May 27, 2015

Cannibal Ferox

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Umberto Lenzi - 1981
Grindhouse Releasing BD Region A

Included in this new Blu-ray release of Cannibal Ferox is a genre overview titled Eaten Alive! The Rise and Fall of the Italian Cannibal Film. Among the participants discussing the genre is Ruggero Deodato, director of Cannibal Holocaust. Had Deodato's mentor, Roberto Rossellini made a cannibal movie, would it look like Cannibal Holocaust? I'm not sure I would go that far. However, it made me think, what if Umberto Lenzi's favorite director, Raoul Walsh, had made a cannibal movie. In terms of the actors, the psychotic exploiter of the tribesmen could have been played by James Cagney with the mania of White Heat, the quietly attractive young anthropologist is not far removed from the roles of Olivia De Havilland, Virginia Mayo would be the blonde bad girl, Jack Carson as the not so bad guy who realizes he's over his head, and Jeffrey Lynn as the brother of the anthropologist.
Even with regards to the story, Lenzi has traces of other Walsh films - Distant Drums with the white people on the run from the Native Americans in the Florida swamps, and A World in His Arms, with Americans exploiting the resources and people of mid-19th Century Alaska, at the time, Russian territory. And let us consider the reaction of White Heat at the time it was released in 1949, courtesy of Bosley Crowthers of the New York Times - "If that is inviting information to the cohorts of thriller fans, whose eagerness this reviewer can readily understand, let us soberly warn that White Heat is also a cruelly vicious film and that its impact upon the emotions of the unstable or impressionable is incalculable. That is an observation which might fairly be borne in mind by those who would exercise caution in supporting such matter on the screen." Not difficult to substitute Cannibal Ferox as the title referred to here, is it?

Not that any of this is of much interest to those most enthusiastic of the cannibal genre in general or this film in particular. What is also noticeable is the ambivalence several of the people involved in the making of these films, with the exception of Deodato, who is more than happy to declare Cannibal Holocaust as one of his best films. For his part, Lenzi feelings about his film seem to depend on the mood he's in at the moment. There is some mild reflection that the films, perhaps arguably seen as parables about western colonialism, were in their own way as exploitive of the indigenous people or extras portraying the cannibal tribes. Eaten Alive! includes clips for several films, including Lenzi's Man from Deep River, the 1972 film that kicked off the genre, as well as the more recent homage, Eli Roth's The Green Inferno. Roth also contributed liner notes. I'm not counting on any academic books on cannibal films, although with other serious volumes of genre studies, it's not something to be entirely discounted. The most interesting observations about cannibal movies comes from the most academic contributor to Eaten Alive!, Dr. Shelagh Rowan-Legg.

Why this is significant is that in addition to the filmmakers trying to top each other with large heaps of graphic violence, there is also much more nudity, usually involving the female actresses. One might argue that the dialogue is a reflection of the coarseness of the character, but calling a female character a "twat" several times seemed excessive. Not all viewers are discerning of the sexism of film characters versus any sexism on the part of filmmakers, but most of these films could be counted on for bare breasts if not full nudity. I don't think it's necessary for me to discuss the various notorious moments in Cannibal Ferox, but it is interesting that two of those scenes are the ones usually presented in the posters, selling the anticipation of seeing those scenes, rather than surprising the audience.

Say what you will about Cannibal Ferox, Grindhouse Releasing makes the gang at Criterion Collection look like a bunch of pikers. In addition to Eaten Alive!, the two disc set includes individual interviews with Lenzi, actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice aka John Morghen, and the still amazingly gorgeous Zora Kerowa. There's also the soundtrack album CD in addition to the overly generous supply of extras.

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May 25, 2015

Invitation to a Gunfighter

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Richard Wilson - 1964
KL Classics BD Region A

In the early Sixties, Stanley Kramer produced, but did not direct, three movies. As with the films that he directed, these films were noted for their "messages" from the well-intentioned Kramer. The three films, Pressure Point, A Child is Waiting and Invitation to a Gunfighter are all more idiosyncratic that Kramer's films, with the first two known for the clashes between the producer and the directors who wanted to be more than simply hired hands. I'm unaware of any conflict Richard Wilson may have had with Kramer, and it may well be that as a more experienced filmmaker, Wilson was given more control than was allowed the younger Hubert Cornfeld and John Cassavetes.

Taking place in a small town in New Mexico following the Civil War, a professional gunman is hired to kill the town's lone Confederate soldier, Matt Weaver, by the town boss, Sam Brewster. What follows is a peeling of several layers, of the corruption in a town that has the Mexican citizens living in their own section, with most everyone motivated by their own perceived needs. The hired gun, with the exotic name of Jules Gaspard d'Estaing, hangs around town long enough to force several people that have their own reasons for wanting Weaver to be dead or alive to confront truths about themselves. It's not a Western insofar as fitting the usual genre requirements, most of the film takes place in town, and the only real action takes place during the final ten minutes.

What makes Invitation to a Gunfighter interesting is how some of the layers complicate what appears on the surface to be a set-up for a B-Western. Weaver's main reason for fighting on behalf of the Confederacy was an act of rebellion against Brewster. The Civil War here is discussed only in terms of slavery. Weaver is shown to be the least prejudiced person, with established friendship with the Mexican community. D'Estaing, as exotic looking as his name, reveals himself to be the son of a slave owner and a slave. The idealism of the Civil War is a sham used to exploit others. Not exactly a Greek chorus, but there is a trio of former Union soldiers, one blind, and one with missing his lower leg, that have nothing else going for them other that to observe what's going in town. They are the among the ones who actually fought in the war, and have nothing else except each other. For this trio, the drama of the town's leading citizens is comic fodder.

Of course Yul Brynner proved he could rock a black cowboy hat in The Magnificent Seven. This was Brynner's second Western, but not a box office success. George Segal was building up his resume at the time he was cast as Matt Weaver. There are several terrific character actors including Pat Hingle as boss Sam Brewster, Bert Freed, Clifton James, Strother Martin, and William Hickey as a blind Union vet. Brad Dexter from The Magnificent Seven appears briefly, unrecognizable behind a beard.

Richard Wilson is best known for his association with Orson Welles. Of the handful of films he directed, Al Capone might be considered the best. Pay or Die, about the early years of Italian organized crime in New York City, is reputed to have been influential for Martin Scorsese. For those who have not seen Invitation to a Gunfighter, the other high point is the score by David Raksin, the last of three films he did with Wilson. Raksin's score was included in an album from Westerns produced by United Artists, and was described as "a psychological score in that its often chamber-sized forces seem to evoke the characters' emotional anguish."

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May 24, 2015

Coffee Break

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Janette Scott and George Chakiris in Two and Two makes Six (Freddie Francis - 1962)

May 21, 2015

The Jester's Supper

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La cena delle beffe
Alessandro Blasetti - 1942
One 7 Movies Region 0 DVD

There is some dispute as to whether The Jester's Supper was the first or second Italian film to feature a bare-breasted actress. In any case, it was a scene that made waves in 1942, and probably would have still raised eyebrows twenty years later. Clara Calamai cemented her stardom in that brief, eighteen second moment when here blouse is torn off by Amedeo Nazzari. As it turns out in the course of the film, that scene is the cherry on top of other scenes with Calamai dressed in very low cut gown that barely cover her cleavage, as well as a diaphanous nightgown that does nothing to hide her nipples.

As for the film itself, the interest is probably more of a historical bent. The story is based on a 1909 play that takes place in 15th Century Florence. The title might seem misleading to those expecting some guy in a harlequin outfit. A feud between two rivals for the affection of a beautiful woman gets out of hand. Neri and his brother, Gabriello, toss Giannetto into the Arno River after tying him up in a sack. Neri claims Ginerva for himself. Ginerva is the subject of gossip, a commoner whose looks provided an entrance to royal society. The supper in question is hosted by Lorenzo De Medici. Giannetto tricks Neri into appearing as a madman, made worse when he beds the unsuspecting Ginverva who can't tell the difference between lovers in the dark.

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Some contemporary viewers may be put off by this combination of tragedy and sex farce, that seems closer in spirit to the theater of its 15th Century setting than an early 20th Century play. Sem Benelli's play even made it to Broadway, performed in 1919, starring John and Lionel Barrymore. A 1924 operatic version also followed, with a staging done in 1999 by Liliana Cavani.

For the more serious film scholar, this is one of the rare pre-World War II Italian films made available on home video, and with English subtitles. Alessandro Blasetti was a pioneer in Italian cinema, and this was one of his most popular films. The Jester's Supper also provides an opportunity to see Clara Calamai as a star in popular cinema, outside of her better known with Visconti, or as the murderous mother of Dario Argento's Deep Red. The other recognizable name in the cast is Valentina Cortese, eighteen at the time she made this film. Here, Cortese plays a young woman, one of Neri's casual romantic partners, who still loves Neri. Unlike her main competitor, Anna Magnani, Calamai never starred in any English language films. Even without the partial nudity, Clara Calamai reveals enough to make clear why in Italy, she was one of the biggest female stars of her time.

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May 19, 2015

X

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Roger Corman - 1963
KL Classics BD Region A

Along with historian Tim Lucas, who provided a commentary track, and director Joe Dante, who discusses the film in the supplement section, I also have a vivid memory of seeing X theatrically. While I don't recall the exact date, it was sometime in the late Winter or early Spring of 1964. X was playing in a double feature with Jacques Tourneur's Comedy of Terrors at Varsity Theater in Evanston, Illinois. It was the Saturday matinee, and the theater was packed. What I remember best is the second shot of the film, a floating eyeball that looked like it had been ripped out from some unwilling victim, now bobbing around in a clear glass container. The audience, mostly junior high and high school kids, shrieked or laughed or maybe both. I was 12 at the time.

The shriek at the beginning of the film would be matched by the shriek of the audience in the final shot. While we never actually see him do it, Ray Milland rips out his own eye, leaving blood red holes in their place.

I've seen X twice theatrically, plus at least one time on a black and white television broadcast which was no less captivating. And while as an older, and more experienced viewer of film, I notice things the viewer is suppose to overlook, there are other things that my somewhat more sophisticated self also find adding to the more recent visits. Because I was more concerned about the story, I was oblivious to the difference between the second unit shots around Las Vegas, and close-ups of Ray Milland driving furiously on a highway outside of Los Angeles. Likewise, it didn't occur to my 12 year old self that Corman was cutting from establishing shots at an actual amusement park, to scenes filmed on studio sets. Conversely, what I noticed is how the story of Dr. Xavier depicts his decent into a hell of his own making in the settings of the major scenes, from the height of a large, multistory hospital, to the ground level of a carnival side show, to a lonely basement apartment, and finally to a vast, empty desert.

The Roger Corman commentary track is informative regarding the origin of X as originally to be about a jazz musician. Making it about a doctor doing medical research makes more sense. X does make an interesting companion piece to The Trip in that both films are about characters driven to look for some kind of hidden truth. Dr. Xavier in X is hoping to expand what can be perceived by the human eye, while the motivation in The Trip is expansion of human consciousness through LSD.

Tim Lucas finds connectivity through various science fiction stories and films, as well as the work of primary screenwriter Ray Russell. There are brief biographies of several of the cast members, and anecdotes about working with Corman or Ray Milland. One surprising bit of information was learning that 78 year old Allan Dwan had been considered for taking the directorial reigns. Considering the amount of information contained in the seventy-nine minute running time of the film, the Lucas commentary provides ample material for further critical and historical discussion regarding the place of X both as a science fiction film and the discussion of any symbolism, whether intentional or coincidental.

You won't find the rumored alternate ending, because there was no alternate ending. There is a prologue that fortunately was junked, and may have only been used for situations where getting the film closer to the ninety minute mark was required. Does X succeed for those who love this film in spite of the low budget special effects roughly approximating what is seen by Dr. Xavier, or because the special effects hint at things that could only be depicted in more realistic detail with the advent of computer generated effects? I'm not sure there will be any agreement. What I can say, along with others, is that more than fifty years later, and multiple viewings, X continues to be a very watchable movie.

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May 17, 2015

Coffee Break

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Ana Torrent and Ernesto Alterio in Luna's Game (Monica Laguna - 2001)

May 15, 2015

Stay as You Are

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Cosi come sei
Alberto Lattuada - 1978
Cult Epics BD

I have the feeling that even with the small handful of movies now available on home video, Alberto Lattuada will still be stuck with being known as the guy sharing a directorial credit with Federico Fellini on Variety Lights. Even with his far greater number of films, Lattuada had never distinguished himself as a filmmaker in the way that Fellini had, more of a craftsman than artist. Stay as You Are never changed things for Lattuada even though it was probably the closest he came to an international success.

Stay as You Are is mostly famous for thrusting the then eighteen year old Nattassja Kinksi into the spotlight. As the obituary in The Guardian points out, Lattuada had an eye for young female talent. One of the best examples for me was his segment for the omnibus Love in the City, with men falling over each other as eighteen year old Giovanna Ralli walks around Rome. Almost twenty-five years later, Lattuada was able to show what in the past could only be imagined, with scenes of a nude Kinski during the final twenty minutes.

Some of Lattuada's films revolve around men who place themselves in situations that they can not control. The fortune of a poorly paid clerk to purchase an expensive overcoat in The Overcoat leads to his early death when the coat is stolen on a cold winter night. The middle aged office bureaucrat who wins the hearts of three homely, but wealthy, spinsters in Come Have Coffee with Us is reduced to an almost infantile state following an unexpected heart attack, presumably from to much sexual exertion. For Giulio, his dilemma is how to respond to the flirtatious Francesca, who may, or may not, be his daughter from an almost forgotten affair from twenty years ago.

That Giulio is portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni, it's almost a given that the guy is more adept at being a lover than somebody's father or husband. At one point, Giulio is seen reading the novel Homo Faber, about a similar situation with a tragic ending for most of the characters. Unlike author Max Frisch, Lattuada doesn't clarify the relationship, and ends his story on a bittersweet note.

The main selling point of the film is the very young and very naked Nastassja Kinski. Arguably, Lattuada teeters on a very thin line between the tasteful and the prurient. There is also a scene of Kinski stumbling in on a party hosted by her roommate, with all of the guests undressed and in active couplings. Lattuada was sixty-three at the time he made this film, and there is the sense that he was straining to be as contemporary as the newer generation of Italian filmmakers, particularly Bernardo Bertolucci. Not so coincidentally, Stay as You Are was produced by cousin, Giovanni Bertolucci.

The blu-ray has both English and Italian language tracks. I went for the Italian track because even though Ms. Kinski is dubbed in both versions, I like listening to Mastroianni in his own, familiar, voice. A supplemental bonus is the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

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