September 22, 2017

Suspicious Death of a Minor

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Morte sospetta di una minorenne / To Young to Die
Sergio Martino - 1975
Arrow Video BD Regions A/B & DVD Regions 1/2 Two-disc set

Suspicious Death of a Minor is something of an oddity in Sergio Martino's filmography. The film is a sometimes incongruous blend of giallo, poliziotteschi and broad comedy. The tonal shifts are often unexpected, especially during the first half of the film. If the film isn't up there with other Martino films such as The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, I'll still take it over something like the risible Mountain of the Cannibal God with Stacy Keach as a jungle explorer and Ursula Andress as the involuntary sacrificial human. For those like myself who had never seen this film before, it takes a while to accept the film on its own terms when Luciano Michelini's Goblin inspired opening music seems to set up the viewer's expectations.

As it stands, the death in the title is a small part of a larger puzzle concerning prostitution, drugs trafficking and kidnapping in Milan. The main character, Paulo Germi, is an undercover cop with very unconventional methods of dealing with criminals. The screenplay was written by the very prolific Ernesto Gastaldi, and then revised by Martino. The blu-ray comes with a supplementary interview with Martino where the director discusses deliberately toning down the violence. The hitman with the constant sunglasses, the bagmen and the pimp turn out to be pawns working on behalf of less obvious criminals, the objects of Germi's investigation.

There are a couple of motifs repeated throughout the film. More significantly is having a lens of Germi's glasses cracked several times during the action, the symbolism obvious but effective for someone looking at clues but not quite understanding what he's looking at or how various pieces connect. There is also a running gag with Germi's old Citroen, ready to fall apart at any moment. Just as the opening music seems to have been inspired by Dario Argento's Deep Red, released about six months before Martino's film, I have to wonder if the gags involving Germi's car were inspired by the dilapidated car driven by Daria Nicolodi.

Germ's white Citroen gets a workout in a chase scene. Martino was unable to work with Remy Julienne for this film, but there is a nice sight gag where a side-swiped bicycle becomes a unicycle. There is also a shootout at an amusement park with Germi and a hitman on a rollercoaster. Most inspired is Germi chasing the sunglass wearing killer on the roof of a movie theater, a theater that turns out to have a retractable roof.

Especially for those interested in genre films, or Italian films in general, Troy Howarth's commentary should prove useful. Howarth, who has written extensively on Italian horror films, points out the various character actors and provides short biographies on them as well as key crew members. Most of the commentary is devoted to Martino, his brother, the producer Luciano Martino, and frequent Martino star Claudio Cassinelli. Howarth also briefly covers the careers of two top actors in major supporting roles here, Massimo Girotti and Mel Ferrer. The film itself looks quite good, but I suspect will be most appreciated by Martino completists.

September 20, 2017

The Flesh

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La Carne
Marco Ferreri - 1991
Cult Epics BD Regions ABC / Region 0 DVD Two-disc set

Sex and food aren't very far apart in some of Marco Ferreri's film. And the men in Ferreri's films tend to indulge themselves to disastrous effect. For those who have seen Ferreri's best known films La Grande Bouffe and The Last Woman will see the recurring themes in Ferreri's film from 1991. For those unfamiliar with Ferreri, I would not recommend this film as an introduction. It's a relatively mild work from a filmmaker who cast the dark-haired Marcello Mastroianni as the famously blond George Armstrong Custer and recreated the famous last stand in the middle of contemporary Paris.

Paolo, a nightclub singer-pianist runs off to his beach house in Anzio with the very voluptuous Francesca. The two make love, and one morning Francesca paralyzes Paolo, leaving him flat on his back with a permanent erection. The pair also visits a supermarket where Paolo has a butcher describe parts of Francesca compared to the various parts of a cow. Francesca also attracts the attention of a young mother with twins, "nursing" one of them, as well as engaging in a threesome with Paolo and another woman. Several months go by, with Paolo generally happy in his isolation from society, while Francesca decides to move on.

Some of the political aspects may be lost for contemporary viewers. A plot point regarding a child's first communion is very specifically Catholic. Included in the very loaded soundtrack are songs by Queen, Kate Bush and Milli Vanilli.

The Flesh is more remembered for starring Francesca Dellera, a model and actress whose peak period was from the late 80s through the early 90s. Her handful of films include work with Tinto Brass, Sergio Corbucci and Jacques Deray. As a model, Dellera worked with Helmut Newton. While never completely nude, Dellera is seen here in various states of undress, as well as seemingly nude in a flesh colored dress. Dellera's co-star Sergio Castellitto has been seen to best effect in a couple of films by Marco Bellochio, My Mother's Smile and The Wedding Director.

Cult Epics helps put Ferreri's film in historical context with a brief look at Ferreri shooting a scene, interviews with Ferreri, Dellera and Castellitto, and footage from Cannes, where Ferreri frequently premiered his films. It is coincidental that just recently, there has been the premiere of a documentary on Ferreri. Reading about Ferreri's initial desire to be a veterinarian gives an autobiographical slant to Paolo's expressions of grief over the death of his dog, Giovanni.

September 18, 2017

By the Time it Gets Dark

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Dao Khanong
Anocha Suwichakornpong - 2016
KimStim Region 1 DVD

By the Time it Gets Dark opens with a shot of a woman opening the glass doors to step onto a patio, while another woman to her left starts taking photos of the same outdoor scenery. Much of the imagery in Anocha's film is through windows, mirrors, or slightly obscured by the reflections on glass. There is no clear narrative as such, but a series of moments blending the self-referential with documentary footage and even a music video that opens itself up for deconstruction. A few minutes are also given to Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon.

It's not only that Anocha weaves in and out between narrative and non-narrative filmmaking, but that the film has moments of what might be considered visual free association or tangents, as when a discussion of mushrooms eventually leads to a montage of mushrooms and other fungus, as well as the discovery of moldy bread.

The segment of the film that has gotten the most attention is of the young filmmaker, presumably modeled after Anocha, in conversation with an older woman, a student activist involved in the 1976 incident at Thammasat University in Bangkok. There is also a short scene of a dramatic recreation being filmed, with students face down on a floor, arms tied behind their backs, with the actors playing soldiers directed to be "more brutal". As one who has followed Thai cinema for more than a decade, that there is this reference to Thai history in a Thai film, in fact the film that is to represent Thailand's bid for a an Oscar, is astonishing.

Consider that Syndromes and a Century was banned in Thailand due to Thai's censors assertion that Apichatpong Weerasethakul was disrespectful to doctors and Buddhist monks, and that "Joe" also chose not have the more obviously Cemetery of Splendor not shown in Thailand. Thai censors also banned Shakespeare must Die, with the Scottish play as starting off point for a fictionalized look at Thai politics. Filmmaker Ing K. responded to the ban of her film with Censor must Die which ironically was not banned.

By the Time it Gets Dark is deeply seeped in Thai history and culture. Still, what can be gleaned is a film about memory and the production and meaning of images. Independent of any narrative concerns there is the scene with the filmmaker, Ann, running in the forest, with Anocha cross-cutting between shots of Ann running left to right, with those of her running right to left, as if she is racing against herself. In another scene, a screening viewed by some filmmakers is interrupted by the news that the star has died in a car accident. Anocha cuts to footage of the star driving, with the viewer left to decide whether we are watching a scene from a movie, or perhaps the young star taking his final drive. Near the end of the film, a young woman is dancing among the crowd in a night club, the digital image becomes more abstract until we see streaks of gray and black, finally refocusing on a quiet country scene.

Mention should also be made of editor Lee Chatametikool for his hand in the structure not only of this film, but of previous films by Anocha. Lee has also edited the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, as well as several more relatively conventional Thai films including the horror film, Shutter and Ghost of Mae Nak.

September 17, 2017

Coffee Break

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Johnny Depp in Transcendence (Wally Pfister - 2014)

September 14, 2017

OSS 117 - Five Film Collection

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OSS 117 is Unleashed / OSS 117 se dechaine
Andre Hunebelle - 1963

OSS 117: Panic in Bangkok / Banco a Bangkok pour OSS 117
Andre Hunebelle - 1964

OSS 117: Mission for a Killer / Furia a Bahia pour OSS 117
Andre Hunebelle - 1965

OSS 117: Mission to Tokyo / Atout coeur a Tokyo pour OSS 117
Michel Boisrond - 1966

OSS 117: Double Agent / Pas de Roses pour OSS 117
Andre Hunebelle and Jean-Pierre Desagnet- 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A three disc set

This series of five films proves, as if proof was needed, that even with clearly commercial fare, the choice of director can make a difference. Three of the films were directed by Andre Hunebelle who also had a hand in supervising assistant Jean-Pierre Desagnet and signing the film under his name. Hunebelle, who was busy with other projects, gave the assignment of directing Mission to Tokyo to Michel Boisrond, a journeyman more associated with comedy. As it turns out, Mission to Tokyo is the best of the bunch, funny, sexy and visually more imaginative.

For those unfamiliar, or who only know of the spoofs starring Jean Dujardin, OSS 117 originated from a series of about seventy books by French author Jean Bruce, about an American super spy. The cold war inspired thrillers preceded Ian Fleming's James Bond. While one OSS 117 film was made in 1957, it was the success of Dr. No that inspired the French company, Gaumont, to re-launch the series. One source claims that Jean Marais, most famous for his work with Jean Cocteau, had suggested the series to Andre Hunebelle as a starring vehicle for himself. Perhaps as the spy was an American, Hunebelle instead cast Kerwin Mathews initially, followed by Frederick Stafford for two films, and finally another American, John Gavin.

As the series continued, budgets got bigger, and settings more exotic, along with bigger named co-stars. OSS 117 is Unleashed has the spy looking for a secret laboratory in Corsica where the bad guys have a device to detect the location of nuclear submarines belonging to the U.S. and its allies. One of the characters lives in an apartment with a window conveniently overlooking an oceanside cliff, making it easy to dispose of dead bodies. In terms of action and humor, it's fairly mild entertainment. Fortunately for Hunebelle, that film was popular enough that the next four films were co-productions with Italy. Panic in Bangkok involves a Dr. Synn who's idea of world peace is to create a new breed of rats to infect enough people with the plague, and let a chosen elite take over. French star Robert Hossein plays the bad doctor, while a somewhat emaciated Pier Angeli plays his sister, also the film's romantic interest. My favorite moment was a fight with a blow torch as the heavy's weapon of choice.

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Mathews' demand for a bigger paycheck was the reported reason why Hunebelle chose another actor for the series. Except that Frederick Stafford was not an actor, although he was married to one. What Stafford did have is the right look, more lived in than that of the still boyish Mathews. In Mission for a Killer, we are to believe that an extract of peyote is capable of turning people into suicide killers. As was typical of filmmaking of the time, we get a tourist's eye view of Brazil. Cutie pie Mylene Demongeot shows up as the love interest here. And then things get very interesting . . .

I've never seen anything by Michel Boisrond before, but Mission to Tokyo is the one film where almost everything works. Sure, you can fault the series for the action scenes where the film has been sped up, and other small technical imperfections, but Boisrond makes a film that is visually dynamic, where lots of tracking shots follow the action. One nice moment has OSS 117 walking down a hallway, the camera following him, when a karate chop pops out from the side, knocking him out. Arguably the most attractive of actresses in the series, Marina Vlady, stars as the secretary who may be spying for an organization that is trying to blackmail the U.S. government. Also on hand is Jitsuko Yoshimura, in a sweet and funny performance as an undercover cop posing as a bar hostess. Even if the name is not familiar, Yoshimura has been seen in several Japanese classics including Onibaba and Dodes'ka-den. The film suffers a tad from the Orientalism of past decades, where little attempt was make to distinguish Japanese, Chinese or Korean names. Director Terence Young is credited for the story, although there is some dispute regarding his input. Famous primarily for directing most of the Sean Connery James Bond films, this film was made a year prior to the Japanese based You Only Live Twice and has a few moments similar to that film. As Mission to Tokyo as many of the same key names in the production as the other films in the series, including the screenwriters, I can only attribute the more imaginative cinematography and use of color to the change in director.

It may well have been Mission to Tokyo that convinced Alfred Hitchcock to cast Stafford in Topaz. With Stafford unavailable, Hunebelle cast John Gavin as the American spy. What makes Double Agent of some interest is that it gives a glimpse of what we might have seen as Gavin played James Bond, which almost happened for Diamonds are Forever. Gavin looks a bit more like Sean Connery, and looks more convincing as a man of action than George Lazenby. The film as features a past Bond girl, Luciana Paluzzi, as a doctor with the occasionally accommodating bedside manner, and future Bond villain, Curt Jurgens, as the head of a criminal organization called . . . The Organization. Robert Hossein returns as a different doctor, deadly on a more modest scale, with the antidotes of life and death in his less than trustworthy hands. The action here is in an unnamed mid-Eastern country.

Not as successful as the previous films, Hunebelle discontinued the series, especially with European cowboys taking over movie screens. One more OSS 117 film was produced in 1970, by an Italian company, initiating the career of male model Luc Merenda, who found greater success in poliziotteschi, Italian police thrillers.

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September 12, 2017

Love with the Proper Stranger

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Robert Mulligan - 1963
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Considering the source, maybe this story should be taken with a grain of salt - as Frank Capra tells it, the film A Hole in the Head was originally about two Jewish-American brothers as was written in Arnold Schulman's screenplay. While there was no change in the casting, with Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson as the brothers, Capra decided two make the brothers Italian-Americans. In Love with the Proper Stranger, the characters are written as Italian-American. Aside from Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen, we have a trio of Jewish actors - Herschel Bernardi, Harvey Lembeck and Tom Bosley in three significant roles. One of the aspects not discussed regarding this film is that in addition to the push and pull between a kind of filmmaking that is more street-bound versus the expectations of a Hollywood produced film with two major stars of the day, is the sense of interchangeability of certain ethnic groups as part of that narrative. It also takes a certain leap of faith to see Natalie Wood as the sister of Lembeck and Bernardi, or Steve McQueen as a paisano, especially when seen with his on-screen parents, and yet it is the undeniable sincerity that makes Mulligan's film work even when a closer examination would indicate otherwise.

What also struck me, many years after my last viewing, on late night television, coincidentally with friends in New York City, is Steve McQueen's performance. Frequently lauded as the King of Cool, McQueen's character of Rocky Papasano is anything but cool. You can sense the wheels slowly turning as Rocky first learns from his former one-night stand, Angie Rossini (Wood) that she is pregnant. Rocky is a small-time musician just trying to grasp some tenuous sense of responsibility. He even admits that he's not keen on marriage, although he is willing to do "the right thing". Angie is trapped between traditional expectations of her working class family and fear of actually being independent. Still, she is clear-headed enough to consider having a child out of wedlock rather than a loveless marriage.

Seen in retrospect, the characters of Love with a Proper Stranger are proxies for the artistic and cultural conflicts within the film itself, not quite based in reality, but not a studio based film taking place in an artificial New York City. The real Macy's department store plays itself, at least in the exterior shots around 34th Street. Those more familiar with New York City might recognize Tompkins Square Park, while those who have been around longer will note a scene shot in what was the Meatpacking District. Angie and Rocky meet Rocky's parents in the shadow of the United Nations building. I'm not sure whether the choice of footage was an intentional "in-joke", but behind McQueen and Wood, in a taxi, is a traveling shot of mid-town Manhattan at night that closer examination indicates was filmed in October 1957. Freeze frames and minutes of research followed reading the marquee of the Trans-Lux East theater, then showing Melbourne Rendezvous, a documentary on the 1956 Olympics. The stage production of West Side Story is playing at the Winter Garden theater, while a billboard touts voting for Robert Wagner, the New York City mayor who shared the same name as Wood's former husband at the time. Great care was taken with the interiors, the low-rent homes, which all look lived in, and resemble the kind of modest housing I and several of my friends had known, with everything crammed into a 400 square foot studio apartment, or a curtained alcove was to be a separate room.

The commentary track by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan is certainly worth a listen. I was surprised that they were chosen as my familiarity with these two writers is in conjunction with horror films. Aside from discussing how Love with the Proper Stranger can be considered a transitional film, when some Hollywood filmmakers were pushing against the Production Code and attempting to make films similar to those by their European contemporaries, they also touch upon shared affinities with British "kitchen sink" films and Italian comedies.

I'm not quite as certain as Ellinger and Deighan regarding Robert Mulligan as a "forgotten" filmmaker. Certainly, his strongest period was the decade between To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, ending with The Other in 1972. What I find most interesting is that even with the commercial and critical success of Mockingbird, that Mulligan chose to make mid-budget, character driven films. Somewhat similar in wanting greater artistic freedom, Natalie Wood, like Robert Mulligan, was eager to use her box office success as a means of breaking away from the studio bound films that previously defined their respective work.

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September 10, 2017

Coffee Break

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Sophia Takal and Adam Wingard in 24 Exposures (Joe Swanberg - 2014)