August 12, 2022

Emergency Declaration

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Bisang Seoneon
Han Jae-rim - 2022
Well Go USA

Emergency Declaration might be best described as an updating of Airport and the series of films that followed fifty years ago. The title refers to the mandate that allows a pilot preferential treatment for landing in any airport when there no other safety options. The difference here is not only in making the cause for potential disaster more topical but also in taking advantage of current special effects technology that did not exist in the early 1970s.

For those familiar with South Korean film, this is a big budget film with several big name stars. By big, the film is shown on IMAX screens locally. Stateside viewers will have to settle for a very limited theatrical release and PVOD. Even casual viewers will probably recognize Song Kang-ho, the scheming patriarch of Parasite. Here Song has the equivalent of the George Kennedy role. Kennedy, for those unfamiliar with the Airport series, was the everyman airplane mechanic who saved the endangered flight in the first film, and appeared in the three sequels. Song appears as a tenacious police detective who uncovers the plot to kill all the passengers on a flight to Honolulu from Inchon.

There is also the sub-plot of the former pilot who reluctantly is called to action and is coincidentally on the same flight as his nemesis, the co-pilot. Also on board is the cop's wife. With those couple of exceptions there is little characterization of the passengers other than being subject to increasing panic as the film progresses. The villain, a very youthful scientist, is introduced early on. Seen at the airport first asking questions of a ticket agent followed by acting even more creepy with the former pilot and his young daughter, I had to wonder why no one bothered to call airport security. Real life is also avoided as no one is ever seen wearing a face mask, although a major plot point would suggest that is exactly what people would do in this situation.

The most impressive scene is when the plane is out of control. The set, part of a jet assembled on a rotating gimbal is used to advantage with unbuckled passengers flying out of their seats. Unlike its Hollywood antecedents, Emergency Declaration has a bittersweet resolution. The running time is 140 minutes which seems long, but answers the question, "With a flight that is being denied any place to land, what else can go wrong?"

August 02, 2022

Little Man, What Now?

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Frank Borzage - 1934
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Little Man, What Now? was based on a German novel published in 1932, a topical best seller both in Germany and internationally. The basic story is about a young man attempting to establish stability for himself and his wife in the increasingly unstable post World War I Germany with its high unemployment, inflated cost of living and polarized politics. The German film version released in 1933 is reportedly significantly changed from the novel with the Nazification of the film industry. Frank Borzage's version is closer to the novel although the political aspects are deliberately vague. Although there are protests by the marginalized poor, there is no labeling. We only see the gatherings broken up by the police from a distance. Borzage would be politically clearer in later films, Three Comrades and The Mortal Storm, here the emphasis is on love as overcoming all obstacles.

While the title character is meant to evoke a random person often affected by things beyond his control, Hans, as personified by second-tier lead Douglass Montgomery, is not always sympathetic. He is first seen showing lack of empathy. Walking by one of the scenes of protest, Hans and a well-to-do older man agree that it is best to be happy in one's place. Hans soon learns that his assumed place is tenuous , based on various circumstances determined by others. Hans nickname for his wife is Lammchen, German for "Little Lamb". More often than not, it is Hans who the sheep, led by his wife.

Margaret Sullavan is unmistakably the star of Little Man, What Now? and Frank Borzage makes sure the audience knows it. She first appears, back against the corner of a building, facing the camera with her megawatt smile. It is Lammchen who constantly believes in Hans even when the viewer might remain dubious. She is the one who determines to see her pregnancy through, even with Hans' meager salary, and she is also the one who finds an affordable attic apartment when facing homelessness in Berlin. As pointed out by Allen Arkush and Daniel Kremer in their commentary track, Sullavan is lit and positioned in her favor, often at the expense of Montgomery.

There are also two comic sequences here worth mentioning. One scene introduces the clingy, whiny daughter of Hans' first employer, a grain merchant. His marriage a secret, Hans is one of three employees the merchant hopes will marry his daughter and take over the business. Breakfast is a scene of domestic turmoil as father grills daughter about her matrimonial prospects and bratty teenage brother finds everything amusing. A later scene is of Montgomery and Sullavan together in bed, trying to sleep in their apartment bedroom while a party is taking place. A drunk Alan Hale stumbles in on the couple, trying to engage the couple in conversation before falling asleep on the floor. With the exception of His Butler's Sister, Borzage's abilities with comedy were underused but do provide some bright spots is what is presented as a serious minded drama.

Little Man, What Now? is recognizably a pre-Code film, and according to Arkush and Kremer, the last film before the Code was strictly enforced. The couple is introduced with the confirmation of pregnancy without marriage. I can not even think of any other Hollywood film where there is a sign indicating that the doctor being visited is a gynecologist. There is the previously mentioned scene of Sullavan and Montgomery together in bed, under the sheets. Something of a stretch in plausibility is that Hans and Lammchen are unaware that Hans' stepmother operates an exclusive bordello. A scene that might have been cut and/or re-shot later is of a picnic, with the camera moving from a record player to Margaret Sullavan with her dress hiked high enough to display her shapely legs. Would code enforcer Joseph Breen allowed for the shot with a brief flash of Sullavan's panties?

Kremer and Arkush's commentary begins with Arkush reading from Martin Scorsese's notes on Borzage. Also referred to is Andrew Sarris' brief analysis of Borzage from The American Cinema which is where much of the scholarly interest in Frank Borzage began. While there is discussion on Borzage as a romantic director with an emphasis on female characters, overlooked is that Borzage did occasionally worked in other genres where he was still able to integrate to greater or less degree his theme of the spiritual and emotional ties between people. Flight Command, released almost a full year before Pearl Harbor, both anticipated a need for military preparedness and was essentially a story about male camaraderie. Where the commentary excels is in examining Borzage's visual style and repetition of certain motifs, such as having his lovers on the top of a building. There is also a review of Margaret Sullavan's difficult life and inconsistent career after 1943. Little Man, What Now? is notable as Sullivan's second film after appearing on stage, and the first of four classics under the direction of Borzage.

July 26, 2022

Time Out of Mind

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Robert Siodmak - 1947
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

If Time Out of Mind had not been directed by Robert Siodmak, would it still be a film of interest? Maybe for those who love melodramas or stories that take place in the late 19th Century. It is not as if this was a bad film, but there is only a hint of the visual style that has made Siodmak a film noir favorite. As for suspense, there is a little bit in the last reel when the estranged former wife makes plans, never clearly detailed, to sabotage a concert.

The story is about the misfortune of the Fortune family. Christopher Fortune III comes from a line of merchant sea captains, a prominent Maine family. His aspirations for composing music are put aside after being forced by his father to go to sea as a crew member to learn first hand how to handle a ship. After coming home with an apparent brain concussion, Chris' sister, Clarissa, and a family servant, Kate, conspire to have Chris sneak off to Paris to study music composition. Chris and Clarissa return home three years later, with Chris now married to Boston society daughter Dora. Chris has become an alcoholic, with self-doubts about his musical abilities. Kate, always in love with Chris, hopes to get him to still realize his dreams.

There is one interesting shot, the first time Chris is seen playing piano for Kate. The camera is tilted upwards towards the two, who are both straight parallel to the horizontal lines of the frame. But the barred windows in the background are slightly tilted, a less than obvious "dutch" or canted angle. More conspicuous are several point of view shots going in and out of focus, representing Chris' psychological haze.

The film was intended to inaugurate the Hollywood career of British actress Phyllis Calvert. Siodmak and Calvert had expressed interest in working together, which finally happened after a couple of false starts. As it turned out, neither was happy with the other. Calvert's Hollywood career was over within four years. She is seen to better advantage in the British films for Gainsborough, a studio specializing in period films and melodramas, in such films as The Man in Grey and Madonna of the Seven Moons. Calvert appears here as Kate. The film also marks the last of four films Ella Raines made with Siodmak, appearing here as Clarrisa. I do not know what kept him out of serving, but Robert Hutton's stardom primarily lasted through World War II and a few years later, eventually turning to lead roles in smaller films and supporting roles in a few bigger films. It is not that Hutton is miscast as Christopher Fortune, just not particularly memorable.

The commentary track is by film historian Lee Gambin with costume historian Elissa Rose. Gambin primarily covers how the film fits in with filmography of Robert Siodmak, as well as some notes on Phyllis Calvert. Rose covers the costuming by Travis Banton as well as an overview on his career. Rose also talks about some of the musical influences in the score credited to both Miklos Rozsa and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, name checking among others, Charles Ives.

A deeper look at the music, both as part of the narrative, and why the score is credited to two men, would be of interest. Prior to his first American concert, Chris describes his music as imitating Claude Debussy. Although Debussy was not internationally known until at least a decade after Time Out of Mind takes place, it is not a stretch to assume that Chris was aware of him during his time in Paris if one more closely identifies when the film takes place. On the evening of the first concert, an inebriated Chris doodles on a bar's piano, playing "Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)". That song was published in 1892. Chris incorporates the then popular song as an improvisation in his concert, which probably inspired the Charles Ives reference as Ives would use short stanzas from well known songs into his own compositions. As for the film score, while Rozsa's name is familiar, Castelnuovo-Tedesco rarely was credited for his own work. Not only did Castelnuovo-Tedesco only receive few credits, but much of his music was frequently recycled as stock music from other films. IMDb also noted that Castelnuovo-Tedesco may have been a ghost writer for other film score composers. As for Chris' concerto, it is a reworking from an earlier Rozsa score for Julien Duvivier's Lydia (1941).

July 20, 2022

Film Noir - The Dark Side of Cinema VIII

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Street of Chance
Jack Hively - 1942

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Enter Arsene Lupin
Ford Beebe - 1944

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Temptation
Irving Pichel - 1946
KL Studio Classics BD Region A three-disc set

Anybody who has looked at any of the previous Film Noir sets should know by now that not all of the films included may pass the purity test. Of the three film here, only Street of Chance can really be considered film noir, while Temptation has some noir elements. Enter Arsene Lupin is in no way film noir, but it is also the most entertaining of the three here. The directors can be best described as journeymen, with Irving Pichel occasionally having been assigned a few minor A films. The casts here are a mostly assemblage of lower tier leads and some beloved character actors. Perhaps not so coincidentally, all three films have actors whose careers were disrupted by the Hollywood blacklist that began in the late 1940s.

Street of Chance begins in a fictionalized New York City where no one is given notice that there is work being done on the exterior of an otherwise vacant apartment building. Burgess Meredith gets knocked on the head by a very large piece of debris and wakes up with amnesia. Not only is he not sure who he is, but he has no idea why why the intimidating Sheldon Leonard is chasing after him. Even worse is when he finds out he is involved with a murder though he is certain he never killed anyone. The story is from Cornell Woolrich, whose characters usually stumble into situations they can not always get out of. Jack Hively has brief career as a director of modestly budgeted theatrical films before doing some second unit work and assignments on various television series. Stylization comes in the form of several overhead crane shots. Jerome Cowan is on hand to provide some villainy as the heir to a family fortune.

Jason Ney's commentary track includes discussion on the use of amnesia as a film noir plot device, and how the film differs from the novel by Woolrich. Also of interest is the history of how the film was distributed, as a second feature in urban areas, but as a stand alone feature in rural areas where many of the theaters were independently owned and operated and play dates were often two or three days.

Enter Arsene Lupin is hardly film noir but it is a lot of fun. So many versions of the gentleman thief. The most recent version is a French mini-series with the charismatic Omar Sy. In this film, the title role is taken by Charles Korvin, a Hungarian actor who appears to have been Universal's answer to Paul Henreid, the romantic European lover. Ella Raines is the Greek heiress with the emerald coveted by both Lupin and her bankrupt relatives. And my expectations were low coming in on this one because all I knew of director Ford Beebe was his work on a couple of "Flash Gordon" serials. The screenplay was by Bertram Milhauser who wrote several of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, with cinematography by Hal Mohr. So we have solid craftsmanship and some witty banter, aided in no small way by J. Carrol Naish as the flustered French cop chasing Lupin, Gale Sondergaard as Raines' aunt, and George Dolenz (father of a Monkee) as Lupin's partner in crime.

Historian Anthony Slide is engaging in covering the literary and cinematic history of Lupin. An amusing part of his commentary track is pointing out the non-English locations and bad accents of some of the supporting cast. Enter Arsene Lupin reportedly was only seen as a second feature at the time of its release, which got dismissive reviews. Slide briefly digresses into his research on the correct pronunciation of Ford Beebe's last name. Conspicuously, there is no clear identification about when the film takes place, although World War II is neither seen nor heard.

Temptation was the fourth film version of a 1909 novel about romantic intrigue in Egypt in 1900. Unlike the other two films in this collection, it was an A film, albeit produced with a smaller budget by the independent studio, International, just prior to their merger with Universal. This version has noir elements that were not part of the earlier films. Merle Oberon plays a widow of a certain age who decides Egyptologist George Brent will be able to support her in the style to which she is accustomed. While Brent is off on an archaeological expedition, Oberon, bored in her palatial Cairo villa, begins an affair with Egyptian playboy Charles Korvin. There is a plot to murder Brent, and concerns of a curse when a pharaoh's tomb is uncovered. Along for the ride is Paul Lukas as Brent's best friend, a doctor named Meyer Isaacson who makes a joke about his ancestors having built the pyramids, part of the Hollywood tradition of being Jewish without actually stating you are Jewish. Oberon's husband, Lucien Ballard, was the cinematographer, notable as he created special lighting for Oberon to disguise some post-accident facial flaws.

Kelly Robinson's commentary track reviews the history of the source novel as well as the four film versions.

July 18, 2022

The Silver Screen - Color Me Lavender

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Mark Rappaport - 1997
Kino Classics All Regions DVD

There are probably better analogies, but this new DVD with one feature-length work plus three shorter films as a bonus is kind of like having a good, but not totally satisfying dinner at a restaurant where the desserts are all bette than the main course. Color Me Lavender might be viewed as complimentary to Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet. Rappaport has more on his mind than how gay men are represented on film, with many of his questions valid on how film should be "read". By this I mean historical and cultural contexts at the time of creation, how certain tropes were understood by audiences of the past, as well as what may or may not have been intended by filmmakers of the time. What makes Rappaport's inquiries into cinema history interesting are the various connections he makes, some of them unexpected.

Rappaport limits his survey to films from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties with a slight nudge into the early Sixties, and primarily Hollywood with a brief jaunt into France and Italy. Dan Butler provides the narration and appears on screen walking in on freeze frames of several of the films. Some of material is familiar - the homoeroticism of the onscreen relationship of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the now beaten to death Randolph Scott/Cary Grant stories, how the film Crossfire, praised for addressing anti-Semitism, was based on a novel where the victim was a gay soldier. More amusingly, and possibly to the chagrin of fans and scholars of Westerns, is the presentation of cowboy hero and his older sidekick as coded, with the dynamics of the relationship based on who makes the coffee. I am almost surprised that Rappaport made no jokes about Walter Brennan having two modes of acting - with or without teeth. That very brief foray into the Sixties is in the opening, with Jose Ferrer getting to first base with the shirtless Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, a film that could have easily been advertised as starring "an all male cast" and really not be wrong.

Curiously, the only gay filmmakers discussed are Jean Cocteau and Luchino Visconti, and their male muses. For Cocteau, this means how Jean Marais is lit and framed in loving close-ups. For Visconti, it is how Massimo Girotti was filmed in Ossessione. Aside from Alain Delon's photogenic qualities in Rocco and His Brothers, Rappaport looks at the relationship between Rocco and Simone, how the brothers are also linked by the woman they are both in love with as well as the boxing manager they both work for.

The bonus films, three video essays, are tangentially connected to the main feature. The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk is about literal and symbolic uses of reflections within the narrative in Sirk's films. Additionally the choice of shots and how multiple characters may appear in the mirror demonstrates Sirk's ability to create several focal points within the camera frame. The Double Life of Paul Henreid is about actor turned director's career trajectory, from top or second lead as a Warner Brothers contract star, to his turn in lower budget fare in independent or foreign films following the blacklisting era. Rappaport connects three film Henreid produced, directed and/or starred in Hallow Triumph, Stolen Face and Dead Ringer with plots involving twin identities. Dead Ringer. Martin und Hans is presentation of clips from films featuring Martin Kosleck and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, gay German refugees and longtime partners, who had varying degrees of success as supporting players in Hollywood. Rappaport's screenplay is comprised of first person offscreen narration from actors portraying the two men. The lesser known von Twardowski's biggest role was as a gay prisoners in the German silent, Sex in Chains by William Dieterle. The better known Martin Kosleck made a career of playing Nazi officers. At one point, Kosleck suggests to Rappaport that a video essay be made of Kosleck's five times portraying Joseph Goebbels, to which I say, "Yes, please".

July 05, 2022

The Summoned

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Mark Meir - 2022
XYZ Films

The Summoned begins as a psychological horror film during its initial setup. Four people receive invitations to the remote lodge of a celebrity therapist, Dr. Frost. Three of the invitees are successful - entrepreneur Joe Agrippa, the actress Tara, and singer-song writer Lyn. Out of place is Lyn’s boyfriend, Elijah, a car mechanic by trade, but also an aspiring musician. While there is nothing in the screenplay to indicate race, the Elijah is portrayed by a black actor provides an immediate marking of the character as an outsider to the materially successful trio. Dr. Frost’s therapy weekends consist of acknowledging what he calls sins, not specifically in religious terms, but closer to challenges to conventional social attitudes.

Elijah has nightmarish dreams, or could they be premonitions, of his own death or the death of others. One of the recurring images is of Elijah digging a grave. He is constantly kept unbalanced by the suggestion that Lyn is secretly having sex with Joe, with Tara’s attempts at seduction, Dr. Frost’s idiosyncrasies, and the periodic appearance of a what appears to be a mentally unbalanced squatter on Frost’s property. The general narrative outline is admittedly not original. Fans of older horror films could probably name at least a couple of similar films just from memory. Certainly Meir and screenwriter Yuri Baranovsky could well have gone in different directions regarding the relationships of the characters and their motivations. Although the film succeeds on its own terms, it might have perhaps been better had there been less time spent on exposition and explanations, making the story and its conclusion more ambiguous.

Mark Meir mostly uses a limited palate of desaturated colors. The initial shots appear to be sepia toned. Filmed in Texas, the main color for both the exterior and interior shots is brown. Frost’s property is near a forest of bare trees. Also nearby is an informal cemetery marked with pagan crosses made of twigs. The ground is so arid that it is uncanny that there is any kind of life, even in Frost’s lodge. Meir should be credited for his intelligent use of limited resources, a cast of five with two smaller supporting roles, and essentially one location. While the horror aspects are very restrained, it is some of the twists to the story that keeps it intriguing. There is a mordant sense of humor when the true nature of the characters is revealed. And definitely stick around for the final post credit scene.

The Summoned will be available on VOD platforms beginning July 7.

June 28, 2022

Sniper: The White Raven

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Marian Bushan - 2022
Well Go USA

Marian Bushan's film ends in a scene taking place just last February. I can only assume that while he may not have anticipated a renewed war between Ukraine and Russia, tensions between the two countries was enough to keep the military on high alert status. There is also some bit of irony that this film, supported in part by Ukrainian government entities, has not been released in its home country at this time. Unlike some other Ukrainian films, this has been made primarily for a mainstream audience.

The film begins in 2014, at the time Russia annexed Crimea. Mykola is a physics professor at a small college near the Russian-Ukraine border. He also is an ecologist, living with his wife off the grid in a small hut. His wife is an artist of wood carvings. Mykola is an avowed pacifist with a peace sign made of white rocks outside his home. A pair of Russians from a paramilitary group that crosses the border come to Mykola's home, after questioning their identities, they burn down the hut. Mykola's wife is shot attempting to throw a stone at the two men. Mykola, found by two Ukrainian guerrillas, renounces his pacifism, moving from a volunteer outfit to a sniper outfit. Mykola carries with him a small angel carved by his wife.

Anybody who does not have any basic knowledge of the Russian-Ukraine conflict in the past decade is not going to learn more here. This is a Ukrainian film primarily made for the home audience. What I did find interesting is that for a nationalistic film, there is some nuance to be found. That there are Ukrainians who have sided with Russia is acknowledged as is the sense that which ever side one takes has its consequences. The music during the last major fight scene can almost be described as elegiac. War is not presented as something celebratory, but as a source of almost constant mourning for loss of friends and family.

The film is Bushan's debut making a theatrical feature. His previous film was a television documentary on a Romanian football coach. Part of the sequence of Mykola in training suggests the influence of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket in some of the shots, minus the satirical edge. Pavlo Aldoshyn was primarily a supporting actor in television mini-series prior to having the lead role here. He is also a singer which has also been incorporated into the film.

Sniper: The White Raven will have a limited theatrical release simultaneous to its availability on VOD platforms.