May 21, 2017

Coffee Break

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Hannah Gross and Ned Oldham in I Use to be Darker (Matt Porterfield - 2013)

May 16, 2017

The World of Henry Orient

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George Roy Hill - 1964
KL Studio Classics Region 1 DVD

As a student at Yale, George Roy Hill studied music under Paul Hindemith. This may explain why the scene of Henry Orient performing in concert may be a bit longer than it might have been with another director. Only someone with knowledge of music would be able to create a comic scene that gently pokes fun at "avant-garde" music, with a piano solo stretched out due to the ill-rehearsed star not concluding his solo in the correct notes. The performed composition itself takes Elmer Bernstein's lyrical theme heard during the opening credits, and reworks it as a discordant composition.

Hill's film is likewise about harmony and discord. It's not so much Henry Orient's world, but that of two young teenage girls, known by the nicknames of Gil and Val. Gil, the middle class student at an exclusive New York City private school, and Val, the daughter of absentee parents, are two outsiders who discover each other by chance. Their first "adventure" together finds them accidentally discovering Henry Orient in one of his series of failed trysts with a married woman in a hidden section of Central Park. The identity of the man seen at the park, and later at an Italian restaurant, is revealed when Val and Gil are taken to the described concert. Val is infatuated, joined by Gil in observing Orient from not so afar.

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The film was adapted from Nora Johnson's first novel, inspired from the author's own youthful infatuation with Oscar Levant. From what I've been able to find out about the novel, published in 1958, is that it takes place during an unspecified time. Had the book been more strictly autobiographical, it might have taken place around 1947. This film, though, takes place in the then present day New York City, albeit cleaner, friendlier and safer. Even if the setting is an idealized New York City, the story is clear eyed about the fragility of relationships between friends, and parents and children.

Coming between Dr. Strangelove and A Shot in the Dark, Henry Orient is Peter Sellers in a low-keyed comic performance. Early on, it is revealed that Orient is Brooklyn born, disguising his roots with a vaguely European accent. There is no attempt to hide that Paula Prentiss, as object of Seller's attentions, was slightly taller, if not quite as manic. Two acclaimed cinematographers closely associated with New York City, Boris Kaufman and Arthur Ornitz, are credited. It may be worth noting that about thirty years earlier, Kaufman was the cinematographer for Jean Vigo's Zero de Conduit. A scene with Gil and Val leaping in slow motion in Washington Square park may well have been inspired by Vigo. The film does belong to the two young actresses, Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker, both making their debut here. Spaeth chose not to pursue acting after a couple of roles, while Walker had a short-lived career for about seven years. It's enough that two young women had the talent to briefly outshine the top billed stars.

May 14, 2017

Coffee Break

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Bette Davis in Dead Ringer (Paul Henreid - 1964)

May 09, 2017

The Indian Fighter

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Andre DeToth - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Is it possible to view The Indian Fighter and overlook a couple of elements that may be uncomfortable for contemporary audiences? The easier part is the Hollywood convention of white actors as American Indians. While there were Native Americans as members of the film's Sioux tribe, key roles are filled by Eduard Franz, Hank Worden and Elsa Martinelli. In this way, The Indian Fighter is not different from most other westerns pretty much until Arthur Penn's Little Big Man in 1970. What hasn't aged well would be the couple encounters Douglas has with Martinelli, forcing himself on her with a big smooch on the lips the first time, grabbing her hair in their second meeting, ending with Martinelli smiling and embracing Douglas, because he is Kirk Douglas. Later, it's the actress known as the former Mrs. Kirk Douglas who grabs the star for a kiss.

If the sixty plus years has dated some of the content on The Indian Fighter, the film itself looks as good as did at the time of its initial theatrical release, and probably sounds better with updated recording technology. There's a scene with the Indians attacking a fort with large, flaming spears, with a thrilling whooshing sound as the spears fly towards the fort.

The Indian Fighter was Andre DeToth's first film in the still relatively know CinemaScope format, two years old at the time of production. As such, the widescreen filming here is conservative, especially compared to Rebel without a Cause, produced the same year, with actors framed in full or medium shots. There are a good number of panoramic shots, but it's only a couple of later scenes that there are couple of shots with the kind of dramatic compositions found in earlier DeToth films. One of the best examples of the former is a traveling shot of the wagon train, stopped for the evening, starting with several people listing to a folk singer performing "Two Brothers" (a Civil War song written in 1951), with the camera moving left to observe villains Lon Chaney, Jr. and Walter Matthau eating dinner, further left with a bearded settler by his wagon, stopping Kirk Douglas sitting with Diana Douglas and her young screen son.
A later shot that is reminder of what DeToth can do within the frame comes after the big battle scene, with a high angle view of Kirk Douglas in the mostly empty space within the fort's entrance seen in the distance, while the foreground on the left side of the frame is partially filled by an anonymous soldier seen as a medium shot, eating from his canteen.

The basic story is familiar enough, with Douglas acting as the go-between, arranging peace between the Sioux and the cavalry, and allowing settlers to travel to Oregon through Indian territory. Chaney and Matthau are the ne'er do wells, selling whiskey to the Indians, hoping to mine the gold hidden in the tribal land. Elsa Martinelli is introduced getting undressed, with as much nudity as could be suggested in a 1955 Hollywood film. This was the first significant role for the twenty year old Italian actress, and her lines are kept brief in her role as the Indian chief's daughter. Neither Martinelli nor any of the other actors playing Indians speak pidgin English. The two screenplay writers credited are Frank Davis and Ben Hecht, and I am assuming that some of the more sarcastic exchanges were from Hecht. How sarcastic? When the Indian chief expressed hope that the white men would entirely kill each other in the Civil War, Douglas responds that the war didn't last long enough.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Toby Roan, a specialist in Westerns, primarily from the 1950s. Several of the actors would be familiar to those watch film and television westerns from the Fifties and Sixties, with three Juniors in the cast - in addition to Lon Chaney, Jr., there is Elisha Cook, Jr. as the photographer attempting to document the journey to Oregon, and Alan Hale, Jr. as the awkward would-be suitor of Diana Douglas. Roan also discusses the production history on location in Bend, Oregon. Roan points out how The Indian Fighter simultaneously stays within genre convention and also goes outside what was expected. I was also relieved that there was no confusion on my part, with Roan confirming that Hank Worden is seen in two different roles, as a cavalry soldier who locks up Chaney and Matthau, and more prominently, as the liquor loving Indian known as Crazy Bear.

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May 07, 2017

Coffee Break

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Peter Simonischek in Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade - 2016)

May 02, 2017

Spanish Erotic Cinema

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Edited by Santiago Fouz-Hernandez
Edinburgh University Press - 2017

If you were looking for a survey on Spanish films that was produced primarily for the titillation of the intended audience, this isn't it. As a collection of essays by different authors, what we have is a hodgepodge of different aspects of how sex and sexuality have been presented in Spanish films, within a rough chronology from the silent era though more recent work. This book will probably be of most value to scholars of Spanish cinema as some of the chapters tie film history with national and cultural history. While those inclined for something more pictorial will have to search elsewhere, Anglo-American film scholars not fluent in Spanish may also find themselves frustrated due to the limited number of films mentioned here available for viewing.

Of the filmmakers cited, virtually of of Pedro Almodovar's films are available for study, followed by a handful of films by Carlos Saura, with scattershot availability of films by Victor Erice, Luis Garcia Berlanga, Juan Antonio Bardem and others. Antonio Lazaro-Reboll, whose book on Spanish horror films was previously reviewed here, has a chapter on films made between 1969 and 1975, with films and filmmakers more familiar even to the casual film enthusiast, with Jesus Franco the best known. Not addressed in this book, but an obstacle in understanding the national cinema of another country is that the films most known or available would appear to either be the rarefied works that may show up in the art house or film festival, or the easily importable genre films that frequently are subject to critical derision if not indifference.

Why this is important is that several of the films given close examinations are not easily available resulting in an abstract understanding of the author's arguments concerning those films. This is not the fault of the various contributors to this book, but it is a reminder of barriers for those who might want to investigate more of the cited titles for themselves. The book's cover is of Isabel Pisano, the title character in Bigas Luna's Bilboa (1978). While Luna's second film is given a whole chapter, it's later films cited, including Anguish and Jamon, Jamon that the reader would more likely have seen. Somewhat related is that Jorge Grau is best known for The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, a zombie horror film, but also a critique on questionable science used for commercial purposes. Grau's film, (1975) is discussed due to being the first Spanish film to present full nudity. The actress in question, Maria Jose Cantudo, has been noted for being filmed in various states of undress. But the Grau films mentioned here indicate a filmmaker who might benefit for further investigation due to consistent thematic concerns regarding consumerism and moral codes of behavior.

Even when availability of certain films is spotty, there is an overview on how films provided a reflection of Spanish society during the years of the Franco regime, and later, when Spanish cinema was forced to keep up with the more liberal and graphic films from other European countries in the 1960s and 70s. The first chapter, on kissing, also shines a light on Spanish racism during the silent era. There is also the widely told anecdote of viewers who assumed that Rita Hayworth removed more than a single glove in Gilda. Films indirectly or unintentionally about homosexual attraction are discussed along with those films by openly gay filmmakers Almodovar and Eloy de la Iglesias. Curiously, women filmmakers are only featured in a chapter about films films centered on older women. An imperfect book, but still one with much to be gleaned for both serious and casual film scholar.

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April 30, 2017

Coffee Break

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Jodie Foster in Elysium (Neill Blomkamp - 2013)