June 23, 2019

Ted Talk

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Tramps (Adam Leon - 2017)

In the interests of journalistic transparency, I am a Netflix subscriber both of the DVD services and streaming.

I also want to express regret at not writing more legible notes, but that that's what happens to me when I scribble in the dark. Hopefully, I will remember this event correctly.

Maybe I should have tried to get an interview with Ted Sarandos has some of my questions and concerns were not covered.

This was my first time attending Series Fest, which as is indicated by the name, a weeklong event in Denver dedicated to series television. My interest in seeing the dialogue between Liberty Global's Ted Fries and Netflix's Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, stems from the crossover of filmmaking talent providing Netflix films and television series. This event took place on June 21. Due to the number of attendees, I watched the discussion as a simulcast on one of the screens at the Sie Theater.

After providing a bit of personal background, Sarandos explained his decision to have the Netflix content team based near Los Angeles in order to cultivate relationships with the studios, and to keep a separate identity from the tech team. This was when Netflix had just begun, before DVD technology dominated home video. Even at that time, Reed Hastings anticipated home streaming even though what existed about twenty-years ago was virtually unwatchable on small screens within the computer monitor. I don't remember when I started streaming myself, but it was initial on a laptop for the first few years until I bought my first blu-ray player that had a streaming option. I have seen the streaming content change from older, previously unavailable films to primarily recent programming of films and series. I miss being able to see such obscurities like Irvin Kershner's The Young Captives or the Italian costume drama, The Tempest, with second unit work by Michelangelo Antonioni. More recently, having gone to bat for Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind, interest has apparently been generated for the streaming of older films by Welles.

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Nappily ever After (Haifaa al-Mansour - 2018)

Sarandos explained that Netflix measures success based on how many households watch a certain show. The publicly announced figure of thirty million households for Murder Mystery was mentioned. How this translates into number of viewers is subject for dispute. The key takeaway for me was that the reason why Netflix largely eschews traditional ratings formats is because the success of a film or series is specific to that show. Too give a more quantifiable example from the way success is measured in theatrical films, Dark Phoenix has earned about 209 million dollars. Yet with a reported budget of 200 million, the film has lost money for the studio after factoring in costs for publicity, among other costs. Booksmart has earned a modest 20 million to date, with low box office standing. Alleged box office pundits who wrote off Booksmart did not anticipate that this "little" films would recoup its Six million dollar budget, or prove to have unexpected resiliency in finding its audience. While I would not be able to provide specific examples, what this would mean in terms of a Netflix branded film is that while it may not be a breakout success like Bird Box, most of their films are moderately budgeted so that they are free from the same expectations as a theatrical film.

Another interesting point was the freedom the content team had in choosing choosing content, and likewise in the freedom given to the content providers. While it was not mentioned, Martin Scorsese's The Irishman will probably be a test of the limits of auteur driven films produced by Netflix. In addition to household numbers as the tool for measuring success, social media was mentioned as used by viewers as a driver for success, referring back to Bird Box.

What wasn't addressed is that with the sheer number of films and series available, how do you find what's worth watching? My own viewing has included films that have not involved Facebook memes or national conversations. One thing Netflix could do that would be helpful for some films would be to list the name of the director along with the main actors in their screens that provide the title and short synopsis. It was through an article on independent filmmakers choosing Netflix over tradition theatrical distribution that I found out about Tramps by Adam Leon - and additionally saw his earlier Gimme the Loot. I had been following Alice Rohrbacher's career from the beginning, and am sure more people have seen Happy as Lazzaro than her two older films. But how many who delighted in Wajda, the first narrative feature from Saudi Arabia and debut from female filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour, are also aware that she directed Nappily ever After?

Sarandos final major point was that international series would be local in both language and content, using the German series, Dark as an example. While something like Murder Mystery might be the television equivalent to comfort food for fans of Friends and Adam Sandler movies, that subscriber base also allows for more niche viewing of foreign language series and films, as well as the independent films branded as Netflix Originals. I'm not sure how the algorithms and data gathering work on this, as some of my more enjoyable experiences with streaming have been taking chances with the unfamiliar.

June 21, 2019

Midnight Lace

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David Miller - 1960
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Would Midnight Lace have been a substantially better film had Ross Hunter's usual go-to director, Douglas Sirk, hadn't retired the year before? We can only guess based on such prior works as the wonderfully nutty Lured with the eclectic cast of Lucille Ball, Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff, and the more obvious wife-in-peril Sleep My Love. David Miller probably got the gig on the strength of Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford threatened by two-timing Jack Palance. Midnight Lace isn't exactly suspenseful, but it is entertaining.

Doris Day plays Kit Preston, heiress and newly-wed to British businessman Brian Preston (Rex Harrison). Brian is so busy with work that the two have yet to go on an actual honeymoon. The film opens with Kit walking home across a park in London fog so thick it's called a "pea souper". A strange voice from an unseen source tells Kit that she will be murdered. Kit runs home in a panic. Later, she begins getting telephone calls from the same unknown person. Brian tries to convince Kit that it is a prank. There are a series of "red herrings" to keep the audience guessing as to who wants Kit dead, including the constantly sponging son of the housekeeper, a gaunt man dressed in black, and the foreman of the construction site next door. For me, the biggest mystery is why Midnight Lace received an Oscar nomination for the costumes - the only thing uglier than Doris Day's fur-collared coats is one of the hats worn by Myrna Loy.

Russell Metty may have been a house cinematographer at Universal, but he may well be the one to credit for the use of color and shadows. In addition to his work with Sirk, Metty also had Orson Welles' Touch of Evil to his credits. There is one scene with tension between Kit and Brian in their bedroom. During the day, the bedroom is an extremely light shade of pink. In this scene, when Kit is certain that her stalker is standing in view of the bedroom window, the colors of the bedroom are stronger shades of pink, purple, blue and red. The choice of colors is suggestive of a proto-giallo, and not entirely unrelated to a film like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Sergio Martino's delirious version of the gaslit wife. There is also the scene with Kit trapped in her apartment building's narrow elevator, in fear of a man seen only as a black silhouette. Somebody like Dario Argento would have stretched the scene further, and milked it for greater terror. I was struck use of red lighting on the interior walls when the true identities of several characters are revealed.

Without giving too much away, the final scene could have been David Miller's Vertigo. Doris Day clings on to a steel column in the building next door, still an empty skeleton. There are no photographic effects, nor any sense of the kind of danger Hitchcock could convey. Again there is the sense that more could have been done, restrained by Ross Hunter's desire not to make his audience too uncomfortable.

On the debit side, the film takes place in a tourist's idea of London. Either the screenplay should have had a slight revision, or the film should have been recast as John Gavin, at age 29, was clearly too young to play the part of the building foreman, a man who tells Kit about his traumatic experience in World War II. A night out at the ballet means an excerpt from Swan Lake, billed with Giselle and Petrushka, middle-brow and middle-class idea of culture.

As it turns out, Kat Ellinger also makes the connection between Midnight Lace and giallo in her commentary track. Ellinger draws the line with connections to Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace to the films made about a decade later by Argento, Martino and others. Ellinger discusses also how producer Ross Hunter packaged the film primarily for a female audience, as well as employ stars from an earlier era in supporting roles, as Myrna Loy and Roddy McDowell appear here. Connections of various cast members to the films by Alfred Hitchcock are mentioned, notably Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but also supporting cast members Gavin, John Williams and Anthony Dawson. Unless I missed it, Ellinger does not mention Herbert Marshall as having appeared in two Hitchcock films. Being from London, Ellinger is able to point out how the rear screen appearance of a bridge makes it appear longer than it really is. It may be redundant to mention that the first giallo is considered to be Mario Bava's The Woman Who Knew Too Much.

As for the title, our heroine buys what is probably best described as loungewear, black pants with a lacy black top. Hardly the diaphanous nightie that the title Midnight Lace might suggest, but would anyone expect that from Doris Day? In keeping with the title's undelivered suggestions of eroticism, the best way to enjoy Midnight Lace is to enjoy what the film is, not for all the things it isn't.

Kino Classics has also taken the unusual step of offering a choice of aspect ratios when viewing Midnight Lace. While most cinephiles will probably choose the original 2:1 version, there is also the option of 1.78 for those who insist that the entirety of their wide-screen television frame be filled.

June 19, 2019

The Running Man

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Romanian poster

Carol Reed - 1963
Arrow Academy BD Region A

I only have very general information, but what ever it was that happened on the set of the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty severely rattled original director Carol Reed. As it was, that film turned out to be the last by Reed's replacement, Lewis Milestone. Most of the time, or at least at a time when the stakes weren't quite as high, directors usually bounced back, even when fired from high profile productions. George Cukor's career hardly suffered from losing Gone with the Wind. Carol Reed thought he could make his return on a mid-budget production, something like the thrillers that brought him his greatest acclaim.

As the booklet notes also remind us, The Running Man is one of five films with "man" in the title. And there are some thematic similarities to Reed's earlier films. Freelance transport pilot Rex Black has lost his plane and cargo in an accident. He considers himself cheated out of his insurance when it is discovered that he missed his most recent payment. With his wife, Stella, he fakes his own death. Stella successfully collects on the life insurance policy. An insurance investigator, Stephen Maddox, comes to Stella's apartment to ask a few questions. He concludes his visit by encouraging Stella to go on holiday following her mourning. Rex, in disguise, and Stella go to Malaga, Spain. Stephen appears in Malaga, but it is never clear whether this is coincidence, or an attempt to verify fraud.

The booklet notes and the supplemental interviews with several surviving crew members all stress that Reed was indecisive during the production of The Running Man. Reed's uncertainty brought about an end to his collaborations with cinematographer Robert Krasker and editor Bert Bates. Adding to Reed's own second guessing himself were impositions by Columbia Pictures - the opening credits designed by Maurice Binder, with a separate title score by Ron Grainer, attempted to open the The Running Man more in the style made popular by the James Bond films. And while no names have been mentioned, it has been suggested the Laurence Harvey was not Reed's first choice as Rex Black. Adding to the confusion was the status of Lee Remick, briefly leaving the Spanish set to replace Marilyn Monroe on the ill-fated Something's Got to Give. Given all the problems, it's a wonder that The Running Man turned out as well as it did.

Robert Krasker was nominated for a BAFTA award for his cinematography. The Running Man is less visually stylized than Odd Man Out or The Third Man, Krasker's most famous work with Reed. Maybe it's the nature of the format, but Krasker's black and white films almost always are more interesting to watch than the films he did in color. There was one very simple shot that I liked, that also owes to the production and costume design. As Rex, Laurence Harvey is wearing a wine red shirt and matching pants. Alan Bates as Stephen is wearing a white shirt and a very light blue suit. Also monochrome Is Lee Remick in a pink sheath dress. Rex and Stephen are conversing at a fountain outside the hotel where all three are staying. Stella has walked back to her room. This is a full shot that probably played better on a movie screen, with the two men seen sitting across from each other with hotel entrance behind them. One has to take the shot in its entirety to notice the small pink figure, Stella, observing the conversation from her window up above the men.

The film ends with a car chase through a mountain road. Reed's most famous films are about men trying to escape, often pursued, closing with death or failure. There is no defense for Rex's dubious scheme to scam the insurance company. His fate appears pre-ordained, a small scale reversal of the adage that events repeat themselves, first as tragedy, and again as farce.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Peter William Evans, author of a book on Carol Reed. Evans primarily discusses the thematic connections of The Running Man with Reed's earlier films, as well as the use of color as signifiers in the clothing of the characters. Also covered are the ways Reed and screenplay writer John Mortimer diverged from the source novel by Shelley Smith, The Ballad of the Running Man. Somewhat of a stretch is comparing the triangle of Rex and Stella Black and Stephen Maddox with that of Harry Lime, Anna and Holly Martins in The Third Man. Evans concedes that The Running Man is a minor film. Even though Reed would realize critical and commercial success just a few years later with Oliver!, it is The Running Man that can be said to be his last truly personal film.

June 11, 2019

My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie

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Mijn Nachten met Susan, Olga, Albert, Julie, Piet & Sandra
Pim de la Parra - 1975
Cult Epics BD Regions ABC/DVD All Regions two-disc set

I still remember my visit to Amsterdam, about fourteen years ago. At the store called Boudisque, I asked if they had any DVDs of films by Pim de la Parra. I don't know for sure if the clerk even knew who Pim de la Parra was. Such was the fate of pioneering Dutch filmmakers Pim de la Parra and his production partner Wim Verstappen. It's only been in the past couple of years that the Netherlands' Eye Institute as rescued the films of "Pim and Wim", and with those films, a bit of film history that was virtually forgotten. Cult Epics has in turn made several of the films available on home video.

The title is a bit misleading as it suggests some kind of hedonistic romp. The character with the title in the first person is Anton, a young man who arrives at a converted farm house to meet up with Barbara, a woman never seen in the film. The farm house and a nearby shack are the home for Susan, Sandra, Olga, Julie, and as listed in the Dutch title, Piet and Albert. The farmhouse is an informal commune for these six dropouts. Anton's presence has disrupted the relative equilibrium of the group, although the first scene reveals Sandra and Olga to be anarchic forces. The French title of the film is Les Furies which more specifically would seem to refer to Sandra and Olga as vengeful female spirits, although no motivation for their actions is provided.

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Like his debut feature, Obsessions, de la Parra again visits the themes of sex, murder and voyeurism. There is nudity and soft-core sex, as was par for European films during the mid-1970s. Pim and Wim produced films that straddled the line between serious commercial filmmaking and outright exploitation, constantly pushing the envelope of what Dutch censors would allow. This is a much more polished work than de la Parra's previous films, aided by use of a widescreen format. The six commune dwellers have chosen to isolate themselves from society at large, with Albert choosing to enclose himself in a room illuminated by a hanging red light bulb, while Piet lives in the nearby shack, physically expressive but orally mute. Julie is mostly seen sleeping. With police investigating a possible murder in the vicinity of the farmhouse, the choices are to break the cycle of self-enforced separation from others, or to totally succumb to madness.

The blu-ray comes with several supplements. In his video introduction, Pim de la Parra tells of how Rutger Hauer, not yet an international star, turned down the role of Anton. Three early short films are also included, with the two about the perpetually clumsy Joop showcasing the goofy humor of Pim and Wim. The supplement with stills and posters provided the information on the French title for My Nights . . .. The film is notable also has containing the final film work by composer Elisabeth Lutyens, whose atonal film scores had previously been part of several horror films produced by Amicus and Hammer.

June 04, 2019

Devil's Kiss

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La perversa caricia de Satan
Jordi Gigo - 1976
Redemption BD Region A

Devil's Kiss has just about everything needed for an exploitation horror movie - gratuitous sex, unmotivated violence, and a story that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And yet I got the feeling that for whatever reasons, writer-director Jordi Gigo was holding back on the sex and gore when he really should have been fearlessly tasteless. This was a French/Spanish co-production made for Eurocine, a French company that specialized in low budget fare that played in the grind houses of Europe.

While the better known Eurocine productions were directed by Jesus Franco, with Jean Rollin also on hand for a couple of films, one of the other frequent filmmakers was Pierre Chevalier. I have to admit I have seen only a handful of films compared to historian Tim Lucas, who contributed some notes on the back of the blu-ray cover. But I have seen Chevalier's Orloff and the Invisible Man which is deliriously unhinged. More laughable than horrifying, the film also presents an argument that some actresses should not be seen in the nude, even if it is a requirement. Not only were these movies made to be screened in theaters where paying close attention to the story was besides the point, the films sometimes would have pornographic inserts based on when and where said film was shown.

There is very little information on Jordi Gigo. In writing about an earlier DVD release of Devil's Kiss, critic Aled Jones commented, "Not wanting to belittle Jordi Gigo and his directing chops but he does come across as a third assistant on a Jess Franco shoot in terms of talent which is hardly a recommendation." IMDb indicated that Gigo had a hand in writing Exorcismo with star Paul Naschy in 1975. Following Devil's Kiss, Gigo made a soft-core film, Porno Girl, before slipping into obscurity. Devil's Kiss definitely has a cult following, but it is primarily based on enthusiasm for the genre both dismissed and loved as "Eurotrash".

A spiritualist, Claire Grandier, blames the Duke of Haussemont for the suicide of her husband. She accepts the invitation to one of the Duke's parties as part of her scheme for revenge. With Grandier is the scientist, Romain Gruber, who specializes in mental telepathy. The guests at the party are part of what use to be known as "the jet set". Grandier holds a seance where the lights suddenly go out, but that's far less horrifying than the fashion show beforehand featuring garishly ugly bell bottom jumpsuits. The two become houseguests of the Duke. The reanimation of a bald, facially scarred corpse is only the beginning of their havoc.

Jordi Gigo appears to have taken various elements from horror movies almost at random, to form an incoherent mix. I bet you didn't know that zombies could be stopped by the sight of a crucifix? The blu-ray comes with both the English and French language dubbed tracks, but neither makes a difference in any added nuances. The expository dialogue is dull enough to make one long for the inane prose of Ed Wood, Jr. The cast is made up of primarily secondary Eurocine contract players Silvia Solar, Olivier Mathot and Evelyne Scott. Were it available online, I would love to read what horror film historian Stephen Thrower has written that might cast a brighter light on Devil's Kiss. As it is, the critical consensus is that this is cinema audit, loved by the most dedicated genre aficionados. You can't totally hate a film with the line, "No one will notice an additional grave in a cemetery."

May 28, 2019

The Nun

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Suzanne Simonin, la Religieuse de Denis Diderot
Jacques Rivette - 1965
Kino Classics BD Region A

I'm not sure if I'm able to really write about The Nun in any meaningful way. While I have seen a good number of films by Jacques Rivette, I feel inarticulate. The blu-ray comes with an essay by Dennis Lim and a commentary track by Nick Pinkerton, and both can discuss the film in ways that will make what ever I have to say look like a junior high school essay next to doctoral dissertations.

Adapted from the 18th Century novel by Denis Diderot, The Nun is a fictional story inspired by a couple of real life nuns. Suzanne Simonin, a young woman about sixteen years old, is forced by her parents to become a nun for economic reasons. Although she does not feel she has "the calling", Suzanne attempts to go through the motions, cast aside by her parents who view her as a burden. The physical abuse experienced at one convent is replaced by the emotional abuse in a second convent. Suzanne, who admits to knowing nothing about the outside world, is the victim of more abuse outside the convent.

While much of the discussion regarding The Nun has been about its presentation of aspects of the Catholic Church, the film is also about the circumscribed roles of women. Suzanne is denied the opportunity to marry or stay at home, and her place as a nun is to be permanent, unlike some girls around her age. Outside of the church, Suzanne does menial labor, is reduced to begging on the street, and finally is groomed to be a high-class prostitute. Unlike Candide, Suzanne's innocence about the world destroys her. Just as in marriage at that time, being a bride of Christ involves a dowry. Suzanne's tragedy is not only about her inability to find her place in the world, but her destiny tied to her monetary value.

Most of the film takes place inside the two convents. The walls of the first convent are a dark blue-gray, the second convent is a lighter shade. The nuns' habits are also dark blue and gray. The Nun has been noted as being Rivette's most formal film, several critics have used the word "austere". The screenplay originated from a play by Jean Grault, staged by Rivette, also with Anna Karina in the title role, in 1963. Most of the film is composed as a series of traveling shots of the actors and their immediate environment. One of the other visual motifs repeated is the use of bars whether to separate the nuns from visitors, or as part of the confessional. That there is an unforced parallel between convents and prisons is part of the greater theme of the characters being imprisoned by roles chosen if not imposed on them. There is also the indirect hint of future Riviette films centered on women who have taken to road trips or fantasy escapes.

The blu-ray also contains a short documentary featuring Anna Karina and the lawyer for producer Georges De Beauregard discussing the production, and the temporary ban that prevented the release of The Nun. The blu-ray was taken from the recent 4K restoration, itself made from the film's original negative.

May 23, 2019

Avengement

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Jesse V. Johnson - 2019
Samuel Goldwyn Films

It's not a word that is commonly used, but the best definition I found for avengement is "the inflicting of retributive punishment". That reasonably sums up the bulk of what happens in the hour and a half of this newest collaboration of producer and star Scott Adkins and writer-director Jesse V. Johnson. I've only seen Adkins in a handful of films, primarily as a supporting performer, using his martial arts skill. Especially unlike the mainstream productions, whether made for English language or Chinese language viewers, this new film is markedly more brutal.

In addition to the expected kicks and punches, are stabbings, shotgun shootings, multiple broken bones and dental emergencies. Adkins plays a low-level criminal who does staged fighting matches on the side. His failure to throw a fight puts him in debt to a criminal gang led by his older brother. Sent to what is described as the worst of all prisons after being framed, Adkins basically is required to kill or serious maim an army of fellow prisoners who have been offered a reward for his murder. The fights are initially acts of self-defense but Adkins gets his prison sentence extended by several years. Out of prison to see his dying mother, Adkins escapes from the police and takes his revenge.

The film is constructed as a series of flashbacks, with Adkins making his final confrontation in a bar, telling the local gang members about his life in prison. Adkins is barely recognizable with his hair reduced to a buzz cut, facial hair, scars across one eye and his cheek, and metal dentures in his mouth. I have to give Adkins credit as there are not too many action stars who are willing to make themselves look ugly or anti-heroic. I was also unprepared for the pronounced accents of the cast, forgetting that Scott Adkins is British, as is Jesse V. Johnson.

This is a film designed primarily for visceral appeal. Visually, Avengement is functional, with the fight scenes logically shot and edited, making sense of the space where the scenes take place. Johnson does miss an opportunity to be more visually inventive in a scene that takes place in a make-shift club, with blue and purple lights, and moving spotlights. Maybe Johnson and Adkins were afraid of being "arty" but I was hoping they would do the equivalent in a martial arts film as someone like Gaspar Noe and others have done for scenes of dancing.