May 10, 2021

Lights of Old Broadway

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Monte Bell - 1925
Kino Classics BD Region A

Even with the acclaim brought to Amanda Seyfried for her performance in Mark, I am not aware of any rise in interest in the real life or films of Marion Davies. My own initial attitude was colored by assumptions formed from Citizen Kane. This changed when I had the opportunity to see Show People and Going Hollywood at the Museum of Modern Art in the mid 1970s. At this time, only a handful of films are available to stream, with a few available on disc.

Lights of Old Broadway is more representative of the kind of films preferred by William Randolph Hearst, rather than those films that showcased Ms. Davies' talent for comedy. During her silent period, Davies showed herself adept at take pratfalls with the best of the silent clowns, something "Fatty" Arbuckle understood when directing Davies in The Red Mill. One of the funnier bits in Show People is Davies mimicking the facial expressions of Gloria Swanson. Davies benefitted from the addition of sound as a boisterous girl who was one of the guys. A top star for over a decade, in Blondie of the Follies, Davies both paid tribute to her own beginnings as a chorus girl and impersonates Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel under the direction of Edmund Goulding, whose previous film was . . . Grand Hotel. Based on what I have been able to see, the more typical vehicles for Davies emphasized sentimentality and triumph over adversity. Lights of Old Broadway does allow for Davies to show off her talent for knockabout comedy in a couple of early scenes including getting butted by a goat.

The bulk of the film takes place in 1880, prior to the first use of electric street lights in New York City. Lights of Old Broadway begins with an interesting premise of twin baby girls separated and adopted by two different parents, the wealthy De Rhondes and the Irish immigrant O'Tandys. For some reason or maybe no reason, nobody bothers to tell Anne De Rhonde or Fely O'Tandy that they were orphaned twins. Banker Lambert De Rhonde is trying to evict Shamus O'Tandy from his shack on 5th Avenue and 69th Street, a stretch of Manhattan that resembles part of California. Meanwhile, Lambert's son, Dirk, goes to the theater where performer Fely catches his eye. The story proceeds not only with the expected class conflicts, but also ethnic prejudice towards Irish immigrants. At one point, Anne and Fely finally meet, and while they express a sense of unexplained connection with each other, everyone else is oblivious to their physical resemblance, save for different colored hair. Added to this story are a couple of brief appearances by actors playing a very young Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Edison for no discernible reason.

The blu-ray benefits greatly from the commentary track by film historian Anthony Slide. The blu-ray is sourced from the Library of Congress print with a new score composed by Robert Israel. Slide is objective enough to acknowledge the weaknesses of the narrative aspects of Lights of New York, placing the film's importance more as part of Marion Davies' overall career. Very useful for contemporary viewers is pointing the historical context of several of the characters, as well as some history of Irish immigrants in the 19th Century. There are also the brief overviews of several of the cast members and crew. Monta Bell is known, if at all, mostly in being briefly mentioned by Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema as potentially being misgendered. Bell's career as a director is notable for directing Torrent, Greta Garbo's first Hollywood film. Slide suggests that Bell's greatest contribution would he his time as an executive for Paramount during the early sound era with films produced from the Astoria studio in New York.

Lights of New York has scenes that are tinted monochrome, but also use two other coloring processes. A scene at stage show used two-strip Technicolor, that is red and green. When 14th Street is illuminated by electric lights, the Handschiegl process, a more elaborate hand coloring, is used. Slide identifies and explains the use of color.

What Slide does not confirm is what I thought I saw right at the one hour mark of the blu-ray. Davies has offered a hat pin as the needed piece of wire needed for an electronic generator. Alone in the room, curiosity takes over and she touches the generator, resulting in an electric shock. This may be one of those moments when silence is golden, or maybe I should question my skills at lip reading, but I am positive that this is the one moment preserved on film where Marion Davies drops the F-bomb.

May 04, 2021

The Hot Spot

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Dennis Hopper - 1990
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

There was a time in the early to mid 1960s that Dennis Hopper developed himself as a serious photographer. His eye for composition is strongly evident in The Hot Spot throughout that film. Added to that is the use of colored gels and filters, the work of cinematographer Ueli Steiger. The opening shots of of the Texas landscape, brush and desert, filmed with a red filter, could well be Mars until we see a black 1957 Studebaker rolling down the highway. When not using colored filters, the daytime shots have the richness of color found in a vintage Kodachrome. The nighttime shots often use red or blue filtered lighting. Significantly at the end, when the three main characters no longer have secrets from each other that the light appears natural.

Many of the shots involve people seen behind windows or bars, as well as reflections of windows. The car lot where much of the film takes place has two small offices that have floor to ceiling glass. Hopper places his characters so that they are unified within the space of the camera frame, but separated by glass or metal barriers. Hopper could well have been influenced by Nicholas Ray's Rebel without a Cause, in particular the shot in which the characters of Jim, Judy and Plato are seen through windows of three different offices, all within the CinemaScope frame. The restriction of space is echoed by having several key scenes taking place within walking distance of the car lot. (While Hopper is not in the scene described in Rebel, his relationship with Ray extended long after the 19 year old actor's film debut.)

The film is based on the 1960 pulp novel by Charles Williams, Hell Hath No Fury. Williams wrote the screenplay with Nona Tyson in 1961 with the intention of having Robert Mitchum in the starring role. The film was made fifteen years after Williams' death. The novel is out of print in English, but a good vintage copy of the original paperback costs about $1000. That original title gives some vague idea of the story. Harry Madox shows up in a small Texas town, the kind where the main business area is a single street that spans a few blocks. Catching a failed sale at a used car lot, Madox steps in and makes the sale before the customer walks away. Hired on the spot, Madox has his eye on Gloria, the car lot's bookkeeper. Not too long after, Dolly, the wife of the car lot owner, George Harshaw, has her eye on Madox. What follows includes robbery, adultery, blackmail and murder.

Even though the film takes place at the then present time of 1990, the character of Dolly is a throwback to vintage film noir. Virginia Madsen's Dolly is a combination of curly blonde hair, form fitting outfits, and stretched out legs. In the supplementary interview, Madsen mentions that she wore an ankle bracelet as homage to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. While the only information about Dolly's past is that she was from another small town, that her bedroom resembles a well-appointed bordello might be all we need to know. Madsen as Dolly is first seen driving into the frame, not quite a close-up, red lips and red dress, and a classic pink Cadillac with fins - sex on wheels.

Madsen, with Don Johnson as Madox and a toothy young Jennifer Connelly as Gloria, make for a very photogenic trio. Even more so now, The Hot Spot seems like an outlier as a mainstream Hollywood film in its depiction of sex. There are a few moments when body doubles are used, but otherwise there is the kind of nudity that was more common during the first decade when the old production code went down. Hopper employees at least a couple of visual signifiers as in the use of a gun in Dolly's hand, a a shot of a knife in an open watermelon. One could almost call this film, "Last Tango in Texas".

The Harshaw home is filled with stuffed animals, hunted by George. In the film, the roles of hunter and prey shift, almost everyone is a predator. There is also a marlin on display in George's office. Along with the fin tailed cars of Dolly and Madox, the fishing symbolism is hard to miss.

Not as pretty as the stars, but still fun to watch are the assorted character actors in the supporting cast. Charles Martin Smith is the other used car salesman, not quite big enough for his ever present cowboy hat. Jack Nance is the guileless bank manager who inadvertently helps set up a future robbery. William Sadler's good old boy persona is his disguise as a blackmailer, living in a remote shack. In the blu-ray's other supplement, Sadler tells of how the shack was an existing abandoned home that was changed slightly for the film.

Bryan Reesman's commentary is generally informative, but could benefit from not being so rushed. What is best was the comparison between the novel and the film, as well as how Hopper got hold of the script by Williams and Tyson, rather than shooting an updated script as originally planned. Hopper did some uncredited tinkering that mark some updating, such as scenes in a strip club, as well as the aforementioned scenes that could not have been filmed in 1961. While Don Johnson does not have the same kind of screen presence as Robert Mitchum, as a film noir character he might be more aptly comparable to Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley, whose handsome exterior hides his amorality.

The tag line for The Hot Spot claims, "Film noir like you've never seen." Back in 1962, you could see Robert Mitchum beat up Polly Bergen, but not go down on her, even implied. It is an interesting reference in that the term film noir had traveled from something known primarily to cinephiles and scholars to being part of the more general lexicon. But The Hot Spot as noir or neo-noir strikes me as an updated version of the kind of films historian Sara Imogen Smith analyzes in her book, Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City. And the town where The Hot Spot takes place is strangely depopulated throughout most of the film. And while Ms. Smith was not specifically referring to Hopper's film, what she has written could well apply to how it ends -
Noir consistently undermines the American love affair with the road and the belief that travel equals freedom - that you can always get a new start in a different place. In noir, no place is pure, and there's no refuge to be found in unspoiled wilderness or small-town innocence. The notion that you can never get away from yourself runs through many of these films, so the final location I discuss is the mind.

April 30, 2021

Cliff Walkers

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Xuan ya zhi shang
Zhang Yimou - 2021
CMC Pictures

I am not sure why the English language title was changed from Impasse. The new title suggests a very different kind of action film, whereas the story here is about four spies on a mission that continually faces a variety of obstacles. Zhang may be at an artistic impasse following his relative failure with two films, The Flowers of War and The Great Wall, starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon respectively, not achieving the anticipated box office success. Add to that the temporary CCP censorship of One Second, and it appears that Zhang has retreated into making a film that would get easy approval from the government authorities and appeal primarily for the mainland audience.

Those without some knowledge of modern Chinese history might be baffled without some context. The film takes place some time during the 1930s when the northeastern part of China was controlled by a Japanese installed puppet government. The team of spies are Soviet trained Chinese agents who go to the city of Harbin to rescue a prisoner as well as expose how the prison is in violation of international law. There are double agents on both sides, and suspicion everywhere. In case the point is missed regarding any of the film's intentions, there is a final dedication to "the heroes of the revolution".

While the story may be of limited interest, Zhang once again has his pictorialism to fall back on. The opening shot, seemingly abstract, of four white circles above a grey patterned background, is revealed to be an overhead shot of four parachutes over a snowy forest. Zhang has several high overhead shots that make for interesting abstract images. The color palette here is mostly limited to shades of grey, white, black and brown. The clothing is equally dark with most of the characters, including the women, donning fedoras that partially hide their faces. While the spies initially hide in the cover of whiteness of heavy snowfall, most of the film takes place in dimly lit spaces.

The actress Liu Haicun as one of the agents, Lan, follows in the footsteps of previous Zhang protagonists including Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. Liu starred in One Second and is in Zhang's current production, Ju Ji Shou. Here she takes on all manner of villains in hand-to-hand fighting, as well as guns and knives. Time will tell if Liu gets the kind of international fame accorded Zhang's previous muses.

April 27, 2021

Switchblade Sisters

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Jack Hill - 1975
Arrow Films BD Region A

While it may be true that certain parts of Switchblade Sisters were inspired by actual events and people researched by Jack Hill, the film is at heart closer to something like High School Confidential. And I love High School Confidential. But what we have is a film mostly populated by actors who are mostly well into their twenties, in a story that takes place in what I can only describe as a backlot Los Angeles marked up by an army of graffiti taggers. The mix of topicality does not make the film any more realistic. Any serious messages get lost the exaggerated, fanciful imagination of Hill.

The new girl at school, Maggie, is challenged by girl gang member, Patch, at the local burger stand. Patch is with the other members of the Dagger Debs, and gets her nickname from wearing an eyepatch. The gang leader, Lace, is the girlfriend of Dominic, "president" of the Silver Daggers. Maggie and Patch get into a fight, interrupted by the cops who take the girls to a reformatory. Maggie may the new girl on the block, but she is hardly naive to the ways of the street. Lace decides to give Maggie a chance to be part of the Dagger Debs, setting off a chain of events involving gang rivalries, jealousy and betrayal.

It should be no surprise that Robbie Lee, the young actress who played Lace, went on to primarily work as a voice artist. Snaggletoothed slightly keeps Lee from being conventionally attractive, but it is her voice that manages to be simultaneously annoying and endearing. Jack Hill described Lee's voice as reminding him of James Cagney, but that is not quite accurate. I think it is more like the voice of a child trying to sound tough, but it is still to high to be taken seriously. There may be better analogies, but Lee sounds more like a very young Mickey Rooney. Similar to some of the classic film gangsters, underneath Lace's tough exterior is a sentimental side that contributes to her undoing.

While it is not stated in any of the interviews with Hill or anyone associated with the production, I wonder if there was a time when Switchblade Sisters was intended to be a blaxploitation film. Previously, Hill had made his reputation with several films that made a star out of Pam Grier. There are scenes where making the film about black gangs might have made more sense. Some of the topicality of the time may be lost with a contemporary audience when the remaining Debs, now called the Jezebels, join forces with a cadre of black female revolutionaries who quote from Mao's Little Red Book. Back in 1975, most of the intended audience would know a reference to Angela (Davis) would not need to state her last name. As bad then as it is now, though, would to have a female character named "Muff", especially when played by Marlene Clark, an actress who deserved much better roles following Ganja and Hess.

In one of the supplementary interviews, Jack Hill states that he intended the film to be rated PG. Hill said that the R rating was due to the discussion of drug use, although I suspect that what also factored in the rating has been the tendency of a more punitive stance towards independent films. In an unsourced quote in IMDb, Hill also describes Switchblade Sisters as a fantasy. Both of these bring up the question as to whom was the intended audience. Hill's films, with the possible exception of Spider Baby, could all be described as exploitation films and were sold as such. Considering what was popular in 1975, the year of Jaws, it is hard to imagine that even under the best circumstances that Switchblade Sisters would have been embraced by a teen audience. The fantasy aspect might be best judged by Hill's choice to shoot several scenes on the backlots of MGM. Hill found this to be both more cost and time efficient than shooting (literally and figuratively) on location. But the virtually depopulated studio streets also add to a sense of unreality.

That embrace of commercial viability has proven elusive although the film has an afterlife with some critics and cult audiences. My own first viewing was in 1995 via Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures. The Arrow release is a reflection of the contemporary female fandom that has emerged following that re-release. The enclosed booklet includes an interview with Hill by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and an essay discussing the controversial rape scene. Heather Drain provides a more general overview of the film's narrative. The commentary track by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan provides more of a feminist perspective with Deighan providing a connection with several of the bad girl films from the 1950s. Fans of Jack Hill may also enjoy the collection of trailers from his other films included here.

April 20, 2021

The Invisible Man Appears

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The Invisible Man Appears / Tomei ningen arawaru
Nobuo Adachi - 1949

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The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly / Tomei ningen to hae otoko
Mitsuo Murayama - 1957
Arrow Video BD Region A

What I found most interesting about these two films is how they reflected changes in Japan after World War II by what was said, or not stated. The character of the Invisible Man is mostly inspired by the James Whale classic, especially the in The Invisible Man Appears where the title character is dressed with the bandaged head, trench coat and fedora. Both films are dependent on the same special effects of objects floating in the air, and actors pretending to hold invisible objects on occasion and put themselves through various contortions while pretending to be assaulted by the unseen nemesis. Also, the more critical viewers of both films will be challenged to make sense of the stories.

Admittedly, the title The Invisible Man Appears is self-contradictory. A professor who looks a bit like Albert Einstein is supervising two protoges working on rival formulas to achieve invisibility. The two younger men are also rivals for the professor's daughter. The professor decides to show off his own formula, a liquid thus far tested on animals, to a businessman friend. The professor declines to sell the formula as there is no way to undo the invisibility. That does not stop the businessman who sets in motion a plot involving kidnapping and the theft of a valuable diamond necklace.

The Invisible Man Appears was filmed partially in Kobe as well as Daiei's Kyoto studio. The area appears to have been untouched during World War II. The professor notes that he had been working on his own invisibility formula for ten years, suggesting that he was left on his own during the war. A subplot has one of the young men with a sister who is a member of a variety troupe in Kobe. The film veers off to a series of excerpts from a stage show which is mostly made with a mix of more culturally traditional entertainment plus some western style music and dress. The professor's daughter is played by Chizuru Kitagawa, whose appeal was more Japanese specific.

What has made The Invisible Man Appears of most interest is that the special effects were the work of Eiji Tsuburaya, most famous for his special effects for Toho Studios' science-fiction films. At the time the film was made, Tsuburaya was temporarily blacklisted by American authorities for his too realistic recreation of the bombing of Pearl Harbor for a film released one year after the event. Takiko Mizunoe, the stage performing sister here, is better known if not by name, then by her work as Japan's first female producer, instrumental in creating Nikkatsu Studios' "borderless cinema". It may be less than coincidental that Mizunoe's career ended at about the same time following the release of Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill. There is virtually no substantive information on writer/director Nobuo Adachi beyond this filmography. There is an amusing scene with an invisible cat, heard but not seen, padding across a piano keyboard and generally knocking over anything perceived to be in the way. Adachi also repeats a superimposed close-up of a pair of eyes over a shot of the diamond necklace.

A bit more scientific mumbo jumbo informs The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly. Actually there is more than one invisible man, plus one woman, who subject themselves to a special ray of light that renders them temporarily invisible. There is also more than one human fly, a villain who has some kind of formula that causes him to shrink to the size of a housefly and flit around unnoticed, going back to full-size at will. Plot holes are blithely ignored in favor of the spectacle of partially and completely invisible people, and a human fly who somehow manages to carry a full-sized knife as a backstabbing villain, and his employer, a businessman seeking revenge by blowing up parts of Tokyo.

The film takes place in Tokyo experiences its post-war resurgence. The war is directly referred to as the chief villain is seeking revenge on some fellow soldiers who left him alone to take the punishment for a wartime crime. One of the scientists view of nuclear weapons is that they were the unintended results of scientific research, a curiously apolitical stance. There are also breaks in the narrative taking place in a nightclub. The featured showgirl, Mieko, played by Ikuko Mori, wears outfits on stage that are more revealing, especially of her midriff and legs. Her stage performance is western in style and music. The other actresses indicate the changes in Japanese film towards women who more closely fit the western standards of beauty.

Aside from this film, the most well-known work in Mitsuo Murayama's filmography is Kenji Mizoguchi's Yang Kwei Fei, on which he served as an assistant director. Setting aside the risible narrative, Murayama proves to be a capable stylist here in his visual choices. An early scene where we just follow the legs of a couple might have been influenced by George Stevens. A couple of chases in empty streets accompanied by the sound of footsteps may have been lifted from Carol Reed. The film also benefits from a more solid budget. Like several other Japanese directors, Murayama worked in Hong Kong for the Shaw Brothers in the 1970s.

In addition to the two films, the blu-ray also has an overview by Kim Newman on the history of Invisible Man films. Included is an excerpt from the earliest known film to have been inspired by H. G. Wells' character, made in 1903. The accompanying booklet has essays by Keith Allison, Hayley Scanlon and Tom Vincent, helping put the films in their contexts regarding the title character and Japanese film culture of the time the films were produced. Both films were sources from surviving 16mm prints, with The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly noticeably better preserved.

April 19, 2021

Clapboard Jungle

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Justin McConnell - 2021
Arrow Films

Clapboard Jungle should probably be mandatory viewing for anybody with aspirations of being a professional filmmaker. And, yes, it is a jungle out there.

Justin McConnell has documented part of his life, primarily the years between 2015 through 2017. Even with a modest track record of several shorts, a couple of documentaries and one feature, McConnell goes through the frustration of hoping to get financing to make a second feature. This means a concerted effort at networking, going to film marketing events to meet with potential producers, and having seemingly having nothing to show for all of the efforts in selling one's self and one's film. Finally, the modestly budgeted Lifechanger has enough financing in place to allow McConnell to make his film which in turn has an unexpectedly good run on the international film festival circuit, and several distribution deals.

More than just struggling to get the financing, McConnell shows what needs to be in place when in production. We briefly get to see some of the nuts and bolts that are part of the pre-production process, such as casting and scouting locations.

In between are excerpts from other filmmakers, primarily directors and producers, discussing the state of independent filmmaking today. The most familiar names would be Guillermo del Toro and George Romero. There are also actors Sid Haig, Dick Miller and Barbara Crampton. McConnell even puts his own uncertainty about his directorial career in some perspective by having some female directors including Jovanka Vuckovic and Gigi Saul Guerrero discuss the difficulty in being taken seriously. Film programmers also point out what they look for and ways in which film festivals can be helpful.

With the exception of Paul Schrader, everyone else who appears in Clapboard Jungle is associated with genre filmmaking. That should still not mean that the person wanting to be the next John Cassavetes should ignore what can be gleaned here. More likely, the road to making the film made and more importantly, seen, will be even more challenging.

The state of contemporary filmmaking exists in a kind of paradox. With the variety of streaming channels available, there is a demand for content, especially if it can be branded as Netflix has done with films picked up at the major festivals. If there seems to be a glut of horror films available, it has to do with several factors - they can be produced on modest or even micro budgets, they do not depend on name actors, and they are easier to sell. By sales, I mean having the filmmaker sell the concept to the potential financiers who are more likely to hop aboard if you say your film has similarities to an older, successful film, but also has its own unique qualities. As the Thai saying goes, "Same same, but different". And even though there are more films made to fill this insatiable demand by the streamers, it does not always translate as more opportunities for filmmakers who have to deal with producers who want to play it as safe as possible financially. Making a profit is the exception, not the rule, once a film is available to the public.

Even in the short time since McConnell filmed his odyssey, the horror film landscape has changed somewhat. There are more women making horror films, though not all of them have the kind of high profiles that make themselves known on the film festival circuit, or get distribution deals with high end niche distributors. McConnell also does not mention how some filmmakers have made use of crowdfunding, which was used by Ana Lily Amirpour for her debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Mattie Do for Dearest Sister, the first Laotian film to compete for the International Film Oscar. In the meantime, Lifechanger still has a life of its own being available on multiple streaming apps.

Clapboard Jungle is available on the Arrow streaming app by subscription and PVOD via other streaming services.

April 16, 2021

The Rookies

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Su ren te gong
Alan Yuen - 2019
Shout! Studios

When it comes to making films for Alan Yuen, the spectacle takes precedence over any kind of coherent story. Even more so than Firestorm (2014), we have a collection of sometimes spectacular set pieces strung together with a plot that does not make a whole lot of sense. The rookies of the title are four youngish people, eccentric in their own ways, who accidentally become involved in saving the world from a villain who has a chemical gas that turns people into plants. The action jumps from Hong Kong to Budapest, with our quartet working in conjunction with a secret international crime fighting organization.

The film is mostly comic although some moments of violence undermine the general good cheer. But it is also a mixed bag, with lots of special effects that are a reminder that Yuen intended his film to ideally be seen in 3D. Also mixed is the comedy, with visual humor easily winning over some of the verbal jousting that may have been lost in translation. The version being made available here is entirely in English, jarring when seeing Johnny To supporting player Lam Suet speaking in a voice I know is not his own. A side note here - there seems to be a law that Lam must be seen eating in all film appearances. Lam is a police chief who sends incompetent underling Sandrine Pinna to Budapest. The normally attractive Pinna is unrecognizable with heavy glasses and clothing. Milla Jovovich is sold as the film's main attraction but she is really more of a supporting character here. Yuen's idea of humor is to have her play a secret agent named Bruce, speak with a raspy voice, and wear a man's suit with her hair tightly in place. Imagine a somewhat glammed up Fran Lebowitz as an action star.

The best moments involves the rookies disguised as a Kiss cover band, and a Volkswagen Beetle souped beyond anything imagined for James Bond. That Yuen will try almost anything for a laugh includes a dumb-funny scene with an inflatable sex doll. The Rookies would still have benefitted from tightening up or simply cutting out some of the footage.

The Rookies is available on PVOD and limited theatrical engagements.