October 15, 2019

Phobia

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John Huston - 1980
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I'll let the reader decide if this just coincidence, so bear with me here: Phobia star Paul Michael Glaser was known for the television series, Starsky and Hutch, as Detective David Starksy. Goofing off of the similar sounding name, Saturday Night Live had a spoof, "Sartresky and Hutch", with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as the crime buster. Sartre was hired by John Huston to write a screenplay that eventually was not used, when Huston was planning to make his film about psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The actor who portrayed Starsky is seen here as a psychiatrist who uses questionable methods to cure his patients.

Phobia has the dubious distinction of being considered the worst film in John Huston's lengthy filmography. The film's greatest interest is the idiosyncratic ways in which it fits in thematically with Huston's other work. That Huston signed on to direct Phobia was possibly due to grabbing a fully financed studio film after the uncertainties in getting Wise Blood produced. In addition, Huston had explored psychoanalysis both in his documentary, Let There be Light as well as Freud. There are also Huston's films which can generally be grouped together as "thrillers", with The List of Adrian Messenger being somewhat similar with the killer murdering a specific group of victims who knew each other.

Just as Sigmund Freud doggedly tries to discover the roots of Cecily's hysteria, alarming his peers with what are seen as unorthodox methods, Dr. Peter Ross tries to cure the phobias of his five patients, all convicted criminals. The five patients and their respective phobias are introduced, each up against a pair of large screens with filmed images of their fears. A man with a fear of heights is shown footage of a young child who appears ready to fall from a very high apartment building balcony, is part of the treatment. There are a series of deaths that directly or indirectly are connected to each patient's phobia. Looking for the killer is Lieutenant Barnes, a cop who suspects everybody. There is a scene of Barnes interrogating a patient that is so sadistic that it made me think of an amplified version of Humphrey Bogart slapping Elisha Cook, Jr., Hollywood's least threatening hit man, in The Maltese Falcon.

One of the other mysteries of Phobia is in regards to the the multiple credited and uncredited writers of the screenplay. The original version was written by Gary Sherman in 1971, prior to his directorial debut, Raw Meat. The two originators of Alien, Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon also had a hand as did Jimmy Sangster, screenplay writer of several classic Hammer horror films. The commentary track by film historians Paul Corupe and Jason Pichonsky suggests that Phobia was intended to be more of a horror film. There are quotes from John Huston that he was making a murder mystery, and that his frequent collaborator, Gladys Hill, also contributed re-writes. The murder set pieces are pointedly never graphic, although they could have been with a different filmmaker. Taken as part of Huston's filmography, the psychological aspects of Phobia play as a distorted revisiting of Freud through the wrong end of a telescope, where symbolic guilt and criminality are manifested literally. One mystery not explained is director Jonathan Kaplan's credit as Associate Producer. Phobia was produced at a time when Kaplan had a short detour making a couple films for broadcast television after the box office failure of Over the Edge. One correction that should be made regarding the commentary track is that Phobia did play in the U.S., but only very briefly, with teaser ads on television.

While several of John Huston's films have gained stature over the years after being dismissed at the time of release, Phobia is never going to be one of those films. To its credit, this is a made in Canada film that doesn't disguise that it was made in Canada - a Yonge Street sign is a reminder of the Toronto location. Aside from some truly terrible hair styles, such as Paul Michael Glaser's full blown Jewfro, the only nod to being culturally relevant is to have a rebellious young man wear a Sex Pistols button. As these things go, it's far less anachronistic than Billy Wilder's Buddy, Buddy from 1981 with the hippie couple and a baby named Elvis, Jr. On the plus side, one of the better set-pieces involves a victim trapped in an elevator. One of my favorite actresses, Alexandra Stewart, is only onscreen briefly in a vivid performance as the patient with Agoraphobia.

Two additional blu-ray supplement are interviews with actresses Susan Hogan and Lisa Langois. Hogan talks about her surprise at being cast as the girlfriend of Dr. Ross, and getting star billing, her career primarily having been in Canadian television. Langlois has a very brief nude scene in Phobia, a point of contention between her and Huston at the time of filming that eventually changed the rules requiring actors to be made aware of scenes requiring nudity prior to filming. The interview is no "metoo" statement as Langlois discusses this with warmth and humor regarding Huston, with Langlois asking Huston if Katherine Hepburn would be willing to do a nude scene. The director's reply, "She would for me."

October 11, 2019

The Denver Film Festival: The Line-up

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The most unexpectedly dramatic story at this year's Denver Film Festival, the 42nd, has taken place off-screen. Some small change was expected with festival co-founder Ron Henderson completely retiring in 2018. What no one could have anticipated was the death of the festival's artistic director, Brit Withey, in a one-car accident in New Mexico on March 31. This was followed by the departure on April 23 of Denver Film's executive director, Andrew Rodgers. At this time, festival director Britta Erickson has been serving as the interim film society's executive director in addition to continuing as festival director. Programmer Matthew Campbell is currently serving as the festival artistic director.

April also saw the passing of filmmaker and teacher, Phil Solomon. One of the highlights of the Denver Film Festival has been the awarding of the Stan Brakhage Vision Award, given usually to an "experimental" filmmaker such as Larry Jordan or Barbara Hammer. Solomon was usually on hand to present the award, and was a recipient himself in 2007. Melinda Barlow, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has stepped in and will present a tribute to include work by Carolee Schneemann and Barbara Hammer, as well as Phil Solomon. The recipient of the award this year will by Vincent Grenier.

Unlike previous years, there is no overlap with the newer AFI Film Festival, which occasionally beat Denver in getting some films as well as getting more press attention. What may have been a challenge in programming some of the bigger titles is that more films that premiered at Cannes, Toronto and Telluride, are now getting earlier theatrical releases, so that the festival will be competing with Parasite and Jojo Rabbit at Denver's arthouses. The "Red Carpet" titles include Knives Out, Marriage Story, Waves and The Two Popes, and with the exception of Rian Johnson's new film, a shift from some of the more obvious crowdpleasers screened in the past.

In terms of what I cover, that will depend primarily on what films are available either as part of critics' screenings or available online screening links. Due to health reasons, this will most likely be my last time covering the Denver Film Festival, or any film festival for that matter. That said, I'm planning to write mostly about the films that most interest me. That includes several of the Brazilian films, including Oscar hopeful The Invisible Life and Marighella - a film currently prohibited from screening in its home country. It should be noted that the Brazilian film industry, including the archival work, is being hobbled by the Bolsanaro government making support of these films more urgent.

On the lighter side is the documentary about Paul Verhoeven's cult classic, Showgirls, titled You Don't Nomi. I'll have to find out when filmmaker Jeffrey McHale decided that this oft-derided film was worth additional exploration, but back when this blog was still a small cup of java, several online film critics and scholars simultaneously had postings on Showgirls, waaaay back in January 2006. But don't take my word for it, no less than Jacques Rivette as written highly of this wonderfully misconceived film as well.

Reviews of films seen will appear concurrently with the festival. The full festival schedule is now live at the Denver Film website.

October 08, 2019

Our Hospitality

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Buster Keaton and Jack Blystone - 1923
Kino Classics BD Region A

Of the feature films made by great silent film comedians, Our Hospitality may be one of the gentlest films ever made. One solid belly laugh is when Keaton finds out that the mansion he imagines he's to inherit is in reality a ramshackle cabin so rotten that the front door falls off. There is a cut to the shot of the imagined mansion blown to bits, reality dynamiting the dream. The story is inspired by the long-running feud of Hatfields and McCoys, here renamed the Canfields and McKays. The film primarily takes place in 1831, with Keaton and his writing team poking fun at family honor, and also the technology of the time.

What is also unusual is the prologue, taking place in 1810. The scene provides the back story for Keaton's role as Willie McKay, first introduced as a baby played by Keaton's own one year old son. Taking place during a dark, rainy night, an attempted truce between the two families fails as we see two flashes of gun shots, Willie's father and his rival, Canfield, simultaneously shooting each other to death. The entire sequence is filmed as a straight drama, not dissimilar to something from D. W. Griffith. Death is never too far away in Our Hospitality, both in the narrative with Willie pursued by the Canfield heirs, and some of Keaton's own stunts.

One of the benefits of having a home video version of Our Hospitality is to study how Keaton is able to build upon his visual gags. An example is when Willie decides to go fishing by a stream, unaware that behind him, a dam has been demolished. Willie puts up an umbrella, assuming the water coming down is rain. A full blown waterfall drenches Willie, his umbrella offering no cover. At the same time the waterfall acts as a curtain, hiding Willie from the two Canfield brothers who are in pursuit.

The booklet, by Keaton historian Joseph Vance, and the commentary track by film historians Farran Smith Nehme and Imogen Sara Smith, all provide information on the making of the film as well as discussion of several of the cast and crew members. Keaton has never clarified how the directorial duties were performed, only being on record as praising Jack Blystone. My own familiarity with Blystone is limited to his last two films, Laurel and Hardy vehicles, Swiss Miss and Block-Heads, and a James Cagney programmer, Great Guy. It could well be that Blystone was on hand as "insurance" for his experience, with a career directing comic shorts beginning in 1914, segueing into feature films in 1923 with A Friendly Husband starring Lupino Lane.

The blu-ray also includes a short comedy Keaton made in France, Duel to the Death that recycles a couple of the gags from Our Hospitality. That film was directed by Pierre Blondy, one of three shorts he directed. There is a discrepancy regarding the release date, but the film is more of historical interest with a visibly aged Keaton. Blondy's career is better remembered for his serving as an assistant to Marcel Carne and Jean-Pierre Melville.

Another short, The Iron Mule (1925) is mentioned in the commentary track. The short, as included here, is missing credits other than that of star Al St. John. Keaton allowed the train he had built for Our Hospitality to be used again, a favor to director Fatty Arbuckle, working at this time under the pseudonym of William Goodrich. There is one interesting sight gag of the train using logs to float across a river. Other than St. John, I have no idea who the other actors are, but in a one reel short that is heavy on pratfalls, there are a couple of gifted players who play an older married couple, continually stumbling over each other as they chase after the runaway train. According to the questionably reliable IMDb, Keaton was on hand as one of the marauding indians Native Americans, though it is hard to determine as most of the film was filmed using long shots.

A short documentary is devoted to how Robert Israel developed his score for Our Hospitality, paying attention to music and folk songs that were known in 1831 America. The film itself is a 2K restoration originally made for Serge Bromberg's Lobster Films. There is a history also of the restoration process which shows great care in the presentation.

October 01, 2019

The Spoilers

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Ray Enright - 1942
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

This version of The Spoilers is fourth of five film versions, and the best known. Rex Beach's novel was published in 1906, when the Klondike Gold Rush was still fairly recent history. The first film version was made in 1914. Beach himself was a failed prospector who found in gold mine in writing adventure stories that took place in Alaska. His popularity as a writer approximately a century ago might be said to be similar to that of Stephen King today. Beach's last novel, A World in his Arms was nicely filmed by Raoul Walsh. The Spoilers was inspired by true events involving a scheme by a politician and a judge to defraud a group of miners.

Ray Enright was one of the journeymen directors over at Warner Brothers in the 1930s who kept the assembly line going. As such, his version of The Spoiler is strongest with the smart-alec repartee between some of the characters. Marlene Dietrich stars as Cherry, the owner of the bigger bar in Nome. We have a quick shot of one of the world famous legs, and generous opportunities for double-entendre dialogue with Randolph Scott, John Wayne and also Marietta Canty, who appears as Cherry's maid. Scott appears as McNamara, the Gold Commissioner who comes to Nome to supervise legal claims. Wayne is the prospector, Roy Glennister, owner of Nome's biggest mine. There are fights over gold mines, and the inevitable fight over Cherry.

Some of the more dated aspects of The Spoilers may make contemporary viewers wince. There is some obvious action that's been sped up. Some of the scenes with Ms. Canty are problematic, although not with malicious intent given the context of when the film was produced. Without providing spoilers myself, I laughed at one scene between Ms. Canty and John Wayne that may raise a few eyebrows. There is also a throwaway gag done at the expense of one of the film's producers.

The literary heritage of The Spoilers also extends to a cameo appearance by that other Gold Rush chronicler, the poet Robert W. Service. The cast also includes several silent stars including Gibson Gowland, and in larger supporting roles, Richard Barthelmess and Harry Carey. William Farnum, who starred as Roy Glennister in the 1914 film, is seen here as Wheaton, a lawyer who aids Glennister. The Spoilers was also the second of two films starring Dietrich, Scott and Wayne. Dietrich's role could also be seen as non-singing reprisal of her comeback appearance in Destry Rides Again.

Film historian and westerns specialist Toby Roan provides the commentary track for the blu-ray. Most helpful is pointing out many of the film's lesser known supporting cast members as well as their career highlights. Roan discusses the history of the making of this version of The Spoilers, identifying location work, giving credit where it may otherwise be overlooked. Of particular interest is the breakdown of how the extended fist fight between Scott and Wayne was filmed by the uncredited action director, B. Reeves Eason, whose speciality was filming action sequences with multiple cameras. The other extras are a several trailers from other Kino Lorber releases with the three stars, notably with a German trailer for The Blue Angel.

September 24, 2019

The White Reindeer

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Valkoinen peura
Erik Blomberg - 1952
Eureka! BD Region B/Region 2 DVD two-disc set

I don't recall exactly how I first became aware of The White Reindeer. What I do remember is that someone had mentioned that Christa Fuller, filmmaker Samuel Fuller's wife, thought it one of the most frightening films she had ever seen. Blomberg's film, the first from Finland to play at Cannes, also had a limited U.S. release as well as winning a Golden Globe for Best Foreign film. For those weaned on more graphic horror, The White Reindeer may come across as quaint. In terms of genre, contemporary viewers may find it of interest as a predecessor to those films inspired by folk beliefs such as The Wicker Man and Midsommar. The White Reindeer exists in a pre-modern world, where pagan beliefs are not easily dismissed as superstition.

Blomberg began his filmmaking career as a documentarian, and the film begins almost as a documentary or travelogue about reindeer herders in Lapland. But first is a song from a female vocalist about a girl who unknowingly is a witch at birth. The mother is seen running from a pack of wolves, into a shed. The first scenes take place in the snow covered country, where a few scattered trees encased in ice and snow appear as ghostly sentries. Most of the film takes place outside, to the point where the valley becomes a character, determining the lives of the characters. Blomberg makes a point of using several shots at various points at several distances, minimizing the size of the people in their environment. The first shots of the herding community are silent with a mix of styles that suggest older films made decades earlier. That the herders all are wearing Lapp specific clothing, and seen living in a way that seems to have not changed for at least a century makes it difficult to identify when the film takes place. Between aspects of the filmmaking style and the presentation of the characters, The White Reindeer appears out of time. It is only with the later appearance of a characters identified as being from "the South", with his contemporary clothing and his rifle, that we see a brief intrusion of the modern world.

That non-specific time period is established when the Lapp villagers are seen in a celebration, with a race of sleds pulled by reindeers. A young woman, Pirita, wins the race as well as the heart of herder Aslak. The two get married, but domestic life is disappointing between Aslak's long absences in the reindeer roundups and an apparent lack of interest in intimacy. Pirita is given a gift of a baby white reindeer that is the recipient of her affections while Aslak is away. After praying to the stone god, a large rock pillar adorned with antlers, Pirita visits a shaman who creates a love potion. If Pirita had only intended for this potion to strengthen her relationship with Aslak, it's unclear as the shaman states that Pirita will attract all of the herders. For the potion to take effect, Pirita is to sacrifice the first living thing she sees.

The White Reindeer will probably remind many of Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942). Both films present unrepressed female sexuality linked with turning into an animal, as well as the presence of a family curse. In both films, the female protagonist is unable to free herself from her situation, although Pirita appears to have greater control over her impulses. There are no special effects as might have been used by filmmakers at the time. While this may be frustrating to the more literal minded viewers, Blomberg creates his effects through editing. While not as ambiguous as the horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, Blomberg creates the horror in part by what the viewers think they are seeing.

Erk Blomberg served as cinematographer and editor in addition to directing. The script was co-written with his wife, Mirjami Kuosmanen, who also appears as Pirita. The blu-ray was created from a recent 4K restoration by the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland.

September 17, 2019

Who Saw Her Die?

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Chi l'ha vista morire?
Aldo Lado - 1972
Arrow Video BD Region A

While the casting of the two actors as an estranged married couple was not originally what was intended, George Lazenby and Anita Strindberg visually compliment each other. They play the parents of the titular "her". Both are quite thin, gaunt, their faces almost skeletal. This kind of visual unity is also part of two moments when these parents try to process their grief at the loss of their daughter. Lado has a tight close up of Strindberg's face, a tear falling from her left eye and a small wet streak below her right eye. The camera moves left to Lazenby's face, facing away from Strindberg, with the camera moving to the right of the screen, again on Strindberg. In a moment of reconciliation through their mourning, Strindberg and Lazenby wear knit shirts that are the same shade of gray, although of different textures.

Who Saw Her Die? takes place in Venice just before winter. Sunlight only appears in the early scenes of Franco (Lazenby) with his young daughter, Roberta. In the last scene with Roberta, she is in the middle of a circle surrounded by equally young children, in a variation of "Ring Around the Rosie". The children are in a shady part of a small square. The exterior shots from that point on become increasingly darker, with overcast skies and extreme fog during the day, as well as several scenes taking place in the darkness of night. Several of the pathways available to the characters offer restricted availability of movement. There is a constant sense of claustrophobia.

There are the usual giallo tropes - a murder mystery with psycho-sexual links to the killer's past, red herrings and deliberate misdirection. There are also the murder set pieces required of the genre. Ennio Morricone provided the score which primarily consists of a children's choir singing a variation of the title.

It is somewhat difficult to judge George Lazenby's performance as he was dubbed not only in Italian, but also in the English language version as well, by American actor Mark Forest. But what appears to be genuine is his relationship with Nicoletta Elmi as Roberta. The two seem to take pleasure in each other, such as when they are skipping together on the street, or playing "telephone" with a couple of small shells. It could also be that without the immense outside pressures, Lazenby was able to be more relaxed than was in his debut as the one-time James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Aldo Lado's familiarity with Venice gave him the ability to film most of the film in the less familiar parts of the city, where working class families lived, as well as the more industrial areas. Not seen in the usual tourist's eye view are shots of the merchants setting up their stands for the outdoor market near the Grand Canal. Just about a year prior to making Her Saw Her Die?, Lado wrote the story and served as Assistant Director on a film showing a more glamorous Venice, The Designated Victim.

As is usual with Arrow, the blu-ray comes with generous extras. Film historian Troy Howarth discusses the film at hand as well as Aldo Lado's career, but also spends time placing Who Saw Her Die? within the context of both genre filmmaking in Italy, but also the Italian film industry of the early 1970s. Interviews with Aldo Lado and screenwriter Franceso Barilli, both shot last June, provide sometimes contradictory, but always interesting information on the production of the film, as well as thoughts on their own careers. A now mature Nicoletta Elmi shares her memories of acting in several films, where unlike the good natured Roberta, she played more malevolent youngsters, notably in Dario Argento's Deep Red. Giallo specialist Michael Mackenzie also provides more details, including a side by side shot comparison with Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now which was release more than a year later, but shares some uncanny similarities. I also advise checking out the extras for the discussion of the final line in the film following the revealing of the killer's identity, which inadvertently creates the film's biggest plot hole. The transfer is from from a 2K restoration which is just about perfect.

September 10, 2019

I Mobster

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Roger Corman - 1958
Sony Wonder Region 1 DVD

Even if this film is one of Roger Corman's lesser loved efforts, it deserves a bit better than a crude pan and scan transfer of the CinemaScope original. Aside from being Corman's first wide screen film, this was the first Corman directed film to be distributed by a major studio, 20th Century-Fox. It's not classic Corman by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a very watchable mix of older talent with a couple of stars whose own career peaks were firmly in the Fifties.

The main narrative is a flashback. Joe Sante, called before a Senate committee investigating racketeering, thinks back on his life of crime. Starting as a school age collector for a local bookie, Joe climbs his way up the ladder, not quite the top, but very close. The story uses some of the familiar template of the criminal son of immigrants, with the distant relationship with the father, and the always emotionally supportive mother. There is also the neighborhood good girl, Teresa, who keeps her distance, at least until her love for Joe makes her a willing accomplice in his organization.

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And there is a good reason why the story elements would seem so familiar. The screenplay is by Steve Fisher, one of his last for a theatrical film. Fisher's credits include a couple of movies starring Humphrey Bogart, as well as the twice filmed novel, I Wake Up Screaming. At any rate, I'm not going to begrudge dialogue such as Steve Cochran murmuring to Lita Milan, "You dumb broad. You beautiful dumb broad." There is also a James Cagney connection with producer Edward Alperson taking it on the financial chin for the flop, The Great Guy, while one of Steve Cochran's early roles was with Cagney in White Heat. If I Mobster has nothing on the classic Warner Brothers gangster movies, keep in mind that Warner Brothers had pretty much let the genre die out after the explosive conclusion of White Heat.

I have to wonder what was going on in Steve Cochran's mind going from Michelangelo Antonioni to Roger Corman. In his journal, Antonioni complained about Cochran over-analyzing his part in Il Grido rather than taking specific directions from Antonioni. From what I know of Corman, Cochran probably had a free hand in shaping his performance. And while the forty year old actor looks too old as the younger Joe Sante, he looks just right as the custom suited crime boss. Joe talks about using his brains, but it's more about brute strength and animal cunning, which Cochran conveys convincingly. Lita Milan is one of those actresses who came and went briefly, typecast as the all purpose exotic beauty. Spicing things up in single scenes are Fifties B-movies bad girl Yvette Vickers, and Lili St. Cyr performing a strip tease filmed and edited for family viewing.

I don't know if I will ever see all of Roger Corman's films from the Fifties, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying. I let a friend catch the impossible to see Rock All Night playing with Carnival Rock in my place, when a Corman retrospective was held in New York City's Kips Bay Theater in March, 1971. There are a handful of films that I have yet to see in any format that also includes Sorority Girl, and Machine-Gun Kelly, the first starring role for Charles Bronson. Even if this very imperfect version of I Mobster is as good as it gets for my attempt at being a Coman completist, I enjoyed this lesser known diversion.

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