November 10, 2020

Dragnet

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Jack Webb - 1954
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

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

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

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

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

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

November 03, 2020

Two Mules for Sister Sara

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Don Siegel - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Two-disc set

It is probably common knowledge by cinephiles that Two Mules for Sister Sara originated as a screenplay by filmmaker Budd Boetticher. Written in the mid-1960s, Boetticher sold the screenplay in order to continue working on his passion project, the documentary on bullfighter Carlos Arruza. The screenplay was bought by producer Martin Rackin. According to Boetticher, he had made a disparaging remark about some jokes Rackin had written when both were working at Universal in the early 1950s. Although Boetticher wrote the screenplay with the intention of directing the film, he knew that Rackin would not hire him.

Boetticher had intended to make the film with Robert Mitchum and either Jeanne Moreau, Sylvia Pinal or Deborah Kerr in the title role. The film that was made, with a total re-writing of the screenplay by the formerly blacklisted Albert Maltz can be seen in retrospect as a kind of transitional film bridging the gap between the more traditional kind of film made by Boetticher with the changes to the western brought about by the advent of the Italian films and revisionist westerns, and the onscreen persona of Clint Eastwood. Even Burt Kennedy, who wrote most of the screenplays for the Randolph Scott westerns that Boetticher is most famous for, responded to the challenge first with his adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's Welcome to Hard Times (1967). It is most likely that had Boetticher made the film he imagined, it would have been likely regarded as remote from the tastes of the audience at that time.

The influence of Sergio Leone is most obvious in Clint Eastwood's appearance - the unshaven face, the cheroot between his clenched teeth, and a rust colored vest that vaguely resembles the poncho. Add to that the score by Ennio Morricone that features a piccolo and jew's harp. Eastwood's character has a name, or at least a surname, of Hogan. A scene with the blowing up of a bridge with a moving train and an elaborate batter sequence further the connection, primarily with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The shots during the title sequence show Hogan in the distance riding with an accompanying pack horse at sunrise. This series of shots begin with an animal with the camera moving across the area within the shot to reveal something more about the environment before stopping to show Hogan's progress as he travels. The animals include a mountain lion, a snake and a rabbit. Although not as emphasized as the film progresses, as indicated by the title, part of the film is about the relationship of Hogan with the nun Sister Sara, and animals. The film takes place in Mexico during the time of the attempted French conquest, concurrent to the American Civil War. After Hogan saves Sara from a gang of would be rapists in the desert, he argues against burying the men, saying the would act as food for the vultures. The rattle of a snake is used as a decoy to mislead a group of French soldiers who are seeing Sara for her support of the Juaristas. Sara travels first on a mule, and later on a burro. The second mule in the title could well be Hogan, whom Sara addresses at one point as "Mr. Mule".

While Clint Eastwood plays a variation of the kind of character he established primarily with the Sergio Leone films, Shirley MacLaine, in the title role is the one who evolves during the course of the film. First seen almost naked when threatened by the trio of would-be rapists, her character reveals more of her self over time. First is the discovery that she and Hogan have a mutual agenda regarding aiding the Juaristas, followed by the increasing revelations that this is one very unorthodox nun. There is a narrative symmetry with having Sara again without any clothes near the end of the film when her true self is revealed.

The blu-ray comes with both the complete 113 minute "international" version and the 104 minute cut that played theatrically in the U.S. Alex Cox's commentary track is most interesting in discussing the Mexican locations for Sister Sara as well as briefly reviewing several other westerns filmed in Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Cox also covers the career of Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Eastwood liked Figueroa's work enough to have him hired as cinematographer for another Eastwood film released just weeks later in June 1970, Kelly's Heroes. There is also an eight minute short, an interview, "At Home with Clint Eastwood".

Two Mules for Sister Sara was meant to be seen theatrically, but home viewers should see this film on as big a screen as possible. Siegel employs several long shot where characters are barely perceptible in the distance. There is the recurring visual motif emphasizing spatial dynamics, of people almost overwhelmed by their environment.

October 31, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Undine

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Christian Petzold - 2020
IFC Films

Undine is inspired by the myth of the undine, a female creature who might resemble a human but lacks a soul. If the human man she loves is unfaithful to her, he dies. Unlike the previous films by Christian Petzold, his newest film is not a loose adaptation from a novel or film, but is taken from the essence of the legend and refashioned as a story taking place in contemporary Berlin.

Berlin provides a counter-story of a city that was divided after World War II, with a sometimes difficult reunification in 1990 following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Petzold's Undine is a historian who provides lectures on the architectural history of Berlin in a special museum for those interested in urban planning. Following the break-up with Johannes, Undine becomes involved with Christoph, an industrial diver who repairs underwater structures.

Undine and Christoph's relationship begins as a literal accident, bumping into an aquarium that breaks apart leaving the two drench on the floor of a cafe. Inside the aquarium is a small toy deep sea diver. The image of the toy diver is repeated later in the film. There are also what appear to be otherworldly voices. Undine does not in any way announce itself as a fantasy film, but at the same time it is not entirely realistic.

In one of her lectures, Undine points out that Berlin was built on what use to be marshland. Water and legends also appear when Christoph comes out of the lake where he was doing underwater welding, reporting on seeing a two-meter long catfilsh known as "Old Gunther". Later, Christoph shows Undine her name found on an underwater arch. This precedes Undine losing parts of her underwater gear, almost drowning. The relationship between Undine and Christoph is punctuated by accidents and misunderstandings.

In an interview, Petzold stated, "For me, the film is a Berlin film. Because again I moved a story here that actually has its origin somewhere else. I liked the contrast: Berlin, the sober, faced with such a love story. I wanted to set up a fairy tale in this city to show that this fairy tale can break out brutally Protestant-Prussian sobriety."

The film stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski, the two main actors in Petzold's Transit. For myself, Undine is more successful than the previous film, where I think the filmmaker's imagined updating worked against the realities of the source novel. Certainly, what I've learned from following Petzold's career since Yella (2007) is not to take what is seen entirely at face value, and that Petzold has a way of not tipping his hand until close to the very end.

October 30, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Under the Open Sky

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Subarashikisekai
Miwa Nishikawa - 2020
Gaga

The sky is first seen through the bars of a prison cell. Images of the sky recur as indicators of another chapter in the life of Masao Mikami. Released from prison following a murder charge, Mikami returns to Tokyo with the intention of leaving the gangster life behind. Even though he thinks of himself as a "lone wolf", Mikami is viewed with suspicion as a former yakuza. Also getting in the way is his short fuse, and the discovery that his health is on the line with extremely high blood pressure. For Mikami, a resolve to be optimistic is a challenge. This is especially so as he is 56 and has spent half of his life incarcerated.

Under the Open Sky is notable for the tour-de-force performance by Koji Yakusho. Even if the name is not immediately familiar, even those not following Japanese cinema would have seen Yakusho in Babel or Memoirs of a Geisha. Yakusho has also appeared in several films by Kiyosho Kurosawa. I expect more notice for the film and Yakusho's performance when it gets officially released next year. Mikami is by turns meek, belligerent, accommodating and threatening. Yakusho conveys the rush of adrenaline following street fights with young wannabe tough guys, remembering his days of being known as "Masao the Brawler". At the same time, there is sensitivity without being cloying or dependent on manipulating the audience.

Unlike her previous films which were based on her original screenplays, Mika Nishikawa has adapted a novel by Ryuzo Saki. While bringing up elements of the labyrinthian rules that get in Mikami's way of returning fully to Japanese society, this is not a social drama. Nishikawa's films are about disruptions, usually within a family, usually of a man reappearing after a prolonged absence. The only earlier film by Nishikawa to get any significant release in the U.S. was her 2006 drama, Sway, about a brother who returns to his small town, his rivalry with his brother over a young woman, and that woman's death from the fall of a bridge which may or may not have been deliberate. Nishikawa's career as a director has been involuntarily inconsistent with her writing novels when unable to make films.

In an interview while the film was in post-production, Nishikawa asked, "Is this world a place where we can 'start over again'? I think this question also represents an invisible sense of anxiety and oppression that all people in society have." This is a constant for Mikami who keeps bumping into unexpected obstacles. The film is not without humor, especially in the scenes where the doggedly determined Mikami re-learns how to drive a car. Even returning to his past life is revealed to be at best a limited option with the diminishing influence of the yakuza families.

For fans of Japanese genre films from the 1970s, they may appreciate that the yakuza wife advising Mikami not to return to his old life is none other than Meiko Kaji. At age 73, Kaji is not immediately recognizable from the woman who was a top action star almost fifty years ago. Her brief appearance is enough to bring back memories of her considerable filmography.

October 29, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Spring Blossom

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Seize printemps
Suzanne Lindon - 2020
Luxbox

Does the world need another film about a teenage girl and an adult man? Even if the relationship remains chaste? Even if the film is written and directed by a young woman who also plays the lead role?

Filmmaker Suzanne Lindon is the twenty year old daughter of French actors Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain, two names that should be familiar to anyone following contemporary French cinema. She looks like a blend of her parents. Lindon also looks young enough to pass for the sixteen year old character, also named Suzanne. If that's not enough, Suzanne has a poster for the film Suzanne, the alternate title for Maurice Pialat's A Nos Amour, about a sexually promiscuous teen girl. Lindon started to write the screenplay when she was fifteen.

Suzanne expresses her disinterest in classmates concerns. While she surprises her parents by going out to a party, she generally prefers being alone, reading. She spots a man, Raphael, 35 years old, as she comes home from school, eventually ascertaining that he's an actor performing at a nearby theater, and a regular customer at a cafe. Striking a conversation with Raphael, the two start meeting regularly. As infatuated as Suzanne is with Raphael, she is also aware that the relationship can not continue.

Even at the relatively short running time of 73 minutes, Spring Blossom feels padded. The thin story is interrupted by several musical interludes. The first is of Suzanne dancing in the street to a song by Mary J. Blige. Later, she and Raphael do some synchronized movements while sitting in a cafe to an opera by Vivaldi. The two dance on an empty theater stage and again in a bar. I have no problem with musical numbers seeming to come out of nowhere but it seems overused here and does not add much to the story or to the characters. The cafe scene may have seemed clever, but I felt like Lindon was taking inspiration from the "Madison" scene in Band of Outsiders. Not that others have done it, but the way it was done here only emphasizes pretentiousness rather than joy. Added to that, Suzanne Lindon sings the title song at the end of the film which is almost a summation of what we have seen. Lindon's singing voice is as wispy as her story. She could have well released the song by itself without going through the trouble of making a film for the little she had to say.

October 28, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Once Upon a Time in Venezuela

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Anabel Rodriguez Rios - 2020
Cargo Film & Releasing

The opening shot of Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is of lightning without the sound of thunder. This is a natural phenomena that takes place for those observing from the remote fishing village of Congo Mirador. One might also liken this silent lightning to the various government entities, seen from a distance via television, but in no way affecting the lives of people they have promised to help. The lighting is seen in the distance on the other side of Lake Maracaibo. This is an ecological horror film, a documentary about the slow death of a community.

The one weakness here is that there are no explanatory titles to indicate that the film was shot over a seven year period or when certain scenes take place. The structure is casually observational as we see a village composed mainly of tin shacks constructed on stilts dotting the shoreline. Everyone travels by small boats simply to go from neighbor to neighbor when not fishing. Though we never see the pumps, the oil drilling on the other side of the lake has caused a rise in sediment, polluting the lake. Aside from the affects of killing the fish, the population of the village has dropped to about thirty families at the time of the most recent filming.

Whether it is Hugo Chavez or Nicolas Maduro, or anyone else, government officials prove either ineffective or uncaring. Several leading residents go to Caracas at the invitation of one official who then ignores them while taking a call on his cell phone. The lone teacher is expected to use inadequate supplies for her handful of students. When Congo's leading political leader tries to bribe a woman into voting for an upcoming election, the bribe is refused, the woman choosing to not vote rather than be part of what she sees as a corrupt political system.

For the villagers, it is a choice between keeping the only life they know or hoping for a better life elsewhere. One of the older men speaks tearfully about Congo in the past. There are still village celebrations with several of the girls dressed up. The film ends with the image of one of the shacks mounted on two boats, rowing to a different part of the lake. While the village of Congo Mirador is the focus, for Anabel Rodríguez Ríos, the village is also the stand-in for the entire country. While government corruption and neglect is shown, through the depopulation of Congo is a hint of the creation of the refugee crisis that has affected Venezuela.

October 27, 2020

Denver Film Festival - Shiva Baby

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Emma Seligman - 2020
Utopia

Shiva is the name for the period of mourning following the death a person. The traditional Jewish period is a week following the funeral. This has changed depending on which sect one belongs to as well as personal choices. Emma Seligman's film mostly takes place within one house where friends and family gather following a funeral.

The film is unapologetically about Jewish-Americans. This is significant to me as Jewish identity in French films, for example, is generally presented in a matter of fact manner, while Hollywood films usually either present someone as an exotic other or a member of the the tribe that dares not speak its name. What I liked about Shiva Baby is that the characters and the actors who play them resemble some of the people I grew up with either as relatives or during my time as a sometimes reluctant member of Reform Jewish temples in Chicago and Denver. In this regard, the film struck the same chord of familiarity as the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. Both films benefit from the presence of Fred Melamed in the cast.

Danielle is a college student who is also the "sugar baby" of Max, older by fifteen years or so. She agrees to go with her parents to home of a family friend, with the informal gathering of people following a funeral. It's virtually claustrophobic with so many people in an average sized suburban house. In addition to dodging and weaving between curious friends of her parents who want to know the directionless Danielle's plans, Max shows up. Danielle has been disguising her time with Max with the euphemism of "baby sitting". Previously unknown to Danielle is that Max also has a beautiful blonde wife, the classic Jewish male's fantasy, as well as an infant daughter. Danielle also has an unexpected reunion with a former girlfriend, Maya, which brings out more tensions.

I should mention this is a comedy. Much of the humor comes from the caustic lines. One memorable barb spoken by her mother to the exceedingly slender Danielle is that she resembles "Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps". Fred Melamed plays Danielle's father, the forgetful mensch who is more than willing to go out of his way to be helpful whether that help is wanted or not. Polly Draper appears as Danielle's mother, sharp tongued but also the one who provides the greatest support. Perhaps not intentional but Draper here made me think of a more sarcastic version of Phylis Newman, a name more familiar with those of us who grew up watching network television game shows in the 1960s. And I mean this as a compliment. Rachel Sennott carries the film admirably as Danielle. Reportedly, Ms. Seligman fought to have Sennott star rather than cast a more familiar name. What also makes Sennott a more interesting choice in the lead role is that she is not the conventionally attractive actress.

Also notable is the violin based score by Ariel Marx. The discordant strings have been described by others as resembling the music for a horror movie. Certainly horror movies and comedies are similar in that both are about characters who experience extreme anxiety. Seligman also is able to find ways of making use of visualizing Danielle's impossibility of distancing herself from overbearing parents and relatives. In one shot, Danielle's mother and another woman are talking about Danielle. The two older women are seen on either side of the film frame, out of focus, while Danielle, further back, is seen in focus in the middle of the frame. While it is certainly not as nutty as the scene in A Night at the Opera with the Marx Brothers cramming everyone into the tiny cabin of an ocean liner, Seligman does something similar with Danielle's insistent father stuffing nine adults plus a baby (if I counted right) into his passenger van. How can I dislike a film that ends with a line I have not heard in over forty years, "We're off. Like a herd of turtles"?