March 20, 2018

It's the Old Army Game

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Edward Sutherland - 1926
Kino Classics BD Region A

The most breathtaking gag takes place at the beginning of It's the Old Army Game and does not involve W. C. Fields. A woman is furiously driving on a road, trying to outrun a train. The camera follows her, and later cuts to another traveling shot with the train and car following the camera. The train and car are running parallel to each other, with the gag ending where the road and train track cross. The scene appears to have been filmed in real time, and the split second timing is astounding. No computer generated effects here.

It's the Old Army Game was Fields' first starring film after a handful of supporting roles. Just as his stage stardom didn't take hold until he starting adding his famous verbal patter, likewise his film career was only modestly successful until the sound era. Still there are plenty of sight gags and double takes to evoke laughs, chuckles and guffaws. As pharmacist Elmer Prettywillie, Fields template is already established here as the put-upon man dealing with a bratty child, inconsiderate customers, shady deals, a world too noisy to allow for a good night's sleep. One of the scenes would be reworked just a few years later in It's a Gift.

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For his own obscure reasons, Fields appeared in his silent films with a small mustache that is tenuously attached to his famous nose. Some of the wisecracks appear as intertitles. There is no juggling, but watching Fields in a silent film is a reminder of his ability as a physical comic, wrestling with a giant block of ice, tripping on an errant pair of roller skates, or sleepily not realizing that he has two slippers on one foot.

There is a romantic subplot with counter girl Louise Brooks falling in love with a traveling salesman of questionable repute. The salesman gets Fields involved in a real estate scheme. Brooks really doesn't do all that much aside from smiling, posing in a bathing suit, with a notable traveling shot of the camera following Brooks from behind as she sashays along the sidewalks of Ocala, Florida. Brooks made an impression on the critics of the time, but it hardly hints at what was to come when left Hollywood for Germany, two years later.

The blu-ray is from a 2K master from the Library of Congress print, and looks just about perfect. Ben Model's organ score is serviceable. I was disappointed in James Neibaur's commentary track which spends too much time describing what is being seen in the film. Aside from the mention of the Palm Beach mansion that was used for a picnic scene, there is no discussion about the film being partially shot on location in Florida. I would have also like to have known more about how Edward Sutherland filmed a scene with Fields driving the wrong way in one-way traffic, and having a breakdown, all on streets of New York City. Neibaur doesn't mention that the actress Blanche Ring, who plays the woman of a certain age trying to get Fields' attention, was Sutherland's aunt. Sutherland's own film career started as a Keystone cop, with his move into directing encouraged by fellow Mack Sennett alumni Charlie Chaplin. Sutherland would work with Fields in the sound era, including directing one of Fields' last screen appearances eighteen years later in Follow the Boys.

For those puzzled by the title, it's an older slang expression, illustrated in a scene where Fields outplays a would-be fraudster.

March 18, 2018

Coffee Break

Dale Midkiff in Pet Semetary (Mary Lambert - 1989)

March 15, 2018

Two Paths

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Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Semetary
John Campopiano and Justin White - 2015

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Path of Blood
Eric Power - 2016
both Synapse Films BD Regions ABC

This week has also seen the blu-ray release of a couple of films, both labors of love. Although I think the appeal of these works is limited to a niche audience, the effort of the filmmakers needs to be acknowledged.

I never saw Pet Cemetery at the time of its release in 1989. I've read a couple books, and love Brian De Palma's version of Carrie, but that's about it. I did my homework and saw Mary Lambert's film, including a second time with her commentary on the DVD. My take: a couple good moments and the greatness of Fred Gwynne. While the audience for this documentary is primarily going to be those who love Stephen King and Mary Lambert's film, for others, like myself, it's still worth checking out.

Probably the most interesting aspect was finding out the autobiographical aspects of King's story. I would question the man's choice of living in a house that faces a busy road, especially when you have small children and pets. And yes, there really is a pet cemetery in Maine called Pet's Semetary. Also, a reminder to paraphrase screenwriter William Goldman's "nobody knows anything", is a recounting of how the film almost never got made, because some studio suits had decided that Stephen King's time had come and gone, with the film only produced because of a looming screen writers strike and King's screenplay ready to film on a modest budget. Not only was the film produced in Maine, but the bulk of the supporting cast was of local actors. And what is seen here, and often taken for granted by viewers, is the sheer physical effort of making a film. And while we're at it, kudos to Stephen King for approving Mary Lambert for directing the film at a time when there were fewer active female directors.

Eric Power's Path of Blood is essentially handmade animation with paper cutout characters and background. This tribute to early 1970s samurai films was written in English, and translated to Japanese with dubbing in Japanese. The story is about a masterless samurai, also known as a ronin, who is followed by a young man who wants to learn the ways of the sword. Sword fight after sword fight is amusing at first, but the repetition gets wearying. The "making of" featurette is worth seeing as Power explains how he made his film, and some of the techniques he used, or invented for himself. Power talks about creating a story board rather than trying to keep the narrative in his head, which is definitely a plus, but any future film should also benefit from a stronger story with more character development.

March 13, 2018


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Dario Argento - 1977
Synapse Films BD Region A two-disc set

As Michael Mackenzie points out in his featurette on the supplemental disc, you can only experience seeing Suspiria for the first time once. For myself, my initial viewing was during the Summer of 1977, at the Centre Theater in downtown Denver, a single screen theater designed to showcase the then new Cinemascope process with first run films from 20th Century-Fox. I had a vague idea of what I was in for, having seen Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Deep Red. There was the sense of something special about to happen when I first heard that tinkly creepy music from Goblin, and heard that whoosh of air accompanying Jessica Harper, the ends of her scarf flying against the wind, as she step out of the airport. Suspiria stayed on my mind as I bought a gray market video tape dubbed from a Japanese laser disc over twenty years later, and then pounced on the three-disc set from Anchor Bay. I followed the news about Synapse's 4K restoration, and was able to see Suspiria again on screen, a smaller screen and theater, last Labor Day. And yes, it was quite worth it to see and hear the restored version in a theater. Even for those who may have missed the 4K theatrical run of Suspiria should still find this new home version to be a treat for both eyes and ears.

As Troy Howarth mentions in his commentary track, there's always something new to notice when revisiting Suspiria. The first time, the attention is mostly devoted to the story. Suzy Bannion, a young ballet student, goes to a school near Germany's Black Forest, only to discover that the place is run by a coven of witches. The narrative aspects of Suspiria are the least weird parts of the film. The student, Pat Hingle, returns to her apartment with an impossibly ornate lobby, and a skylight that resembles Tiffany glass. A glimpse of the elevator reveals an oversized interior with a full sized cushioned bench. Above the elevator entrance is a light that resembles a glowing jewel. Interior walls are covered with ornate decorations or textured materials. Sometimes there are little bits of business that might not be noticed, like the dancer in black leotards in the background, ending a phone conversation, who seems to be slinking away as if she's avoiding being caught. And why, in 1977, is a young boy dress in the late 19th Century style of Little Lord Fauntleroy?

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Do I need to tell you that this is a great looking blu-ray? Luciano Tovoli, the film's cinematographer, was on hand to make sure that the colors look as originally intended. Some scenes are monochrome, bathed in blue or red. With slo-mo and freeze frame, one can savor the textures, the details, and the use of color. If nothing else, Suspiria is one of the great examples of style. And it is no coincidence that two of the characters are named after color, Blanc and Tanner. The English language soundtrack is 4.0 surround sound, as was created for the initial release. There is the option of seeing the film in Italian, but keep in mind that stars Harper, Joan Bennett and Alida Valli all spoke English during the production, and it is their voices on the English language soundtrack.

There are two commentary tracks. Troy Howarth's was the more interesting, maybe because I heard it first, with his connecting Suspiria and the cast to other films of related interest. There were some bits of interest on the second commentary track by David Del Valle and Derek Botelho. Del Valle mistakenly states that Alida Valli was married to Fritz Lang. Also, International Classics, the distributor of Suspiria, was not created by 20th Century-Fox just for this film to cover any concerns the suit may have had about the graphic violence. A simple search in IMDb shows that International Classics was a Fox subsidiary used initially for European art house movies that were considered too adult for Fox, in the early to mid-Sixites. Titles include Roger Vadim's Please, Not Now starring Brigitte Bardot, and Luis Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid. I also think one of the commentary tracks should have been done by a female film critic. Suspiria was relatively unique for its time with a female character saving herself in a film where all the major characters are female, while the men here are generally in the background. Maitland McDonagh, the Argento scholar who provided the entertaining and informative commentary track for Synapse's release of Tenebrae, and also did publicity for New York City Ballet, would have been perfect. There are also the usual suspects like Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger. Also, someone like Farran Smith Nehme would be able provide more in-depth discussion on Alida Valli and Joan Bennett, hopefully inspiring viewers to dig into the classics that inspired Argento's casting of these two actresses.

In addition to Mackenzie's piece, the second disc includes a documentary on the German locations, the making of Suspiria, and an interview with Barbara Magnolfi, the actress who appears as Olga. Even without all the supplements, what makes Suspiria continually fascinating a viewing experience is that everything that is seen was done on camera, all with practical special effects. With walls breaking and props exploding, Jessica Harper had good reason to hope she'd escape from that house of horror alive.

March 11, 2018

Coffee Break

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Louis Garrel and Laura Smet in Frontier of the Dawn (Philippe Garrel - 2008)

March 08, 2018

No Orchids for Miss Blandish


St. John L. Clowes - 1948
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There was a sense of familiarity when I read the excerpts from the reviews. "The most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen." Another critic described Miss Blandish as "the worse film I've ever seen", while another called the film "this repellent piece of work". The reviews of that time are strikingly similar to the reviews of another British film that came out about twelve years later, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. The kicker here is that there is another connection between these two films - Linden Travers stars in the title role as Miss Blandish, while her daughter, Susan Travers, appears as a model turned victim in Peeping Tom.

Seventy years later, this first film version from James Hadley Chase's novel doesn't seem so transgressive. The thugs here are almost genteel compared to the more obviously psychotic denizens in the novel or Robert Aldrich's remake, The Grissom Gang. There are moments, such as when a small time hood smashes a glass vase onto bartender Sid James' face would anticipate Mark Rydell's slamming the coke bottle on his girlfriend's face in Robert Altman's film of The Long Goodbye. Stateside, there was concern that a forty-five second kiss between Jack La Rue and Linden Travers was at least twenty-five seconds too long. The hero of the piece, investigator Dave Fenner, has a tendency to arrange would-be wardrobe malfunctions with a couple of the women who work at Ma Grisson's nightclub.

The film takes place in and near New York City, where many of the citizens speak with British accents. The actors playing gangsters appear to have studied Warner Brothers movies, or gone to the Bowery Boys School of Elocution. That actor who nearly blinds Sid James does a great impersonation of Leo Gorcey. Most of the film takes place either in Ma Grisson's cavernous nightclub, or in the offices and bedrooms conveniently located upstairs. The basic story is that the initial plan to steal jewels from the heiress of the millionaire "Meat King" turns into a kidnapping. Written before there was the term, "Stockholm Syndrome", Miss Blandish falls in love with Slim, the son of the gang leader.

Reportedly, St. John Clowes wanted Jane Russell as Miss Blandish, but cast Linden Travers, who starred in the 1942 stage production. Travers vaguely resembles Russell, but at age 35 was clearly too old to play the part of a bride-to-be, especially one whom Chase emphasized was a virgin. Jack La Rue, the only American actor in the cast, easily looked the part of the tough guy, although by the end of the film, he is turned into an ersatz Humphrey Bogart. Neither of the leads seem as psychologically unhinged as in Chase's novel or Aldrich's version. What protests Miss Blandish initially has about being kidnapped drift away here mostly because shacking up with Slim is a welcome change from the routines of high society.

There is virtually nothing written about St. John Clowes other than a list of his works as a writer and director. He died fairly young at age 44 in 1951. The story here is a bit padded out with nightclub musical numbers, a couple of dance duos, with a female vocalist as one of the characters. Even with his reputation mostly being literary, Clowes has his moments of visual virtue with relatively long takes of gang member in discussion, with the actors sometimes moving in and out of the frame, and the camera moving to keep them in the frame as needed for dramatic purposes. Maybe this is from originally working as a playwright, keeping dialogue heavy scenes from being static on stage, adding a visual panache on film. Even in a film that can easily be the subject of derision will there also be flashes of undeniable talent.

March 06, 2018

Colorado Dragon Film Festival 2018

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As Variety might put it, the Colorado Dragon Film Festival was in its third frame. The film festival is done loosely in conjunction with the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival which has been around since 2001. That activity takes place in the Summer. The film festival took place over this past weekend, March 2 through 4. But there were two big changes that I thought would be good - first, showing the films in an actual movie theater rather than a concert hall with projected DVDs, and second, having the festival at the newish Alamo Drafthouse Sloan's Lake in West Denver, in the vicinity of the Boat Festival.

Now all that's needed is more of an audience. Maybe it's the context, but the larger theaters used in the Denver Film Festival get filled for the joylessness of Kim Ki-Duk. Some of the films programmed by Jason Suzuki at the Dragon Film Festival might be capital A Art films, but others are solid commercial entries worth consideration, the kind of films that almost never get seen or given stateside distribution because they are not considered arty enough, nor extreme, nor made by one of the handful of directors who's become a brand name. Other cities have hosted festivals devoted to Asian films similar to what was presented here, so maybe it's a matter of time in growing an audience.

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I only saw four films this year. Part of it was based on the titles that interested me the most, but also, I don't have the stamina to cover even weekend long film festivals. Keep in mind that I'm so old, I remember seeing television commercials for a new movie called Rodan just a little over sixty years ago - my introduction to a country called Japan as well as Asian cinema.

While it may not have been intentional, the films seen all fell under the category of coming of age or life lesson stories, centered on teenagers or in one case, an older pre-teen, all female. The Filipino Birdshot by Mikhail Red was inspired by a couple of true incidences. Taking place in the rural countryside, Maya, the daughter of a caretaker, is taught to hunt birds with an old shotgun, with the goal of teaching her self-sufficiency. A lost chance under her father's supervision is followed with Maya taking off on her own, wandering into a bird sanctuary where she kills a rare eagle. Simultaneous to this, a rookie cop is investigating the disappearance of ten farmers from an abandoned bus that was destined for Manila. The two cross paths in a tragedy built on lies and corruption. Red's film, his second feature, was the Filipino entry for the foreign language film Oscar.

Naoko Ogigami's Close-Knit was inspired by the filmmaker's comparison of treatment of transgenders in the United States and Japan. Eleven year old Tomo, left to her own devices by her chronically irresponsible mother, is taken in by her young uncle and his transgender girlfriend, Rinko. The film is a gentle, sometimes comic, critique of transphobia and homophobia in Japan. In Rinko, Tomo finds the idealized mother who prepares formally arranged box lunches, and can also be a formidable video game competitor. Ogigami was able to cast popular actor Toma Ikuta as Rinko. Film journalist Mark Schilling discussed the film and Ogigami's career with the audience. With recent articles about female filmmakers, Ogigami is one of several directors who needs to be better known in the west.

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Angels wear White

Angels wear White takes place in the Chinese beach resort town of Xiamen. On this particular stretch of the beach is a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe in her iconic pose in The Seven Year Itch. Mia, a fifteen year old girl, works at a hotel, mostly in clean up and general maintenance. She also works the reception desk when a middle aged man books rooms for himself and two young girls. Vivian Qu's second film is a look at sexual abuse, objectification and commodification. In that regard, having the statue of Monroe is perfect as her only perceived value was as a sexual object. Virtually everyone in this film is compromised, with money and power influencing everyone's actions. Fourteen year old Taiwanese actress Vicky Chen was nominated for Best Actress for the Golden Horse Awards, while Vivian Qu won for Best Director.

Nattawut Poonpiriya's second film, Bad Genius was inspired by a student test scandal in China. Lynn, the scholastically prodigious daughter of a school teacher, has been recruited to be a student at an exclusive high school. Finding that she can get paid by her wealthy classmates, Lynn develops a code using hand signals for answering multiple choice questions. In spite of her being discovered, Lynn attempts a complicated scheme involving the taking of an international student test, available to select students under strict security. Nattawut has said that he was inspired by Hollywood films such as The Conversation and The Parallax View in making this film like a thriller. His debut film, Countdown, from 2012, was about Thai students in New York City facing a New Year's Eve deadline with a drug dealer. Model Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying successfully carries her debut lead role as Lynn. The actor who plays Lynn's father, Thaneth Warakulnukroh, also starred in the Singaporean produced Thai language film, Pop Aye, as the man taking a road trip with his pet elephant.

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Bad Genius