October 18, 2018

You Never Know Women

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William Wellman - 1926
Kino Classics BD Region A

One of those bits of coincidence that makes film history fun - one of the two leading men in You Never Know Women is Lowell Sherman. Six years later, Sherman starred in What Price Hollywood?, the film generally acknowledged to be unofficially remade in 1937 by William Wellman as A Star is Born.

You Never Know Women is one of those films that is appreciated best when viewed as part of the era when it was produced as well as how it fits as part of of Wellman's career. The story takes place when wealthy guys rode around in chauffeured limousines, wearing top hats and sporting canes. A woman, Vera, is walking near a construction site when she is about to be beaned by an errant beam. An observant member of the construction crew rescues Vera in the nick of time, only to be shoved aside by Eugene, who tells the worker he knows how to handle the now unconscious Vera. Waking up in Eugene's arms, Vera mistakenly thanks Eugene for getting her out of harm's way, but is independent enough to turn down his offer of a ride. In his limo, Eugene follows Vera long enough to discover that she works in a theater.

What is billed as a dance company is actually a circus act starring Vera and her performing partner, Ivan. The performers are introduced in a lateral traveling shot of each performer removing a mask, only to reveal clown make-up underneath. The performances include some very frenetic leaping, twirling and contortions. Eugene joins the audience, audibly commenting on the ridiculousness of Ivan's knife throwing act, with Vera on the receiving end of those flying blades. Eugene tries to convince Vera that his wealth and class will rescue her from the itinerant life of show biz, much to the distress of Ivan, whose feelings towards Vera have not be expressed to her.

Here's where William Wellman, Jr.'s commentary proves invaluable. With much of his silent work lost, what is known about William Wellman's early filmmaking career is anecdotal. After making several westerns, and reportedly manhandling William Fox, Wellman's career showed scant promise. Paramount's B. P. Schulberg assigned You Never Know Women to Wellman after seeing the 1925 Columbia production, When Husbands Flirt, written by Dorothy Arzner. It was the critical and commercial success of You Never Know Women that allowed Wellman to direct Wings.

The blu-ray is taken from the 4K restoration of the film, including tinted scenes. Wellman, Jr. quotes from several reviews from 1926 with several writers noting the influence of German films on the visual style. What is particularly noticeable are several point of view shots, especially two with the moving camera - one from the point of view of a clown on top of some tall, inflatable contraption wobbling on the stage, and the second, with Vera flying above the audience as a human butterfly. There is also a very nice visual moment where we see two men entering the theater at night, seen only as shadows against a wall.

Donald Sosin's music track works quite well here, with the occasional balalaika for that Russian flavoring, and clarinet solos that are almost synchronized to accompany the playing by the clown, Toberchik, portrayed by El Brendel. The blu-ray also includes a booklet with an essay by Gina Telaroli. If the last name seems familiar, star Florence Vidor was the ex-wife of director King Vidor. Judging from the posters for the film, she was a big star in the latter part of the silent era, her career ending soon after the sound era began.

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October 14, 2018

Coffee Break

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Marine Vacth in Double Lover (Francois Ozon - 2017)

October 11, 2018

Denver Film Festival: The Line-up

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What a perilous time to be a film festival programmer. Closer examination is made regarding the proportion of female filmmakers, especially in the major festivals. There is also question of whether or not a filmmaker should be included based on past actions or statements. While no less than Guillermo del Toro has declared that next year's Venice Film Festival will feature an equal number of films from female directors, this year proved a bit awkward with only one film in the major competition, The Nightingale by Jennifer Kent, and the inclusion of a documentary celebrating female directors, from male filmmaker Mark Cousins. Film festivals will always reflect programmers' biases so the question of inclusion by female or minority filmmakers will constantly be debated, especially if the filmmaker has not been legitimized by film industry or festival award already.

At this point, Amazon Pictures has kept Woody Allen's newest film on the shelf, with re-hashed arguments about what he may or may not have done given new life with the #metoo movement. Roman Polanski's Based on a True Story has had no festival screenings in North America, much less distribution, due to the current climate. As he is not an English language filmmaker, less attention is paid to Korean Kim Ki-duk. I would have to question the remorse for past actions Kim displayed in his autobiographical documentary, Arirang. Based on last minute re-editing of The Predator prior to the Toronto International Film Festival screening, and Bradley Cooper's belated discovery of the history of Jon Peters, one of the producers of A Star is Born, it seems like more thorough vetting may be required of filmmakers and programmers.

It is also a perilous time to be a white male writing about film. I want to qualify my whiteness by pointing out that I am culturally Jewish, which for certain people is a disqualification. My photo is on this blog's masthead, so that aspect of my identity is no secret. And anybody who's read my stuff knows that I am an unapologetic auteurist, although I will note on occasion that the director is not always the dominant person on a given film. I have written about female filmmakers, including some who should be known better. That said, I'm not sure what to make of Dan Fogelman, who blames white male critics for the negative response to his newest film, Life Itself. I haven't seen it, but I did see Fogelman's previous film, the mawkish Danny Collins, so I'm not encouraged. Nor am I expecting filmmakers to make their film for "me" as some well-intended people will put it. Admittedly certain aspects of my life will inform how I may process and judge the film I've seen. In terms of film festival coverage, it's based on what films I've been able to see in screenings and screener links out of the films being presented. What I'll write will consist on a balancing act between those films I feel most enthusiastic about, and giving a fair representation of a fraction of the films shown at the Denver Film Festival.

One of this year's special Red Carpet presentations, The Front Runner is certain to be of local interest as Gary Hart was one of Colorado's senators at the time he made his ill-fated run to be president. In the interest of full disclosure, I've voted for the guy. And my heart sank when I saw that photo of Hart with Donna Rice. You would think that someone like Preston Sturges would make up a story about a married candidate seen with a pretty blonde who was not his wife on a boat called "Monkey Business". Director Jason Reitman is set to appear for what I expect will be a lively Q & A with the audience.

The other Red Carpet presentations will be Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite, Brady Corbet's Vox Lux, and Neil Burger's The Upside. That last film is the English language remake of the French film, The Intouchables from 2011.

Also scheduled among the films that will be jumping from the festival circuit to theatrical runs are Roma, The Green Book, Burning, Shoplifters, just to name a few.

The annual tribute to an "experimental" filmmaker will be to a personal favorite, Barbara Hammer. I was able to see several films and meet Ms. Hammer at the Miami Beach Cinematheque about ten years ago.

The featured country this year is Hungary. Among the titles is The Whiskey Bandit by Nimrod Antal, the Hungarian-American director following two good Hollywood action films, Predators and Armored. Also a new film by Marta Meszaros, Aurora Borealis, as well as Jupiter's Moon by Kornel Mundruczo, his follow-up to White God. Surprisingly missing is the newest film by Laslo Nemes, Sunset, Hungary's Oscar entry.

Of local interest are two documentaries. We are Columbine is a documentary looking back at the school shooting that took place in 1999 by Laura Farber, herself a freshman at the high school at the time, with interviews with four other former students. More personal for myself would be Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records as one who spent many hours and dollars at Denver's Wax Trax! record store when I was younger.

The full schedule can be reviewed with this link.

One bit of advice: I have been able to see the documentary about the real life Japanese cannibal, Caniba. It is admittedly a very unusual film both in its subject matter, and in the visual choices made by the filmmakers. But I would strongly advise not eating before seeing this film.

October 07, 2018

Coffee Break

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Myrna Loy and William Powell in After the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke - 1936)

October 02, 2018

The Spiral Staircase

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Robert Siodmak - 1946
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

It might be pushing it to describe The Spiral Staircase as photo-giallo. The first view we have of the serial killer is from behind, on a dark rainy night. He is wearing a long, dark coat and a hat with the brim down to cover as much of his face as possible. We also see his black gloves. Not too different in appearance from the killer in Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace. The point of view shot is a favorite trope in giallo, and here we have the distorted view of the victims, all young women, seen misshapen prior to their deaths. There is also the trope of a psychological motivation, a product of the writer's imagination, in this case a misdirected hatred of imperfection. The source novel by Ethel Lina White, Some Must Watch anticipates the suggestions of voyeurism in the titles of several gialli. Just before we share the killer's point of view, there are extreme close-ups of one of the eyes of the killer, followed by a reflection in that eye.

That eye actually belongs to Robert Siodmak and its appearance in this context indirectly anticipates giallo maestro Dario Argento's gloved hands dispatching various victims. Candle lit basements are almost always creepy, as are open windows on the proverbial dark and stormy night. The story of a mute servant girl and an unknown serial killer in a small New England town, trapped in a mansion with the possibility of the killer somewhere near, still holds up after seventy years. I had seen The Spiral Staircase once before, about forty years ago in a 16mm print. There was so much I had forgotten, but where the blu-ray really shines is in revealing the detailed set, the interior of the mansion where most of the film takes place.

The opening shot of the film is deliberately misleading. A tracking shot of a small New England town, the film takes place around 1915 or so. There is a makeshift movie theater inside a hotel, with the hand-cranked projector, and a pianist near the screen, audience in rapt attention. There are a couple of telephones, all requiring hand cranking and the services of an unseen operator to connect calls. Once inside the Warren family mansion, where most of the film takes place, a typewriter is briefly seen. Yet everyone travels by horse drawn buggy, and illumination is by gaslight or candles. If there weren't those few intrusions of the 20th Century, it would be easy to assume that The Spiral Staircase takes place about twenty-five years earlier. The first murder takes place in the hotel room above the movie theater. And perhaps I am taking a leap in making a connection here, but the time that the film takes place was also when the concept of eugenics was popularized and given academic validation.

Siodmak and gifted RKO cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca provide several memorable shots. Dorothy McGuire walking along an iron fence, twig in hand, hitting the bars to accompany her steps. The camera weaving in and out of rooms of the mansion, each holding its own secrets amidst intricate patterns on the walls and furnishings.

None of this would matter if Dorothy McGuire wasn't able to carry most of the film with the expressive use of her eyes and lips. The real movie is in ignoring the narrative elements and just watching McGuire's facial expressions as she gets emotionally involved viewing the silent film, or is actively listening to the nattering of the too friendly doctor played by Kent Smith. Competing with McGuire is Ethel Barrymore as the bedridden family matriarch, her performance pared down to her eyes and commanding voice.

This blu-ray comes with a generally well prepared commentary track by film historian Imogen Sara Smith. Right off the bat, she clarifies that the silent film within the film, erroneously titled, The Kiss, is excerpts from D. W. Griffith's The Sands of Dee (1912). An overview of the main cast, Siodmak, and screenwriter Mel Dinelli. The one error is in stating that McGuire won the Oscar for Gentleman's Agreement - she lost to Loretta Young. Ethel Barrymore, however, was an Oscar nominee for her performance as Mrs. Warren.

The blu-ray also comes with the radio version of The Spiral Staircase. Radio play versions of popular movies were common, especially in the 1940s. However, here, Dorothy McGuire providing the spoken interior thoughts to her characters is no substitute for a performance that depends on what is not being said.

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September 30, 2018

Coffee Break

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Heather Angel and Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock - 1941)

September 25, 2018

Joaquim Pedro de Andrade: The Complete Films

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Joaquim Pedro de Andrade - 1959-1981
Kino Classics BD Region A Three disc set

I may have bitten off more than I can chew here. This set contains six features and eight shorts which I saw over the course of three days. I know that there are a bunch of cultural references that I missed, and that may also be missed by those not familiar not only with Andrade, or Cinema Novo - the Brazilian "New Wave" of the Sixties and early Seventies, but the history of Brazil from its days as a Portuguese colony to its more recent history at the time the films were made. None of this should dissuade anyone from taking a look at these films but instead serve as a reminder of how those of us in North America are generally better informed about Europe than the continent south of us.

By the time Cinema Novo had made its way to art theater and film festival showings in the U.S., it was in a state of decline in Brazil. This was a time when some cineastes were looking for the various waves of young filmmakers around the world, with several of the films picked up by New Yorker Films or Grove Press Films. Unlike the French New Wave, where we had some idea of what the rebellion was all about, Cinema Novo was both a rebellion in terms of filmmaking and of taking a political stance. I don't think too many of us were aware of Brazilian film history, and only had the vaguest ideas regarding culture and history. I would think that for many of us, the only Brazilian film we were aware of prior to Cinema Novo was Black Orpheus - the Greek legend transposed to Rio during the Carnival, by French filmmaker Marcel Camus.

It is the short films that offer the most accessible viewing. Tropical Lane especially will come as a surprise. Sex is frequently a part of Andrade's work, and this film, about a young man and his erotic encounters with watermelons was made forty years before the pineapples of Girls Trip and the peaches of Call Me by Your Name. Animal lovers may be upset by Cat Skin, about a young boy from Rio's favelas who steals a cat for the purpose of selling it, cat skins being used to make tambourines. Cinema Novo, made for German television, provides a brief history of the loose group of filmmakers who in turn were inspired by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who amazingly died at the age of 89 last April, outliving many of the filmmakers he inspired. Andrade even shows one of the filmmakers getting a loan from a bank to finance his film. There is also a scene of an editing crew gathered around the flatbed Moviola, the film editing machine that they all share, a gift through UNESCO. Brasilia: Contradictions of a New City is fascinating in its history of a city completely built from the ground up, with idealized intentions, but without fully anticipating certain consequences. As the capital of Brazil, many of the top political leaders still preferred to live in Rio or Sao Paulo. Housing was made up of blocks of huge, six story apartments. Even with housing available for lower income families, there was still the spontaneous creation of shacks in distant outskirts, either for those who worked in Brasilia but could not afford to live there, or for the many who came for the limited jobs in construction. As noted in the final credits regarding the restoration of this film, the producers may have been expecting a different film than the one made by Andrade.

Among the features, Garrincha: Joy of the People is a documentary about the popular soccer star with unusually twisted legs. Nicknamed after a bird, Manual Francisco dos Santos is seen feted by fans and the political elite. The film is also about the Brazilian love of soccer. Conjugal Warfare jumps between three narratives - an elderly couple, finding reasons to be unhappy with each other, a married man seeking happiness with an unusual variety of prostitutes, and a sleazy lawyers whose sexual advances a rebuffed by several women, who then finds himself on the receiving end of a male admirer.

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The Conspirators takes place in 18th Century Brazil, with several men discussing possible rebellion against Portugal. The incident was known as the Minas Gerais Conspiracy, taking place in 1789. One of the leaders, Tiradentes, was executed, while the others were exiled. One of the sources of inspiration was the then recent American Revolution. After Brazil was became a republic in 1889, Tiradentes was declared by martyr, and ironically also made a patron of the Military Police, a point made at the conclusion, featuring a parade. It should be noted that The Conspirators was made during the time of military rule in Brazil.

The original poster for MacunaĆ­ma is the inspiration for the cover of this blu-ray set. This film and Andrade's final feature, The Brazilwood Man are both freewheeling allegories about Brazil, its government, culture, race, and sexual relations. Andrade also uses distancing devices adding to the artificial qualities of many of the scenes. As such, I feel in discussing these films that they are better served surveys on Andrade by Olaf Moller and Ela Bittencourt.

All films end with credits regarding to 2K restoration required for each of the films. An essay by Fabio Andrade is also enclosed.