March 31, 2015

Love Hunter

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Nemanja & Brane Bala
Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

Filmed documentary style, it takes a few minutes to realized that everything in Love Hunter is staged for the camera. The film follows Milan Mumin, a rock star in his native Serbia, working as a struggling cab driver in New York City. Forty years old, and hoping to make his first recording in the U.S., Mumin, would at first glance seem an unlikely star. That changes when I takes out his guitar on a bet that his song would make one of his passengers happy.

Beefy, with hair cut close to his scalp, and a very prominent nose, Mumin looks like a workaday guy you might find almost anywhere in New York, or any major city. That changes when he sings. The voice is gruff, the English is accented but not heavily. There is a brief moment from a documentary showing Mumin and his band, Love Hunters, performing in a stadium, from 1995. Even then, Mumin hardly looked like the expected notion of a rock star.

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A little bit of historical context - Mumin sang in English, even during his time in what was then Yugoslavia. The Love Hunters in their original lineup, with a couple of changes, played from 1987 through 2003. The real Mumin has continued to play music professionally, both in the U.S., and in Serbia.

Trying to secure enough money for recording studio time, Mumin deals with his bass player suddenly quitting and his long time fiancee coming to visit from Serbia. Not happy with the musicians he auditions, Mumin finds Kim, the roommate of a friend, playing behind the closed door of her bedroom. The two have a relationship that alternates between adversarial and platonically romantic, a relationship that Mumin's fiancee, Lela, finds threatening. In between, the film shows Mumin with his various passengers and friendship with a fellow cabbie. Additionally, Mumin's drummer and guitarist are unhappy with the preferential treatment Mumin gives to the newest band member.

The film is also the Bala brothers love letter to New York City. There is one scene with the Washington Square arch in the background. The Balas New York City is mostly comprised of the parts not hit by gentrification, inexpensive all night restaurants, and neighborhood bars.

There is footage of Mumin performing his songs, and having his songs heard offscreen as a kind of commentary. Additionally, Mumin lip synchs some of his songs as seemingly impromptu musical numbers.
It's a nice touch to this modestly produced film about a musician whose need to create music takes presidents over everything else.

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March 29, 2015

Coffee Break

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Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Jane Lynch in Paul (Greg Mottola - 2011)

March 26, 2015

Gone with the Pope

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Duke Mitchell - 1976/2009
Grindhouse Releasing Region 0 DVD / BD Regions ABC

Bob Murawski and his team put in admirable effort into restoring, as best as possible, the film now titled Gone with the Pope. For myself, the film and the work involved in making it available both theatrically and on home video bring up a slew of questions concerning both personal filmmaking and restoration.

Shot in 1975 and '76 on less than a shoestring budget, Duke Mitchell's film was still not completed at the time he died at age 55 in 1981. Had he lived to complete the film, had it been distributed, it would have been picked up by some very tiny company that specialized in providing films that filled holes in various theaters' playdates, or Mitchell may have tried to distribute the film himself. Had the film been released, it would have probably been hooted off the screen for its outdated racial attitudes, or the scene, which does nothing to forward the narrative, may have landed on the cutting room floor.

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Mitchell, as an ex-con, gets together with two buddies, and buy the services of a black prostitute. As in his previous Massacre Mafia Style, Mitchell's character refers to blacks as "spooks". The uncredited actress who portrays the prostitute keeps smiling even when Mitchell tells her that she can use her earnings for watermelon and chicken. Also cringe inducing is when Mitchell compares the prostitute's pubic hair to brillo. While I don't think Mitchell, or his character, are deliberately racist, Mitchell seems firmly of an older era, even when attempting to appear contemporary with his too long sideburns, and "leisure suits".

A would-be comic sex scene with one very oversized woman should have been avoided as well. If that wasn't enough, the film has enough reminders of the general awfulness of mid-Seventies fashions.

What redeems Gone with the Pope for some viewers is the impassioned speech Mitchell makes to the too easily kidnapped Pontiff, about the how the Church did nothing to save Europe's Jews from Hitler. And the speech comes off as very sincere. A little further examination indicates that Pope Piux XII had less control over Mussolini than Mitchell imagined, and that there was greater activity in saving not only Italian Jews but, Jews in other parts of Europe, that was not made public.

You do have to hand it to Mitchell to be able to fool some people into thinking he shot part of the film in Rome. The moral is to never underestimate the power of a carefully positioned poster in background behind a close-up of an actor.

What seems to have been the reason behind producers Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski to rescue Gone with the Pope is that the film stands as an example of personal filmmaking - personal in that the film was entirely self-financed, and personal in that Mitchell expressed himself in ways that would make some viewers uncomfortable.

On a conventional level, Gone with the Pope is not very good. Many of the shots look like they were illuminated by a flashlight. Sound Mixer Marti Humphrey did a miraculous job, noticeable in the blu-ray version, of making the dialogue audible. Several cast members appear to be straining to recite the dialogue. There are plentiful lapses of logic, as well as plot holes. As a filmmaker, Duke Mitchell's ambitions far exceeded his budget or abilities. The soundtrack does make clear that Mitchell's reputation as a lounge singer, and singing voice for Fred Flinstone was not unearned.

It is the obvious faults of Gone with the Pope that should serve as reminders that personal filmmaking isn't just the province of those whose viewpoints aren't questionable, or of those whose artistic stature is well established. The film also serves as a reminder that any questions regarding what films are, or are not, worthy of preservation, are both subjective and challengeable.

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March 24, 2015

Cover Up

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Alfred E. Green - 1949
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Sure, Alfred E. Green is the director of record. Green's filmography is primarily memorable for a couple of pre-code movies at Warner Brothers - Smart Money with the only pairing of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, plus Boris Karloff with an oversized fedora, and Baby Face, with Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top of the business world. But as Andrew Sarris pointed out, the auteur of a movie isn't always the director, and in this case, the auteur is Dennis O'Keefe.

O'Keefe isn't as well remembered as some of his starring films. There's the Val Lewton produced The Leopard Man, a couple of Alan Dwan comedies - most notably Brewster's Millions, and a couple of film noir classics with Anthony Mann - T-Men and Raw Deal. O'Keefe's stardom was on the decline following World War II, and rather than wait for a good role, O'Keefe started writing his own screenplays under a pseudonym. As Jonathan Rix, O'Keefe collaborated with Jerome Odlum, whose novels, Dust Be My Destiny and Each Dawn I Die were both filmed by Warner Brothers in 1939. Based on a similar bit of business in O'Keefe's later film, The Diamond, the star incorporated a bit of business about his chain smoking, a habit that caused O'Keefe to die at age sixty.

O'Keefe was apparently pragmatic enough to cede top billing to William Bendix, seen here as the small town sheriff who doesn't think to highly of O'Keefe's insurance investigator snooping into a suicide that took place in Cleberg. The film takes place a few days before Christmas, and from what is seen, Cleberg is cold, sunny and dry. The film opens with O'Keefe "meeting cute" with Barbara Britton, both departing from a train, Britton unable to carry all the gifts purchased at the big city. The two are taken to town by bus. The bus driver mentions the suicide of the well-known man, but seems unusually cheerful in spreading the news of the untimely death. O'Keefe ruffles quite a few feathers of the townsfolk by insisting that what occurred was murder rather than suicide. Along the way are revelations of family secrets and the search for a missing gun.

Cover Up is enjoyable, if not particularly memorable. Best are the wise guy quips, especially between Bendix and O'Keefe. Ann E. Todd appears as Britton's teenage sister, in awe of the insurance investigator, and the victim of one very funny, self-inflicted pratfall. Briefly seen are future coffee pitch woman Virginia Christine, and John Wayne stock company player, Hank Worden. Also adding to the fun is George MacDonald as a smart alec Cub Scout who would rather annoy O'Keefe and Britton than watch the movie playing in the theater. MacDonald's kid turns out to be the wisest of a group of characters who act foolishly. When wondering why O'Keefe doesn't kiss Miss Britton, MacDonald reasons, "She's pretty".

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March 22, 2015

Coffee Break

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Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck in East Side, West Side (Mervyn LeRoy - 1949)

March 19, 2015

Vice and Virtue

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Le Vice et la Virtu
Roger Vadim - 1963
Kino Classics BD Region A

Having come from the same literary source, the Maquis De Sade, every discussion about Vice and Virtue will invariably mention some similarity to Pasolini's Salo. What remains unanswered is whether Pasolini was in any way inspired by Vadim to transpose De Sade to a World War II setting. I would think it probable that even if he had not seen Vadim's version of De Sade's Justine, he would have at least been aware of the film, Vadim at the time being a very popular filmmaker, at least in Europe. Vadim's version begins with a statement by Vadim giving a brief explanation as to why he transposed the story to the last years of World War II. Vadim's justification seems more for himself than for the audience which probably didn't need a reminder that Nazi's were bad, bad people.

After opening with a montage of documentary war footage, Vadim cuts to a wedding party walking to church. The group walks past a bar called "A Tout va Bien" (Everything goes well). The irony is hardly subtle as German soldiers surround the family outside the church, and arrest the groom, spoiling the wedding for Justine. The bride is played by Catherine Deneuve, a year or so prior to her star making turn in Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Still in bridal wear, Justine seeks out sister Juliette, the mistress of a German general, to get her fiancé released. Disowned by her family, Juliette has traded her looks for the best available comforts of life. As Juliette, Annie Girardot is not conventionally attractive, but is able to convey her ability to take on the men in her life by letting them know she can be their equal in ruthlessness.

In their first scene together, Girardot and Deneuve meet in a sauna popular with the officers. The two are seen surrounded by steam, visually suggesting a meeting in Hell. And while Roger Vadim may have less to say about morality than he may have thought at the time, the reason to revisit Vice and Virtue has more to do with Vadim's visual style, which gets doesn't get discussed as much as the babes he bagged over the years.

It might be a theatrical device, but there are also a couple of moments when Vadim darkens the screen so that the viewer can only see, as in one scene. Girardot, Deneuve, and as the most evil Nazi, Robert Hossein. In another scene, taking place in a long hallway, the camera moves backward with Girardot's back to the camera, Hossein slapping her to submission. Where other filmmakers might simply move the camera forward or use a zoom shot, Vadim edits close-ups of Girardot's face while she is wincing, witnesses the torture of a prisoner.

Vice and Virtue was released in the U.S. by MGM, probably the last major studio to be considered in association with anything remotely avant-garde. In his review for the New York Times, Eugene Archer sums up his thoughts on the film with, "Even so, Mr. Vadim is a man with audacious ideas about movies. He misfires, but he scatters plenty of sparks along the way." A fair judgment of this film I would say. Any intellectual aspirations as shallow, and those looking for the eroticism that Vadim has been linked with in previous fins, will probably find disappointment here. But well after fifty years, the virtues to be found here are in Vadim's visuals.

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March 17, 2015

From Asia with Lust, Volume 1

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Camp
Ainosuke Shibata - 2014

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Hitch-Hike
Ainosuke Shibata - 2013
Troma Entertainment All Region DVD

I've been reading Kier-La Janisse's part autobiography, part survey about women in horror films, House of Psychotic Women. I can't find the exact quote, but if I can paraphrase it, she puts the Japanese "pink film" in a different light, so that the point for the Japanese audience is not that the women find themselves in horrible situations, usually involving rape and/or torture, but that they overcome their respective adversities at the end of the film. Be that as it may, there is something of a disconnection between how these two films by Ainosuke Shibata, starring adult video star Miyuki Yokoyama, have been sold, both to the home audience, as well as in this double feature DVD.

In both films, Yokoyama plays women who are terrible drivers, prone to accidents, and winding up at the wrong place at the wrong time. In Camp, Yokoyama is one of two sisters who end up crashing the car on their way to some resort. They take shelter in a cabin that's closed for the season. A man who lives nearby invites them to his place, only it turns out that he's one of several men who were former mental patients with unusual sexual hang-ups. That the guys go by nicknames like "Pyro" and "Copro" gives a hint as to their particular fetishes. The younger sister is sexual violated and murdered. Yokoyama is able to escape courtesy of the one guy who's doing his best to keep his pants on. A former nurse from the hospital discovers Yokoyama, teaches her archery, and the two return for revenge.

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A little bit of research indicates that Hitch-Hike is a remake of an Italian thriller from 1977, starring Franco Nero, Clorinne Clery and slasher movie fixture, David Hess. Yokoyama is the put upon wife abused by her husband, the hitchhiker picked up along the way, and even the guy she initially thinks is her savior. By the end of the film, Yokoyama has the good sense to ditch her husband, but not enough sense to wear a jacket while walking on a snowy mountain road.

Anybody who thinks they're going to see the star dressed in either movie like she does on the DVD covers will be disappointed. There's more violence than sex in both of these films, and not much in the way of nudity. For those who have a, ahem, yen, for naked Japanese women, you're probably better off seeking a "pink movie" from the Seventies.

On the other hand - keep in mind that while Miyuki Yokoyama's claim to fame is as an adult video star, she is also in a more mainstream film, appearing in Sion Sono's Tokyo Tribe, mainstream being a relative term here. Ainosuke Shibata seems like a fairly competent director with no particular style. Being a director of videos, adult or otherwise, in Japan, doesn't always have the same onus as it does in most other countries, so it is possible that Shibata might be heard from in the future with a film that gets more critical attention. The guy who won an Oscar for Departures probably wasn't pegged for future glory when he made Molester's Train: Momoe's Tush.

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