October 15, 2021

Bergman Island

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Mia Hansen-Love - 2021
IFC Films

Tony and Chris are introduced driving with the aid of their car's GPS to the Swedish island, Faro. While the couple may have a sense of their physical destination, the are stuck professionally, hoping to find some inspiration in the place best known as the home and sometime shooting location for Ingmar Bergman. This is one bit of humor as the husband and wife are both film directors, recieving direction from a computerized voice. While Tony is methodical and mostly serious, Chris tends to be more playful and spontaneous. There is a sense of foreboding when the local caretaker points out that their rented cottage was where Bergman filmed Scenes from a Marriage.

There is irony that the filmmaker considered to be intellectually and artistically intimidating has a legacy of also being a tourist attraction. A Bergman Safari bus takes visitors to various shooting locations. Chris visits Bergman's grave, conspicuous in its distance within the cemetery as well as being marked by the smallest stone. Chris and Tony even make a point of watching Cries and Whispers in Bergman's screening room. Counter to this is discussion of Bergman's personal life, with wives, lovers and children of less importance than the prolific work on screen and stage.

The film breaks from being about Tony and Chris to scenes of the film Chris is writing, about a younger couple reuniting for a few days at a mutual friend's wedding, also in Faro. Hansen-Love cuts between Chris telling her story to Tony with the scenes of her characters, primarily Amy who is still in love with Joseph after several years of not seeing each other. The film cuts again from Chris uncertain about how to end her story to a scene indicating that her story has been made into a film. Through Chris, Hansen-Love appears to be saying that one can admire Ingmar Bergman as a filmmaker, but a film exploring happiness can be just as artistically meaningful as one that is dark and serious.

As Tony and Chris, Tim Roth and Vickie Krieps appear relaxed with each other, as a couple who have lived together long enough to know each others idiosyncrasies. Mia Wasikowska appears as Amy, both as Chris's imagined protagonist and then as the actress portraying her. The film, like Hansen-Love's other work is partially autobiographical, here in its broadest outlines of the filmmaking couple and the director's own visits to Faro. The references to Bergman's films are hardly esoteric although familiarity with key titles is useful. Rather than using an original score, much of the sweet soundtrack is from instrumental music by Robin Williamson, best known as a member of The Incredible String Band.

October 08, 2021

Suzanna Andler

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Benoit Jacquot - 2020
Icarus Films

Now into his Seventies, Suzanna Andler represents Benoit Jacquot returning to his roots as a filmmaker. This is a filmed version of a play by Marguerite Duras written in 1968. Jacquot's early career as an assistant director included work on Duras' Nathalie Granger, Woman of the Ganges and India Song (1972 - 1975). With the exception of one briefly imagined moment, there is no attempt to disguise the theatrical source. Jacquot's previous films, with screenplays written or co-written by the filmmaker, are all dialogue heavy. Those familiar with Duras' works, whether on film or in literature, will note the difference in the use of spoken language, more pared down and direct.

Most of the film takes place in the very large living room of a palatial villa on the French Mediterranean coast. The title character, Suzanna, is the wife of a millionaire. She is considering renting the villa. Left alone by the rental agent, her lover, Michel, meets her at the villa to discuss the future of their relationship. What I assume attracted Jacquot to adapting this play is his continued exploration of the fragility of relationships between men and women. In several of Jacquot's films, the main characters will find themselves isolated either by choice or circumstance.

Even though the film takes place during the time it was written, the late 1960s, it could well have been a contemporary story. The only signifiers of the past are the Yves Saint Laurent mini dress worn by Charlotte Gainsbourg, references to the villa rental cost in francs, and conversations on a landline phone. Not to be intentionally flippant, but for Duras, the past is always present, which is to say that memories always have a way of dictating the actions of her protagonists' actions. The same can be said even if the past is imagined or misremembered.

Unlike Jacquot's previous films which explored relationships between older men and much younger women, Suzanna is noted as being 40, while Michel appears to be approximately ten years younger. But was is also striking in thinking about when the play was written is that not only is Suzanna presented as alone and possibly adrift, but that she, Michel, and the two other peripheral characters seem untouched by the social turmoil that was taking place in France in 1968. The New York Times review of the play, staged in 1984, indicates that there were some political references, topical of the time the play was written, that are not in the film. This in turn brings up questions about the importance of the social context of the play. The small revisions to make the story thoroughly contemporary might not have made a difference.

In spite of his productivity, the films of Benoit Jacquot have received inconsistent release in the U.S. One reason could well be the mixed reviews of his work following the relatively commercial and critical success of Farewell, My Queen. I have done a bit of catching up with a surprising number of Jacquot's films available for streaming. Suzanna Andler is more cerebral than Jacquot's other films, though for some critics and audience members, it is enough as a showcase for the formidable acting talents of Charlotte Gainsbourg.

October 06, 2021

Denver Film Festival - The Line-Up

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I believe it is only a matter of another decade or so before the idea of a film festival being held solely in a theater will be considered as a relic from the 20th Century. While film festivals were either conducted virtually or not at all due to the pandemic, this year has seen film festivals held hybrids - both in person and online. This is the case with this year's edition of the Denver Film Festival. Strict protocols are in place with all festival staff vaxxed. Denver theaters require mask wearing, but to attend the festival in person also requires proof of vaccination or a recent Covid test. Doing a home version of a film festival has its advantages, such as flexible scheduling.

One change that I am looking forward to is the change of the additional venue in addition to the Denver Film Society's Sie Film Center. Moving from the Denver Pavilions theater downtown, the festival will take over part of Denver's newest (March 2021) theater, the 9+CO 10. A little explanation about the theater name - it is near the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and 9th Avenue. The theater has been my go-to place for mainstream films as well as indies - A24 films get booked there. My favorite coffee shop is across the street. On a personal note, it is also closer to home, a factor that's important when you get around by public transportation.

Regarding some of the films to be presented, Denver's festival will run from November 3 through the 14th. By this time, the major film festivals are over, giving way to studio blockbusters and prestige releases, with year end awards from various entities. There is also a shorter gap with more films that premiered in Cannes, Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York getting theatrical play or availability streaming on a major platform. Films that might have been programmed such as Tintane are already at the artplexes, Mia-Hanson Love's Bergman Island opens next week, with Wes Anderson'a The French Dispatch to follow.

As for what will be at the festival, the opening film will be Spencer, Pablo Larrain's film about Lady Diana, while the official curtain closer will be King Richard, about the father of the tennis champion Williams sisters. In between, the other big ticket films include C'mon, C'mon and Jockey. Among the 140 features will be Belfast, Memoria, Parallel Mothers and A Chiara, screened at earlier film festivals with Belfast touted as a certain Oscar nominee following its screening in Toronto. Most, if not all, of these films will be discussed more widely during award season.

My own coverage of the festival will be a bit selective. Most of the films I plan to cover will be seen at home through the festival's virtual theater. The handful of films I see in person include a couple from my "wish list", Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car and Radu Jude's Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. As there will probably be some in person critics screenings as well as screening links for critics, my coverage will include some of those films. One of the other films I look forward to seeing is After Blue, Bertrand Mandico's first feature following The Wild Boys. Kier-La Janisse's documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is on my list. Severin Films is also presenting three related horror films cited by Janisse as part of the festival's late night programming. While most films will be screened theatrically, several will be available both in person and online, with a small number online only. For myself is the advantage of seeing some late night films at an earlier hour at home rather than spending very late evenings waiting for infrequent buses.

The film festival runs from November 3 through 14. The link to the full schedule is here.

October 05, 2021

The Last Sunset

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Robert Aldrich - 1961
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Seeing The Last Sunset within days of Vera Cruz, I was reminded that the films share similarities beyond director Aldrich, cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and the brief presence of villainous Jack Elam. Both films take place in Mexico not long after the Civil War, with men still wearing the remains of their respective uniforms. Some of the locations in The Last Sunset, with stone buildings in ruins, resemble those in Vera Cruz. It is not hard to imagine Burt Lancaster or Gary Cooper from the older film crossing paths with Kirk Douglas or Rock Hudson. Douglas' outfit of black hat, shirt and pants may well have been taken from Lancaster. As his own producer, Douglas was canny enough to also give himself second billing to Hudson, not only the biggest star at Universal at the time, but also the top male star at the time the film was released.

For the first several minutes, Aldrich is able to present a grubby, unshaven Hudson in pursuit of Douglas across an unwelcoming landscape of rocks and desert. Grittiness gives way to glamour at the first shot of Dorothy Malone, lounging against the porch of the glorified shack she calls home. It's hard to detect that Malone's frontier wife has had a hardscrabble existence with her carefully windswept hair, eye shadow and lipstick. As Malone's daughter, Carol Lynley could pass easily for any teenage American girl of that era in her blue jeans. Filmed before Lynley's starring role in Return to Peyton Place, but released approximately a month later, Lynley had rounder cheeks making her look slightly younger than her actual age. Hudson is clean shaven after that introductory scene, as is Douglas. Only Joseph Cotton, as Malone's alcoholic husband, joins the other men in supporting roles, the cowboys, war veterans and wanderers with only a passing connection to the frills of civilization like a bath, a shave and a change of clothes.

The Last Sunset is mostly remembered now for the final gunfight between Hudson and Douglas, and its influence on Sergio Leone. And it is a bravura piece of filmmaking. The majority of the film is not as visually dynamic as Vera Cruz. I suspect that contractually, Aldrich had to shoot a specific number of close-ups of his two leading stars. Where one sees Aldrich's hand is when he is able to film his actors together within the frame. The first scene of Malone alone with Douglas provides the back story of their relationship. The camera moves within lengthy two-shots, as Malone and Douglas simultaneous move around each other as in a dance. Because they are visually contained together within the frame, but we also see how they react to each other, Aldrich shows the combustibility of their relationship. I am not familiar with the source novel, but narrative is crammed with revelations of family relationships suggesting an attempt at something like Greek tragedy with an ending that may be too Freudian for its own good. The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, the second of three written for Douglas in between Spartacus and Lonely are the Brave.

I had never gotten around to reading Alain Silver and James Ursini's study, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, but it is quoted quite heavily in Nick Pinkerton's commentary track. I bring this up as the book delves more deeply into Aldrich's visual style and use of unifying characters within the camera frame. Along with the usual overviews of the main stars and some of the supporting actors, Pinkerton reads from news items posted at the time of production. Pinkerton also quotes from Bosley Crowther's New York Times review, equally dismissive here as he was towards Vera Cruz six years earlier. Ultimately, Pinkerton positions The Last Sunset as a transitional film, both in the way Aldrich would choose to shoot films where he would favor using two cameras simultaneously, and as a work representing some of the shifts in the American western.

September 28, 2021

Vera Cruz

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Robert Aldrich - 1954
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I wrote about Vera Cruz a little over four years ago. While there will be some repeating of some of my thoughts on the film, there will also be notes on what this new blu-ray version offers.

Much of the contemporary appreciation for Vera Cruz rests on the film's reputation as an influence on Sergio Leone's westerns. The assessment short changes the film as one of the templates for some of Leone's peers. Aside from Burt Lancaster's stylish anti-hero, there is the setting in Mexico during a time of political upheaval, a German military advisor to the main villain, and critiques of colonialism and/or capitalism. All or some of these elements are found in films by Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, and Carlo Lizzani, among others. Leone was the one who fulfilled his ambition by working with Aldrich on Sodom and Gomorrah, only to find himself disillusioned by his former filmmaking idol.

It is worth noting that the influence of Vera Cruz took place almost a decade later with films primarily shot in Spain, often starring expatriate actors. Aldrich's film marks itself as being a transitional western with the casting of Gary Cooper against Burt Lancaster, not simply stars of different eras and different acting styles, but also with screen personas representing contrasting moral codes. As Henry King discovered when he directed the silent The Winning of Barbara Worth, Gary Cooper underplayed his acting, the camera conveying inner thought and stoicism. Against Cooper's stillness is Lancaster's live wire, emotions on the surface. Much of his performance not only in his physicality, but his smile with those 500 gleaming teeth, two rows rightly called choppers, ready to bite down like a hungry wolf.

Visually, the film very much belongs to Aldrich. High angle, low angle and overhead shots. With Vera Cruz, Aldrich had the budget, time and full confidence to make a film his way with cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, even while forced to compromise on the characterizations at the request of his two stars. Much of the time, the two stars as well as Denise Darcel and Sarita Montiel are filmed in two-shots allowing for immediate comparison of facial expressions. The way the main characters are filmed unites them visually within the same space even when their individual motivations are in conflict. Contemporary filmmakers could also learn from Aldrich on how to film an action packed story with a couple of sub-plots within a running time slight more that ninety minutes.

Filmmaker and historian Alex Cox provides the commentary track. Always well researched, much of the information may be familiar based on previous examinations of the careers of Robert Aldrich and Sergio Leone. The one revelation is that Cary Grant was offered the role taken by Gary Cooper. Cox also points out the various Mexican locations where the film was shot. While Cox does point out the better known henchmen of Lancaster's gang - Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and the former Charles Buchinsky, he gives short shrift to Archie Savage. The former dancer associated with Katherine Dunham plays a former Union soldier, still wearing his blue uniform jacket. As Ballard, Savage was, to the best of my knowledge, one of the first black actors to have an active role in a Hollywood western, that is not a western made for black audiences, nor as a comic role. Savage's dancing skills are on display in two scenes, but he is also filmed as a man of action, facing the rest of the gang in defense of Sarita Montiel. There is no information regarding the source for the new blu-ray, but the visual flaws from the MGM blu-ray have been corrected. It is amazing to know that the film was critically lambasted at the time of release, mostly having to do with Lancaster's anti-hero showing no redeeming qualities. Bosley Crowthers in the New York Times opined, "Vera Cruz, to put it bluntly, is pretty atrocious film, loaded with meaningless violence and standard horse opera clichés." Aldrich's film has aged quite nicely as the inspiration for several films that followed, not only in the use of some of the previously mentioned tropes, but also the film's streak of dark humor.

September 21, 2021

13 Washington Square

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Melville W. Brown - 1928
Kino Classics BD Region A

Curiosity got the better of me. I had never come across the name of director Melville Brown. I had seen Jean Hersholt in a few movies, but was more familiar with him through the honorary award names after him. Prior to watching 13 Washington Square, I viewed the handful of films directed by Melville Brown that are currently available on streaming platforms. It is safe to say that unlike some relatively unknown filmmakers from the silent or early sound era, film history will not require any revision with this restoration.

13 Washington Square can be enjoyed for its own modest merits. It is an entertaining film as long as one disregards its several implausible plot points. The story takes place in New York City at a time when being a member of "High Society" was newsworthy. As remote as it is for contemporary film viewers, films from the silent era through the 30s, trickling out after World War II, had stories about a more class conscious America. Here, the wealthy Mrs. De Peyster wants to stop her son, Jack, from marrying Mary, the daughter of a grocer. Aside from her personal sense of humiliation, the public news would cause her loss of her social status. Through a series of mix-ups, Mrs. De Peyster meets Deacon Pycroft, a gentleman burglar who has plans to steal her paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.

Confusion reigns with Mrs. De Peyster, her ditzy maid Matilda, Pyecroft, Jack and his fiancé, bumping into each other in the dark De Peyster mansion. As Matilda, shows her skills at physical comedy, bug eyed, knocking over kitchen supplies. There are chuckles with Matilda and Mary accidentally covered by large white cloths, ghosts as animated white sheets being corny but still amusing. It is possible that Matilda's propensity for malapropisms would have been funnier in a sound film that as titles.

Based on those early talkies that I have seen, Melville Brown never changed his style of filmmaking. Most of his shots are static full or medium of the actors. Where there is a stylistic flourish is that he will have the camera track out of a close-up to a more revealing shot of a character or a setting. In this film, Brown has a close-up of a newspaper article mentioning Mrs. De Peyster's planned trip to Europe. The camera pulls away to show that it is Jean Hersholt as Pyecroft reading the article. There is very little written about Melville Brown although a look at his filmography suggests a downward trajectory from Universal in the silent era, to programmers for RKO, ending up primarily at Monogram. The available films also suggest that Brown was typecast as a director primarily of romantic comedies.

The commentary track is by Nora Fiore, who also writes about film online as Nitrate Diva. She goes into how the film diverges from the novel and play that provided the source material. Also helpful is the information on stars Hersholt, Alice Joyce, ZaSu Pitts and the other supporting players. Fiore was also able to dig up a bit more information on Melville Brown and his career. Having also seen the available sound films, while Behind Office Doors(1931) is of interest, I prefer the funnier Lovin' the Ladies, especially for the use of blackout lighting and sound in the opening scene. The warm music track was composed by Tom Howe. The blu-ray is sourced from a 4K restoration made from two 16mm prints tinted in sepia tone.

September 14, 2021

Macho Callahan

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Bernard L. Kowalski - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I am not sure who should take the credit, the director, or the cinematographer, Gerry Fisher. Whatever faults it has, Macho Callahan is, if nothing else, Bernard Kowalski's visually strongest film. There is care placed in framing the actors, whether in tight close-ups or in group shots. While I do not care much for the zoom in shots, there are the sweeping crane shots and upward tilts of the camera. Less care seems to be placed in crafting a coherent narrative where motivation is questionable at best and absent at worst.

The film takes place in 1864. The opening screen is at a Confederate prison camp, a partially destroyed stone fortress. The Confederate soldiers are grubby, battle fatigued and bored. We see a couple soldiers cooking offal from the entrails of a horse. The Union soldiers that are not locked in cells too small for confinement also bind their time in this open air prison. Kowalski cuts to a close-up of one large and greasy rat. There appears to have been good attention to period detail to make the scene look as authentic as possible. Macho Callahan is released from his confinement, punished for trying to escape, only to successfully engineer a new escape, eventually making his way to New Mexico. With Callahan out of prison, the film tentatively takes on the trappings of the revisionist Westerns that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Callahan takes revenge on the man who tricked him into enlisting in the Union army. He also shoots a man over a dispute regarding a bottle of champagne. There is a price on Callahan's head which nonetheless does not keep him out of Texas, a Confederate state at the time. It is never explained how Callahan got to be named Macho. Callahan's amorality is such that when he becomes a more sympathetic character, it is incongruous with the first half of the film. That the film has three editors listed in the credits also suggests that there was a bit of post-production tinkering prior the final release version.

David Janssen appears to have fully committed himself to being cast against type as an anti-hero. Never once seen clean-shaven, his beard his flecked with white hairs. As Callahan, Janssen looks like a man who has lived a hard life. What is shocking is to realize that Janssen was not even 40 at the time he made the film. Jean Seberg appears as a widow initially seeking revenge following the death of her husband by Callahan. As it turned out, Macho Callahan was Seberg's last Hollywood production after being victimized by disinformation from the FBI for her political activity. Also in the cast, albeit sometimes too briefly, are Lee J. Cobb, Bo Hopkins, David Carradine and Diane Ladd. Pedro Armendariz, Jr. has an unusually large supporting role as Callahan's partner-in-crime, the most sympathetic character in the film.

Alex Cox uses the term neo-Western to describe Macho Callahan in his commentary track. These would be the Westerns produced by Hollywood that upended many of the traditional tropes in a period bookended by two films by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Cox points out the Mexican locations as well as the overviews on the careers of the primary cast and crew. The lapses in the narrative are criticized as well, with what appears to be the choice of the writers to place convenience over logic. Even with its faults, Macho Callahan is one of the more interesting examples from a time when experimentation in form and content briefly brought new life to a fading genre.