December 10, 2019

Long Day's Journey into Night

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Diqiu zuihou de yewan
Bi Gan - 2018
Kino Lorber BD Region A two-disc set

I might have more questions than answers on this film. Like the title, taken from the play by Eugene O'Neill
but having nothing to do with that work. Bi's film could well have been titled Journey to the End of the Night or In Search of Lost Time, not relating directly to the literary sources, but titles that would have worked just as well.

More problematic is the now legendary second half of the film which was made to be seen in 3D. If the viewer is unable to see Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan's film as he intended, is that still a valid viewing experience? And is it the responsibility of the distributor to have the film screened in 3D unless there is no other available option? I skipped seeing Journey theatrically in Denver because the theatrical run was in 2D, and in a theater that is uncomfortable in its seating. I was a bit baffled as the Godard film, Goodbye to Language was shown at a Denver area art and indie theater equipped for 3D. I can only take the word of one critic who stated that even in 2D, seeing Journey theatrically was "immersive". The blu-ray release has both a 2D version and a 3D version, although the 3D version requires a 3D capable blu-ray player. I tried to rent such a player only to come to a dead end. Further making things a little less clear is learning that the 3D sequence was filmed in 2D. The only way Bi was able to make the film he visualized was in post-production. I may be pedantic here, but the effect is somewhat analogous to being expected to accept watching a widescreen movie in the pan-and-scan version.

The story, as such, is about Luo returning home to Kaili, following the death of his father. Inheriting an old van, Luo goes on a road trip, an attempt to piece together various memories from the past. The first seventy minutes are in fractured chronological order, darting between past and present. Luo is an unreliable narrator, so what is seen may be as much of a dream as the the dream sequence. There are several shots through dirty or broken windows, space obscured by plastic sheets, people divided by various partitions. One shot is of the back window of of a car going through a car wash. One can discern some kind of movement within the back seat, but not clearly enough to say what is going on with the briefly seen arms in motion - is it a couple making love, or a murder in progress? There is an emphasis on dark passageways and blocked and confined spaces.

As for the last hour, even in 2D, it is spectacular to think that this was actually filmed in real time with no breaks, no editing tricks. The camera follows Luo traveling down on a gondola to a hidden room, out again, wandering into the wreck of a neighborhood where local performers are singing for promised prizes, into and out of a makeshift pool hall and dressing room. The camera moves in close for an intimate view and later flies above the stage and the audience. The only thing random in the take that was chosen was a horse that was temporarily out of control. The blu-ray comes with both written interviews with Bi Gan and a video interview, plus a "Making of" short that is really a two minute montage, none of which completely explains how the sequence was done.

The best reason to have the blu-ray may be that the narrative makes more sense with multiple viewings. Bi's debut feature, Kaili Blues, about a visitor who seems to be wandering around town, in pursuit and in hiding, could be seen in retrospect as a warm-up for his second film. Lines that might seem simply conversational forecast connections to scenes that appear later. While the references to several Asian celebrities may be obscure for some, there is one moment that is clearly Bi's nod at A Clockwork Orange. Bi Gan is hardly the first to observe the idea of movies as dreams, and early on, Luo makes a comparison between films and memories. Broken clocks make appearances. For Bi, time never really stops, but can be malleable.

November 26, 2019

Olivia

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Jacqueline Audry - 1951
Icarus Home Video BD Region A

I have not read the source novel written by Dorothy Bussy, published in 1949. But what I have read of Bussy is of interest. Bussy's only novel was inspired by her own time as an English girl at a French boarding school founded by Marie Souvestre and her partner, Caroline Dussaut, in Fontainebleau, France. Among the daughters of the socially prominent, Eleanor Roosevelt was also a student. Bussy's novel was initially published anonymously by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The novel takes place around 1882-1883, when Bussy was seventeen, and the school closed.

Jacqueline Audry reportedly toned down the lesbian elements in the novel. Not that they are entirely absent, the most explicit moment is of a virtually vampiric kiss on the shoulder by the headmistress with one of her students. To view the film based on what was not shown or strictly through contemporary eyes would be a mistake. The original French trailer, with accompanying song, puts Audry's film in the context of the time it was made, as the story of an adolescent young woman whose feelings of romance are directed towards the teacher that she admires, whom she actively seeks for approval.

Olivia comes from England to the countryside outside of Paris and the boarding school run by Miss Julie and Miss Cara. It's immediately noted by one of the students that the two women have their devotees. While nothing is spelled out, there is the suggested relationship between Julie and Cara, as well as Cara and another teacher. Meanwhile, Olivia's infatuation with Miss Julie becomes increasingly overt. Unlike films with a similar setting, notably Madchen in Uniform or The Children's Hour, there is no punishment meted out for any suggestion of lesbian attraction.

Jacqueline Audry would need to have more films restored and available for better assessment. I would recommend the brief interview with actor and gay activist Jean Danet, from 1957, included in the blu-ray. Audry would appear to have been in a double bind - restricted to making film adaptations of novels by women, several of which were commercially successful at the time of release, yet somewhat arbitrarily lumped with the directors of the "tradition of quality" by the Cahiers du Cinema critics who later became the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. Audry's last directorial credit was in 1967. Olivia was released in the U.S. in 1954 under the title, The Pit of Loneliness.

Audry began her career as an assistant to several notable filmmakers, primarily G. W. Pabst and Max Ophuls. Her visual style seems most influenced by Ophuls in the use of traveling shots. Several times the camera takes in a full view of the characters and their surroundings. A shot introducing the school and the students follows a trio of girls, holding hands while running down a staircase. A shot of a Christmas Eve party shows the girls pairing up, with the girls in male costumes waltzing with girls in female costumes, while Miss Julie and Miss Cara briefly dance together. The film ends as it began, with Olivia in a carriage with the school cook, Victoire. There is the suggestion of the school being isolated psychologically as well as geographically from the rest of the world.

The earlier U.S. release had a running time of 88 minutes. The restored Olivia is 96 minutes long. Based on the New Times review, Audry's film adaptations from novels by Colette, Gigi and Minne, had U.S. releases. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's wrote a generally favorable review, although some of his choice of words may cause eye rolling among contemporary readers: "Although it skirts along the edges of an area of unnatural love confined within the delicate environment of a fashionable French finishing school, there is nothing indecorous or offensive in the picture as it is played."

Let me also direct you to the review by the Self-Styled Siren, written when the restored Olivia had its theatrical release.

November 19, 2019

Christmas in July

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Preston Sturges - 1940
KL Studio Classics

I will attest to the truth of that prize winning slogan, "If you can't sleep at night, it's not the coffee. It's the bunk". There has been more than one occasion when I've gotten up in the morning, sipped two mugs full of Italian Roast, only to nap for as much as an hour afterwards.

Sometimes I feel like we need Preston Sturges more than ever. What makes Christmas in July continually endearing and enduring is the sense of optimism. The film takes place in a world of second chances and well-intended foolishness. That Paramount studio version of New York City's Lower East Side is relatively multi-culti for a film of its time. This is still Depression era America, where Hitler and Mussolini are punchlines, one could do one-stop shopping in a department store for diamond rings and children's toys, and businessmen may not be generous financially, but may be so in spirit. Above all else, it's so nice to revisit a comedy that is actually funny.

At age 35, Dick Powell was a bit mature to be playing the "young man with ideas". He brings with him some of the earnestness, ready to please attitude from his Warner Brothers films. Powell's unruly hair in his first scenes provides a compliment to his boyish spirit and certainty that his pun based advertising slogans are his key to a brighter future. As the dedicated girlfriend, contract player Ellen Drew takes the first couple of pratfalls and gives an excuse to display one of her legs. Now as then, most of the laughs involve the supporting players, especially Raymond Walburn as the clueless tycoon, constantly exasperated by William Demarest, the belligerent company employee who holds a coffee company in limbo in the deciding vote in a contest determining the winning slogan.

I don't think I can offer any insights into Christmas in July that haven't already been explored by others. But what is nice about the blu-ray is watching it with the English SDH subtitles. Sturges' films have been lauded for their wit, for Sturges' way with English as a spoken language. Sometimes remarks go by so fast that it's nice to verify what characters are saying. In addition to the puns, there is the use of homonyms, and some dated and not so dated vernacular expressions. I don't recall anyone still using the expression, "bread and butter", at the time I first saw Christmas in July on television one night in early Seventies. I am a bit more confident about a scene where a condescending salesman, alerted to Powell's newly acquired wealth, suddenly slides into slang, telling a coworker to "get a groove on". The other advantage to multiple viewing is to catch little gags, such as the window of a Jewish delicatessen named after the Sturges stock company actor who plays the character, Mr. Zimmerman.

Same Deighan's commentary consists in part of quoting other film historians on Sturges and this film. Aside from mentioning that the story is a reworking of an unproduced play by Sturges, "A Cup of Coffee", and the proposed casting of a different actor in Powell's role, there is very little about the production. The short running time of 67 minutes means the film never wears out its welcome, but it is quite short for an "A" movie. Christmas in July opened at the Rivoli in New York City, one of the city's great picture palaces. (Cleopatra played there in 1963.) While it's more fashionable now to feel snarky about New York Times film critic Bosley Crowthers, his take on Christmas in July - "the perfect restorative, in fact, for battered humors and jangled nerves" remains true.

November 10, 2019

Denver Film Festival - A Final Roundup

Today marks the end of the 42nd Denver Film Festival. The following are shorter pieces on the films seen over the weekend.

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Swallow
Carlo Mirabella-Davis - 2019
IFC

In his feature directorial debut, Mirabella-Davis lays his themes clearly with the shot of a frightened baby lamb that knows its getting prepared to be slaughtered. We are soon introduced to Hunter, a young woman who has married into a family of one percenters. Dad has given the newlyweds a showroom perfect multi-million dollar glass mansion that emphasizes the isolation Hunter feels, while her husband, Richard, is at work as a top exec in his father's company. Unintentionally, Austin Powell as Richard, vaguely resembles Donald Trump, Jr. with his closely trimmed beard. Hunter, marginalized by her husband and his family, but unable to articulate her feelings, begins a habit of swallowing small, and increasingly sharp objects when she learns she is pregnant.

As one who prefers an over-determined visual style to a film with no discernible style, Mirabella-Davis' film makes extensive use of a set design with frames within frames, isolating the characters in their individual spaces. The film serves as a showcase for Haley Bennett, whose characters morphs from the overly pliant housewife who speaks barely above a whisper, to a woman discovering her own sense of agency. This is a psychological horror film where the sight of Bennett ingesting a push pin is among the least disquieting images.

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The Wild Goose Lake / Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui
Diao Yinan - 2019
Film Movement

Diao's newest film since Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), again with Kwei Lun-mei, and contemporary film noir in China. Hu Ge is a member of a crime family that steals motorbikes. After shooting a rival gang member in the leg, he's on the run, from police as well as other gang members. Kwei has arranged to have Hu turned in to the police on his own terms, with reward money going to Hu's wife. The film takes place in an unnamed "Second tier city", with the characters speaking the Wuhan dialect of central China.

While the narrative is not as tight as as Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao seems to have fun sneaking in visual references primarily from some classic films of the Forties. A slight nod to The Lady from Shanghai with a set of distorted mirrors, and big shadows on the walls of the pursuers and the pursued from several films by Carol Reed. Kwei may be the only other person to light two cigarettes in her mouth at once since Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager. There are also the indelible images of the splatter of blood against an open while umbrella, and the sight of a small army of cops seen in the distance, with only their florescent sneakers visible in the distance.

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Cunningham
Alla Kovgan - 2019
Magnolia Pictures

I was interested in seeing this documentary on choreographer Merce Cunningham because it was shown in 3D. Previously, I had seen Wim Wender's 3D documentary on Pina Bausch (2011), and the British film, StreetDance, a narrative film by choreographers Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini. The use of space and depth perception is rarely in effective use by Kovgan. The film's strength is as a record of Cunningham's life and work between 1942 and 1972 using a combination of stills, previous documentary footage, recorded interviews, and recreations of several of Cunningham's works in atypical settings - including a forest, a pedestrian overpass, and a New York City high rise rooftop.

Where the 3D if most effective is for the recreation of the dance, "Rain Forest". The quartet of dancers move on a bare set, black, surrounded by silver pillows designed by Andy Warhol that float and bounce between them. Where 3D is most effective is when there are moments when there is the sense of an image spilling beyond the screen. Kovgan keeps everything at a polite distance, which may be fine for the balletomane, but is the antithesis of visually dynamic cinema.

November 08, 2019

Denver Film Festival - A Girl Missing

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Yokogao
Koji Fukada - 2019
Film Movement

Some things never change. One of Akira Kurosawa's lesser known films, Scandal, is about two celebrities, an artist and a singer, who meet at a resort. A photograph of them having breakfast together is published in a tabloid with the headline that the two are engaged in a love affair. That the story is false and has repercussions on the lives of the artist and the singer is of no concern to the paparazzi. For Kurosawa, his film was about ""he rise of the press in Japan and its habitual confusion of freedom with license. Personal privacy is never respected and the scandal sheets are the worst offenders."

A Girl Missing is primarily about the fallout after a high school student, Saki, is temporarily abducted. This is an apparently spontaneous act by a young man who happens to be the nephew of Ichiko, the nurse of Saki's grandmother. The relationship that Ichiko tries to hide, or at least downplay, does not stay secret for long as she is pursued by journalists who initially want more information on the nephew. Ichiko becomes the subject of tabloid fodder and sees her life spiraling out of control. Ichiko's past words and actions are shifted in such a way as to be used against her, making her appear as the real criminal.

The Japanese title translates as "Side Profile". There are two sides of Ichiko, the caring nurse seen caring for the grandmother, her own sense of self prior to the kidnapping, and then the version as presented by the tabloids that eventually causes the loss of her job, her fiancé and her home. There is also a third face as Ichiko renames herself Risa in a bid to break from her past life. The narrative is also fractured, by past and present, and by moments that are revealed to be Ichiko's dreams.

A Girl Missing primarily belongs to Mariko Tsutsui as Ichiko. For those who complain that there are few interesting roles for older actresses, Tsutsui, currently 59 years old, is able to play a woman who has moments with a total lack of inhibition. She is able to convey the frustration of someone who is herself a victim of various social codes, only able to depend on herself. There is the sense at the end of the film of tightly bound fierceness, that there is no way to correct the past, that you can only move forward.

November 06, 2019

Denver Film Festival - Marighella

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Wagner Moura - 2019
ArtMattan Productions

It was a bit disappointing for me that the screening of Marighella was lightly attended. The fact is that as a result of the last election in Brazil that saw the ascent of Jair Bolsonaro, this is now a Brazilian film that Brazilians can not see. There are controversies regarding Wagner's presentation of Carlos Marighella regarding his political views as well as the casting of Seu Jorge in terms of racial representation. But for those even casually following events in Brazil, it is easy to see that Bolsonaro would want to limit the exposure of a film that follows government activity following the U.S. backed military coup that took place in 1964, that lasted for twenty-one years. For Bolsonaro and his followers that era is subject for nostalgia and commemoration.

The film is structured as a thriller. There is Marighella's organizing of stealing weapons and robbing a bank in order to finance armed insurrection with a small group that shares his political beliefs. There are also scenes of the police detective, Lucio, who doggedly pursues Marighella and his gang on behalf of the government. Lucio's obsession, which means also opposing U.S. diplomats, is somewhat akin to Javert's pursuit of Jean Valjean in Les Misarables. On Marighella's side, there is discussion of the political basis for taking direct action and a justification for what may be described as terrorism. For Lucio, the law means that even stating that there is political dissent is an illegal act, and that torture and murder are justifiable when done on behalf of the state.

The scenes of torture and the brutality of the police make Marighella difficult to watch at times. For stateside viewers, there is the added discomfort of seeing how the U.S. government has strongarmed certain countries in the name of fighting Communism. What was totally unintended by Wagner in making the film is not only that Jair Bolsonaro has been working to revive some of the repressive aspects from that previous era, but that he has found kinship with Donald Trump which some may find troubling.

Marighella is the directorial debut of Wagner Moura, better known as the star of the Netflix series, Narcos as well as his role in the two Brazilian Elite Squad films. While Moura's own politics are well known in Brazil, as he stated in an interview: "This film is not a response to any particular government, especially this one. I didn’t make the film as an opposition to any particular government, but of course any piece of art has to have a conversation with its own time. So, the way the film will be received in Brazil cannot be detached from the reality we are living here."

November 05, 2019

Denver Film Festival - Laughing

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Ride
Valerio Mastandrea - 2018
01 Distribution

Until I saw his filmography, I didn't realize I had seen Valerio Mastandrea in several films. The Italian actor might not be well-known in the U.S., but think of him as the equivalent in talent to Jack Nicholson. He even won both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in the Italian equivalent to the Oscars in 2013. Laughing is his debut film as a director.

The title is a bit misleading as this is not a comedy, or at least how most would define it. Perhaps a comedy of manners, but even that might lead to more specific kinds of expectations. Mastandrea's film is about how death is dealt with by the survivors - a wife and child, father and brother, coworkers and acquaintances. The film takes place the day before the funeral of a man, 35 years old, who suddenly died at work. Mastandrea portrays the awkwardness of offering condolences, and the individual ways people will internal process death.

Rather than depend on a more traditional form of exposition, Mastandrea demands that the audience pick up clues as to who the characters are, and their relationship to each other. The results is almost like eavesdropping on the conversations. The film begins with a conversation between the young widow, Carolina, and her ten year old son, Bruno, sitting across each other at a small dinner table. Bruno is asking about what would be appropriate to wear at a funeral, but it is not until later that the viewer is able to identify whose funeral is the subject of discussion. Later, sitting by herself, Carolina plays the Ultravox song, "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes" on a stereo. Carolina appears to be sitting rigidly, unmoved by this very danceable song about lost love. Mastandrea cuts to a shot of Carolina's foot tapping to the rhythm.

In an interview, Mastandrea has stated that the Italian title should be translated as "She Laughs". Carolina doesn't laugh but finds herself almost trapped by others who wish to share their grief with her or their expectations of how a widow is to look and behave. The only concession to tradition is being dressed in black, but in this Carolina is quite casual with her black shirt and jeans, pixie hair cut, and face free of make-up. Out of habit she continues to leave an empty plate on the table for her husband's dinner. Carolina is virtually a prisoner in her own apartment, inadvertently being the one who consoles others, finally experiencing her own reconciliation following the film's break into magic realism.

It should be noted that the actress Chiara Martegiani, who is also Mastandrea's wife, won the Nastro d'Argento award for Best Actress, an award given by Italian film journalists.