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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September 05, 2019

The Long Walk

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Bor Mi Vanh Chark
Mattie Do - 2019
Lao Art Media

It is quite possible that I may have mis-read Mattie Do's third film as a westerner with limited personal exposure to Southeast Asian life and culture. But I'm going to dive in anyways. For those unfamiliar with Mattie Do, she is the first female director from the country officially known as the Loa People's Democratic Republic, and one of the handful of filmmakers in country that has had no filmmaking infrastructure. He previous film, Dearest Sister was the first film from her country to be entered for consideration for the Foreign Language Oscar. Following film festival exposure, Dearest Sister has been available through the genre streaming channel, Shudder. The Long Walk premiered at the Venice Film Festival, as part of the Giornate degli Autori. The Lao title literally translates, per Ms. Do, as "Never a day apart/separated".

The Long Walk is a Lao ghost story. It will no doubt frustrate those who insist on exposition every ten minutes or so to explain what is going on. Those looking for jump scares will have to find them elsewhere. The pacing is languid. The horror, such as it is, is muted. The film takes place in a rural area, where past and present (or is it present and future?), folk beliefs and futuristic technology, and humans and ghosts share the same space. Probably not deliberately, but Do's film is closer to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee than to the kinds of films associated with "Asian Extreme".

I am making the connection between the younger Lao filmmaker with the better known Thai based not only on the films, but my brief time in Thailand. Both cultures share similarities with the presence of spirit houses, those small shrines that resemble small houses on a platform, a home for a protective spirit, where small food offerings are placed. There is also the influence of Buddhism, and government of a kind under the direction of the designated village headman. The animism in The Long Walk is to be found geographically, in a part of a forest that has become a special burial ground. There is a pervasive sense of time standing still, of people living the way have for decades, with anything indicating modernity more of an intrusion rather than convenience.

An unnamed man, referred to as the Old Man, gets by selling parts of an abandoned motorcycle. He is called by the local police based on his reputation to communicate with the dead, in hopes of finding the body of a missing woman. Both the old man's use of a microchip implanted in his arm as a means of telling time and conducting financial transactions, and his particular spiritual abilities are treated as nothing out of the ordinary. The main narrative concerns the shifting relationship between the old man, a young boy and a silent young woman. The old man sees his mission as delivering women from physical pain, and burying them in a hidden area, counter to the Buddhist tradition of cremation. It is uncertain if the souls of these women are truly at rest. Do and her screenwriter, husband Christopher Larsen, offer partial explanations through their characters. There is a happy ending, but also plenty of ambiguity.

August 29, 2019

Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

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Bunuel en el laberinto de las tortugas
Salvador Simo - 2019
GKids

Perhaps the only thing more surrealistic than an animated film about Luis Bunuel is that the source is a graphic novel by Fermin Solis. The advantage of the formats allow for greater liberty and ease in alternating between biography and fantasy. That live actors are not used provides a distancing device assists is some of the fictionalized elements of the story, where even some of the facts are as odd as some of the moments found in Bunuel's later films.

Essentially the recounting of the making of the pseudo-documentary, Las Hurdes, known in English as Land without Bread, the narrative bounces between Bunuel following the initial screening of L'Age d'Or in 1930, and his childhood in provincial Spain at about the age of 9. Bunuel is met on the street by photographer Eli Lotar with a proposal to make a documentary on Las Hurdes, a poor and neglected part of Spain. Handed a book from Lotar, Bunuel protests that he does not make documentaries. The scandal from L'Age d'Or has effectively killed any anticipated projects. The artist Ramon Acin jokes with Bunuel that if he wins the lottery, he will use the money to produce Bunuel's next film.

The making of Land without Bread is both hilarious and horrifying. Bunuel's search for truth is undermined by his own manipulations of people. I would advise anyone planning on seeing this film to see Land without Bread first, and then see how Bunuel and company created some of the more dramatic images. Simo includes excerpts from Bunuel's film. The title of Simo's film and the graphic novel come from a line in the narration in Land without Bread, where the rooftops of the virtually identical shacks the poorest of the Las Hurdes residents call home, are described as resembling the shells of turtles.

The film begins with several unidentified people in a Paris cafe discussing the purpose of art before shifting over to Bunuel, still a celebrity among his peers. And while Simo openly brings up the discussion about art having any purpose or meaning, the unstated question brought up in the making of Las Hurdes would be about film as documentation, and having a film film about people living in dire poverty have their stories told by people of privilege. The filmmakers are shown to have some self-awareness of their situation although some of their actions could be interpreted easily as patronizing rather than generous. In retrospect, Land without Bread, even with its banning by the Franco government, did more for Bunuel than the people he filmed.

Also worth mentioning is that the Luis Bunuel presented here isn't as totally anti-clerical he has sometimes declared himself, but is depicted with a more complicated relationship to Catholicism. Two childhood incidents that indicate the future artist are of a young Luis presenting a magic lantern show, scaring his friends with the magnified shadows of insects, and Luis participating in the Easter celebration in his childhood town of Calanda, where the men dress in purple cassocks and drum in unison. Even here, Bunuel literally beats to his own drum.

August 21, 2019

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino - 2019
Columbia Pictures

I was nowhere near Hollywood either in February or August of 1969. During that winter, I was finishing up my Senior year of high school in Denver. That August, I was in Detroit, staying with some relatives prior to going to New York City to begin my first year at New York University. But I have enough clear memories to have questioned the choices of film references and music in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. Yes, I know Quentin Tarantino has framed his film as a "fairy tale". Aside from the alternate reality of a fictional actor's encounter with members of the Manson family, was the choice of film titles seen on theater marquees and posters, as well as a soundtrack that was derived from an AM radio playlist. Thinking about the film, I conjured up my own alternative to this alternative.

First, keep in mind that some of those movies would never have played at the same time. This was when a first run film would play in a major city, often on a single screen, when single screen theaters were the norm. It was also normal for a hit movie to play for months in that one theater. However, the reality is that while we see a prominent poster for Michael Sarne's Joanna, that film basically came and went in November 1968. And one can briefly see a sign for Tora! Tora! Tora!, a film that wasn't released until September 1970. To some extent Sarne, William Friedkin (The Night they Raided Minsky's) and Noel Black (Pretty Poison) are as far Tarantino will get in acknowledging the changing face of Hollywood filmmaking, when film school grads were beginning to make their mark.

Conspicuous in its absence is any reference to Columbia Pictures major hit of the Summer of 1969, Easy Rider. The closest Tarantino comes is having Rick Dalton call Manson family member "Tex" Watson by the presumed pejorative "Dennis Hopper". Some have conflated Rick Dalton's reaction as speaking on behalf of Tarantino, but I don't think it's as simple as that. Like Tarantino, many of the first film school generation filmmakers were influenced by the French Nouvelle Vague, especially the early films by Jean-Luc Godard. Possibly, Dalton is reacting more to Hopper's onscreen persona in Easy Rider as the character known as Billy (the Kid). Hopper appeared in True Romance, written by Tarantino. And less than two months earlier, Hopper could be seen briefly in one of the most mainstream of Hollywood releases that summer, True Grit. What is also significant about Easy Rider is that the bulk of the soundtrack is made up of already existing rock songs, familiar with some AM radio play, but even better known on that relatively new phenomena of FM rock radio, so-called album oriented rock that was independent of the more restrictive Top 40 on AM radio. What makes things a bit complicated culturally here is that FM radio was virtually less racially diverse than AM radio where you could hear Tommy James and the Shondells followed by Sly and the Family Stone, and The Supremes followed by The Doors. If someone depended on Once Upon a Time . . for film history, they would be unaware of how it part of a shift away from traditional Hollywood.

That New Hollywood that is unseen or ignored would include films like John Cassavetes' Faces, a film that Cassavetes made mostly with his own money from acting, free from any studio backing, The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks, the first studio production directed by the African-American writer and photographer, and Midnight Cowboy, initially rated X, officially prohibiting anyone under the age 18 from attending. Midnight Cowboy is almost the anti-Once Upon a Time . . ., taking place in New York City of 1968 at its seediest, also about someone who plays the part of a cowboy, sometimes not very well, accompanied by his enabler as it were. Whereas Rick Dalton's heterosexuality is never in doubt, Joe Buck is flexible as the occasion demands, while the perpetually sick Ratso Rizzo stands opposite of the athletic Cliff Booth. The only acknowledgment of any non-English language films are the four fictional Italian productions starring Rick Dalton.

Unless Quentin Tarantino is totally oblivious, as much as he might revel in an older Hollywood and some of the attitudes of that time, he has also been a beneficiary of following in the footsteps of the New Hollywood generation. It was Hopper and filmmakers like Henry Jaglom, who assisted in the final edit of Easy Rider that played a major part in importing the idea of non-linear narrative structure from Europe to the Hollywood studio film. And taking up where Kenneth Anger left off, Dennis Hopper set the template for studio films comprised of the film director's needle drops from their favorite records. Had there been no New Hollywood, which in turn evolved to the sudden elevation of younger male directors given multi-million dollar budgets on second films, it is quite possible that a video store clerk would still be dreaming about making his own movies.

August 13, 2019

Razzia sur la Chnouf

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Henri Decoin - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The title translates as "Raid on the Dope". It's the second of two films starring Jean Gabin using French slang in the title, the other being Touchez pas au grisbi ("Don't touch the loot'). Also on hand is Lino Ventura, who would be seen again with Gabin in other crime films. More importantly for Gabin, this is one of the films that helped return the actor to commercial viability mostly in roles as a top gangster or maverick cop.

Gabin appears as Henri, a former associate of an Italian named gangster, returning from the U.S. to France in order to re-organize the languishing heroin trade. He first meets up with his French boss, Liski, who provides the names on the various employees. Henri's job is not only to make sure sales quotas are met but also employ two thugs who act as enforcers for those proving less than reliable. Henri's cover is a fashionable piano bar. Of interest to cineastes is that Liski is played by Marcel Dalio, Gabin's co-star in Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game, from seventeen years earlier.

According to director and film historian Bertrand Tavernier, Henri Decoin was unfairly dismissed with other French directors of his generation primarily due to the inconsistency of his work, some of which was clearly simply for hire. Tavernier also points out how Decoin was able to take what he learned directly from Hollywood directors onto his own work. This is most obvious in some of the more violent scenes, such as the use of a shot that is almost subliminal when the thugs' victim is beat up. The image of a getaway car's windshield cracked by a bullet anticipates as similar image in Bonnie and Clyde. A shot that first appears to be tilted is revealed to be of a mirror when the camera pulls back. Tavernier compares Decoin to Raoul Walsh in how he films action, not an inapt comparison.

What really struck me was Decoin's depiction of drug addiction and a multicultural Paris, unusual for a French film made in 1955, and unthinkable for Hollywood at that time. Lea, a drug dealer looking older than her years, snorts heroin off her hand in a well-lit bar. A group of men presumably from North Africa gather in their own little bar, smoking marijuana. Lea, who's attempts to bed Henri are rebuffed, seeks solace with a shirtless African, seen performing a solo dance, the camera framing the movement of his hips. One of the other dealers is Chinese, with his own opium den. There is also some dialogue indicating that one of the drug dealers is in a relationship with his male companion. Another unusual feature is the jazzy film score by Marc Lanjean, with arrangements by twenty-three year old Michel Legrand - his first film credit.

In his commentary track, Nick Pinkerton gives Decoin short shrift, relying primarily on an overview of Decoin's career from the French film criticism magazine Positif. In terms of evaluating Decoin, at this time Razzia is the only film available for accessible viewing for English language viewers. One of the problems with discussing some older French films and filmmakers is that the dismissals made by the Cahiers du Cinema critics have been taken at face value, with a handful of those directors only more recently getting fairer reassessments. Where the commentary is more helpful is pointing out some of the actors, especially the less familiar supporting players. Pinkerton also discusses the connection between some of the French films of the 1930s with those of the 1950s, especially in connection with the novels by Georges Simenon. In the case of Razzia, the author of the source novel, Auguste Le Breton also appears as a small time hood named Auguste Le Breton. There is also a connection to The French Connection with a brief appearance by Marcel Bozzuffi. The print source appears to have been in pristine condition with beautifully rendered images. Most of the film takes place at night with a sky that is pitch black. This is French film noir at its blackest.

August 06, 2019

The Girl in the Fog

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La ragazza nella nebbia
Donato Carrisi - 2017
Icarus Films Home Video R1 DVD

The Italian mystery writer, Donato Carrisi, has made his filmmaking debut, adapting one of his own novels into film. Carrisi's efforts were considered good enough that he was awarded the 2017 David di Donatello award, Italy's version of the Oscars, for Best New Director. I've not read the source novel so I am unable to comment on any changes. Carrisi does demonstrate visual flair, with the only weak spot being the final would-be twist at the end which should only surprise viewers not paying attention to several verbal and visual clues.

The story takes place in a small village in the Italian Alps where the residents all seem to know each other, and what tourist industry existed has virtually evaporated. A high school age girl, Anna Lou, has disappeared just prior to Christmas. Celebrity detective Vogel has taken on the case, bringing with him a small army of journalists and investigators. Vogel has become something of a reality television star. He is dogged by possibly misidentifying a serial bomber who was eventually found innocent. Vogel is intent on solving the mystery of Anna Lou, even at the cost of his reputation.

The first image is of Anna's house in the fog. The haze, the flatness, and limited nighttime colors initial make the image look like an illustration. Some of the other exterior shots give the impression of cardboard houses on an artificial studio set. The fog even carries over to the interior sets. There are also images within the shots, often of televisions set to the news, but also computer screens, and a VHS tape. These images within the image bring up the questions regarding the trustworthiness of what is supposedly documented. Carrisi also divides some of the sequences with overhead shots of a model version of the village, akin to something created from a fairy tale wooden toy shop. The village is pointedly remote, with the residents deliberately keeping themselves at a distance from aspects associated with life in the major cities. There are moments when Vogel appears to be visiting an alien landscape.

Carrisi uses a good number of overhead shots, as well as slow dolly shots, with the camera moving in or away from his characters. Most of the narrative is a series of flashbacks of Vogel's initial investigation from his point of view, as well as a sub-plot of Vogel's suspect. The actual mystery, or perhaps I should say mysteries, are subordinate to the themes of how public images are manipulated, and how an anonymous crowd response to those images.

Toni Servillo stars here as Vogel. Best known for his award winning performance in The Great Beauty, Servillo brings from that film the continued sense of someone world weary, who has seen and done everything, for whom nothing is new. Jean Reno appears as a psychiatrist with whom Vogel discusses the case, as part of an unofficial return to the scene of the crime. A virtually unrecognizable Greta Scacchi has a small role as a journalist whose decades long investigation suggest new clues.