March 19, 2019

The Tarnished Angels

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Douglas Sirk - 1957
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

At first glance, it might seem that the combination of producer Albert Zugsmith and director Douglas Sirk would be wholly incompatible. As one of Universal-International's house producers in the mid-Fifties, Zugsmith shepherded films with such lurid titles as Female on the Beach, The Tattered Dress and The Girl in the Kremlin. Sirk was known for the glossy melodramas produced by Ross Hunter, frequently starring Rock Hudson. With their two collaborations, Written on the Wind being the first, Sirk gave Zugsmith class, and an Oscar winning performance from Dorothy Malone. Zugsmith gave Sirk the support and freedom to make more adult films within the confines of the still extant production code.

Watching Dorothy Malone in The Tarnished Angels, and the combination of Zugsmith and Sirk, I thought about the scene at the Cinecitta screening room in Godard's Contempt and the film within the film. Fritz Lang is making a serious film about Greco-Roman gods. As far as the producer, played by Jack Palance, is concerned, Lang is making an arty film with scantily clad women. Malone was aware of how she was being used by both Sirk and Zugsmith. As LaVerne Schumann, Malone plays a woman who allows herself to be exploited by her husband, a former World War I ace pilot, now part of a traveling Depression era airshow. The first time we see Malone, the wind from an airplane propellor pushes the thin fabric of her white dress against the contours of her body. The outline of her panties are visible at one point. Later, Malone performs a stunt jumping from a plane, again wearing that thin, white dress. Malone's dress flutters up, while she is parachuting down, much to the delight of the male spectators at the air show, and presumably the male viewers of the film. Whether this is a critique or celebration of the male gaze may be up to debate.

The film was one of Douglas Sirk's most personal films. Having accrued enough success as a contract director at Universal-International, Sirk was able to adapt William Faulkner's novel, Pylon. The story is about a group of itinerant "barnstormers", pilots who performed races and stunts around the United States. A reporter sees a story about these people he describes as gypsies and becomes involved with them. Faulkner's original novel took place in a fictional city, with LaVerne in an active relationship with her husband and another stunt performer, with the paternity of LaVerne's son in question. The film takes place in New Orleans rather than "New Valois", and one character eliminated, and a careful use of dialogue required. Like other filmed adaptations of Faulkner that appeared in the mid-Fifties, there was a bit of work done to make the film pass the production code. In spite of the changes, this was the one filmed version of a Faulkner novel that the author liked best of those made during his lifetime.

While Malone always looks great, though LaVerne is a masochist, thanklessly in love with a man she idolized as young farm girl. The men in The Tarnished Angels are all seriously flawed, and this may explain in part why the film was not successful commercially in spite of the cast. Rock Hudson, as the reporter, is constantly disheveled, uncombed, occasionally drunk and unshaved. Hudson wanted to play against type, much to the horror of the studio suits. As was confirmed with Seconds, Rock Hudson was only popular with audiences when he played Rock Hudson, not a guy who finds that good intentions are not enough. Robert Stack's Roger Schumann is emotionally remote, addicted to the thrill of flying. Previously known for playing likable if not trustworthy sidekicks, Jack Carson as Jiggs portrays a mechanic who lives in the shadow of Roger, wishing for some reflected glory.

Of course the CinemaScope frame was invented to film Dorothy Malone lounging lengthwise on a couch. What many contemporary filmmakers can learn from Sirk is the idea of spatial unity. Almost every shot is of two or more of the characters sharing the space within the frame, the camera frequently gliding around often in a partial circle. When the character is isolated visually, it is there as a kind of punctuation to a scene, or is dictated by the narrative. The most significant example is when Sirk cuts between shots of Schumann losing control of his plane during a race, and his son, on an airplane kiddie ride, trapped and helpless, watching his father's plane on fire, both father and son seen behind their respective cages.

I have yet to hear a disappointing commentary track from historian Imogen Sara Smith. Aside from adding to the already available information about Sirk, Zugsmith and the cast, Smith also allows for spaces within the commentary to allow the viewer to hear the dialogue of a couple of choice scenes. Now that Kino Lorber has added films from Universal to their catalogue, I would hope that more films from Sirk and Zugsmith will be available. On my wish list is the Zugsmith produced waterfront drama, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.

March 12, 2019

Fly Me to the Saitama

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Tonde Saitama
Hideki Takeuchi - 2019
Toie Company

Totally unfamiliar to me until recently is the existence of Asian Pop-up Cinema, a festival of Asian films held in Chicago. The selection of films might best be described as eclectic. Of note is that several members of the Advisory Board are also connected with the internationally respected Far East Film Festival held in Udine, Italy. Mark Schilling, who covers Japanese cinema for the English language Japan Times, and also advises on Japanese films for the Far East Film Festival, will be on hand for what will be the North American premiere in Chicago. Director Hideki Takeuchi will also be in attendance for this opening night screening.

My own interest in seeing Fly Me to the Saitama comes from seeing Takeuchi's previous two features, Thermae Romae and Thermae Romae Ii. Like the new film, these films also originated as manga, the Japanese comic books. The Thermae Romae films are about a Second Century Roman architect who enters a Roman bath with an underwater connection that takes him to a contemporary Japanese bath house. The first of the two films is quite funny, and understandably the second most popular Japanese film of 2012. The new film, released in Japan just a month ago, has also proven to be a popular hit.

The 1983 source manga by Mineo Maya does not seem to be available online. I was able to find a couple of pages reproduced on an Italian site. Maya's inspiration was his own living in Saitama Prefecture, considered part of greater Tokyo, although it is something of the equivalent to the distant suburbs of major metropolitan cities. What may get in the way for some western viewers is that parts of the story are very culturally specific to Japan, enough so that I am certain I missed certain jokes.

The film is bookended by a Saitama family, the parents and their daughter, going to a the engagement ceremony for the daughter, Aimi. The father is unhappy about how far he has to drive, while Aimi dreams of getting out of Saitama and moving to Tokyo. The comic bickering between the parents and the daughter is funny enough that I had wished the whole film was about them. While driving, they listen to an "urban legend" about Saitama that took place in the past. The legend makes about the bulk of the film - about a time when people from Saitama were not allowed to enter Tokyo, with some exceptions. The two main characters of legend are the son of a rebel leader, Rei, and the son of a Tokyo government leader, Momomi.

Stories about class prejudice, or big city folks versus people from the "boonies" aren't unusual. What happens here is that first scenes take place in some kind of school where the top tier female students are all in the same color 19th Century style dresses. Rei, the only top tier male student, with his very long hair, might be described as a fop. Momomi has a blond page boy hair style, and is always referred to as being male, and yet . . . the role is performed by a female, the two characters kiss and are referred to at one point as being like Romeo and Juliet, with any homoerotic implications totally ignored. In the mix is a bit of science fiction, a few sight gags, and Japanese pop culture references. Whatever one may make of Fly Me to the Saitama, it's never visually dull.

March 05, 2019

Monsieur & Madame Adelman

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Nicolas Bedos - 2017
Icarus Home Video Region 1 DVD

In one of the scenes taking place in the early years of their relationship, Victor and Sarah Adelman go to the movies. A very quick glance on the theater marquee indicates that they are seeing "a film by Woody Allen". No title is seen, but that isn't necessary. But there are a variety of connections to be made here, some similarities as well as differences. There is more here than the critical regard by the French for Allen's films.

Like many of Allen's films, Monsieur & Madame Adelman centers on a relationship between and a woman, as well as sense of identity in terms of being Jewish and as part of the general culture of the time. Unlike Allen's films, being Jewish is not something played down or the subject of stereotypical humor. There's also the occasional literary name-dropping in an Allen film, but it's featherweight compared to the discussions between the characters here. In a Hollywood film, even an independent production, if the character in question is suppose to be a writer, all that's expected is to have a scene with someone hunched over a keyboard tapping away. Some viewers may well be unprepared for a film where literature takes on some of the kind of importance some have for professional sports, whether it's debating who is worthy of the Prix Goncourt, or hoping one's daughter becomes the next Francoise Sagan.

The couple in question are a graduate student of literature and a struggling would-be author who meet in a dive one night in 1971. Sarah is attracted to Victor. She's a bit gawky, he's very drunk. Their one-night stand ends with Victor passing out in bed, while Sarah takes a red marker to Victor's recently rejected manuscript. They meet again by chance a few years later, the real beginning of their relationship. Victor meets Sarah's parents over dinner. Spotting a novel by Philip Roth, Victor is introduced to modern Jewish literature by Sarah's father, whose library includes Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow. A different kind of literature is introduced to Victor which in turn inspires his writing. The Christian Victor decides he is actually Jewish and takes on his then fiancee's family name.

Bedos and Doria Tillier wrote the screenplay as well as taking the title roles. In keeping with the literary aspects of the story, the film plays with the concept of the unreliable narrator. Most of the film is of the couple from 1971 through Victor's death in 2016, as told by Sarah to a young man, a would-be biographer looking for a different angle on the life of Victor. The narrative is bookended by scenes of Victor's funeral. Some of the comedy comes from the discrepancy between what Sarah describes and what we see on the screen. As a counterpoint to the ups and downs of the marriage, we see glimpses of television news indicating the various changes in the French government. There are also questions of Victor's career as a best-selling author, with novels that are thinly disguised biography and autobiography.

Monsieur & Madame Adelman was Nicolas Bedos' feature directorial debut, following several years of writing and acting. The film was a nominee for Best First Feature for the 2018 Cesar Awards, the French equivalent to the Oscars.

March 01, 2019

Apollo 11

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Todd Douglas Miller - 2019
Neon IMAX 2D

Between the release of First Man last Fall, assorted previous documentaries, and for those of us old enough to have seen Neil Armstrong on television as it happened in 1969, one might wonder why make yet another documentary on man's first flight to the moon. I don't think there's anything that has not been seen before. And I don't have any idea if the impact of Apollo 11 would be significantly different on a regular sized theater screen or on a home system. And maybe as as the old joke goes, size matters.

The moment I found most striking is watching the liftoff of the rocket. For my first time, I had a sense of the intense heat, the blast of fire, and the rumble similar to a minor earthquake. It's almost as if one was standing beneath the heat of several industrial furnaces.

Miller's film is primarily made up of documentary footage culled from various sources. It begins by alternating between the preparations of the rocket and the astronauts, and the crowds gathered a distance from Kennedy Space Center to witness the launch. There is no offscreen narration. Occasional superimposed titles identify the astronauts and the key people in the control room. Most of the footage is enlarged from 16mm film which was the standard at the time, with bulky portable video cameras just coming into use, but it's not as obvious with contemporary digital technology used here. Once Apollo 11 is on its way to the moon, Miller spends as much time with mission control as he does with the astronauts.

Miller provides the viewer with a much greater sense of how many people are in mission control. What the exact functions of these hundreds of men, and a handful of women, are, is never explained. Most are seen sitting behind a computer screen, writing notes. I was also unaware of the multiple teams that were assembled as part of mission control. What is also worth noting is that there is no sense of drama or tension. Instead there is the attitude of professionalism, of people doing their respective jobs without any drama.

In addition to culling archival footage, Miller breaks up the screen alternating between single images, and two, three or more images at once. This is another reason why it is advantageous to see Apollo 11 on the IMAX screen. I would also encourage viewers to stick through the final credits which are include footage of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins in their temporary isolation chamber, celebrations and parades, as well as an excerpt from President Kennedy;s 1961 speech vowing to get a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

February 26, 2019

Desert Fury

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Lewis Allen - 1947
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

From the New York Times, September 25, 1947 - " . . . Desert Fury is such an incredibly bad picture in all respects save one, and that is photographically." I usually don't gush over the digital conversion of older films, but Desert Fury had me with the first close-up of Lizabeth Scott and her liquid red lips in glorious, old-fashioned Technicolor. Setting aside the story and any other concerns, one glimpse of those lips is enough justification for why blu-ray was invented. The source print was in pristine condition, and the digital rendition appears to be faithful to how the film was seen theatrically by viewers seventy years ago.

It's not just Scott's lips. There's an exterior shot of a mansion, far enough to see the entire building, where the sense of detail is such that individual leaves could be counted. Also the strands of Lizabeth Scott's hair, the sharpness of the combed part on John Hodiak, and the barely perceptible beads of sweat on Wendell Corey's forehead. The interior of the mansion is a blue-gray shade, making it easy to draw attention to anything worn by Scott or Mary Astor. In one nighttime scene, Scott blends in with her dark bedroom, except for this pink hairpin that is impossible to ignore. The combination of these visual bits of business help make the story one that can be disregarded.

The source novel is titled, Desert Town. Location shooting in Arizona was used for the fictional town of Chuckawalla, Nevada. Two gangsters, Eddie Bendix and Johnny Ryan are driving into this small town for vaguely hinted at reasons. Stopping in front of the narrow bridge, which figures more prominently in the story, they temporarily block Paula Haller. Paula just dropped out of college, and wants to work for her mother, Fritzi, who runs the popular Purple Sage casino. Deputy sheriff Tom Hanson is in love with Paula, and knows a thing or two about Eddie Bendix. Almost everybody seems to be running away from their respective pasts. There are no ellipsis, but the in almost every scene that would normally explain motivations and relationship, there are interruptions with incomplete or unstated thought.

In the commentary track, Imogen Sara Smith discusses why Desert Fury can be considered film noir. The New York Times review categorized the film as a modern western. Some might even consider the film as strictly melodrama. There is none of the visual stylization usually associated with film noir. The exception to that would be in a rather unusually composed shot. Lizabeth Scott is having a conversation with Wendell Corey, while Corey is doing some minor car repair. Following a conventional full shot of the two actors in the frame, Lewis Allen cuts to an upward angled two-shot with the faces of Scott on the left, and Corey on the right, filling the frame. In a later scene, John Hodiak and Corey have a shoot-out inside a cafe. There is a shot of Hodiak facing the camera, gun in hand. The lights behind Hodiak go dark, but there is no explanation as to the change of lighting, suggesting this was simply for dramatic effect.

Desert Fury has developed a reputation over the decades for what has been read as gay subtext. My own feeling is some critics are putting a bit more into the film than was probably intended, or that any suggestions of sexuality are deliberately ambiguous. The quotation from the dialogue in the Film Comment article, also reproduced in Wikipedia, has been edited in such a way that what is deleted in Eddie Bendix explaining that he was lock out of his previous home, and Johnny Ryan brought him to his rooming house that had available vacancies. That little bit removed from the script tempers the establishment of the partnership of Eddie and Johnny. More to the point is simply the unnatural possessiveness that Fritzi feels about Paula, and that Johnny expresses about Eddie. The characters is Desert Fury fail out controlling the lives of others because they are are unable to control their own, most literally in the film's climax. The sometimes unexpressed sexual aspect of possessiveness is central to screenwriter Robert Rossen's last film, Lilith (1964), made when the Production Code was on its last legs. But as long as some observers are going to argue about innuendos within Desert Fury, an overlooked signifier would be the suits Eddie and Johnny wear in the film's opening. Johnny is wearing a single-breasted jacket, while Eddie's is double-breasted - read into that what you will.

My other problem with Desert Fury is that Lizabeth Scott looks too old to convincingly play a nineteen year old young woman. She was 26 at the time, with 41 year old Mary Astor appearing a shade young to be her mother. Otherwise, this is the one time Scott is not the femme fatale. With his pencil thin mustache, John Hodiak reminds me of one of Tex Avery's cartoon wolves, ready to howl at the sight of the next rotoscoped babe. Burt Lancaster, still relatively new to film, is best when he bares his famous choppers before giving Hodiak a much deserved beating. Taken on its own terms, Desert Fury is quite fun to watch, even if one can't understand how Scott and Lancaster can romantically view a small town dominated by two giant smokestacks.

February 19, 2019

So Dark the Night

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Joseph H. Lewis - 1946
Arrow Academy BD Region A

For the benefit of those who may be less familiar with the filmmaker, Joseph H. Lewis was nicknamed "Wagon wheel Joe" for his composition of shots through wagon wheels in his westerns. While there are some wagon wheels as props in So Dark the Night, Lewis finds other ways of inserting frames within the camera frame. There are shots through fences, tree branches, a fireplace, a clothes line, and lots of windows. The final minutes of the film might even be read as a visual pun, Lewis' joke on his own visual style, on shots and frames.

A famous Parisian detective, Cassin, takes his first vacation in eleven years. He goes to a small, provincial village where he attracts the attention of the hotel proprietor's daughter, Nanette. Not everyone is pleased, especially the farmer who has claimed engagement to the woman since childhood. There is also the significant difference in age. The detective's vacation is interrupted when the woman and the farmer are found murdered.

So Dark the Night must have been experienced as "So Strange the Movie" by an audience that had no idea what to expect. The very chipper Inspector Cassin is walking down a very sunny Paris street, exchanging pleasantries with a shoeshine boy and a girl selling flowers. The scene is introduced with tracking shots of Cassin's legs. The lightness of tone continues with Cassin's visit to the police station prior to leaving Paris, and Nanette admiring the chauffeured limousine that brings Cassin to the hotel. At this point, Lewis gives a brief stylistic shout-out to Sergei Eisenstein with a montage of close-ups of parts of the limo. Lewis returns to lateral tracking shots plus dolly shots with the camera moving in on a character for emphasis. But the film that began cheerfully becomes an increasingly creepy murder mystery.

So obscure the cast! If the names of most of the actors in So Dark the Night are unknown, you aren't alone. Steven Geray usually belongs in the category of "that guy, who was in that movie". As Cassin, this was Geray's only starring role, scrunched in between brief appearances in Gilda, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and To Catch a Thief among the more famous titles, as well as a slew of television episodes through the Fifties and Sixties. If Geray did get a screen credit, it was usually at the lower end of the credit roll. Michiline Cheirel, Nanette, had brief supporting roles in Carnival in Flanders and Hold Back the Dawn. Coincidentally, both actors were in William Castle's The Crime Doctor's Gamble a year later. Much of the casting seems to have been a roundup of European emigres on the Columbia Pictures lot, so the accented English might not be French, but it is honest. The cult performance artist, Brother Theodore, billed here with his real name of Theodore Gottlieb, shows up as the town's hunchback. There is no particular reason for the character to be a hunchback, as if he strayed off the set of another movie.

In case it matters to anyone, I've corresponded with three of the four people involved with the supplements. The only person who remains innocent is Imogen Sara Smith who provides an overview on Lewis' career at Columbia Pictures. I'm more familiar with Smith's commentary tracks on several films, with Desert Fury on deck for next week. As usual, she's very informative about Lewis and the production of So Dark the Night. The other Smith, whom I've exchanged notes with from the days when this blog began percolating, Farran Smith Nehme shares the commentary track with Glenn Kenny. Kenny goes over Lewis' early career in poverty row westerns and the critical reevaluation of Lewis' career, while Nehme is extremely helpful in identifying several of the cast members. While their commentary is casual, it is also well-prepared. The booklet notes by David Cairns offer an entertaining examination of Lewis' visual style here. The blu-ray is from a 2K restoration and looks dazzling enough to easily belie the modest budget, probably no more than the $175,000 the previous year's My Name is Julia Ross.

February 12, 2019

Blue Movie

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Wim Verstappen - 1971
Cult Epics two-disc all region DVD/BD set

There is this shot repeated in Blue Movie that neatly sums up viewing the film almost fifty years after its production. The cinematography is by Jan de Bont, early in his career. The camera is completely overhead, looking straight down, on two couples having sex. They are seen on a green surface, within a circular frame. The effect is as if viewing some form of life under a microscope. Voyeurism is a theme that pops up in the films by Dutch filmmakers Wim Verstappen and Pim de la Parra, that of both their films characters, and by implication, the audience.

Known collectively as Pim and Wim, the two set out to prove that Dutch filmmakers could succeed in the international market back in the late Sixties. Blue Movie was one of the films Verstappen co-wrote as well as directed, a 16mm production designed to compete with soft core films of the time. What temporarily got in the way of the film's initial release was that the Netherlands had an older rating system that had not caught up with the more liberalized standards and self-imposed adult only ratings in the U.S. and some other western countries. Blue Movie changed how films were rated in the Netherlands. That it made over a million dollars helped pave the way for other erotically charged Dutch films, especially those by newcomer Paul Verhoeven.

Those who saw Blue Movie weren't there for the nonsensical story. Michael, just out on parole, moves into an apartment in a huge, anonymous building. Michael's crime was having sex with an underage girl. Lonely, Michael gets to know some of his female neighbors by "borrowing" a cup of sugar (a plot device that was creaky even then). Michael becomes very popular with several of the women in the building, but finds himself falling in love with a young single mother. His parole officer, whose attention to Michael borders on the homoerotic, shows up at inopportune times. Initially not putting any effort in gainful employment, Michael becomes an entrepreneur of sex shows and films.

Whether one finds the antics in Blue Movie erotic is up to the eye of the individual viewer. Most of the scenes of sex are played for fun. For myself, I think I have seen more than enough of star Hugo Metsers nude. It may be to the film's credit that the actresses have an everyday kind of attractiveness, neither glamorized or artificially enhanced.

Putting Blue Movie into historical context are the generous supplements. The first is an interview with Wim Verstappen prior to the film's release in 1971. Producer Pim de la Parra speaks about making Blue Movie as part of the introduction to the series of Dutch films shown at the Cinematheque Francaise in 2018. An interview with Hugo Metsers, Jr. includes an anecdote of the son discovering Blue Movie by accident when he was ten years old. There is also a brief documentary on the Eye Film Institute, responsible for the restoration of several vintage Dutch films. The three supplements from 2018 were produced by Cult Epic's Nico B, who has made several of these almost forgotten Dutch films available for a wider audience.