July 25, 2014

Love in the City

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L'Amore in Citta
Cesare Zavattini - 1953
Raro Video Region A Blu-ray

While there may be some debate as to which film marked the beginning of Italian Neo-realism, this omnibus film certainly marks the end. What ideas Cesare Zavattini had when he came up with the concept, commissioning several mostly new filmmakers to create short films around a central theme, the best work here are the films that stray furthest from the kind of work associated with such classics as Shoeshine or Bicycle Theives.

Federico Fellini couldn't be bothered with making his segment, "Marriage Agency", appear like a documentary, albeit a staged recreation of reality. Anticipating future work, the film is about a journalist, in this case one investigating a small match-making operation. Much as Marcello Mastroianni would wander through various maze-like environments, Antonio Cifariello gets lost through several impossibly long hallways looking for the marriage agency. Claiming he is looking for a friend who has the tendency to turn into something like a werewolf, his story and money are happily accepted. The woman this imaginary friend is matched with turns out to be something of a dim bulb, faintly attractive, looking for a real home. Like the women portrayed by Giulietta Masina, this would be bride is virtually kicked to the curb.

Better is the final segment by Fellini's directorial collaborator on Variety Lights, Alberto Lattuada. Shot with a hidden camera in a truck, "Italians Turn Their Heads" is purportedly cinema verite of Italian men ogling attractive women. As notes and the commentary track indicate, the women in question are mostly young actresses, the most famous being an eighteen year old Giovanna Ralli. Marco Ferreri, a producer on this film, also appears, chasing a babe up a flight of stairs only to find that the young lady has a rendezvous with a man at the top. This segment is undoubtedly sexist with its presentation of gorgeous women with wide hips and spectacular breasts, but it also serves as a reminder as to why Italian movies were a popular art house staple when Hollywood was still under the yoke of the Production Code. The music by Mario Nascimbene might be worth mentioning for possibly inspiring Ennio Morricone to use the Jew's harp in his own scores.

Dino Risi nowadays might be remembered for a remake of one of his films, A Scent of a Woman. The only available feature for stateside viewers is Il Sorpasso, released with the English title of The Easy Life. Risi's segment, "Paradise for Three Hours" shares much of the flair for observation and humor of Il Sorpasso. Taking place on a Sunday evening, the film takes place in a dancehall. The women are housemaids, the guys are probably blue collar workers slicked up for the evening. Some of the couples are oddly matched - either in height, girth or looks. A shy soldier sits next to an equally shy young woman - they exchange glances, but no words until the young woman bolts out of the dance hall due to the time, and the soldier, realizing that he's almost lost his moment, chases after the woman, catching up with her at the film's end. There is also the woman who has captured the eyes of most of the men, a beauty in a dress with a checkerboard pattern more appropriate for a table cloth. Risi's segment is sweet and funny, and my favorite chapter here.

I don't have anything more to add on the segment by Michelangelo Antonioni, also seen as an extra on the new Blu-ray of I Vinti. Carlo Lizzani's segment on street prostitutes was considered shocking at the time, but comes off as the work of a condescending male whose notions of middle class morality have been upset. As indicated by the poster below, Lizzani's episode was excised in the original release outside of Italy. While the credit is shared with Zavattini, Franco Maselli's commentary seems to indicate that the filming of "The Story of Caterina" is mostly his work. The recreation by the real Caterina of her time as a homeless woman who temporarily abandons her child, the film very much resemblesUmberto D with its tale of someone with minimal resources trying to find their place in a virtually indifferent Rome.

All of the segments have commentary tracks, some of which were done by Italian documentary filmmakers. Lizzani and Maselli contributed commentaries to their segments. Based on notes with the Blu-ray, the commentary tracks were done around 2001 for the Italian DVD release.

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July 24, 2014

Noel Black (1937 - 2014)

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This one hits me personally. I have written what may well be the only serious consideration of Noel Black's films. This was for The Velvet Light Trap No. 13. I convinced the editor that there were a bunch of great new filmmakers that deserved analysis, rather than more retreads on John Ford and Howard Hawks. Some are writing now about the early Seventies as one of the great ages of American Cinema, but at the time, my suggestion was considered a radical idea. In those days before the internet and IMDb I missed a few things about Noel Black's career that I should have included. I should add that I briefly knew Noel, visiting him in Los Angeles a couple times when I was there, and exchanging a couple of letters.

I may still have the letter somewhere in storage, but he sent me a newspaper clipping of a stripper going by the stage name of "Pretty Poison" with a note from a friend declaring that Black's film now had the ultimate accolade.

There may be some kind of irony in that along with winning the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1966 for his short film, "Skaterdater", Black also shared the Technical Grand Prize with Orson Welles for Chimes at Midnight. Although the perception of Welles' career has changed over the years, for both filmmakers, their peak films would generally be considered their feature debuts. As it currently stands, interest in Noel Black seems to begin and end with Pretty Poison. And if you care at all, get the British DVD of Pretty Poison. Officially it's Region 2, but trust me, it's playable anywhere, and unlike the Fox DVD, this one has commentary by Black.

My personal knowledge of the rest of Black's career is spotty. I haven't seen most of the television work. On the other hand, when Black's ill-fated second feature, Cover Me, Babe very briefly played at the Baronet theater in New York City, it took me several minutes to convince the cashier that I was not lost on my way to see Five Easy Pieces at the adjacent, and larger Coronet. I even saw Cover Me, Babe again when it snuck in to New York City's worst theater, Variety Photoplays, appearing in a double feature with Carousel.

The last time I saw Noel Black was when he was in Denver, for a short period favored by the studios for advanced previews. He was with a couple of production associates for a screening of A Man, a Woman and a Bank.

Black went from promising newcomer to forgotten journeyman, also devoting much of his time to special projects for the Directors Guild of America. While the cult for Pretty Poison is mostly based on Tuesday Weld, Black's other best remembered film, Private School is beloved for Phoebe Cates' seen in various states of undress.

Those interested might also want to check out A Change of Seasons. The film might well be retitled, "A Change of Directors". The first half of the film is Black's work, the second half by Richard Lang. A light comedy was replaced by broader humor. Too bad the suits didn't trust Black on this one. It might not have been much, but it would have been better than the film that was released.

One of Noel Black's disappointments was having Robert Forster star in Cover Me, Babe. Black's choice was a relatively unknown stage actor named Al Pacino. That Black had a good eye for future talent is indicated with the unknowns in supporting roles in 1973's Jennifer on My Mind - Barry Bostwick, Jeff Conaway and as a mad cab driver, Robert De Niro.

July 23, 2014

Bethlehem

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Yuval Adler - 2013
Adopt Films Region 1 DVD

At this particular time, it would be impossible to watch Bethlehem without thinking about what is happening in Gaza. And while real life and what a movie may reflect as reality are not the same, I would like to think that Bethlehem offers some kind of reminder that there might be some nuances that are overlooked in much of the reportage.

Keeping in mind that this is an Israeli film, what is presented might well be questioned. The basic story is of an Israeli agent, Razi, who has cultivated a friendship with a Palestinian teen, Sanfur. Sanfur's brother is a known militant wanted by Israeli authorities. Razi has an awareness that Sanfur could well become a part of the Palestinian resistance movement in the near future, but uses his trust to track down the brother, Ibrahim, albeit indirectly.

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Where the film is of interest is in its depiction of the internecine rivalries among the Palestinians. Ibrahim is secretly funded by Hamas. Even within their association with Hamas, there are smaller "brigades" out to prove themselves as being the most truly radical. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority tries to keep a balance of asserting their role over the demands of Hamas, while keeping the peace with Israel. In one scene that plays out like a crime thriller, Ibrahim meets with the militant leader with close ties to the Palestinian Authority, suddenly pushing him back over a staircase railing, several floors up.

While how the Israeli army performs its role within the West Bank is questioned, there is a greater look at the quandary of Palestinian life. More cruel than the Israelis are the Palestinians who choose public executions for those branded as collaborators. Ibrahim's lieutenant, Badawi, isn't trusted by either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, being of Bedouin descent.

Beyond the political, Bethlehem might be viewed as an examination of how masculinity is defined. Sanfur and his friends are first seen playing with a loaded rifle. In a deadly game of chicken, one of them is to wear an old bullet proof jacket, and be able to take being shot. The ideals of trust and honor are continually shredded by self-serving lies. No one is allowed neutral ground. There are choices to be made, but all are equally bad. Women are in the periphery. It's if life is just one continual pissing contest, where the men are trying to outgun each other literally and figuratively. I would not think it coincidental that the film that takes place in a town of religious significance ends with an act that might remind some of Cain and Abel.

July 21, 2014

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

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Boksuneun naui geot
Park Chan-wook - 2002
Palisades Tartan Video Blu-ray Region A

Once upon a time, there was Tartan Video, famous for its "Asian Extreme" label. Tartan Video was bought out and became Palisades Tartan in 2008. Palisades Tartan is now revived in affiliation with Kino Lorber, but the movies that are identified most with the label are the one that were released under the watch of Tartan founder Hamish McAlpine. And yes, I have seen most of those releases, and was saddened when the original company went under, the victim of its own success with a couple of imitators, perhaps too many films marketed as "Asian Extreme" and critics and viewers who didn't bother with, or care about, any cultural context for many of the best films.

I think what makes the revival of the Tartan label worthwhile is that for many of us, it allows for an opportunity to see the films again with greater familiarity with the filmmakers and actors. In the case of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I have now seen the bulk of films by Park Chan-wook. Bae Doona, still in the early stages of her career, evolved to become a pan-Asian star, to a star in international productions. Korean film, once virtually unknown in the west, has emerged as an international powerhouse. Much has changed in the past decade.

This new home video release consolidates extras from previous releases - an audio commentary by Park with filmmaker Ryu Seong-wan who has a small role in this film, "Making of . . . " footage from the original Korean DVD release, and a brief overview of Park's career from a 2006 BBC presentation. This is one of those times when the commentary is worth listening to, as Park discusses the changes and choices made during the shooting of this film. Mentioned several times is that while Mr. Vengeance was a critical success, it was also a commercial failure, more striking in that it followed J.S.A., not only Park's biggest box office hit, but the biggest Korean film of 2000.

Park and Ryu joke about the green hair of Shin Ha-kyun, but it's the kind of comment that may prod the viewer to take notice of how green is used throughout the film, such as in a scene on an escalator, and in various rooms. There is also pink, seen on Bae Doona's t-shirt, and the radical leaflets she hands out. Helpful also is to learn that the portrait on Bae's t-shirt is of Korea's most famous anarchist. Removed from the "Asian Extreme" label that introduced Park and his earlier films to western audiences, Mr. Vengeance can now be seen for helping lay the groundwork for the visual and narrative themes Park Chan-wook would explore again in his more recent work.

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July 20, 2014

Coffee Break

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Randolph Scott and Ruth Donnelly in A Lawless Street (Joseph H. Lewis - 1955)

July 17, 2014

The Suspect

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Yonguija
Won Shin-yun - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

It isn't until the epilogue that the shots in The Suspect are held long enough to get a sense of the environment and the people within the shot. Up till then, the film is virtually like a two hour series of action paintings. Each shot is so fast, in some cases almost subliminal. Had The Suspect been made with film rather than produced digitally, it would have probably been even more of an editor's nightmare. Just as the film seems composed of many small shots with small hints of information, so it is with the story, that it takes a while to piece it together to make some kind of sense.

On the most basic narrative level, Ji, a former North Korean agent who defected to South Korea, is accused of murdering a businessman, him employer. The businessman is known to have dealings with North Korea, but the nature of his business is in question. The pursuit of Ji involves rival South Korean security agencies, with eventual involvement of what seems like every cop in Seoul. Ji is alternatively the pursued as well as the pursuer, chasing after the people who set him up. Ji's main pursuers, Min, had a run-in with Ji years earlier - that neither spy killed each other put a cast on both in their respective countries. As is eventually revealed, both are pawns used by others.

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The double dealings extend to both side. A flashback shows the punishment meted out to Ji by North Korean officers, leading to his defection. Those in power in South Korea prove themselves to be almost equally treacherous. Unlike Won's previous films, this one was written by Lim Sang-yoon, whose A Company Man was a notable film about a hit man considering getting out of "the business".

Won, a former stuntman, uses all of his past resources here. Hollywood filmmakers might want to take notice of a car chase scene where Ji races forwards, backwards and even sideways through the streets of Seoul. Cars crash, flip over and spin out of control. There is even, for the blink of an eye, the equivalent of Roger Ebert's favorite car chase cliche, the fruit cart, in this case, oranges flying across the screen. According to AsianWiki, The Suspect took nine months to shoot which makes sense considering how many quick shots were used for a film with a longer than average running time.

Not exactly an "in joke", but there is also a subplot with data held on a disc contained in a DVD case for Mr. Vengeance. Nothing here is as brutal as what's found in Park's trilogy, but most viewers should feel quite sympathetic about Ji's vengeance as the screen fades to black.

July 15, 2014

Five Dances

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Alan Brown - 2013
Wolfe Video Region 1 DVD

I might be exaggerating a bit here, but I think Alan Brown was very daring with Five Dances - he allows the camera to be still while filming parts of the dances, and even has shots of the four dancers in full frame. I know I've harped on this before, especially when some directors who have been former choreographers, think that the cuisinart style of fragmented editing makes the filmed dance look more cinematic. Actually, it just makes the dance look like an incomprehensible jumble of movement. There is something to be said about keeping things simple.

The first time we see the main character, Chip, he's doing a solo in the studio. When his dance ends, Brown ends with a close-up of actor Ryan Steele's face. There are a few beads of sweat. What a lot of films miss is the physical effort of performance dance, whether it's "Swan Lake" or something like Twyla Tharp's "Sinatra Suite".

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What hobbles this film is the bit of narrative that holds the dance scenes together. Chip, an eighteen year old, fresh from Kansas, is now dancing with a small company in New York City. He's suppose to have a scholarship, yet he's sleeping on the floor of the dance studio, not going to any kind of school, and describes what he's doing to his mother as his job. I don't mind some implausibilities in movies, but Brown, the director, should have let, Alan Brown, the screenplay writer, work with a collaborator to create a screenplay that made a little more sense in its setup. Also chafing is the portrayal of Chip's mother, only heard as a voice in telephone conversations, distraught at losing her home. There's a heavy Southern accent, and a strong hint of homophobia, the kind of stereotype of straight people from the landlocked parts of America, that is both unnecessary and offensive.

Brushing the narrative flaws aside, the film is, aside from dance, about loneliness and connection. Chip is invited by one of the dancers, Katie, to sleep on her couch. After tentatively rejecting the openly gay dancer, Theo, Chip gets hot and heavy and naked on the dance studio floor. Aside from providing a temporary home for Chip, the not to much older Katie becomes a surrogate mother when Chip asks her permission to be with Theo. Heterosexual couplings don't fare as well here: Chip's parents are divorced, Katie has broken up with her boyfriend of seven years, and the other female dancer, the married Cynthia, is having an affair with the choreographer, Alexander.

The dances of the title more or less coincide with Chip's evolution from a kid from Topeka trying to maneuver his way through New York City, to someone starting to get more comfortable with himself and his new environment. The film is at its best when Brown isn't trying to tell a story, but allows the camera to move back and let the dancers, through their performances, speak for themselves.

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