May 01, 2020

This Transient Life

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Mujo
Akio Jissoji - 1970
Arrow Film BD Region B

About two years ago I was so sick that I went to the hospital. This turned out to be a far wiser course of action than anticipated as x-rays indicated that I had cancer in my left kidney. This was in addition to the chronic kidney disease that was already being treated. One of my doctors told me that I maybe had two years to live. Since I understood in a more concrete way how limited my lifespan was, and still is, I made the decision to stop my impulse purchases of newly available movies and try to watch the many I had collected over a ten year period. I also decided that my final purchase would be Arrow's set of Akio Jissoji's "Buddhist Trilogy".

Being a Buddhist for most of my life, I've had an interest in films with Buddhist content as well as films made by those filmmakers who have identified as Buddhists. And ending my collecting with a film called This Transient Life seemed fitting for me. A reminder that there are multiple sects of Buddhism, and we don't all practice Zen or are guided by the Dalai Lama. And not every film about Buddhism is made by an actual practicing Buddhist. All I could find about Jissoji is that he grew up as part of a Buddhist family. Still, there were things to be gleaned from This Transient Life that I understood within my own studies.

Masao, a young man with no interest in inheriting his father's business, desires to be a sculptor of Buddhist statues. At the same time, he has an incestuous relationship with slightly older sister, an open sexual relationship with the wife of his artistic mentor, and is constantly at odds with a Buddhist priest regarding his understanding of Buddhism. From my own perspective as one who practices a form of Nichiren Buddhism, Masao personifies what is called the poison drum relationship - essentially that one who hears about Buddhism and rejects it still has established a relationship with Buddhism and will will eventually attain enlightenment. This may appear contradictory as Masao's actions are admirable, yet he is sincere about his statue making, offering one such statue to the priest's temple.

Masao's rationale for rejecting Buddhist teaching is arguably a misunderstanding of the use of negation, probably from the Sutra of Immeasurable Meanings that includes the lines, "neither existing nor not existing, neither self nor other, neither square nor round...". Masao interprets this as a nihilistic view of the world. Instead, it may be best understood as an indirect way of saying that the essence of Buddhism is beyond human comprehension and limitations.

There is no Buddhist visual style here, certainly not like what Paul Schrader has written about regarding the films of Yasujiro Ozu and the view from the tatami mat. Jissoji's camera is usually mobile, moving forwards and back, side to side, sometimes searching in the fields or slinking around the corner in the house. There is the repetition of two similar shots of the priest, and a repeating of a series of shots. Perhaps not intentional but the editing structure at these moments reminds me of the recitation of a sutra, with the repeating of a specific phrase or passage. There is also the sound of bells, often what sounds like a door bells, but to me a possible non-diegetic reference to the use of bells as part of the formal Buddhist practice.

David Desser's commentary during specific scenes helps put things in context both in general terms of Buddhism as well as Japanese culture, and Japanese film culture of the time. He also discusses Jissoji's use of camera movement, as well as pointing out the geography of parts of Japan where the This Transient Life was filmed.

April 28, 2020

The General Died at Dawn

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Lewis Milestone - 1936
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

In The General Died at Dawn, Gary Cooper plays an American gunrunner in China known only by his last name, O'Hara. The character was inspired by the real life British born Morris Abraham Cohen, known primarily for his association with Sun Yet-sen and also having been appointed as a major-general in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army. Cohen was 49 at the time of the film's release. I would assume that for Paramount, the idea of a Jewish action hero would be a hard sell for the American public, but I'd like to imagine an alternate version with Paul Muni in the lead.

I also have to wonder if the film, with its setting in war-torn China, was previously considered for Josef von Sternberg. The setting is exotic, if not as baroque as in a von Sternberg film. The production was the year after von Sternberg left Paramount. There is also the connection of Gary Cooper as the star, appearing six years earlier in von Sternberg's Morocco.

The General Died at Dawn is still of interest primarily in terms of some of the visual innovations. A shot of a white door knob dissolves into a shot of a white pool ball. There is use of the split screen with two characters in conversation while each corner of the screen peels back to reveal additional action of other characters. Even the opening credit sequence is imaginative with the credits over the sails of Chinese boats floating across the screen. Meanwhile, the film's corniest line from playwright Clifford Odets, with Gary Cooper informing Madeleine Carroll that they could have made beautiful music together, was first uttered here.

So we have Gary Cooper and his pet monkey trying to smuggle a big belt full of money to a group of rebels fighting the warlord General Yang. The money is to be used to purchase guns. Coop has to not only outwit Yang, the general of the film's title, but also assorted low-lifes including a hoarse voiced William Frawley. Madeleine Carroll is caught between her love for Coop and her loyalty towards her father, a relationship that appears emotionally incestuous.

Contemporary viewers might be put off by having several members of the cast in yellow face, notably Akim Tamiroff as General Yang. While that aspect can be charitably considered as a product of its time, the film is otherwise well cast with Asian, if not specifically Chinese, actors as Chinese characters. Also, none of the Chinese characters speaks pidgin English, and the couple of racist characters have what's coming to them.

Lewis Milestone doesn't have a reputation as a visual stylist, and perhaps credit should go to cinematographer Victor Milner, who received an Oscar nomination for his work. The shot that first introduces the viewer to Madeleine Carroll is of her legs, and a cigarette in hand. There is also Carroll and Cooper's first onscreen meeting, with Cooper seen as the reflection on a full length mirror in a train's compartment. There is also one unusually graphic depiction of murder that I would not have expected in a film made at that time. As is to be expected from Kino Lorber's releases from the Universal vault, this is a nicely rendered blu-ray from new 4K master.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track alternating between film historian Lee Gambin and actress Rutanya Alda. Gambin discusses the visual innovations introduced by Milestone, and how The General Died at Dawn fits in with other films starring Gary Cooper. Alda talks about the first time she saw Gary Cooper on screen and a bit about his personal life. The commentary track seems more aimed towards the casual film fan. While Gambin also discusses how the politics of Milestone and Odets found expression in the film, viewers wanting a deeper dive will have to look elsewhere.

April 20, 2020

Why Don't You Just Die?

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Papa, sdokhni
Kirill Sokolov - 2019
Arrow Films

The one thing that is best remembered about Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain is the fight to the death between Paul Newman and Wolfgang Kieling. The audience is reminded that not only is it not only not easy to kill somebody, but that the human body as well as the urge to live can be surprisingly resilient. Russian filmmaker Kiril Sokolov has taken that one scene, indirectly, and made an entire feature where all the main characters at least temporarily survive body blows, maiming, knife wounds and shotgun blasts. Black comedy does not come much darker than this.

A young man with a Batman hoodie, Matwei, shows up at an apartment holding a hammer. The hammer is hidden behind his back when the apartment door is open. An older man, large, and with a completely shaved head, answers. He is Andrei, father of Olya, the young woman Matwei says he is to meet at the apartment. The two eye each other suspiciously. Andrei reveals himself to be a detective as well as a highly concerned parent. And why does Matwei have a hammer with him? Is it really for a friend?

Most of the action takes place in Andrei's apartment, primarily in the living room which turns into the main battlefield. There are flashbacks revealing more about Andrei, Olya and Matwei. This is a story about double crosses and toxic family relationships. Even when the characters try to do the right thing, someone get killed by accident. The Russian title translates as "Daddy, die", but the English title makes more sense when you have four characters literally fighting for their personal survival.

This blood drenched film is hardly subtle, although I would recommend that viewers pay some attention to details in the background in addition to the activity in front of the camera. Sokolov's influences are easy to detect in some cases with his music queues - part of the score sounds like a variation of the Shostakovich waltz used in Eyes Wide Shut, while another scene echoes the music associated with Italian Westerns. Some of the crashing and bashing is rendered in slow motion. There are also little digressions, as when the viewer is shown how handcuffs can or can not be unlocked with a bobby pin. While several reviews of the film from its festival run cite the influence of Quentin Tarantino due to the depiction of violence, I would say Why Don't You Just Die? has more in common with the Coen brothers' Blood Simple in the basic setup as well as their other films with their darkly comic, and often accidental, deaths and injuries.

It should be noted that Why Don't You Just Die? was to get a theatrical release until current events made that impossible. Instead, the film is getting a VOD release today, but will also have a blu-ray release tomorrow. I've only been able to see the film and can not comment on the blu-ray, but my past experience is that for those interested in a deeper dive, Arrow's commentary tracks and extras are usually excellent.

April 16, 2020

The Golem: How He Came into the World

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Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam
Paul Wegener - 1920
Kino Classics BD Region A

A century after its initial release, what does one make of The Golem. One could read the final scene as a variation of a cliche, where the big lug literally falls for a little blonde girl. Although in this case, the big lug is an artificially created guy made from clay whose mindless destruction is ended by a child who innocently plucks the source of the monster's power. The rabbi who created the golem did so as an act of protecting the Jews in the medieval ghetto of Prague from oppression done in the name of Christianity. As the "death" of the golem is not witnessed by any of the ghetto residents, it is attributed as an act of God. How ironic that the creature, created initially as the protector of Jews ends up threatening their destruction, only to have the ghetto saved by a tiny shiksa. A subplot involves the Rabbi's daughter infatuated with the squire from the royal court, with the squire coming to a bad end at the hands of the golem. If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that interfaith relationships can be fatal.

This is, at least for now, the most definitive release of Paul Wegener's film. It was stitched together primarily from two film sources, with tinting based on an Italian release version. The blu-ray is also derived from a 4K digital restoration, with only one shot that showed serious decomposition that I noticed. Kino has also provided a choice of three music tracks, all on the avant-garde side. My choice of soundtrack was perhaps the most experimental by Lukasz Poleszak. Not just music, but synthesized sounds and voices weaving in and out in this track. In any case, all three music tracks provide a radical departure from the traditional solo piano or small group that usually accompanies a silent film. If that's not enough, there is also the U.S. release version with its own soundtrack, and a comparison of the newly restored version of The Golem with an earlier restoration that also has commentary by Tim Lucas.

Lucas' commentary track on the seventy-five minute version, the most complete version at this time, traverses various threads in the history of the film. Included is discussion on Wegener's 1915 film and the actor/director's subsequent career, as well as a history of the story that was the inspiration for Wegener. It may be unavoidable that some of the information in the commentary will be familiar to both fans and serious scholars of horror movies and/or popular culture, such as how the folk tale was inspiration for Frankenstein both in literature and film, the latter with the connection of having cinematographer Karl Freund taking his expertise to Universal when he moved to Hollywood. The more detailed examinations of Wegener's career on film and stage are in German - and certainly of interest due to Wegener being a non-Jew with an interest in Jewish subject matter, who maintained a public career in Germany during World War II, returning to the stage in 1945 with a staging of the play Nathan the Wise in the title role.

The blu-ray should be of interest even to those familiar with the story as the images have much detail that has been unclear in the previous film and home video versions. Even if several narrative tropes are overly familiar, this is the film where they originated. Certainly, the sight of Wegener as the golem, bulked up and with a thick pageboy haircut will more likely amuse than terrify. Viewers jaded with CGI special effects may roll their eyes at some of the scenes here, but there is delight in seeing those dancing airborne flames while the rabbi makes his incantation to bring the golem to life.

March 27, 2020

Return from the Ashes

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J. Lee Thompson - 1965
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Hubert Monteilhet's source novel has been adapted three times by three very different filmmakers. The essential story is of a French woman, Elisabeth Wolf Pilgrin, a doctor, who literally returns from the ashes, that is to say a concentration camp, following World War II. She chooses not to reunite with her husband Stanislaus Pilgrin immediately, but chooses to undergo some cosmetic surgery to repair her facial scars to make her look as she did earlier. Meeting seemingly by chance, Stanislaus does not recognize Elisabeth as herself but as an unknown woman with an almost uncanny resemblance. A scheme is initiated so that Stanislaus will be able to legally get a hold on the wealth Elisabeth has inherited as a post-holocaust survivor. Elisabeth, still pretending to be someone else, is directed by Stanislaus to impersonate his wife.

It's probably no surprise that Henri-Georges Clouzot had first expressed interest in making a film version. Thematically it fits in his previous films with duplicitous characters, plus the novel discusses the concept of Jewish identity, something touched on by Clouzot in Manon. Claire Garrara has an essay of interest regarding the uncomfortable relationship of Jews in France during and after World War II. Clouzot, in his period of extreme artistic crisis sold the film rights to the Mirisch Brothers, with British filmmaker J. Lee Thompson making the first film version. A second version, for French television, was made by Josee Dayan in 1982. No version seems to be available, though what is intriguing is that as a French Jewish female filmmaker, Dayan is culturally closest to the characters of Elizabeth Wolf. Christian Petzhold's Phoenix is the loosest of adaptations, making his characters Germans in post-war Berlin. A more detailed look at the three adaptations can be found here.

Even with those three film versions, Monteilhet's novel is out of print, at least in an English language version. I did get ahold of a British paperback edition that was a tie-in to the 1965 release of Thompson's film. Julius J. Epstein has a screenplay that has simplified much of the novel, reducing the doppelgänger plot that is something of an inverse version of Vertigo, as well has the relationship between Elisabeth, called Michelle in the film, and Stanislaus being one of gamesmanship between the two. In the film, it is only Stanislaus, the professional chess player, who appears to be doing most of the manipulation.
One of the philosophical debates between Michelle and Stanislaus is from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. And it Epstein who wrote the film adaptation for Richard Brooks. One thing the film got right was casting Ingrid Thulin as Michelle. Originally cast Gina Lollabrigida may have been a bigger name, but physically inappropriate. Thulin looks more like the character as described by Monteilhet, and is especially convincing when she is first seen visibly aged from her experiences in Dachau. Thulin and Maximillian Schell were both the right age for their respective characters.

J. Lee Thompson has done good work in suspense previously, notably Tiger Bay and Cape Fear. It isn't until the last big scene here that there is any real sense of tension. I didn't mind Thompson throwing in a few Dutch angles, but the script spoils the fun by adding an unnecessary expository scene. The film eschews the ambiguity of the novel for a clear, moral ending. Even taken on its own terms, Return from Ashes comes across as an impersonal, compromised film with insights no deeper than glances at the concentration camp tattoo on Ingrid Thulin's arm.

March 17, 2020

The Passion of Darkly Noon

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Philip Ridley - 1995
Arrow Video BD Region A

From the moment Brendan Fraser is seen lying on the back of a pickup truck, is arms extended outwards, the religious symbolism in The Passion of Darkly Noon is hardly subtle. Fraser's character is named Darkly Noon, the first name picked at random out of the Bible by his extremely fundamentalist parents. His name connotes his own contradictory self, both the innocent alone and lost in a world he doesn't understand and as a vengeful spirit ready to condemn others. Having escaped from a small community of like-minded Christians that was destroyed by an unidentified, but more powerful group, Darkly finds both physical healing and an internal schism at the remote home of the mute carpenter Clay and his wife Callie.

Even though Ridley makes the film more location specific with the quick glimpse of a North Carolina license plate, this film, as Ridley's earlier Reflecting Skin takes place in an imagined America. And as in Ridley's most recent narrative film, Heartless, the stories are about lonely boys who misread and misjudge the world around them with their idiosyncratic filters. Darkly only understands the world within the confines of his former community and his parents. Callie awakens previously dormant sexual feelings that can only be addressed through self-mortification. While his hosts are generous and flexible in their personal beliefs as well as treatment of Darkly, the guest turns more rigid. To be best appreciated, Ridley's films need to be met on their own terms.

Darkly Noon never received a theatrical release in the U.S., going straight to VHS in 1997. I'm not sure if I understand why as it's no more or less extreme than other films that found their way in the arthouse circuit of the time. Ridley managed to make an independent film with a low budget that featured Brendan Fraser, getting top billing in mainstream films, and Ashley Judd, a rising star following Ruby in Paradise. Viggo Mortensen, as Clay, was on the verge of getting more attention. The usual genial Frasier shows his acting chops here as Ridley takes advantage of his childlike look of wonderment, but also pulls out a more fearsome persona. There may be debate about Ashley Judd's Callie wearing the shortest of skirts and dresses, and wether the male gaze strictly is that of Darkly or shared with the filmmakers. Judd is admittedly quite attractive with her normally dark hair dyed blonde. I've always liked her even in films unworthy of her ability, a classic face that reminds me somewhat of Myrna Loy. It is quite possible that Darkly Noon was considered to unusual for mainstream distribution, while conventional wisdom would hold that the art and indie crowd would not consider a film with the star of Airheads and The Scout.

Philip Ridley's commentary track is quite helpful in explaining how there was a deliberate attempt to make the film visual unrealistic with the use of yellow and blue. The opening sequence is overly bright, with an exposure adjustment at the end culminating with a shot of Callie standing in the rain. A giant shoe floats aimlessly in a lake, used later for the striking image of a Viking style funeral as it is lit on fire. Ridley discusses his art school background regarding some of his visual choices, as well as how the film thematically follows up on Reflecting Skin.

Among the supplements are an investigation into the themes of Ridley by James Flowers, interviews with with cinematographer John de Borman, and editor Les Healey. An interview with composer Nic Bicat covers the three films done with Ridley as well as their collaboration on other projects. An older interview including Viggo Mortensen has been ported over from the British DVD of Reflecting Skin. I was only able to review the blu-ray, but those who purchase the first pressing will also have included a booklet on Ridley and his film written by the usually capable Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

March 13, 2020

The Rare Breed

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Belgian poster

Andrew McLaglen - 1966
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The Rare Breed could almost serve as a proxy for Andrew McLaglen's life. The plot revolves around the attempt to introduce the British Hereford cattle to the United States, cross-breeding with the American long-horn. It is so easy to forget that with the many westerns he's directed, that Andrew McLaglen was born in England and raised in the United States. The Rare Breed was second of four films McLaglen made with James Stewart and certainly the lightest of their collaborations.

Much of the film depends on the screen personas of the three leads - Stewart, Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith. They each bring a certain amount history from previous roles either with each or their connection, along with that of McLaglen, with John Ford. The cast also includes Ford stock company actors Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. in supporting roles. The cast does not quite transcend the episodic nature of the script written by Ric Hardman, whose credits are primarily from 1960s television series. As such, the film is packed with a barroom brawl, a stampede, a fistfight between Stewart and Keith, and a couple of romantic entanglements, plus a running gag with the Hereford bull only responding to the whistling of "God Save the Queen".

O'Hara, and Juliet Mills as her daughter, bringing the British bull to America, are almost caricatures of 19th Century Englishwomen adrift in the wild west of 1884. Brian Keith, as a Scottish cattle baron, is even more exaggerated, introduced with a mop of flaming red hair and a lengthy beard, speaking with a noticeable burr. It's up to Stewart to provide the gravitas, again playing a man obsessed, in this case with the idea that the crossbreeding will succeed in spite of the nay-sayers, going as far as seeking out the bull in a snow storm to check on its survival, putting his own life in jeopardy. Admittedly, this is not quite like the revenge seeking Stewart of the Anthony Mann westerns, or the search for Kim Novak's doppelgänger. The film was the last credited to actor turned producer William Alland, whose credits include several inspired B pictures and modestly budgeted films as a house producer at Universal. It seems possible that The Rare Breed may have been intended as programmer at a time when the traditional western was fading away, only to have benefitted from casting of iconic stars and genre director on the rise.

Andrew McLaglen has positioned himself as the last of the traditionalists, rising from working as an uncredited 2nd Assistant Director on John Ford's The Quiet Man, to Assistant Director on several films with William Wellman. It was John Wayne who had McLaglen direct a couple low budget films for the star's Batjac Productions. Following several years primarily directing the television series Gunsmoke and Have Gun will Travel, McLaglen's career got a boost when he served as director on McLintock!, essentially a western remake of The Quiet Man with Wayne reunited with O'Hara, with an overload of broad humor primarily at the expense of Ms. O'Hara. McLaglen's cinematographer, both on The Rare Breed and his other early features was William Clothier, who had also worked on several of John Ford's last films. Clothier also was cinematographer on Sam Peckinpah's debut feature, The Deadly Companions, starring O'Hara and Brian Keith. The Rare Breed appeared at about the same time as McLaglen's Batjac peer, Burt Kennedy, was making westerns that tweaked the genre.

As if there wasn't enough previous history among the actors, Maureen O'Hara had previously acted with Juliet Mills in a TV version of Mrs. Miniver. Not only did O'Hara play the part of Mills' mother in The Rare Breed, but she was the onscreen mother of Juliet's sister, Hayley Mills (as twins) in The Parent Trap, with the onscreen father played by Brian Keith.

Simon Abrams discusses some, though not all, of these various relationships in his commentary track. Maureen O'Hara's autobiography and Gary Fishgall's biography of Stewart are primary sources, along with some reviews and news articles from the time of production. Abrams is particularly helpful in pointing out a sequence that was primarily the work of stunt coordinator, and future director, Hal Needham. The information that the budget was two and half million dollars would place the film at the low end of what was considered a mid-budget film at the time of production, Universal still being the most tight-fisted major studio. There is also information on the real history of introducing Hereford cattle to America, as well as the ways The Rare Breed ignores geography both in the narrative and filming locations. The Rare Breed may be of greatest interest to genre historians as an unintended representative of a genre that seemed to be coming to end, only to be revitalized by crossbreeding done by unknown filmmakers with unpronounceable names in a west created in film studios in Italy and Spain.