, three men who appear to be in their late twenties are first seen as passengers in a gray sports utility vehicle. An older man has driven them to an unmarked location near some woods. The four walk through what may be a restricted area, through the woods, past some rail tracks, to a stream. The three men awkwardly make their way while carrying their fishing rods. The guide easily walks through his path easily. When the three get to the stream, they are absorbed in joking with each other that they do not notice the guide silently walking away.

The three men can not really be described as friends. John, who organized the trip has invited Mark, his brother-in-law, and Paul, a tax attorney whom John hopes will provide him with some professional help. They know each other in that one might describe as a business acquaintance. John, Mark and Paul have gone fishing, but with the guide gone, they have become the proverbial fish out of water, trying to find their way back. Even before they find themselves lost, their situation is anticipated by their unease in navigating their way following the guide and the walk to the stream which seems to take an unusually long time.

The film carries with it some similarities to Deliverance, albeit more intimate and stripped down. There are a couple of moments that are uncanny. Parts of the narrative includes ellipses which add to the discomforting conclusion, and ending that may frustrate those who demand full explanations for what has been seen or even not seen.

Certainly I would encourage would-be filmmakers to take a look at Up Country. This is a micro budget film, reportedly $4000.00, almost completely shot in the woods of Maine with the exception of an interior shot in a cabin and some shots inside the gray SUV. The film neither looks nor sounds cheap. There are some nice nature shots of the environment, including shots of a caterpillar and a small frog. McNelly is comfortable with filming an extended static shot of John walking away from the camera, on the bumpy and jagged path, the camera impassively observing him as he walks further away from view. Sometimes the most interesting way to be cinematic is also the simplest.

January 05, 2021

Rough Night in Jericho

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Arnold Laven - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Like The Rare Breed, which I reviewed back in March, Rough Night in Jericho is a medium budget western from Universal. Mostly traditional in its narrative and visual style, the level of violence is indicative of the studio's response to the changes affecting the genre. Otherwise, as a studio product, the western town is dust free, the saloon is overpopulated with extras, and most of the characters are well dressed with the men generally clean shaven. There is a certainty that the bad guys will come to their deserved end. For myself, the predictability is part of the charm.

Also part of the charm is seeing Dean Martin as the villain. As Alex Flood, he is the former sheriff who brought law and order to the town of Jericho, only to find it more profitable to buy fifty-one percent of every business. The one business he has yet to take over is the single coach stage line owned by the youngish widow, Molly Lang. The coach is damaged on its way to Jericho, with Lang's partner Hickman, a former lawman, and his former deputy turned investor, Dolan, debating whether to fight Flood or take the easy way and sell out. Again in keeping with some of the genre changes of the times, Dolan, as played by George Peppard is not quite an anti-hero, but has his moments of pure self-interest. Jean Simmons is put in awkward position where her character of Molly Lang wants to be taken more seriously but is limited in her actions by the men, perhaps an acknowledgment of a mostly socially conservative audience.

Martin's role as Flood might also be seen as continuation of his on screen persona at its most negative. Consider how in the films made with Jerry Lewis, the Martin character often takes advantage of Lewis only to redeem himself and reaffirm the partnership at the conclusion. In Rough Night in Jericho, it is Martin speaking softly, letting others do most of his dirty work, showing no remorse for any misdeeds. Most of the physical threat is carried by an unshaven Slim Pickens, introduced wielding a bullwhip used to disarm Jean Simmons and later disable George Peppard.

Director Arnold Laven is probably best known for being part of the team that created and produced the television series, The Rifleman. This is the one western of the four features directed in the 1960s which was a work for hire. A craftsman rather than a stylist or auteur, Laven's films are all with some interest, with high points being Slaughter on 10th Avenue and Anna Lucas. There is also a certain amount of visual economy in knowing how to frame his shots, either by moving the camera to indicate his characters within a given space, or even composing a shot of two or three characters within a static frame conversing with each other. The final chase between Dolan and Flood makes use of lateral traveling shots plus just enough long shots to indicate the distance between the two men and expanse of the country. Compare to the recently released News of the World in which Paul Greengrass visually underlines much of his narrative with an overabundance of aerial shots of the countryside and multiple tracking and dolly shots that misapply the tools at his disposal.

The one weak spot is the music score by Don Costa. Mostly known for his arrangements for Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra and other popular singers of the late 1950s and 60s, most of the music here is undistinguished. Costa lapses in the worst of Max Steiner by accompanying a scene of Simmons and Peppard getting drunk with the sound of sad trombones. There is also a syrupy song at the end, "Hold Me, Now and Forever" performed by a choral group, The Kids Next Door. Further research indicated that Costa along with producer Martin Rackin also composed another song for the film, "The Devil Rides in Jericho" that appeared on the B-side of the 45 rpm single. If that record did get any airplay, it was not on any radio station I listened to.

Samm Deighan provides the commentary track, discussing the careers of screenwriters Sidney Boehm and Marvin Albert, who also wrote the source novel. Cinematographer Russell Metty and editor Ted Kent also get mentioned. Most of the discussion is devoted to the three stars. What I would add here is that the film does have some "stunt casting" with two of the better known Hollywood correspondents of the time, Army Archerd and Vernon Scott appearing as part of the casino crew, as well as Arnold Laven's wife in a small role. The couple of contemporary reviews I read offered back-handed praise for the film living up to its advertisement as a traditional western. At the time of release, Hollywood and most American film critics were unprepared for the surprising popularity of an Italian western, A Fistful of Dollars, which seemed to ignore the established genre rules. For the most part, Rough Night in Jericho is that film, almost thoroughly predictable. At the same time, there are hints, for those who want to take a closer look, with small tweaks to a genre that was undergoing major changes.

December 15, 2020

Puzzle of a Downfall Child

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Jerry Schatzberg - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

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

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

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

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

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

December 11, 2020

To the Ends of the Earth

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Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari
Kyoshi Kurosawa - 2019
KimStim

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

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

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

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

December 08, 2020

The Return of the Musketeers

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Richard Lester - 1989
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

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

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

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

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

December 01, 2020

Beasts Clawing at Straws

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 10, 2020

Dragnet

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Jack Webb - 1954
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Jack Webb's TV series has been a part of my life since its first version in the 1950s. I was a bit too young to follow what all of the details when I watched the occasional episode during the final year or so, around 1959. The introductory four notes at the beginning of the show and Webb's deadpan request of "Just the facts" were well ingrained as part of the general popular culture of the time. Even as a would be high school aged hippie in the late 1960s, I watched Jack Webb's police Sergeant, Joe Friday, back in prime time television, but something of a man out of his time with the current zeitgeist. My affection for Dragnet also included catching the 1987 film with Dan Ackroyd as the nephew, also named Joe Friday.

The series began on the radio, and the original TV series is almost filmed radio. Primarily dialogue based with Friday and his partner, Frank Smith, driving around Los Angeles, interviewing witnesses and possible suspects. Purportedly based on true life crimes, each episode ends with the perpetrator caught, and the sentence announced at the end. There is not much of interest visually, mostly close-ups and medium shots of people talking. The emphasis is on the procedures and ordinary legwork of solving a crime. The film takes an entirely different tack, with Friday and Smith having to find the material evidence needed for proof of the crime.

Much of the movie version is like a big screen version of what was seen at home. But Webb, as director, also takes Dragnet where he would not have been able to for home consumption. The film opens with the shooting in a field of one small time hood by another. The killer has a saw-off shotgun. The victim, an uncredited Dub Taylor, is in the foreground, while the killer can be seen several yards back. Taylor's back is to the camera. When he is first shot, he twists towards the camera in close-up revealing a bloody face. Given when the film was made, this is an extremely violent moment. Later, Friday and Smith get into a fist fight with some gamblers with everyone getting bloody and bruised. That fist fight also has plenty of Point-of-View shots with the viewer being the recipient of several of Friday's punches to the face. The dialogue also goes beyond what would be allowed on television with Friday responding to a hoodlum's crack about his mother, with Friday responding that unlike the hood, his mother "doesn't bark". Unlike the television show, Webb here has a few opportunities to create shots with one character in the foreground with another further back, as well as using a few overhead traveling crane shots. What bits of cinematic style exist here would be explored more thoroughly the following year with Webb's best film, Pete Kelly's Blues.

Webb was unusually generous for a producer-director-star. Both Dragnet and Pete Kelly's Blues have credits with a card following Webb's name as "in the Screen Play by Richard L. Breen". These were the only two films that Breen wrote for Webb, and the only two films that Webb provided the unusual credit for writing. While the visual aspects of Webb's films are inconsistent, there are thematic consistencies. Webb's films are about generally homosocial groups, be it the police force in Dragnet, the 1920s Kansas City jazz band of Pete Kelly's Blues, the marines in The D.I. or the newsmen in -30-. Even the women, Ann Robinson as a police woman here, are essentially one of the guys. The lives of these characters are within their chosen professional activities.

Film historian Toby Roan provides the commentary track for the Blu-ray. Identification and some details are provided on the supporting cast that includes Richard Boone, and uncredited Dennis Weaver, and an assortment of character actors with careers often weaving between radio, television and movies. Roan's commentary track can be heard on the wide screen version of the film (1.75:1). Dragnet is also available in the Academy format of 1.37:1. What I am assuming is that the film was intended to be exhibited in the standard 35mm format, but Warner Brothers wanted to hop onto some kind of wide screen format following the introduction of CinemaScope the previous year. Dragnet was one of several films that were re-formatted for wide screen during this transitional period. While there is no significant loss of visual information, my own preference is for the Academy ratio. Dragnet can also be enjoyed for some of the on location filming around the streets of Los Angeles. Even while very much a product of its time, Jack Webb's creation not only thrived through the changes in mass media and popular culture, but has remained defiantly iconic.