November 23, 2021

Roy Rogers Double Feature

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Under Western Stars
Joseph Kane - 1938

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Macintosh and T.J.
Marvin J. Chomsky - 1975
Verdugo Entertainment BD Region A Two-disc set

Verdugo Entertainment has brough together the first film to star Roy Rogers as well as his last. While I acknowledge there is a nostalgia factor that may be at work here, the phenomena of Roy Rogers may be lost on younger viewers. My own discovery took place in the early 1960s when the television series went into syndication and was part of my regular Saturday morning viewing. It never occurred to me that this half-hour series was a peculiar mix of cowboys in rodeo wear, armed with six-shooters, with some of the classic western conflicts of cattle rustling, land rights and such, yet taking place in contemporary times with a comic sidekick driving an undependable jeep. The television series came out between 1951 and 1956. The episodes were essential similar to the movies Rogers starred in, minus the songs.

Which brings up the question, how do you explain the popularity of singing cowboys to a generation that has trouble dealing with the concept of the musical? The sub-genre began with real cowboy songs in 1925 on the radio evolving into newly created songs with big band arrangements. Silent western star Ken Maynard recorded a couple of songs in the late 1920s, and sang a couple songs in one of his early talkies, inspiring other "Poverty Row" studios to initiate their own series with their own stars. Many of these films are easily available on streaming channels. The films mostly played in rural areas, coming to an end when television broadcasting became more widely available.

Roy Rogers was born Leonard Slye, eventually becoming a singer of western songs which in turn led to his getting into the movies. I am not sure if it is accurate to say that Rogers played himself as much as he played a character also named Roy Rogers. Aside from being his first starring role, Under Western Stars offers the opportunity to see the 27 year old Rogers use his past talents that helped him get a foothold as an entertainer, calling a square dance and yodeling. The film is also unusual in that it incorporates a topical theme of dustbowl conditions in the Depression era. Rogers becomes a congressman to help resolve problem stemming from a dam preventing access to water. The song titled "Dust", sung to an audience of Washington D.C. elite, was nominated for an Oscar. This is not The Grapes of Wrath nor does it try to be, but even outside the context of the film's usage, the documentary footage of real dust bowl conditions is still powerful.

Under Western Stars was directed by Joseph Kane, a house director at Republic Pictures whose career spanned several serials, the hour-long features with Rogers, Gene Autry and early John Wayne, eventually making modestly budgeted westerns, adventure films and crime dramas from 1945 through the demise of Republic Pictures. Frequent collaborator, Jack Marta, served as cinematographer. Later in his career, Marta was cinematographer for the neophyte Steven Spielberg on Duel.

Macintosh and T.J, trades the ubiquitous location of so many B-Westerns, California's Alabama Hills for the actual roads and a working ranch in Guthrie, Texas. Rogers plays Macintosh, an itinerant cowboy driving a too old puck-up truck, looking for temporary ranch work. Along the way, he picks up the 14 year old T.J., who is living on his own, keeping the boy from shoplifting an apple. The pair finds work at the very real 6666 Ranch, with Macintosh showing he can still break the wildest of horses, while T.J. does more mundane chores like barn cleaning. The film was rated PG, touching on a variety of things that the classic Roy Rogers movies would never touch including marital infidelity and spousal abuse. In his last film appearance, Rogers seemed to want to be seen as still relevant at a time when Clint Eastwood was nudging the genre away from older conventions. That age was taking its toll on Rogers is most obvious when the film cuts between medium shots from the waist up with long shots of the stunt double doing the actual, and impressive, riding on the bucking horse.

One of the film's unexpected admirers was film critic Rex Reed, with the description of a "heartwarming, lyrical toast to the New West". What has received consensus is the use of songs written by Waylon Jennings, performed by Jennings and Willie Nelson. The cast includes Luke Askew and Billy 'Green' Bush, two actors who appeared in several westerns in the 1970s. The highly respected Joan Hackett plays the wife of Bush, while Andrew Robinson, Clint Eastwood's nemesis in Dirty Harry is a sleazy ranch hand. Director Marvin Chomsky has an odd filmography, winning Emmy awards for Holocaust, Inside the Third Reich and Attica. Chomsky's few theatrical features are mostly forgettable, with Evel Knievel attaining cult status due to the screenplay by John Milius. In retrospect Macintosh and T.J. succeeds in spite of itself, the various individual elements overcoming a storyline that does not always make sense.

The blu-ray also includes the documentary, Exploring the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA., about that familiar location for so many westerns.

November 22, 2021

White as Snow

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Blanche comme neige
Anne Fontaine - 2019
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

Snow White continues to be retold and reinvented. Anne Fontaine has made a contemporary version which plays with the familiar parts of the story. Instead of a castle, the film begins at a luxury hotel in Geneva. The princess, Claire, is an heiress, her deceased father was the owner of the hotel. The stepmother, Maud, is now in charge of the hotel. The stepmother only gradually reveals her wickedness, initially jealous due to the loss of attention with her lover gazing longingly at Claire. No dwarves, but seven different men are part of the life of Claire following her rescue in the woods from a would-be kidnapper.

Francophiles will recognize the obvious designations of the names. Claire sounds like clair, the French word for clear. Maud is a shortening of maudit - damned or condemned. Fontaine's Snow White is hardly virginal having discovered what she calls "desire", having sex with several men who are attracted to her appearance of innocence. Claire is played by Lou de Laage, not exceptionally pretty but she has beautiful full lips. As Maud, Isabelle Huppert takes on the appearance of a live action cartoon. Her deep red lipstick stands out against her own pale face. Red leather gloves, a red clothing are part of her wardrobe. In a later scene, Claire is also wearing a red dress at a dance which concludes with her partnering with Maud, a duel of love and hate. That Claire could well become like Maud is suggested several times.

Most of the film takes place around La Salette in the French Alps. The town is known for its Catholic shrine which also is integrated into the story. There is a certain leisurely pace with the camera exploring the woods, the mountains, and the twisting roads. Fontaine even incorporates a bit of Hitchcock when Maud, in her open top sports car, drives with a nauseous Claire along a part of the highway that is inches away from a straight drop on the passenger side, a scene similar to Suspicion with Joan Fontaine as the unlucky passenger and Cary Grant behind the wheel. There is also some comedy as Maud frustratingly finds herself unable to get away with murder.

A good amount of Yves Angelo's cinematography evokes Rembrandt in the lighting of Lou de Laage in the interior scenes, notably in the earlier scenes. The overall visual look of the film is soft, slightly hazy. My own interpretation is that Anne Fontaine tried to find a visual correlation that would make her story simultaneously contemporary and also dreamlike. There has been dispute regarding whether this version of Snow White is indeed feminist, if Claire is truly liberated. Some of these arguments may well be cultural especially with French films more frank in their presentation of sex. This is ultimately a Snow White for an era where women are not necessarily looking for a prince, or anyone else, to come to their rescue.

November 19, 2021

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch

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Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma
Noriaki Yuasa - 1968
Arrow Video BD Region A

In a quote found in IMDb, Noriaki Yuasa relates how he found it traumatic as a twelve year old boy that one of his teachers switched from being nationalistic to an ardent communist. Yuasa's most famous film series, Gamera, was aimed for children with a hero, even if he was a giant flying turtle, that was consistent and trustworthy.

For ten-year old Sayuri, none of the adults that are part of her new family are particularly trustworthy. Some of the story elements probably were never meant to be looked at too closely. Believing herself to be an orphan, Sayuri is reunited with the couple who claim to be her biological parents. That same day, the scientist father is called to Africa to investigate a rare, venomous snake. The mother has suffered from memory loss and initial calls Sayuri by a different name. The housekeeper sets strict limits when Sayuri starts exploring her new home. And who is spying on Sayuri from the hole in the ceiling?

The voyeurism may bring to mind the work of Edogawa Rampo, but there is no weird sex here. There are snakes, giant spiders, a mysterious sister who was snake bitten, disembodied laughter, and unexplained events. The story was adapted from the manga by Kazuo Umezo. Both the manga and the film are in black and white. It does seem unusual that in a genre film that was part of a horror double feature presumably designed primarily for a teen and young adult audience would have a pre-teen girl as the protagonist. This is a horror film from the point of view of a young girl, and for Yuasa, the fantasy elements emphasize the disorientation of a home that turns out to be neither stable nor fully welcoming.

David Kalat, a specialist in Japanese horror films, goes more deeply into how childhood trauma played a part in Yuasa's films. There is the usual coverage of the main cast members as well as some of the production crew. Kalat also places The Snake Girl . . . in the contexts of Japanese folklore as well as genre filmmaking. The most intriguing part of Kalat's commentary track is in questioning how much of what is shown in the film can be taken at face value or may be the exaggerated imaginings of Sayuri. The blu-ray also includes a supplement with manga specialist Zack Davisson that provides some history into Japanese folklore, especially stories of snakes that transform into women, and the origins of manga horror prior to the introduction of comic books in Japan. Writer Rafael Coronelli provides an essay that also discusses the folklore roots of the manga and film. The blu-ray includes a dedication to composer Shunsuke Kikuchi who died this past April. Kikuchi's score for this film features the theremin, helping create the appropriately creepy atmosphere.

November 17, 2021

Out of the Blue

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Dennis Hopper - 1980
Discovery Productions

The good news is that after decades of being unavailable to be seen in any form, Out of the Blue has been restored with upcoming screenings and a U.S. home video release. My own take on Dennis Hopper's third film is that it has not aged well. How the film was made is a more interesting story.

What originally was intended to be a made for television movie was transformed when the original director and co-writer was fired after two weeks of production. According to information included as part of the restored film, Hopper, who was initially hired as an actor, rewrote part of the screenplay convincing the producers to let him direct the film rather than allow it to be abandoned. Part of reshaping the film meant having it center on Linda Manz as the troubled teenage girl, using her pugnacious attitude to inform her fictional character. While Hopper is not credited for the final screenplay, the film appears to have at least partially been composed of improvised setups.

Manx's character of Cebe (pronounced as C.B.) is a perpetual rebel with an admiration for Elvis Presley, a love of punk rock, and a volatile relationship with her parents. Her father, Don, is an alcoholic, imprisoned for five years after driving his truck into a stalled school bus. Cebe was with her father at the time and spends time in the ruins of that truck. Cebe's mother Kathy works at a low end restaurant, occasionally shooting heroin (?). Cebe alternated between embracing and running away from her dysfunctional family. The relationship between Cebe and her father becomes uncomfortable viewing when Don's interest in his daughter appears more than paternal.

The title comes from the Neil Young song, remembered for declaring that "rock and roll is here to stay" and that it is "better to burn out than fade away". Forty some years after Young penned that song, rock seems to belong an aging generation of fans and musicians, and Johnny Rotten is a fan of Donald Trump. Punk taken to its extreme has revealed itself to be interested in disruption for its own sake. Cebe is not always a sympathetic character. Even with time spent alone, there appears to be no sense of self-reflection, with a constant need to be accepted only on her own terms. Maybe in my own way I have become more conservative, though not in the same way as Dennis Hopper had after he ended his own immersion of drink and drugs. Some other critics have used "masterpiece" and "classic" to describe the film. I may be in the minority but I am not convinced. Even more starkly now, the nihilism that permeated Out of the Blue has revealed itself itself to be literally a dead end.

November 16, 2021

Deported

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Robert Siodmak - 1950
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Deported falls outside of Robert Siodmak's series of classic films noir, and really can not be defined as such. The director's hand is still evident in a couple of scenes. Robert Buckner, producer and screenwriter, was a credited writer on several Warner Brothers classics from the Thirties and Forties, and imagining Deported as a Warner Brothers vehicle with their contract players is no stretch. The film was almost entirely filmed on location in Italy with only stars Marta Toren, Jeff Chandler and Richard Rober as the only Hollywood cast members.

The story may or may not have been inspired by one of several stories of Italian born gangsters deported from the United States. Vic Smith, born Vittorio Sparducci, is forced to return to his birthplace, the fictional Marbella in Tuscany for his first month of probation. First, on his way to catch a train, a "meet cute" encounter at a Neopolitan cab with a young woman turns out to be a ploy to have Vic meet with his former partner in crime. There is a dispute regarding $100,000 that the pair stole. Vic took the five year rap and claims the full loot, currently hidden in New York City. Proving he does not have the money with him, Vic goes on to Marbella. Welcomed by his uncle, he is taken in by his relatives where he spots the richest woman in town, a countess. Vic has his eye on the countess and also a way of retrieving his money using her humanitarian organization.

While not as flashy as the scene with Elisha Cook, Jr.'s mad drumming in Phantom Lady, there is a nice moment with Toren dancing with several men at the town's celebration. The camera tilts up at each pairing with Toren, moving with them in medium close-up, the lightbulbs of the tent seen above them. Rather than using hard cuts with the change of dance partners, Siodmak uses dissolves between each shot without cutting the waltz played in the background. Siodmak's film noir experience is most visible in the final sequence taking place in a warehouse, dim lights and shadows, as Chandler fights off a gang of black market truck drivers and has a final encounter with his ex-partner.

Marta Toren, top billed, was a Swedish actress whose brief Hollywood stardom lasted from 1948 through 1952. This was at a time when the studios were still looking for the next Ingrid Bergman or other European actress thought to supply some kind of exoticism that the home grown girls lacked. Like her peers and those before her, Toren would play a woman from any number of European countries. Toren had stage training in Sweden and returned to the stage, along with making films primarily in Italy through 1957. She dies of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1957 at age 31. Jeff Chandler's career was just on the ascent at the time he made Deported. Chandler's previous performance, Oscar nominated for Broken Arrow, elevated the actor from supporting roles to Universal's top contracted star for much of the Fifties. Premature death also affected Jeff Chandler in 1961, while Richard Rober died following a car accident in 1952 that eerily was similar to a similar scene in Siodmak's File on Thelma Jordan.

Eddy Von Mueller provides the commentary track. Aside from the usual overviews of the main cast and crew, Von Mueller helps put Deported into both the political context of the time, as well as how it reflects the post-War changes in Hollywood filmmaking.

November 15, 2021

Denver Film Festival - Drive My Car

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Doraibu mai ka
Ryusuke Hamaguchi - 2021
Janus Films

"I've heard it said that the happiest time in our lives is the period when pop songs really mean something to us, really get to us. It may be true. Or maybe not. Pop songs may, after all, be nothing but pop songs. And perhaps our lives are merely decorative, expendable items, a burst of fleeting color and nothing more.
Haruki Murakami from the essay, With the Beatles

The Japanese author Haruki Murakami writes about memories and dreams. And I remember the four novels I have read better than I can recall the two previous films I have seen by Hamaguchi. Murakami has a couple of short stories, an essay and a novel that use titles from Beatle songs and one album. The song titles are the initial tangent from which may spark memories but are not the subject matter. In "With the Beatles", Murakami begins by recalling the memory of a girl he only saw once in high school, who was clutching that album back in 1964. From there, he tells of his relationship with his first girlfriend, and learning by chance about twenty years later that she had committed suicide. Going back to the above quote, Drive My Car is in part about lives with unexpected endings, secrets people carry with them, and loss of control of ones life. And the lives of spouses, parents and children may appear as bursts of fleeting color that haunt Murakami's characters.

Yasuke is a stage actor and director. His wife, Oto, writes for television. Even when accidentally observing his wife with another man, Yasuke discretely exits. The evening that Yasuke comes home late, Oto is passed out on the floor, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage. Two years later, Yasuke goes to Hiroshima to stage a pan-Asian production of Uncle Vanya. The lines from Chekov's play, in which Vanya bemoans that his life has not turned out as expected acts as a commentary on Yasuke's sense of self. The organization hosting the production of Uncle Vanya has a contractual rule that the guest directors can not drive themselves due to a past accident. Yasuke reluctantly surrenders the keys to his beloved red Saab 900 to his assigned driver, Misaki.

I have yet to find Murakami explain why he likes to use Beatle song titles. It might simply be part of the playfulness of the author. For Yusuke, driving represents the one aspect of his life he has control over, but even that is tentative, as he has been diagnoses with glaucoma, limiting his vision. What Hamaguchi has done is also incorporate two other short stories by Murakami that ask multiple questions about the stories we tell ourselves or share with others. On the surface it may seem extreme that Hamaguchi has made a three hour film from a short story, but what he has done is taken some of the ideas by reworking Murakami to be part of the dialogue between characters and also further explore more detail in their lives. Because of the artistic choices made by both the source author and the filmmaker, there is a lot to unpack to go beyond any surface description.

As noted, part of the story is devoted to Yuskuke's pan-Asian production of Uncle Vanya. The actors speak their lines in their native languages which include Japanese, Mandarin and Tagalog. One of the actresses is mute, using sign language. While some may argue about Korean actress Park Yoo-rim portraying a person with a disability, she is undeniably affecting in her performance both as the former ballerina Yoon-a and as Yoon-a playing the part of Chekov's Sonya.

November 14, 2021

Denver Film Festival - The Devil's Drivers

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Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth - 2021
XRT

Something not always discussed is that part of Israel's labor force is made up of Palestinians from the disputed territories. Even those Palestinians who have legal permits to work in Israel are subject to slower checkpoints or border closings. There is also the illegal work force that is smuggled into Israel by a group of drivers who use roundabout routes and dodge the Israeli army.

The workers attempt to cross the border for what ever work they can get because there is little available work available in the Palestinian territories, plus the pay when they are able to get it is better. Likewise, for the drivers, it is preferable to unemployment or low paying jobs available locally. The documentary was filmed over the course of five years following a small group of current and former drivers. Part was filmed in Jenba, in the southern territory that has not yet been walled in.

Is it possible to make any kind of film that deals with Israeli-Palestinian relations without any kind of bias? Probably not. While there is discussion of some of the most onerous rules imposed by the Israeli government, most of the ire is directed towards the army, which acts with impunity, disregarding edicts by Israel's Supreme Court. There is also some drama with one of the drivers arrested for allegedly transporting two cousins who shot and murdered patrons in a Tel Aviv shop.

Most of the camerawork was done by the German, Carsenty, riding shotgun with the drivers. It is a rough ride across desert roads. Carsenty also puts himself in possible danger when one of the cars is stopped by the army. There is also I-phone footage taken by the drivers and family members. Also included is a look at a Bedouin family, sheep herders, whose property is part of the route, a reminder that there is a mix of Arab cultures in the region.

That the film is a sympathetic portrayal of its subjects is a given. Any demand for some kind of idealized sense of objectivity is impossible. There is also some historical context provided, some of which suggests that some of the current problems came following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and Shiimon Peres' decision to not follow the Oslo Accords. My overall assessment is that there is something to be gleaned from viewing The Devil's Drivers beyond what is made available from any news source.