July 07, 2020

Neurosis

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Revenge in the House of Usher
A.M. Franck (jesus Franco and Olivier Mathot) - 1983-88
Redemption Films BD Region A

The history of the making of Neurosis is almost as tortured as any of the characters to be found in the films of Jesus (Jess) Franco. The original film was badly received at a Spanish film festival in 1983. Franco followed up with an even less successful recut in 1985. Finally, actor/director Olivier Mathot revised the story once again with about fifteen minutes of new footage. Except for one glaring non sequitur, a scene involving a supporting character, this final version is surprisingly cohesive in both its narrative and visual elements.

The original film was very loosely inspired by Poe, bizarrely credited here as Edgard Allen Poe, with an umlaut over the letter e. The film was shot in and around a large castle in Andalusia, Spain, tan and arid. While the castle interior is dark, often barely illuminated, the exteriors are oppressively bright. Eric Usher is an aging doctor, exiled due to his unorthodox research and methods, visited by his former student, Alan Harker. Most viewers will recognize some of the the literary liberties taken by Franco in his names for his characters. Usher is trying to revive the life of his daughter, Melissa, with transfusions of blood from unwilling young women kidnapped by his servants Mathieu and the one-eyed Morpho. As Harker discovers, Usher appears to be suffering from a mental breakdown, battling the ghosts from his past. An for inexplicable reasons, whomever was responsible for the English dub of this film had Harker's name pronounced as Hacker.

For some, the highpoint may be the inclusion of footage from Franco's first horror film, The Awful Dr. Orloff, repurposed here as a flashback. The more generous viewer will overlook that the facially deformed assistant, Morpho, in Neurosis played by Olivier Mathot does not quite look like the Morpho of the 1962 film. Those who have even casually followed the career of Jesus Franco will revisit Howard Vernon in his first of many collaborations with the director. As usual with Franco, there is his other familiar collaborators, muse Lina Romay, Antonio Mayans, and composer Daniel White who appears as Dr. Seward. Franco also served as his own editor and cinematographer on the original production making this one of his more personal projects. It should be noted that Olivier Mathot has also appeared as an actor in other Franco films, making his participation more fitting.

Neurosis is more likely to be appreciated by those familiar with Jesus Franco. Tim Lucas provides the commentary track here, providing information on the production history including comparisons where possible between the three different versions. As might be expected, Lucas seems to leave no stone unturned, discussing various literary and cinematic connections, primarily concerning Franco, but also regarding the participation of Francoise Blanchard in Mathot's footage. There are two language options, with the film post-dubbed in English and French. What makes this of some interest are some differences in the word choices indicated in the subtitles as well as two different folk verses used in the same scene.

June 30, 2020

Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

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Sons of the Desert (William A. Seiter - 1933)

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Way Out West (James W. Horne - 1937)
plus nineteen shorts
MVD Visual / Kit Parker Films BD Regions ABC four-disc set


First, an admission. I have not seen everything in the four disc set. Part of it is because I like posting my thoughts on new home video releases on the street date, or as close to it as possible. And also, there is just so much stuff here to be seen, with an official running time of 485 minutes. While there may be some who will want to screen their own personal marathon, I prefer smaller increments. Two features, nineteen shorts (plus alternate versions of "Brats" and "Berth Marks"), plus commentary tracks, photo galleries and trailers, there is quite a lot to unpack. There is material to be gleaned by the more serious film scholar, but the main audience for this collection will more likely be the legions of fans.

For myself, this is the first time watching any Laurel and Hardy films since 2006. I was at the San Francisco Silent Festival where three shorts directed by Leo McCarey were shown to an audience of both adults and appreciative children. I am also part of that generation who grew up watching "the boys" on network television over fifty years ago. What struck me in watching this collection, which is mostly in chronological order of production, are those aspects that changed as well as what remained consistent.

The short, "Their First Mistake" (George Marshall - 1932) with an uncredited screenplay by Stan Laurel, could well be a key film. Hardy's onscreen wife complains about his spending more time with Laurel than with her. Hardy is later served divorce papers, as is Laurel for "alienation of affection". What can be found in film after film is the story of two men who prefer each others company to the almost virtual exclusion of anyone else. "Their First Mistake" continues with Hardy having adopted a child, suddenly in the situation of being a single parent, with a very funny look at gender roles. More extreme is "Twice Two" (James Parrott - 1933) with Stan and Ollie each having sisters played by the pair in drag, with Stan's sister married to Ollie and Ollie's sister married to Stan. Even if certain things might be unsaid, I do not think the filmmakers, least of all Stan Laurel, was unaware of the implications of the team's onscreen appearances.

Laurel and Hardy as a comedy team almost eclipses their earlier work. Oliver Hardy started appearing in films in 1915, and even tried his hand at directing several films before concentrating on acting. Stan Laurel was part of Fred Karno's team of British music hall performers who came to Hollywood in 1920. Along with Laurel was fellow comic performer Charlie Chaplin. The success of the "Little Tramp" was such that Laurel appeared as an imitator in several films, while Hardy was in supporting roles in films starring another Chaplin imitator, Billy West. Hardy had some comic leads, while Laurel eventually became a star in his own right, as well as a writer-director. What also makes Laurel and Hardy unique is that they were well into their thirties at the time they officially became the comic team, each with more than a decade of experience both in front and behind the camera. On screen, the two were equals as physically comic performers. Stan Laurel was the more active of the two regarding the production of the films, even listed as the producer of the feature Way Out West.

When one looks at the credits of the actors and production team, there is some criss-crossing of friends and relatives within the Hal Roach studio. Writer-director James Parrott had a brother, Charles, better known as Charley Chase, whose manic appearance is one of the highlights of Sons of the Desert. James W. Horne, director of Way Out West, was also the uncle of George Stevens, Stan Laurel's chosen cinematographer on "Battle of the Century" (1927) and "Brats" (1930). Leo McCarey's younger brother, Raymond, directed "Scram!" (1933). For all of information provided by L & H scholar Randy Skretvedt on the making of Sons of the Desert, there is no explanation as to how what is arguably the best of the feature films, was directed by William Seiter, who along with cinematographer Kenneth Peach was from outside of the Hal Roach studio.

More scholarly is Richard Bann's commentary for "The Battle of the Century". What we have is reconstruction with previously lost footage, some stills with explanatory titles, and a scan of a 16mm print. The film is most noted for the climatic pie fight which reportedly used 3000 real pies. Of interest is the brief sight of an almost svelte Eugene Pallette as an insurance salesman. Bann discusses the history of the making of the film its history as a lost film.

My only conclusion is that I do prefer the pre-code films, the gags are both more savage and more funny. Laurel and Hardy exist in a world of domineering wives, belligerent authority figures and mechanical failure. And if the former Stanley Arthur Jefferson remains the more beloved, there may be little that makes me laugh as consistently as watching Oliver Norvell Hardy getting beaned on the head.

June 16, 2020

Isadora

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Karel Reisz - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

With four different versions, there is a question regarding some of the ellipses that take place in Isadora. The original release version was 177 minutes long, seen in December 1968 for an Oscar qualifying run. The film was subsequently shortened following negative reviews from the Los Angeles critics. The British release was 138 minutes, while the U.S. version was even shorter at 131 minutes. There is a "director's cut" that was supervised by Reisz, available only on VHS at 154 minutes. For reasons unknown, possibly due to quality of the source print, the blu-ray is essentially the British release version with a brief pre-credit scene added. That scene is of Isadora Duncan as a child making a vow of how she plans to live her life. Biographical films should always be approached cautiously, even more so films that have their own troubled histories.

Isadora was never meant to be in the mold of the traditional biographical film. It's more of a dream of the past. The structure is that of Duncan during her last days at a hotel in Nice, France, 1927, remembering her past. Reisz cuts between 1927 and various points in Duncan's life from briefly performing in a musical hall to Sousa's "Washington Post", jumping forward to one of her Greek inspired performances for a salon in Europe. In the scenes that take place in 1927, Duncan becomes infatuated with a mysterious man who drives a blood red Bugatti. When not narrating her memoirs to her frustrated biographer, she whiles away time with the reading of Tarot cards, with the death card pointedly removed from the deck. Those looking for fidelity to facts would have to look elsewhere, even while the film credits Duncan's autobiography and Sewell Stokes' biography as basis for the screenplay by Melvyn Bragg, Clive Exton and Margaret Drabble.

At one point we see Duncan imagining herself running and dancing through Greek ruins. There is also a shot of Duncan dancing on an empty, gray wooden floor which is finally revealed to be the stage on which she is performing. Credit does go to Vanessa Redgrave, who not only mimics Duncan's mannerisms, but is the one doing the dancing. Unlike some films from the time before computer magic, there is no cheating with cutting between close-ups of the star and long shots of a professional dancer identically dressed viewed from a distance. Here the dances are all Redgrave, with her final dance performance in the film seen full body. Reportedly, Redgrave trained for six months before filming. Redgrave did get Oscar nomination for her performance, and won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1969.

The blu-ray features a commentary track by filmmaker/historian Daniel Kremer and director Allan Arkush. This is one of the better commentary tracks primarily because of the discussion of Reisz's use of the zoom lens, hand-held camera work, and editing. There is some discussion on Reisz writing about film editing, his history with the Free Cinema movement, and the impact his debut feature, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had on British cinema. One digression has Kremer and Arkush discussing how film editing changed with new technology. In this pre-digital era, the change was from gluing together strips of 35mm film to the use of clear tape for splicing, which in turn allowed filmmakers to easily make the deliberately more fragmented films with jump cuts and flash frames. Elsewhere Kremer and Arkush point out the use of color in Isadora, and how the film fits in with Reisz's other work as well as some of the films made at the time of release. While most of the commentary is devoted to Reisz, Kremer and Arkush also make room to discuss Vanessa Redgrave, co-star Jason Robards, cinematographer Larry Pizer, editor Tom Priestley, and score composer Maurice Jarre. My only quibble would be that that the enthusiasm of Kremer and Arkush is such that they occasionally interrupt each other in mid-thought. Otherwise, a commentary track that may seem academic in description is a lively and knowledgeable exchange.

June 09, 2020

Viktor und Viktoria

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Reinhold Shunzel - 1933
Kino Classics BD Region A

Of the various versions that were taken from the same basic premise, I went about things in backward order. First seen was Blake Edwards' Victor/Victoria at the time of release in 1982. Then a few years ago, when Netflix had a wider selection of older films available for streaming, I saw the British First a Girl (1935). It should be noted that at the time of production, Reinhold Shunzel's film was also filmed in a French language version, also featuring Anton Walbrook, at that time still known as Adolf Wohlbruck. There is also a 1957 West German remake, and an Argentinian version from 1975 that originally was set to star an actual cross-dressing star. What is also interesting is that while the 1935 and 1982 films acknowledge being based on Shunzel's film, aside from the main characters being a woman gaining show business fame impersonating a man impersonating a woman, the details of the respective narratives are different.

Contemporary viewers looking for gender-bending comedy might be happier with Edwards' film, where what was barely hinted at in the first film gets boisterously pushed front and center. There's a more gentle comedy at play here when Shunzel films the look of London's high society men infatuated with the performer, "Mr. Viktoria", assumed to be a woman on stage, until the climax with "his" wig removed. This is followed by a scene at a restaurant where several older, wealthy women hope to gain the attention of who they assume is the boyish young man. The British 1935 version has a marginally more suggestive moment of sexual confusion, although of films made during this era, neither compares to various cross-gender antics of George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935).

Remove the female as female impersonator plot, and Viktor und Viktoria remains a remarkably funny comedy. There is Renate Muller taking pratfalls in her stage debut as Mr. Viktoria. Her partner in this deception, the failed actor and original Mr. Viktoria, played by Hermann Thimig, is first seen hamming it up in an audition with virtually every Shakespearean monologue he can remember, stumbling over furniture, almost literally bringing the house down. One of the best gags is at the beginning of the film - the camera pans past a group of various actors waiting to audition, we hear the voice of a female singing an aria from an opera, the voice seems to be coming from one of the women standing along the wall, only for the camera to continue past her, and the mouth open wide with song actually was an undisguised yawn of boredom.

The film has plenty of traveling shots as well as inventive uses of sound. Shunzel also knows when to keep the camera stationary, as in a delightful shot of Muller, dressed as a male, seen in long shot trying to discretely watch Anton Walbrook walk away from her down a hotel corridor, darting away when Walbrook looks back. Renate Muller's big dance number shows the obvious influence of Busby Berkeley, with its chorus girls filmed from above, albeit with fewer dancers. Shunzel seems to have had the full artillery of technical resources at the legendary UFA studio to make a film as accomplished as anything from Hollywood in 1933.

The blu-ray is sourced from a 2013 German restoration that shows some wear, but nothing substantial. The commentary track by scholar Gaylyn Studlar points to the connections the director and stars had with Ernst Lubitsch, Max Reinhardt and Gerd Oswald, both professionally and with transgressive narratives. The stories of the several of the cast and crew are equally compelling. By 1937, when the Nazis totally took over the German film industry, Renate Muller, was no longer a top star due to her relationship with a Jewish man, death officially by suicide. Anton Walbrook, gay and Jewish, emigrated to England, with a continued successful career. Being gay and Jewish did not stop Reinhold Shunzel from being offered the title of Honorary Aryan due to his popularity as both an actor and director. Shunzel had greater confidence in the dictatorship of Louis B. Mayer and directed three films for MGM in the late Thirties, with the rest of his American career as an actor. Hermann Thimig managed to get through World War II and post-war Germany relatively untouched, continuing to act continuously in films through 1967. What makes this even more impressive is that his sister, Helene, had left Germany with husband Max Reinhardt, indicative of stardom that could even dazzle Adolf Hitler.

May 01, 2020

This Transient Life

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Mujo
Akio Jissoji - 1970
Arrow Film BD Region B

About two years ago I was so sick that I went to the hospital. This turned out to be a far wiser course of action than anticipated as x-rays indicated that I had cancer in my left kidney. This was in addition to the chronic kidney disease that was already being treated. One of my doctors told me that I maybe had two years to live. Since I understood in a more concrete way how limited my lifespan was, and still is, I made the decision to stop my impulse purchases of newly available movies and try to watch the many I had collected over a ten year period. I also decided that my final purchase would be Arrow's set of Akio Jissoji's "Buddhist Trilogy".

Being a Buddhist for most of my life, I've had an interest in films with Buddhist content as well as films made by those filmmakers who have identified as Buddhists. And ending my collecting with a film called This Transient Life seemed fitting for me. A reminder that there are multiple sects of Buddhism, and we don't all practice Zen or are guided by the Dalai Lama. And not every film about Buddhism is made by an actual practicing Buddhist. All I could find about Jissoji is that he grew up as part of a Buddhist family. Still, there were things to be gleaned from This Transient Life that I understood within my own studies.

Masao, a young man with no interest in inheriting his father's business, desires to be a sculptor of Buddhist statues. At the same time, he has an incestuous relationship with slightly older sister, an open sexual relationship with the wife of his artistic mentor, and is constantly at odds with a Buddhist priest regarding his understanding of Buddhism. From my own perspective as one who practices a form of Nichiren Buddhism, Masao personifies what is called the poison drum relationship - essentially that one who hears about Buddhism and rejects it still has established a relationship with Buddhism and will will eventually attain enlightenment. This may appear contradictory as Masao's actions are admirable, yet he is sincere about his statue making, offering one such statue to the priest's temple.

Masao's rationale for rejecting Buddhist teaching is arguably a misunderstanding of the use of negation, probably from the Sutra of Immeasurable Meanings that includes the lines, "neither existing nor not existing, neither self nor other, neither square nor round...". Masao interprets this as a nihilistic view of the world. Instead, it may be best understood as an indirect way of saying that the essence of Buddhism is beyond human comprehension and limitations.

There is no Buddhist visual style here, certainly not like what Paul Schrader has written about regarding the films of Yasujiro Ozu and the view from the tatami mat. Jissoji's camera is usually mobile, moving forwards and back, side to side, sometimes searching in the fields or slinking around the corner in the house. There is the repetition of two similar shots of the priest, and a repeating of a series of shots. Perhaps not intentional but the editing structure at these moments reminds me of the recitation of a sutra, with the repeating of a specific phrase or passage. There is also the sound of bells, often what sounds like a door bells, but to me a possible non-diegetic reference to the use of bells as part of the formal Buddhist practice.

David Desser's commentary during specific scenes helps put things in context both in general terms of Buddhism as well as Japanese culture, and Japanese film culture of the time. He also discusses Jissoji's use of camera movement, as well as pointing out the geography of parts of Japan where the This Transient Life was filmed.

April 28, 2020

The General Died at Dawn

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Lewis Milestone - 1936
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

In The General Died at Dawn, Gary Cooper plays an American gunrunner in China known only by his last name, O'Hara. The character was inspired by the real life British born Morris Abraham Cohen, known primarily for his association with Sun Yet-sen and also having been appointed as a major-general in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army. Cohen was 49 at the time of the film's release. I would assume that for Paramount, the idea of a Jewish action hero would be a hard sell for the American public, but I'd like to imagine an alternate version with Paul Muni in the lead.

I also have to wonder if the film, with its setting in war-torn China, was previously considered for Josef von Sternberg. The setting is exotic, if not as baroque as in a von Sternberg film. The production was the year after von Sternberg left Paramount. There is also the connection of Gary Cooper as the star, appearing six years earlier in von Sternberg's Morocco.

The General Died at Dawn is still of interest primarily in terms of some of the visual innovations. A shot of a white door knob dissolves into a shot of a white pool ball. There is use of the split screen with two characters in conversation while each corner of the screen peels back to reveal additional action of other characters. Even the opening credit sequence is imaginative with the credits over the sails of Chinese boats floating across the screen. Meanwhile, the film's corniest line from playwright Clifford Odets, with Gary Cooper informing Madeleine Carroll that they could have made beautiful music together, was first uttered here.

So we have Gary Cooper and his pet monkey trying to smuggle a big belt full of money to a group of rebels fighting the warlord General Yang. The money is to be used to purchase guns. Coop has to not only outwit Yang, the general of the film's title, but also assorted low-lifes including a hoarse voiced William Frawley. Madeleine Carroll is caught between her love for Coop and her loyalty towards her father, a relationship that appears emotionally incestuous.

Contemporary viewers might be put off by having several members of the cast in yellow face, notably Akim Tamiroff as General Yang. While that aspect can be charitably considered as a product of its time, the film is otherwise well cast with Asian, if not specifically Chinese, actors as Chinese characters. Also, none of the Chinese characters speaks pidgin English, and the couple of racist characters have what's coming to them.

Lewis Milestone doesn't have a reputation as a visual stylist, and perhaps credit should go to cinematographer Victor Milner, who received an Oscar nomination for his work. The shot that first introduces the viewer to Madeleine Carroll is of her legs, and a cigarette in hand. There is also Carroll and Cooper's first onscreen meeting, with Cooper seen as the reflection on a full length mirror in a train's compartment. There is also one unusually graphic depiction of murder that I would not have expected in a film made at that time. As is to be expected from Kino Lorber's releases from the Universal vault, this is a nicely rendered blu-ray from new 4K master.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track alternating between film historian Lee Gambin and actress Rutanya Alda. Gambin discusses the visual innovations introduced by Milestone, and how The General Died at Dawn fits in with other films starring Gary Cooper. Alda talks about the first time she saw Gary Cooper on screen and a bit about his personal life. The commentary track seems more aimed towards the casual film fan. While Gambin also discusses how the politics of Milestone and Odets found expression in the film, viewers wanting a deeper dive will have to look elsewhere.

April 20, 2020

Why Don't You Just Die?

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Papa, sdokhni
Kirill Sokolov - 2019
Arrow Films

The one thing that is best remembered about Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain is the fight to the death between Paul Newman and Wolfgang Kieling. The audience is reminded that not only is it not only not easy to kill somebody, but that the human body as well as the urge to live can be surprisingly resilient. Russian filmmaker Kiril Sokolov has taken that one scene, indirectly, and made an entire feature where all the main characters at least temporarily survive body blows, maiming, knife wounds and shotgun blasts. Black comedy does not come much darker than this.

A young man with a Batman hoodie, Matwei, shows up at an apartment holding a hammer. The hammer is hidden behind his back when the apartment door is open. An older man, large, and with a completely shaved head, answers. He is Andrei, father of Olya, the young woman Matwei says he is to meet at the apartment. The two eye each other suspiciously. Andrei reveals himself to be a detective as well as a highly concerned parent. And why does Matwei have a hammer with him? Is it really for a friend?

Most of the action takes place in Andrei's apartment, primarily in the living room which turns into the main battlefield. There are flashbacks revealing more about Andrei, Olya and Matwei. This is a story about double crosses and toxic family relationships. Even when the characters try to do the right thing, someone get killed by accident. The Russian title translates as "Daddy, die", but the English title makes more sense when you have four characters literally fighting for their personal survival.

This blood drenched film is hardly subtle, although I would recommend that viewers pay some attention to details in the background in addition to the activity in front of the camera. Sokolov's influences are easy to detect in some cases with his music queues - part of the score sounds like a variation of the Shostakovich waltz used in Eyes Wide Shut, while another scene echoes the music associated with Italian Westerns. Some of the crashing and bashing is rendered in slow motion. There are also little digressions, as when the viewer is shown how handcuffs can or can not be unlocked with a bobby pin. While several reviews of the film from its festival run cite the influence of Quentin Tarantino due to the depiction of violence, I would say Why Don't You Just Die? has more in common with the Coen brothers' Blood Simple in the basic setup as well as their other films with their darkly comic, and often accidental, deaths and injuries.

It should be noted that Why Don't You Just Die? was to get a theatrical release until current events made that impossible. Instead, the film is getting a VOD release today, but will also have a blu-ray release tomorrow. I've only been able to see the film and can not comment on the blu-ray, but my past experience is that for those interested in a deeper dive, Arrow's commentary tracks and extras are usually excellent.