March 24, 2023

Lucky Jordan


Frank Tuttle - 1942
KL Studio Classics

Lucky Jordan was the second of three films Alan Ladd made with director Frank Tuttle. Coming after his breakout role in This Gun for Hire, it was also Ladd’s first with star billing. Ladd's final collaboration with Tuttle, Hell on Frisco Bay from 1955 provides a kind of bookend marking the end of a commercial plateau in the actor’s career. Tuttle has generally been considered a competent, if uneven, journeyman director. His most stylish thriller, Gunman in the Streets made in France in 1950 while under investigation by the House of Un-American Activities, stars Simone Signoret and Dane Clark, and is worth a look for being made without totally adhering to the Hollywood production code.

We never know if Lucky Jordan actually has a conventional first name because everyone calls him Lucky. The film itself defies easy categorization with its blend of gangster drama, spy thriller and wartime comedy, in addition to tonal shifts. Jordan is the top gangster of a gambling operation in a large, unnamed city. His second-in-command, Slim, tries and fails to bump him off, coveting the big chair in the well-appointed office that serves as a legitimate front. Jordan finds out that he has been drafted and can not get out of it. Through a series of circumstances that only happen in the movies, Jordan manages to go AWOL, kidnap Jill, a pretty canteen worker, and get hold of a briefcase with military information that he is willing to sell to the highest bidder.

There is some resemblance to Sam Fuller’s Pickup of South Street, made almost a decade later. In Fuller’s film, the career criminal is asked to act upon a sense of patriotism in making sure that the unintentionally stolen microfilm does not get turned over to "enemy agents". While out on the lam, Jill explains to Jordan why she volunteered to work at an army base and why she is anti-Nazi. Jordan’s own shift may have more to do with the Nazi spies being a totally untrustworthy bunch. Here is where some extra context is needed as the film was produced when U.S. involvement in the war was only a few months old. There was still a significant number of Americans who were either isolationists or simply did not favor what was considered a foreign war with Germany. (Anti-Japanese sentiment would be a different matter.) Setting aside the leftist politics of Tuttle, the U.S. government has actively encouraged Hollywood to make films that would serve as propaganda to influence popular opinion. Lucky Jordan does the right thing, if not necessarily for the right reason.

The politics are lightly served. What makes Lucky Jordan enjoyable include Sheldon Leonard as Slip, the gangster who can never outwit Jordan, playing on his typecasting as the heavy, Helen Walker in her film debut as Jill, the actress’ last name more notable with two scenes involving her legs, and Alan Ladd’s smart-aleck remarks throughout much of the film. The high point is Jordan’s relationship with the elderly Annie (Mabel Paige), a grifter begging for quarters to spend on alcohol. Paid to pose as Jordan’s needy mother at the draft board hearing, the two develop an ad hoc mother and son relationship both comic and sentimental.

Samm Deighan provided the commentary track. In addition to discussing the main cast and crew, Deighan places Lucky Jordan as part of the films portraying espionage in the early years of World War II as well as general societal shifts during that time. In Deighan’s talking about Frank Tuttle’s career and his eventual choice to provide names to HUAC, there is the confusion, also perpetuated by others, in mixing the blacklisting of Hollywood communists or sympathizers with the completely separate activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

March 21, 2023

Kubrick by Kubrick


Gregory Monro -2020
Level 33 Entertainment

At just a shade over an hour in length, Kubrick on Kubrick does not offer any revelations about Stanley Kubrick as much as it reinforces what is already known. The main attraction here is that we get to hear the filmmaker speak for himself in taped interviews with French film critic Michel Ciment. As might be indicated by the relatively short running time of this documentary, this is not in any way a thorough look at either Kubrick or his films.

The interviews with Ciment were done in response to an article Ciment wrote on 2001 in 1968. Ciment published the first edition of his book on Kubrick in 1980. At that time, Kubrick, who generally did not grant interviews, wanted to counteract some of the myths surrounding his persona. In the years following Kubrick's death in 1999, Kubrick has been humanized by the documentaries of his assistant, Leon Vitali, and his driver, Emilio D'Alessandro. What really makes Stanley Kubrick appear as a mere mortal are the home movie clips at the end. Kubrick appears to be maybe eight years old at the time. Those who have seen photos of the filmmaker when he was clean shaven will see a familiar face on a smaller, mildly stocky body. Dancing with a younger sister or playing with her in a park in their Bronx neighborhood, the sister gets knocked over a couple of times. Nothing in these old film clips from some time in the mid-1930s to indicate a future genius.

Monro presents Kubrick's career roughly in chronological order. Not all films are represented from those released prior to 2001. We do get to hear Kubrick's own thoughts on his narrative film debut, Fear and Desire, making it more understandable why he chose to make it unavailable for public viewing after its initial release. Monro uses archival interviews primarily from several of the actors and some crew members who have worked on various films. Perhaps familiar to some is the story of how R. Lee Ermey went from technical advisor to playing the part of the drilll sergeant in Full Metal Jacket with his scathingly funny insults from his own real life military activity used to create a character beyond what Kubrick initially imagined. Sterling Hayden discusses his difficulty during the filming of Dr. Strangelove, his first acting after literally sailing away from Hollywood six years prior, in 1958. Most astonishing is cinematographer Russell Metty on Kubrick's obsession with composing every shot in Spartacus, although that did get Metty his only Academy Award.

The enormous number of takes and extended periods of production are recounted. In terms of actual production, one of the more interesting stories is why Full Metal Jacket's scenes of combat in Vietnam were filmed around a factory outside of London, discovered by accident, but resembling the damaged buildings of Hue. Kubrick by Kubrick may be puzzling for those viewers who are less familiar with Kubrick and his thirteen feature films especially at a time when too directors are hailed as "visionary". For who either admire Stanley Kubrick in general or find themselves revisiting any of his films multiple times, there will be something to glean here.

March 14, 2023



Lola Quivoron - 2022
Music Box Films

The famous poem by John Donne states that "no man is an island". Julia, the perpetually combative young woman, would contest that view. Fierce and fiercely independent, Julia is from the Caribbean island country of Guadalupe, living a mostly rootless existence in a suburb north of Paris. At the beginning of the film, Julia discovers that her motorbike has been stolen. Getting a replacement is more important than showing up for work. Finding a bike for sale online, she hoodwinks the seller into allowing her to take a test run.

The rodeo referred to in the title is where young men gather to show off their biking skills. Especially popular is the ability to ride only on the rear wheel at a 45 degree angle or higher. It is strictly a boys club, with Julia insistently busting into the fraternity. This is where Rodeo is at its best, with the feel of a documentary looking at an unknown sub-culture. Most of the cast is non-professionals, bikers who Ms. Quivoron got to know, including lead actress Julie Ledru. The bi-racial, gap toothed Ledru is a step or two away from the conventional lead, but so is the story.

At first glance one might expect a variation on the kind of film often involving fast and furious cars. The girl is as daring a driver as the best of the guys. Rivalry turns into respect which turns into love. That's not this film. Julia is only interested in being one of the guys. There is a slight hint that she may not be totally asexual in her friendship with the wife of the imprisoned gang boss. Julia's narrow existence is defined by participating in the rodeos and stealing bikes on behalf of the gang that has uneasily taken her in.

There is also a glance at class differences. Aside from being a racially mixed group, it is suggested that the bikers are from economicly marginalized backgrounds. Locked out of her mother's public housing apartment, Julia talks her way into making the gang's garage her home. In contrast, the victims of Julia's scams in her bike thefts are mature white men who reside in houses denoting comfortable upper middle class life. There is the puncturing of masculine pride in the way that the men who fall for the dolled up Julia's con take her at her word that the purse she hands over as a form of security deposit is never examined for its true contents.

Ms. Quivoron began documenting the bikers in 2015, first with photography and later, a short film, The screenplay was written with Antonia Buresi who also appears as the wife of the gang leader. The screenplay was modified to incorporate parts of Julie Ledru's life. Ms. Quivoron has stated - "For these people, who come from very poor environments and backgrounds, the bike is a way to take revenge on the card fate dealt them. It's a way to create an alternative family and to express the rage and anger they feel inside. I like the idea of them needing to make noise in order to be heard by the people, the society, around them."

March 10, 2023



Agnieszka Smoczynska - 2018

In the seven years since the release of The Lure, I had somehow lost track of director Agnieszka Smoczynska's career. I really liked her debut feature with the killer mermaid. Until I bothered to check her filmography before seeing Fugue, her second film, it had slipped past me that Smoczynska has also directed the recent The Silent Twins. Fugue is more reality based, yet it also has hints of the fantastic.

In this case, fugue is used as a medical term describing a temporary dissociative state of amnesia with the person discovered in an unexpected place, with a different sense of identity. Parts of the narrative might be described as creating the cinematic equivalent to the musical definition of a fugue with several shots breaking the narrative to eventually provide a flashback to the opening scene introducing the woman who calls herself Alicja.

Alicja is first seen waling in a dark tunnel, on what are revealed to be subway tracks. She is disheveled and grimy, but also well dressed. Two years later, Alicia is in a police station where she signs a form with the initials K.S., indicating that she has some memory of her true identity. She appears on a television program where she is interviewed with the hopes that someone can identify her. Reunited with a family she does not recognize, Alicia is in almost constant conflict with the people who knew her as Kinga. Unlike the more conventional stories of people recovering from amnesia, Fugue poses the question of what makes for a true sense of identity, and if a marked change in personality is any less valid than how that person may have lived and behaved previously.

Smoczynska repeatedly uses dark, constricted spaces, from the tunnel in the film's opening to scenes taking place driving through country roads at night. Bright, but claustrophobic, is the shot of Alicja seen through the shaft of an MRI machine. It is here we have the most dreamlike imagery of the brain scan animated with bursts of colors and flowers. There is also a nightmarish image of Alicja appearing to pull herself out of the ground at night in the woods, explaining her appearance in the opening scene.

It should be noted that the screenplay was by Gabriela Muskala, who also stars as Alicja. Muskala's inspiration was also a television show with a woman unable to identify her husband and son. Muskala's performance is the kind that would be unimaginable for most English language actresses.

Fugue begins its U.S. theatrical release in Los Angeles, with New York City to follow at the end of the month.

February 14, 2023

Hidden Blade


Cheng Er - 2022
WellGo USA

I had some initial concerns about Hidden Blade with its description as being the concluding film fo the "China Victory Trilogy". For those who have been following Chinese cinema recently, there has been an emphasis on making films usually based on historical events that do not disguise their sense of nationalism. While I am not aware of any government ordered revisions, Cheng Er appears to have subverted expectations. What is certain is that this is a visually stunning film even if the narrative pieces may not entirely come together.

Most of the story takes place between 1938 and 1946, primarily in Shanghai. The first few scenes flow back and forth between time periods. It takes a while to understand the rhythm and the connections, as well as having the characters established. Much of this is deliberate as it is revealed that several characters may not be who we might think they are. It is a story about Chinese secret service agents who are working in cooperation with the Japanese colonial government to ferret out Communist agents. There may be a double-agent among them. What may get in the way of following the narrative aspects is that involves details of Chinese history during World War II that may be unfamiliar to some viewers. This admittedly includes myself as being unaware of the Chinese nationalist and anti-Communist leader, Wang Ching-wei, the main rival of Chiang Kai-shek.

Where the film works best is as a neo-Noir of men walking in dark hallways seeking other men ready to divulge secrets from the opposing side. There is a scene with Tony Leung Chiu-wai interviewing a man carrying information. Leung is simultaneously cordial, yet there is a hint of threat behind everything he says. Cheng, who wrote and edited his film keeps so much elliptical that so many scenes are revealed to provide partial information. Even when it is reasonably certain who the villains are, there are no clear heroes. Tony Leung's character of Mr. He remains ambiguous until the last half hour.

It is a shock to see a visibly aged Leung is his first close-up. Even at age 60, he still is willing and able to do extended action scenes. Here he is fighting enemy agents with guns and fists, in and out of dark rooms and staircases. No martial arts moves here. While there is no equivalent femme fatale as is found in classic noir, Xhu Xhun appears as a mysterious woman dressed in black. Even Hiroyuki Mori as the Japanese liaison for the secret service agents is presented more as misguided in his beliefs rather than villainous. Some patience is required for watching Hidden Blade. Unlike too many current films, there is hardly any time for exposition putting the dots together for viewers unwilling to pay attention as even what may first appear as throwaway moments have their meaning. This means sticking through the very end with a very literal final shot.

December 13, 2022

Two Films by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze

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The Immoral Moment / La Denonciation
Jacques Doniol-Valcroze - 1962

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A Game for Six Lovers / L'eau a la bouche
Jacques Doniol-Valcroze - 1960
Icarus Films Home Video DVD All Regions

It has been a short while since it was announced that Chantal Akerman's film, Jeanne Dielman had topped the recently released Sight and Sound critics poll. I would not mention that film except that it turns out that Jacques Doniol-Valcroze had a small role as the Second Caller.

Having two new 2K restorations of features written and directed by Doniol-Valcroze is a reminder of the work to be done to have a deeper and truer understanding both of French cinema and the Nouvelle Vague. While Andre Bazin is the name that always appears, it was Doniol-Valcroze who was a co-founder of Cahiers du cinema. His first feature, A Game for Six Lovers was released in 1960, but as a filmmaker, Doniol-Valcroze never became as internationally celebrated as the younger film critics who also made their feature debuts at that time. I could find no indication that A Game for Six Lovers even had a stateside release, while The Immoral Moment had a belated U.S. release by a very small distributor in 1967.

The Immoral Moment is closer to the work of Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais as a film about memory. Michel steps into a nightclub that is still dark, yet to be opened. There is a dead man on the floor. A couple of people step in from a lit hallway on one end, with another man entering from the opposite direction. Michel is knocked unconscious. The cops and the actual murderer and associates know that Michel did not kill the man, yet Michel receives threatening letters in spite of the fact he cannot identification of the killer. Michel tries to remember the moments before he was struck in the head. He also ties his cooperation with the police, or collaboration as he puts it, with a wartime incident when he provided information to the Nazis under threat of continued torture.

Doniol-Valcroze cuts between present day Paris and Michel's memory of being a prisoner, ending with his mistakenly acclaimed as a hero of the French Resistance. Michel returns to the nightclub which features women in various states of undress, imagining his wife as one of the performers. The film was shot in the CinemaScope ratio with Doniol-Valcroze frequently placing his actors on either side of the screen, including traveling shots following the actor. While stars Maurice Ronet and Francoise Brion may be familiar to some, the most recognizable actor here is a younger Michael Lonsdale, the future James Bond villain, Hugo Drax, of Moonraker.

A Game for Six Lovers has a few bits of business to distinguish itself from some of the bedroom farces of the time. Two estranged cousins, Fifene and Jean-Paul, are invited to a country estate for the reading of a will and a possible inheritance. Jean-Paul is delayed, and Robert, Fifene's lover, shows up pretending to be the male cousin. Their hostess, Milena, and her lawyer, Miguel, are sometimes lovers. The estate's majordomo, Cesar, pursues the new maid, Prudence. This is the kind of film that was popular in the early 1960s in the art theater circuit because it was considered racier than anything from Hollywood, although it would be rated PG-13 now.

The film begins with the title song from Serge Gainsbourg who also wrote the music, sort of jazzy soft rock. Top billed Bernadette Lafont, as the new maid, suggests sauciness even when motionless in close-up. In one scene, she is chased by the insistent majordomo, ripping off her clothing, leaving Lafont, seen from a distance, in bra and panties. The Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart provides moments of partial nudity in bed as well as a nude swim. This is not a film for those who get worked up about the male gaze. The French title translates literally as "water of the mouth", and more loosely as "mouth watering".

December 06, 2022



Shinzo Katayama - 2021
Dark Star Pictures

What is noted about director Shinzo Katayama is that he served as an Assistant Director to Bong Joon-ho on Mother and Bong's segment in the omnibus Tokyo!. What brings Bong to mind in Missing is actor Jiro Sato as Harada, the miserable sanitation worker whose disappearance initiates the story. Sata bears some resemblance to Parasite's Song Kang-ho physically, but lacking Song's sometimes unfounded optimism. The sad sack Harada is a grubby, part-time sanitation worker who is introduced as needing the care of his middle school daughter, Kaede. Harada's sudden absence is taken seriously only by Kaede who is certain that her father is in search of a serial killer in order to claim the reward. Katayama reverses the more common narrative of father or father-figure as the searcher with the daughter or young girl as the searched. As the film progresses, it becomes a darker exploration of human nature.

Katayama's Japan only looks attractive from a distance. Most of the film takes place in what appear to be the grungiest sections of Osaka. There are hardly any streets, but mostly a claustrophobic maze of alley ways, pathways clogged with bags of garbage and abandoned junk. In a later scene following the serial killer, Yamauchi, he is shown a pictorial view of the small island by an orange farmer. Down from the peak, is a rough road with worn down people and houses. Yamauchi also has a scene with a woman on a beach. Their relationship is unclear. The beach is otherwise dull and devoid of any other people. Where Harada works is too organized to be described as a garbage dump, but it is an industrial site filled with things that have no more use. From the opening scene, most relationships are depicted as transactional, from spare change to millions of yen, even in literal matters of life and death.

The opening scene is composed of a series of traveling shots following Kaede running through the streets of Osaka, with the occasional shot of composed of multiple surveillance cameras on one screen. Following on this is a later scene where Kaede spots Yamauchi, with the camera following her as she pursues the suspected serial killer on foot and bicycle. There is some graphic horror but most of the scenes depicting murder are more luridly suggestive. The narrative is awkward, depending on two extended flashbacks to explain the relationship between characters from the points of view of the three main characters. The final scene is of Harada and Kaede playing ping pong. The camera zooms out from the table to show the two on each side of the screen while they come to a mutual understanding following a resolution of all that has previously transpired. There is a second game where Harada and Kaede are going through the motions of playing ping pong while the camera zooms towards the middle of the table. This last scene could well be a nod towards Antonioni's Blow Up with its missing murder victim and a tennis game with a ball heard but not seen.